Thursday 21 April 2011

The burqa ban: what's a liberal response?


Most liberal-thinking people regard it as a given that we should respect and tolerate the beliefs of others, even if we don’t share them. However, this can land us in difficulties if the people who hold those beliefs don’t reciprocate. This seems to me at the heart of the debate on the burqa ban.

I vividly remember the time when Salman Rushdie was receiving death threats because of the publication of the Satanic Verses. I had fully anticipated that public figures in the UK would rally around him with robust support for freedom of speech. In fact, the support was muted. Although in part this was because of fear - as noted by Christopher Hitchens, - there were others who clearly felt a tension between such support and a need to empathise with the offence caused by the book. Roy Hattersley, for instance, recommended against publication of a paperback version of the book. And the Chief Rabbi wrote to The Times (4 March 1989) that 'the book should not have been published' because of the need to respect and 'generate respect' for other people's religious beliefs. Subsequently, when Rushdie was offered a knighthood, it was that staunch liberal, Shirley Williams, who emphasised the offence to Muslims, leaving it to Christopher Hitchens and the right-wing Boris Johnston to defend freedom of speech. So an asymmetric relationship was validated: I can’t criticise you because it might offend you, but you can not only criticise what I say, but also insist that I don’t say it at all, on pain of death.

Ayaan Hirsi Ali emphasised a similar trend in her memoir Infidel: liberals, she argued, were reluctant to take action against practices such as forced marriages and genital mutilation, because they did not like to be seen to be criticising another culture. Never mind that the culture was inflicting physical and mental damage on its women. This kind of logic was taken to an extreme by Germaine Greer, who argued that attempts to outlaw genital mutilation were an ‘attack on cultural identity’.

My own views on the matter are quite simple. I will tolerate the views of others so long as they tolerate me. I will respect their cultural identity so long as it does not discriminate against others on the basis of sex, ethnicity, or sexual identity. But I expect my cultural identity and beliefs to be correspondingly respected.

So where does that leave the burqa?

Some liberals adopt the easy argument and say that the burqa is a symbol of oppression, and should therefore be banned. There’s no doubt that the burqa has been used to oppress women, most notably by the Taliban. But it is an oversimplification to argue that all women who wear a burqa are oppressed. There are some (including the young Ayaan Ali Hirsi) who choose to wear it. Yes, that choice is bound to be influenced by the attitudes of those around her, but that is equally true of any woman’s choice of attire, whether it be stiletto heels and a mini-skirt or an all-encompassing robe.

So if it comes down to a woman’s right to choose what to wear, what’s the problem? The issue was mocked on Radio 4’s News Quiz last week, as the participants called for bans on other offensive items of clothing, such as socks with sandals or culottes. Andy Hamilton described the French attitude as: “We will force them to be liberated and if they refuse we will put them in prison”.

But the burqa is different from other clothing choices in two important ways. First, it interferes with communication. Liberal-minded people in the UK have no problem with others wearing symbols of their religion such as a turban or headscarf. The real problem is that in face-to-face interactions, wearing a burqa is at best discourteous, and at worst threatening. It creates an unequal relationship, when you can’t even verify the identity of the person you are interacting with, let alone read facial cues. There’s a vast literature in social psychology looking at how nonverbal cues are important in interpersonal communication (e.g. Knapp & Hall, 2009) . We use them to judge another person’s attitude, honesty, boredom and engagement, for a start. If one person has access to these cues and the other does not, that creates an asymmetry in the interaction. Just as British people must learn to respect the culture of others by not wearing skimpy clothing in Arab countries, Islamic women should respect cultural expectations that it is important to see the face of someone we interact with in person.

The second problem with the burqa is the rationale behind its adoption. As many in the Islamic community have emphasised, the burqa is not mandatory attire for a religious woman. However, Islamic women are required to dress modestly, and some interpret this as requiring total cover-up. I suspect that for some women this is an extreme reaction to our highly-sexualised Western society. But what message does the burqa give to men? I think it is offensive insofar as it implies that they are sexual predators whose lust may be inflamed by the sight of a woman’s face. I liked the response from a participant at the UN Human Rights Council, who suggested that rather than expecting women to cover up, men should stay indoors until they learned some self-control.

