The debate over whether there should be a ban on the wearing of full face veils in public is one that seems destined to constantly repeat itself, sparked most recently by a now-abandoned decision at Birmingham Metropolitan College and a judge facing a defendant who wished to appear in court covered up.
Unsurprisingly, there have been strident claims on both sides, as well as a particularly emphatic front-page headline from The Sun. Even the Prime Minister has weighed in. For some, it is an issue of feminism, for others, it is about freedom of religion. For some critics the debate acts as a cover for bigotry, others make valid points about practicality, for example whether a jury can truly judge a concealed defendant.
Certainly, there is an argument – a powerful one – that says that followers of a faith should be free to do so in a tolerant and just society. The ability to defend what is unpalatable – the right, say, of the extreme to air their views – is something that marks a country out. It is a proud tradition that the UK should not abandon.
Likewise, if we are to ban the veil, what else must we ban? Must all religious behaviours be prohibited in case they do not align with what the majority approve of? And if not, where is the justice in singling out one group? As an Orthodox Jewish woman, my marital status requires that I cover my head in synagogue (well, actually, all the time, but I can’t claim to be anywhere near that devout). Why should it be right that I could wear a hat as a sign of my faith, but a Muslim woman should be stopped from acting on hers?
But there is a difference. Not in the significance of one over the other, but because while a hat, or a crucifix, or a turban (or indeed a hijab) acts as an outward symbol of inward faith, it does not fundamentally alter the wearer’s relationship with society. A full veil – worn so that the wearer is entirely concealed from view and unidentifiable except by voice – arguably does. Businesses often argue that the phone is no substitute for face to face contact; having one party concealed fundamentally changes the nature of the interaction.
Thus it comes down to whether you believe freedom of religion should trump this. But beyond that, the issue is what it would mean to enforce such a ban. The veil, like the hat that I wear to synagogue (on the rare occasions that I go) is about modesty, and how a woman should be perceived in public. Rage that this is anti-feminist, since men are not subject to the same restrictions (I’ll happily debate that subject another time) but the fact remains. A ban would do nothing to change that, since it speaks not at all to what motivates the wearer. You cannot legislate people’s views into submission; a blanket ban would do nothing to alter attitudes among those who assume it is what women should be wearing.
And even if you could argue that a ban might have some kind of nudge effect, what of those who currently wear it? I’d hazard few do so lightly; going without would likewise be a difficult decision. So surely the effect would be that many would simply disappear from public space altogether. Bans on behaviour don’t have a great track record of succeeding; from the prohibition of the 1920s to book banning or the never-ending, unwinnable war on drugs, they tend to push what they were targeting underground. This would surely be no different.
Culturally sensitive though it may be, we should be able to debate the veil as we debate anything else in Britain, and we should certainly be able to talk about cases where a woman is forced into wearing one. But a ban on the full face veil would be both unworkable and un-British.