Every human being has the right to wear what they want. That includes people who choose to wear the burka or the niqab. However, to portray the debate about the burka and niqab as one solely or even predominantly about the individual choices of grown women is to miss the far more fundamental question at the heart of this debate. What are the values we are prepared to see morally normalised in British society? The burka and niqab are the physical manifestation of the belief that women should not be seen in public, and that we must cover every inch of our bodies & hair if we are to step outside. Regardless of the individual choices, (where they are choices), made by women, are we happy as a society to let such a regressive idea of how women should live go publicly unchallenged? I’m sorry, but I cannot believe that we should so casually throw away hard won gender equality at the altar of religious sensitivity.
Many people have suggested that ‘white men’, or even all non-burka/niqab-wearing Muslims, should stay out of this debate, that it is not their place to comment. This is a matter for the women and the women only. This is utterly wrong. Britain is a society where people from a huge range of backgrounds, cultures and personal beliefs live together, side by side, and, in most part, we do so in a cohesive and harmonious way. We have celebrated the idea that we are diverse yet united for a very long time. This has been rooted in the belief that we are fundamentally one society, where we all have equal rights and an equal stake in what happens. The question of whether, as a society, we are prepared to either tacitly or explicitly support the view that women should not be seen in public is a profound philosophical debate and everyone – male, female, Muslim and non-Muslim – is fully entitled to participate in this discussion. The values we choose to publicly uphold, as a collective, shared society, impact on us all.
There is an unfortunate tendency in Britain of mainstream politicians, particularly on the left, opting out of public discussions about regressive, and even abusive, cultural or religious practices on the basis that it is somehow not their place to comment. The mindset of cultural relativism, “it’s their culture”, continues to shut down important discussions about child veiling in state primary schools and the puritan curriculum taught in deeply conservative religious schools, just as it used to shut down important conversations about forced marriage and FGM, long after they began to percolate the consciousness of mainstream British society. Nimko Ali, FGM campaigner and survivor, recently wrote on twitter, “the act of FGM as painful as it was for me was never as painful as the dismissal of my experience as culture when I know it was abuse and a violation of my human rights.” By largely shying away from public discussions on these topics, hugely important conversations, which should have been happening in the mainstream of British politics were, and are, pushed to the fringes. Political capital is then made out of these issues by extremists, who use the silence of mainstream politicians to push the ideas that 1. people are no longer allowed to speak openly in British society, and 2. that entire communities can be demonised. In the long run, staying silent does not help create a better, kinder, more inclusive society. It only breeds resentment, tensions, anger and extremism.
This must be remembered now. Although triggered by the deliberately unpleasant “post box” and “bank-robber” comments by Boris Johnson, the debate currently happening about the burka and niqab is a good thing. There is clearly an appetite for the conversation in the country, so let’s have it. Bring the discussion out into the open, and into the mainstream, take the debate out of the hands of extremists on all sides. This discussion is not about challenging the clothing choices of individual women, it is about whether there is a moral imperative – or even, at least, a moral right – in a free, democratic and secular country to challenge the normalisation of the idea that women should not be seen in public, for whatever reason. In a shared society, it is only through genuine, sincere and open discussion, in which everyone – everyone – from burka/niqab-wearing Muslim women to “white men” – has a right to participate, that we have a hope of both upholding important principles and, somehow, finding a shared way through. It’s good to talk (about the burka).