Damian Green thinks a ban on the burka (burqa) would be “un-British”. Maybe he should reflect that the burka itself is rather un-British to start with.
As an instinctive libertarian, I must admit that my first thought was to oppose any ban on the burka. We want the government off our backs, not telling us what to wear.
But the libertarian argument works both ways. There certainly are Muslim women who choose voluntarily to wear the burka, perhaps as an expression of identity, or of faith, or perhaps out of a misplaced sense of modesty. On the other hand there is good evidence that many Muslim women wear the burka involuntarily, because of cultural, or religious, or peer pressure, or indeed because they are forced to do so by their husbands or other male relatives. So a burka ban would be an imposition on the first group, but would liberate the second.
We already accept social or legal constraints on dress in many circumstances. No one, I suspect, man or woman, would choose to enter a church, or a mosque, or indeed a court of law, stripped to the waist. Even if some new religion emerged which held it to be a religious duty to go bare-chested, such people would not be welcome, or allowed, in churches.
I have often visited mosques and Hindu temples, and have been perfectly happy to take off my shoes. I don’t see that as a restriction of my right to choose my own footwear. It is merely a courtesy to my hosts. Back in 1984, I visited the Temple of the Tooth in Kandy, Ceylon. I was wearing typical Englishman-Abroad baggy shorts, which I considered perfectly modest, but I was required to rent a sarong to wear over my shorts and bare calves before I was allowed to go in. Again, I had no problem with that – indeed I rather admired the entrepreneurial spirit of local people who had parleyed Buddhist modesty into a nice little earner, renting sarongs to the tourists.
And clothing standards apply more widely than in religious buildings. I believe it is still acceptable for women to go topless on Mediterranean beaches, but I read that local supermarkets are now insisting that they cover up in the aisles. Here in the UK, Tesco has banned customers wearing pyjamas – and quite right too, in my view.
We allow nudism only under highly restricted circumstances. Nudists may go naked in private clubs, or in specially demarcated sections of the beach. But let them walk down Oxford Street in the buff, and they will be arrested, and I should think that most Muslims would approve of that.
So we already accept the principle of social and legal constraints on our freedom to dress as we choose, in many contexts. The remaining question is whether or not such standards should apply to the burka. I think they should.
I believe we should welcome a diversity of immigrants (subject to overall constraints on numbers), but I also believe that as a matter of social policy we should promote integration. But the burka is surely a clear, public and prominent rejection of Western values and Western society. We in the West talk about openness, transparency, communication, social intercourse. We also talk ad nauseam of gender equality and women’s rights. The burka, whether worn voluntarily or under some social compulsion, flies in the face of all those values. It amounts to a public rejection of them. Indeed in England we have always regarded the hiding of the face as evidence of nefarious purposes. It is threatening and sinister.
So we should say to our Muslim fellow citizens “You are welcome among us. You are welcome to live in our country and to follow your faith. But the covering of the face amounts to a public affront, a deliberate discourtesy to your host nation. Please don’t do it”.
On the BBC Radio 4 Sunday programme this morning, a Muslim woman opposing a burka ban was asked “What would you do if the burka were banned in the UK?”. She replied that she would leave Britain and go somewhere more in tune with her faith and her values. I think that was exactly the right response. If you want to be part of our society, you are welcome. If you want to live among us but openly reject all we stand for, maybe both you and we would be happier if you went elsewhere.