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.