Should women wear full veils?

Women in Niqabs (BBC)

Women in Niqabs (BBC)

So this veil thing is back in the press. This is where society collectively has a wibble fit because a member of tiny sub-minority wishes to don ultra-conservative dress and interact in some manner with people less conservative than herself. “Theodore Dalrymple” in the Telegraph seems to think this is some kind of conspiracy. He says that the Niqab is “an invitation to the most flagrant abuses, including disguising a person’s identity in order to commit crime” and that this is “one of its attractions for some of the men who support the right to wear it.” I am always skeptical about conspiracies that necessitate the dedication of much of someone’s life in order to gain some improbable and slight advantage. Is the Muslim community conducting a multi-decade plot to make the Niqab commonplace enough that it’s a useful cover to commit, what? Five or six heinous crimes? I credit them with greater intelligence.

I do find it plausible that many Islamic women are forced to wear the Niqab in either implicit terms (an expectation) or explicit terms (a command). I think there are also Muslim women who sincerely believe that wearing the Niqab is religiously required and therefore wish to wear it as an act of worship. It may also be because they feel naturally shy anyway and adopt it as protection, or it may be a tool to filter out their physical beauty from intellectual interactions and gain a kind of esteem they think is purer. There are some who wish to reinforce the separateness of Islam from the West as part of a soft-jihad. (The BBC mentions many of these reasons in interviews with Islamic women). There is enough confusion about the reasons for the Niqab’s popularity that criminalization is certainly unsupportable. It would take a very high prevalence of violent coercion in this matter for me to support a ban as a tool of protection.

Women Wearing Burkas

Women Wearing Burkas

Unlike Dalrymple I think that this is not about a “right” to wear this clothing. It is not a matter of either allowing or disallowing it. Dress is really nobody’s business in the first place and neither requires nor deserves moral sanction. If I want to put on a pink lacy dress and yellow marigolds while cleaning the bathroom I should not need to ask permission from society, and would not expect society to withhold it. I would, however, expect the people in my life to treat me differently, to suspect mental illness, to form a different romantic opinion etc. Some Islamic women who wear the Niqab outside also practice segregation inside. Unmarried males are segregated from females, with a wall or screen between them. I see the Niqab as an extension of this segregation into public spaces. In this way the Niqab and the Burqa are a practical replacement for a brick wall, and have a similar effect on communication, blocking most facial expressions, some body language and even muting sound. To expect an employer to employ somebody behind a wall on the same basis as someone who can can come out from behind that wall is as ridiculous as expecting my wife to give no regard to weekend dress-wearing.

I am, if you insist on putting it this way, in favour of treating people differently, of discrimination, since I respect people’s cognitive autonomy and their right to use and apply that autonomy to choosing who to deal with. Expecting people to ignore strange and impractical dress is asking them not to think and to accept a burden of dealing with impracticalities. The present case is about wearing the Niqab in court and since the state owns all courts then it must practice discrimination in all its courts or place a burden on all taxpayers. As a tax payer, I would be in favour of the cheap yet discriminatory “take it off” approach while litigants and witnesses give testimony (as has been ruled). This is an argument, a painfully obvious argument, for a system of private competing lower courts if not for private law. While I am in favour of “take it off” policy in taxpayer-funded courts I am opposed to any politicisation of dress as such. Outside of individual institutions there should be no dress codes. Individual autonomy cuts both ways and should be respected whether the individual is on the inside or the outside of the Burqa.

I am not, however, in favour of people walking around in dress so comprehensively opaque it functions as a brick wall. I do have a moral opinion about that, and while I am not planning on imposing this on anyone, I feel free to express it. Islamic ultra-conservative dress is a silly idea. It is a physical barrier to communication and a symbol of a system of regulated personal interaction that is even worse than that. I believe this because I am an atheist and believe that people should make rational choices based on scientific moral ideas and testable scientific truth. It is a testable truth that facial expressions communicate a wealth of information, and people should seek to use that communications channel to build stronger benevolent relationships. I respect that while continuing to hold irrational ideas, religious people should be left alone to make those mistakes if they want to, but I am free to identify them as mistakes. If we care for people at all, then we should respectfully point out serious errors but we should not try to legislate them away.

11 Comments

  1. There are some practical considerations to be noted in this area.

    For example, someone in a veil is of no use on a driving license – or other I.D.

    I was in the security industry for 20 years – if people refuse to show their faces I can not check them in relation to visual I.D.

    They can wear full face veils on their own property if they wish – but not on the property of other people (we need to know they are who they say they are).

    By the way a lot of this stuff is very recent – full face veils were very rare in the Islamic world only a few decades ago.

    I have a feeling some “ancient traditions” have been made up.

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  2. The only restriction I would have is in relation to safety. I can’t see that such a headcovering would be conducive to good visibility when driving or cycling – but I don’t think much niqab-wearing driving happens anyway.

