Britain should not “ban the burkha”
It should be criticised for many reasons, but banning the burkha would run counter to a deep principle of liberal democratic society, argues Andrew Copson.
We’ve had lots of contact from members at the BHA office in response to the debate in France about the place of the burkha in French society and law. The BHA has also appeared on a few local radio stations to discuss this issue.
‘Banning’ anything is automatically controversial for obvious reasons – if you are discussing banning something in the first place it is only because a lot of people are doing it and all those people will obviously oppose any ban on their preferred activity. But this particular discussion is made even more charged by the fact that the burkha itself is a highly emotive symbol for western societies. We may not like the burkha, we may think it disrupts normal social contact (as in fact it is intended to) to the extent that we can never know a Muslim woman in the burkha that we meet as well as we may know one who goes unveiled, we may think it is a sign of the oppression of women and an insult to men. I myself think all these things.
It is a principle of a liberal democratic society that people have the freedom to do as they please as long as they don’t harm others. This means we may prohibit the burkha in some specific instances, where teachers are teaching small children for example, or in service industry jobs, or at times of necessary security such as airport gates. It may also mean that we recognise a difference between the right of adult women to chose what they wear, if that is a free choice, and the enforced wearing of a burkha by a child, which we might make moves to prevent. But it also means that we have no justification for an outright ban on the wearing of the burkha at all times.
In Iran, women are prosecuted because they are not wearing a head scarf or are improperly clothed and in Arabic countries similar or more strict legal sanctions apply. We do not want to end up with a reversed – though equally improper – situation in Europe. We can argue against the veil, we can encourage women not to wear it, but we should not ban people from wearing it in public unless they are harming others by doing so.
Besides the points of principle, the practical consequences of a ban may very well be negative, giving fuel to anti-liberal and anti-democratic extremists, and confining women who will be wearing the burkha come-what-may to the home.
I know that many people disagree. Some that I have talked to about this issue over the last couple of days have argued that the burkha is so objectively oppressive of women and is such an anti-social practice (not in the superficial sense of anti-social but in the sense that it radically disrupts normal social relations between people) that some sort of ban can be justified on the grounds that great harm is being done to others by this practice of a few. Others have argued that the practical consequences will not be as I have described but that – just as laws against racist hate speech played a part in radically reducing racism – a law against the burkha would in time erode the practice.
What do you think?
Andrew Copson is the Chief Executive of the British Humanist Association.