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« Climate cuttings 26 | Main | Quote of the day »


Whether Muslims should be allowed to wear burqas in public seems to be the question of the moment. I watched the views of the panel on Question Time for a few minutes last night with a mixture of disdain and disgust. The panellists were split between those who would reintroduce sumptuary laws (does wearing a sack over your head count as sumptuous? Dumptuous perhaps) and those who would ignore the issue.

Obviously I'm against the former, but it has to be said that I do think there's an issue that shouldn't be ignored.

The problem is that there are vast numbers of people who feel threatened and alienated by people parading the streets in what amounts to a disguise. They don't like it.

I don't take any particular view on whether they are right to dislike burqas or not, but the fact is that they are not allowed to express their dislike, even in non-violent or non-agressive ways. People are banned from discriminating against the burqa-wearers. They can't turn them away from their shops and businesses, saying "I'm sorry I'm not serving you while you are wearing a disguise".  Society, in its wisdom, has decreed that these are crimes, and hate crimes to boot.

The ability to discriminate gives the host culture the ability to gently apply a cost to the wearing of burqa. You will probably still get served in the bank, but you might just have to go a bit further to find one that would rather have your money than enforce a burqa-free clientele. You might have to give up swimming because the pool won't take you. Perhaps the garage won't fix your car if you refuse to show your face.

I've blogged before about how the introduction of authoritarian laws often leads to a spiral of authoritarianism, with all sorts of unpleasant spin offs. The anti-discrimination laws are a direct affront to freedom of association and have encouraged emigrants to refuse to integrate and to develop a kind of apartheid, demanding, for example, muslim-women-only swimming sessions. When this cultural apartheid becomes resented by the host culture, politicians respond the only way they know how, with more authoritarianism - banning burqas and so on. This will no doubt be followed by bans on nuns' habits, no doubt in the interests of even-handedness, but just adding to the downward spiral of resentment.

But won't this lead to signs outside guest houses saying "No moslems" or "No burqas"? Possibly it will, and that would be ugly for sure. But the current approach is ugly too and the result, a downward spiral of apartheid and authoritarianism is vile in the extreme. Better to have an ugly approach with a happy ending than more and more ugliness.

Politicians' responses to the problem will lead only to resentment from Moslems banned from wearing burqas (there are apparently some who do so willingly) or from the host culture, forced to accept and deal with people with whom they want no dealings. Politicians can't solve this problem. They can only stand back and allow society to solve it on its own.

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Reader Comments (9)

I agree that less political meddling is required here, in fact it is almost always the case whatever the issue. Did you happen to catch 'Thought for the Day' on the Today programme this morning? Astonishing that should nonsense should be given a mainstream platform. The presenter was basically castigating Sarkozy for criticising the burqa by making some incredibly tenuous comparative arguments, and at one point linked our dislike of the burqa to our 'preference for sexual attractiveness'. Nothing to do with being against the oppression of women, apparently. Didn't hear the end of it, I turned it over and listened to something about farting on Radio 1 instead.
Jun 26, 2009 at 8:22 AM | Unregistered CommenterAndy H
Seeing people in a burka is creepy and sinister. It's also very dangerous driving while wearing one.
Jun 26, 2009 at 10:52 AM | Unregistered CommenterJack Hughes
An alternative would be to employ people to walk the streets and express sincere sympathy to burkha wearers, and ask if they would like any help resisting sexist oppression, or even leaving Islam altogether. Tell them how everybody here feels bad about the way Islam treats them, and isn't it a shame that a minority of extremists should besmirch its public image in that way? And yes, we understand that you probably have to say you like it, because we know you'll get ostracised from your community or mistreated if you act like a non-extremist, but be assured, we can all see plainly what's going on.

Remember, the victims of Islam include all those 'born Muslim' who don't want to be, but who have to hide their beliefs their whole lives. We promise to remember the agonising decision of every dhimmi who, perhaps even faced with the devshirme, couldn't bear it any more and converted, knowing their every descendant would be of the hated oppressors. And tell Muslims of how deeply we sympathise with their pain. We could declare a "Muslim sympathy day", where we exhort our fellows not to forget, and to work diligently to spread the light of freedom into the darkness.

It'd drive the beards crazy.
Jun 26, 2009 at 6:36 PM | Unregistered CommenterPa Annoyed
The primary reason for wearing a burka is sexual. This is acknowledged by its wearers when they claim it is worn to "cover my modesty" etc. It is therefore used as a sexual object by its wearer to fulfil her sexual fantasy - that without it she would be irresistible to men's sexual desire.

Most common public places will not accept a woman whose visible attire has the sole function of exciting the sexual curiosity of the men present - for example a G-string, suspender belt or low-cut lace bra etc. These items have no other purpose as clothing than to eroticise the part of the body they partially cover - and that is exactly the function the burka has (at least in the mind of its wearer).

If society began to view burkas in the same way as they already view other intentionally sexually provocative clothing - and show a similar pubic disdain in response - then perhaps those who wear them would think twice about it and begin to dress in a more socially acceptable way?

For example, a shop-keeper could say "You're not coming in here luv, til you de-eroticise your face... I've got kids to serve."
Jun 26, 2009 at 6:45 PM | Unregistered CommenterPeter S

It was originally a defence against rape. It dates from before Islam, in an age when things were a bit more lawless than they are now. Then when Mo outlawed rape against non-Muslims, it became a badge to show that you were a Muslim and therefore protected. (It was a bit more complicated than that, but history is boring.) It is actually an implicit criticism of the typical behaviour of Muslim men.

