With interest I have been following the media stories surrounding the fact that UK ministers are calling for debate on banning Muslim girls and women from wearing a burka (which covers the entire body) in some public institutions, such as schools or the courts (Sky News, 2013) . A lot of comment pieces are calling for outright bans, similar to France and Italy, on women and girls wearing the burka. The three main arguments given for banning the burka is: security, sexual equality, and physical and mental health.
Security is a controversial area and generally is pointed to two areas: driving and national security/religious extremists. Under driving, many people claim it is a problem because women who wear the burka cannot see properly to drive. A large factor that I think is missed in this argument is that everyone who has a licence to drive must pass a driving test. The large majority of women who drive and wear a burka would, most likely, have worn a burka to take their driving test. A driving examiner would have witnessed the driving while wearing a burka and, if they had felt that it was not safe, they would not pass the test and provide a licence! National security/religious extremists is an interesting topic. This is a particularly hot topic now following a suspected terror suspect, Mohammed Ahmed Mohamed escaping after changing into a burka thus concealing his identity. Now I think that banning an item of religious clothing based on incidents like this is unfair. It is banning something for everyone when it is a small minority causing the problem. It would be like if a small proportion of young people dressed up in a full costume on Halloween concealing their identity (which many people do) an then assaulted people and the Government decided to ban everyone from wearing masks or face paint on Halloween, there would be a lot of outrage and disgruntled members of the public.
I also have another problem in terms of religeous extremism – if we ban based on one why do we not ban based on all. There has been issues surrounding Christian extremism throughout history, however it is starting to appear as an issue once again in the media. So in order to deal with this do we ban the wearing of the cross? No, because it would upset the large proportion who are not extremists, and the same argument can be applied to those who wear the burka – the majority of those who do are not extremists, they are just the average person practising their beliefs and living their life.
The second argument is that many women wearing the burqa are forced to do so against their will, and so it must be banned in order to give them freedom. In some countries this may well be the case but in many countries within Europe, and democratic countries in general where laws are in place in an attempt to prevent forcing people to do things against their will, this does not seem to be the case. Research in France conducted by the DCRI () the large majority of women wore the burqa as a choice, as an expression of identity. This was backed up by a second report conducted in France by the SGDI (). While banning the burqa may help those who are forced, the ban in a way would merely be another form of control of women – controlling them by forcing them to not wear something which, in my mind, is still preventing gender equality.
The third main argument, physical and mental health, is another interesting area. On the argument surrounding physical health, the main claim is that wearing the burqa causes vitamin D deficiency.When this argument is placed it is often supported with research. However, when looking at the research more closely, there is no firm proof that vitamin D deficiency is a problem. It is a claim and an assumption made within the research that is not supported with statistics. Mental health I think is a problematic one – mainly because those that cite it miss the main external factor that could cause the claimed mental health problems – other people. Many women and girls who wear the burka have noted the abused that they recieve from strangers on the street, just for wearing a burka. I found an interesting podcast on itunes which is free (and you can download from here) which was discussing a piece of research conducted into islamophobia and wearing the veil. The woman who conducted it no only used interviews to discover this but also undertook some ethnographic research by wearing the burka herself. It provides some interesting listening and really better illustrates the point that I am trying to make – that the mental health problems could be due to the abuse that these women face on a regular basis from those who are not accepting of someone who looks different and has different beliefs.
To me the arguments are thin and watery at best. I think that a lot of these arguments are a smoke screen to hide the fact that the ban is wanted because we fear what we do not understand. The ban is a form of Islamophobia and yet we are allowing it to happen. If this happened in relation to Christianity or Judaism it would not have come as far as it has in terms of a debate, so why are we allowing it to in this instance? We are considering criminalising what is, for some, an assertion of their religion and faith, something which in all honesty I am ashamed is even happening.