My good friend and Kettering MP Philip Hollobone recently caused a bit of a stir by saying that he would decline to talk face-to-face with a burka-wearing constituent who insisted on staying veiled.
Today we hear that the human rights group Liberty has had its lawyers write to Philip, telling him that his action breaches anti-discrimination law, and that Liberty is offering to sponsor a legal action against Philip on behalf of any woman whom he refuses to meet.
Now (as I so often write to constituents) I am not a lawyer, and I don’t have the qualifications necessary to give legal advice. But of course I am a politician, so I have an opinion. And in my opinion, Liberty is wrong on this one. I can also say with some confidence that while Liberty wants to challenge Philip’s position, The Freedom Association does not. We could have an interesting semantic debate about the differences between Liberty (a rather French concept), and Freedom. What about Philip’s freedom to see the faces of his interlocutors, and so help him to judge their opinions and reactions?
It seems well established that wearing a veil is not a requirement of the Islamic faith. It therefore seems to be a deliberate gesture representing rejection of Western values, and a voluntary barrier in the way of integration. Or as Rebecca Goldsmith writes in today’s Sunday Telegraph, it is a “hostile political statement”. I think a parliamentarian is well within his rights to refuse to talk to anyone who displays a hostile political statement. I should refuse to talk to a constituent wearing a T-shirt with the slogan “Tories Stink”, for example. Indeed I should be less than comfortable with a Ché Guevara T-shirt.
But to return to the question: I understand that it is illegal to discriminate on the grounds of gender, or race or nationality, or religion – but not on the grounds of garments. If Philip were saying that he would not meet women wearing veils, or Muslims wearing veils, or Arabs or Pakistanis or North Africans wearing veils, or even transvestites wearing veils, he would clearly and rightly be at risk of breaching the law. But if (as I understand him) he simply refuses to meet constituents who cover their faces, and who decline to remove the covering when requested, then it seems to me that he is within his rights. That may well include Muslim women, but it could also include hoodies, IRA terrorists with balaclavas, motor-cyclists in helmets, and so on. (I am of course assuming that Philip keeps his constituency office sufficiently warm that visitors do not require scarves and balaclavas over their faces).
To take an outré but illustrative example, a parliamentarian might decline to meet a naturist (male or female) who arrived at the constituency office wearing nothing at all. Again, few people would complain about that.
If I go to a mosque (as I have on a number of occasions) I am happy to remove my shoes, as a simple courtesy to my hosts. If Western women go to Islamic countries they are generally happy to dress modestly, out of respect to the host country. So my question for burka-wearing women is simple: why can’t you show the same respect for Western culture when you’re in a Western country? And if you really can’t bring yourself to do so, would you be more comfortable somewhere else?