There isn't actually any rule in the Qur'aan for more than "modesty" in dress, and that applies equally well to both sexes. Precisely what this means depends on the haddith and sunna, and which parts of them you pick. Different schools of Islam set different rules, and in particular, only the Hanbali school has the rules about covering the face. (Originally it only applied to the prophet's wives.)

The reason why burkas and hijabs today are a serious issue is that they are really about making a political statement. They effectively announce that you are a member of the Hanbali school of Sunni Islam, generally acknowledged as the most extreme. (Although they're all actually 'extreme' by Western standards.) Its recent spread is down to the expansion of the Muslim Brotherhood, and burka/hijab-wearers are often signalling membership of that faction. If all the women in an area are suddenly wearing hijabs, it probably means the Muslim Brotherhood or one of their affiliated groups has moved in. And that means trouble.

It's never a good idea to treat the symptoms and ignore the cause.

While you can't give freedom sacks a free pass when it comes to adverse comment, they're not the problem, and in a free country people can dress how they like. The problem is that many of the women don't like it either, and to persecute them for it is added cruelty. It's like persecuting slaves for wearing their chains in public. And those women who freely choose to do it very likely do so because they have joined a political group. Perhaps like seeing a rash of Che Guevara T-shirts.

You have to make it understood that *making* women wear them is unacceptable (and that the default assumption is going to be that they were made to), and that it is seen as a part of an 'extremist' form of Islam that hurts the image of Islam generally. If you're going to put pressure on anyone, it should be the men, for allowing this into their community. But it should also be seen as a useful alarm bell that extremists have moved in, and something done about that.

Anyway, on a lighter note...
Jun 27, 2009 at 10:17 AM | Unregistered CommenterPa Annoyed
Thank you Pa for your response. It is most helpful in placing the topic into a context.

I was exploring the core idea which is the cause to the effect. I believe if the idea can be found and understood, a response to it in modern society would make itself available.

The function of the burka and hijab may have been substituted to that of a 'political statement' in the society in which they are worn (I often associate women wearing these items with seeing punk rockers on the streets back in the late 70's), but modern society MUST take the meaning of this item at face value (irony coincidental) if it is to find an apt response.

As a society we require only that the genital areas of men and women are covered when they are in a shared public space. These sexual zones include the penis and anus areas for men and the vagina, anus and breast areas for women. All other body areas are variously covered for comfort (warmth) and, as an auxiliary use, to help define who we are.

What modern society might be justified in raising an objection to with the burka and hijab is that it is an attempt to eroticise a woman's face . That is, to turn the face into a genital area, which - when exposed - would excite the same sexual response as any other genital area.

Modern society could, therefore, challenge this view by asking Muslim man what it is about his sexual appetite that makes him respond to a woman's face in the same way as he would to her exposed genitals? Does he, for example, confuse the orifice of a woman's mouth with her vagina? Is the only 'use' he can think of when in front of a woman's mouth involve his penis - rather than, say, recognising it as something he can use to talk with?

We can point out to the Muslim man that although our modern society very much does identify erotic zones in each other (and privately enjoy making a mutual and appropriate use of them), the face is NOT one of them. That western man can think of far more useful things to do with a face (and its various holes) than whipping his penis out.

We can let Muslim man (and woman) know that one of our responses to the burka and hijab is that of bemusement - "what on earth is on the mind (or in the groin) of the person who has a felt-need for this item of clothing?" Perhaps we can also let him know we don't share his erotic fantasies - which his burka makes visible to us.
Jun 27, 2009 at 1:01 PM | Unregistered CommenterPeter S

I see what you mean, now. Your second explanation is clearer. It's going to be a tricky idea to explain, though.

And I doubt it would work. Even Western women know that men look at them closely, even when fully dressed. Western men have enough civilised self-control to not feel compelled to do anything about it without permission of course, but it's that temptation sharia seeks to prevent. We cannot deny that perfectly ordinary attraction exists between the sexes, without involving exposed genitals or sordid imaginings. It is that ordinary attraction that the Beards claim leads to sin. I think Beards would find a counter-argument fairly easy to produce.
Jun 27, 2009 at 1:32 PM | Unregistered CommenterPa Annoyed

I agree. Western men have learnt they can contain their sexual desire enough to enable them to get on with other things in life. They haven't got rid of their desire or got rid of the objects which excite it. Western man can tolerate the fact of both his own desire and its objects without feeling overwhelmed by, or at war with, either.

If anything it could be said - accurately I think - that Muslim man is obsessed by sex. And that the burka (along with its inverse eroticising function) is just one visible aspect of that debilitating obsession.

Western society may be built on the knowledge that:
"You can't have your cake and eat it"

Whereas Muslim (male) society is stunted by the belief that:
"You can't have your cake and NOT eat it"

That might be the difference.
Jun 27, 2009 at 2:52 PM | Unregistered CommenterPeter S
Supermarkets routinely bar people wearing motorcycle helmets, presumably on the grounds that CCTV can't see their faces.

In what way is wearing a burqa different?

Maybe motorcycling should be made into a religion...
Jun 27, 2009 at 4:18 PM | Unregistered CommenterCurmudgeon

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