Monday, April 11, 2011

Banning Burkas

The first two women in France have been arrested for wearing a burka. The British Home Secretary has said that such a law would not be enacted here although other countries in Europe have also banned or are about to ban the burka. Who is right? In one sense people ought to be allowed to wear whatever they like in a free country but as an article in today's Times puts it:

There are certainly circumstances in which women (or men) should not be allowed to cover their face fully: where it makes communication difficult, corrodes trust, or masks identity. When teaching children, for instance; or serving as a judge or as a jurist in a courtroom; or for either doctor or patient in a surgery consultation; or when passing through security checks; or entering a bank; or driving a car.

Apparently there are only 2000 women in France who wear a burka, so the law might seem a sledgehammer to crack a nut. The law as enacted applies to anyone covering his or her face in public, so it would catch out motor cyclists and in cold weather those wearing scarves over their faces. It would also, if applied in the UK, have caught out the rioters in London who were wearing balaclavas.

In France there is a strong tradition of keeping religion out of politics, and everybody from communists on the left to fascists on the right was in favor of the ban. There is also a strong tradition of freedom of expression, but the burka is seen not as freedom, but oppression. It's the men who enforce its use that the law is aimed at. The penalty for making a woman wear a burka is far greater than the penalty for wearing one.

To allow Muslims to express their religion by wearing a burka speaks of extreme tolerance that is very much at odds with a woman losing her job for wearing a crucifix. There is a strand in both UK and US society that goes to inordinate lengths to allow Muslims to do what they like. Is it because our leaders are afraid?

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