The European Court of Human Rights has recently upheld France’s ban on the burqa, but I have doubts as to whether this is the right way forward for other states.

The French government passed a law effectively banning the public wearing of burqas in 2010.  However, they are keen to point out that the ban is not specific to burqas, as it applies to helmets, balaclavas and any other headwear that covers the face.  Despite this, it has been seen as targeting Muslim women and was the subject of a case brought before the ECHR in June 2014.  The ECHR accepted the French government’s claim that the law was aimed at preserving the ‘living together’ of different groups and upheld the ban, which has also been adopted in similar fashion by the Belgian government.

As there is not any immediate proposal for the burqa to be banned in the UK, I feel it is important that I frame the relevance of the issue to our nation.  British right-wing groups such as the BNP and the ever-expanding UKIP have both proposed the banning of the burqa and adopted the issue as party policy.  When coupled with the move made by the French government and supported by the European Court of Human Rights, it is clear that a precedent has been set.  It is then foreseeable that we will see a similar ban here in the not too distant future.

Debate rages over whether the wearing of the burqa is a cultural or religious practice.  In truth, this seems to be an irrelevant argument; to enforce views on either the cultural or religious practices of minorities is always dangerous, but is sometimes necessary if the practice is too damaging in some way.  I would agree that this is the case with the burqa, but maintain that a ban is not the right course of action.

Much of the argument opposing burqas is that they are deemed to be oppressive to women.  This does seem to me to be true, but it is the symptom, not cause, of misogyny within Islamic communities.  To assume it is oppressive assumes something impairs the free will of women who chose to wear it; the men in their communities face accusations that they somehow force women into wearing them.  If this is correct then how do we enforce this ban?  Do we punish the women ‘forced’ to wear the burqa?  Or do we punish the men (and other women) we deem to be ‘forcing’ them to wear it?  If bullied into wearing burqas, will these women’s choice not be made harder by choosing between the enforcement of our perspective on the issue and the enforcement of the ideals of those close to them?

Fear and suspicion is also clearly behind the burqa-banning movement.  Security fears are discussed as if burkas are the new balaclava of crime, but of course there is no evidence to suggest we have failed in making numerous convictions because a criminal’s face was covered by one.  The inability to see someone’s face does of course make it less easy to interact with them, something that cannot be ignored, but fear should not be a further barrier to integration and communication in our communities.

Reports have emerged of women who flout the ban feeling under suspicion from the non-Islamic public and a culture of divisiveness is said to have emerged.  This appears to be another unwanted consequence of the move, pressure on Muslim women from outside their religious communities to add to the pressure inside them.  The message of illegalising the burqa will likely lead to less integration, not more, contrary to what was originally intended.

If we, as a nation, decide on the eradication of the burqa -which is not worn very widely here anyway- then we must do it by promoting a message of equality and integration through our words, not our laws.  Education and interaction with isolated groups should be our primary tool, far less blunt than the courts and far less damaging than a rhetoric of suspicion and fear.  Otherwise we will never manage to fully live together as one.