So if a woman is to wear a burqa, she should be aware of the impact on others: her choice will appear discourteous to many people, especially men. Qanta Ahmed, who describes herself as a moderate Muslim, makes a related point, noting that, far from giving an impression of modesty, part of that impact is to draw attention to oneself, make others feel threatened and increase hostility to Islam.

I don’t agree with Ahmed that the burqa should be banned; this will simply increase intolerance on both sides. I’m pleased that the British government is showing no signs of going down the same route as the French.  Nevertheless, while I don’t think this is an issue that should be dealt with by law, I do think it is reasonable to exert social pressure. A woman has a right to cover up if she wishes, but she should be aware that this is regarded as culturally inappropriate in many situations in Western society. Employers have a right to expect their staff to have a sense of what is appropriate dress for a job; in many situations, a burqa is no more appropriate than hot pants or a crop top.

So in sum, I would defend the right of a woman to wear a burqa if she chooses. But I would also defend the right of someone like MP Philip Hollobone to refuse to meet with a constituent unless she reveal her face, and for an employer to require more appropriate clothing for someone interacting with the public. To do otherwise is to treat the burqa-wearing woman as someone who has rights but no responsibilities.


  1. I have never really been convinced of the argument that because you cannot see a woman's face, it is difficult to communicate with her. We manage to communicate perfectly well over the telephone with each other (indeed, many find Skype socially awkward compared to the phone), and blind individuals seem very able to communicate with those whose non-verbal cues they cannot detect. I suspect that the feeling that it is "offensive" to cover up one's face when communicating is a novelty reaction in the recipient. We are just not used to it, and perhaps with practice, we would bias attention towards vocal prosody and rely less on non-verbal cues to accomplish our mentalising during communication with someone wearing a burqa. After all, we must use other cues whilst listening to the radio or detecting the emotional states in an actor who stands still during a moment of tension some many metres from us in the theatre.

    But thanks for addressing the issue. We are all very nervous to, and need the lead.


  2. My opinion on the matter is totally in the matter of interactions. The province of Quebec in Canada is currently debating a law that would require both provincial employees and those seeking provincial government services would need to show their faces.

    In my mind this is a reasonable compromise. What a person wears while walking down the street should be totally an individual Choice. However, interpersonal communications are totally different matter.

  3. Thanks for comments.
    Peicurmudgeon: sounds like I'd be comfortable in Quebec. That seems a sane policy.
    Kate: I agree that we can do OK without facial information, and also that the novelty factor may be important. But it seems likely that there's also an effect of lack of symmetry - on telephone, both people are in the same position. And if you're blind you are forced to get used to the situation. But the problem with burqa is that one party chooses to put the other at a communicative disadvantage - at least that is how it seems to me. But I suspect there is a potentially fertile ground for some social psychology expts here!

  4. In this context, I'd recommend "Is Multiculturalism Bad for Women" by Susan Moller Okin:

    The problem of "the male gaze" goes far beyond sexual self-control. It is a matter of an unequal power relation in which the burqa can play both a liberating and a subjugating role. So requiring a constituent to reveal her face can easily be construed as a power play - but this time a socio-political rather than a straightforwardly sexual one. Gender does not exist in isolation of the economy. So a far better tool of liberating a burqa wearing woman is to give her a job and challenge our own discomfort rather than requiring her to be uncomfortable to align herself with our politics. In giving her the freedom and increasing her economic power, we may give her more options for making her own decisions later.

    It is also important to remember that the burqa has a strong socio-economic dimension as described here: In many periods, it was the respectable (urban upper and middle class) who wore the burqa whereas the working class women did not (hard to hoe a row with your face covered). So a woman veiling her face is not just protecting herself as a property of her husband from the gaze of other men, she's signalling her social status. In many periods, the burqa was simply a fashion that was imposed by women on other women. And it seems to have slid in and out of the male hands as an instrument of control (e.g the Taliban taking it out of the cities into the countryside). But it was rarely just one or the other.

    Saying "I will tolerate the views of others so long as they tolerate me." is not at all simple. Tolerance has multiple dimensions: there's private view views, public performance of those views, private actions based on those views, etc. Which one of those do we mean when we say the above?

    Since so much of our cultural identity is bound up in the opposition to the other, it's hard to simply say your identity is fine as long as you like the people your cultural identity is based on hating. In those cases we are asking the others to make all the sacrifices. But even an "intolerant" culture has many dimensions of tolerance and often by simply asking for an outward performance of tolerance, we close off opportunities for organic change.