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    1. I remember some silly woman pulling out in front of me, oblivious to my presence, due to her head covering, which was obscuring her peripheral vision. However, I don’t think there is any need for specific laws, as this would be covered by ‘driving without due care and attention’ in the event of an accident.

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  3. What worries me is the number of people who otherwise appear to be sane, and who even claim to be liberal or libertarian who seem willing to contemplate (or even call for) the banning of certain veils.

    I generally respect Dalrymple, but on this occasion I just can’t understand his logic.

    But he’s far from being the only one – I was appalled when Nigel Farage came out in favour of banning burqas, startled when a LibDem minister called for a national debate on banning women from wearing these things in public places, and rather surprised that four years ago, James Delingpole had applauded the French for their ban on the burqas. (Maybe that was before he started claiming to be libertarian . . . .)

    I was glad, at least, to read Dan Hodges on the subject. The headline on his piece (The debate about Muslim women wearing veils is not complex. This is Britain, and in Britain you can wear what you want) says it all really.

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    1. If it were the case that Niqab wearing was as much a cause for suspicion as the kind of black eye where you can see a palm print, then I’d be sympathetic to a ban, if it also were impossible to address the root cause.

      The libertarian successor to Orwell’s Big Brother is about the only hypothetical person to need to worry about that scenario. Any remotely free society would not have that problem. You could say that the existence of this debate is a symptom that were are heading in that direction where everyone ends up socially atomised and spritually dependent upon the state to be everything to them (as in 1984).

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  4. The debate comes about because of the equality legislation which has criminalised expressing certain opinions and violated private property rights. Such legislation drags us ever closer to the state where everything that’s not prohibited is compulsory. As anyone refusing to allow the wearing of niqabs on their private property or in their employment (which, whether one agrees or not, does not constitute a violation of the NAP) is liable to be prosecuted or sued, our collectivised society ponders the only solution; legislation.

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    1. Indeed, RIchard, indeed. And equality legislation is the product of what one might call “equality thought” – though “equality thought” is, to some extent, the product of the legislation.

      Everyone in the UK today simply assumes that all-encompassing anti-discrimination legislation is good and necessary. It’s funny to think that when my parents were growing up, such a concept had probably only occurred to a handful of people in this country.

      [NB – for the avoidance of doubt, let me state that I do believe that anti-discrimination legislation should apply to the state and its agencies!]

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  5. To “discriminate” means to choose (as in a “discriminating person”) – we may dislike the reasons for someone’s choices (for example I would not be a great fan of someone who chooses not to employ or trade with short, bald middle aged men by the name of “Paul Marks”), but that is no reason for the state to use the threat of VIOLENCE against their choices.

    Nor will it stop with race, sex and so on. For example, the Democrat candidate for Mayor of New York (someone who has campaigned by getting himself arrested in so called “protests” in favour of endless government spending and ever higher taxation) first became known getting local regulations passed against discrimination (by private landlords and other business people) on grounds of income – specifically “in defence of” welfare claimants. Errrr – think about the implications of that for a minute…..

    The 1964 Civil Rights Act was passed in the United States in response to the injustice of the “Jim Crow” laws (which had been ruled unconstitutional ten years before – in a Supreme Court judgement of 1954) – this is known as the “two wrongs make a right” principle (which has a few logical problems with it).

    As for the 1965 Act in Britain? And all the rest of the “Equality Industry” that has grown up since 1965 in this country?

    There was no “Jim Crow law” justification in Britain – the 1965 Act (and all the rest of the freaking mess) had no justification what-so-ever.

    It is, of course, heresy to point this out – one is savagely attacked for pointing out this basic truth. Soon it may well carry prison time to oppose the “anti discrimination” laws – as this will be called “racist” and “hate speech”, a violation of the legal duty to “promote equality”. I suspect that even being black and female (and so on) will not save people from state persecution if they dare to utter heretical thoughts.

    And that is how freedom dies. It never stops at just attacks on freedom of association (which must logically include the freedom to NOT associate – for example to not allow people with veils on one’s PRIVATE PROPERTY) it goes on to attacks on freedom of speech also.

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    1. “To “discriminate” means to choose (as in a “discriminating person”)”

      Indeed. If, as a hypothetical judge, I choose to say “take that off” because my discriminating eye noticed it is impractical then I am practicing discrimination. I have chosen to say “take it off” to a person wearing a veil. If they were wearing a baseball cap I might choose differently.

      A ban on discrimination is a ban on basic cognitive function, justified only on the basis that some particular processes of functioning might occasionally be stupid or hurtful (and it was *not* such in this case, or in many others). It is very un-PC but banning cognitive function is not something I can support.

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  6. Simon – you Thought Criminal. You will have to be re-educated…..

    I am sure the Ministry of Love can help you – and you will thank them in the end.

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