Maybe it’s time to ban the veil

Niqab banLast week was a good week for Islam and the veil. As usual.

Firstly, a brave college in Birmingham took the radical step of deciding its students shouldn’t conceal their identity on college premises. Reasonable? Most certainly. Even our Prime Minister thought it made sense, and we all know how much difficulty politicians have speaking honestly and coherently about this topic. Well done Birmingham Metropolitan College. But then a few seconds elapsed and the college caved in, overturning its decision.

Secondly, a Muslim woman entering a plea before a trial managed to force a “compromise” by refusing to remove her veil when identifying herself in formal court proceedings. It wasn’t a compromise. It was appeasement. Judge Peter Murphy agreed that the woman could remove her veil in front of a female police officer, who then verified it was the defendant.

This week, at the beginning of the trial, the same judge decided that the woman could stand trial wearing a full veil but that she had to remove it to give evidence. Put the bubbly back on the supermarket shelf though because there’s nothing to celebrate here – and on another day, with another judge, we could easily see an even worse decision. Have a look at the shocking inconsistency in these next two paragraphs of the judgment. The first paragraph is entirely sensible and very encouraging but then in the second paragraph the judge discards his own flawless reasoning by allowing the woman to retain her veil during the trial:

59. On the other hand, there is the question of the comfort – and beyond comfort, the rights and freedoms – of others whose participation in the trial is essential. In my view, it is unfair to ask a witness to give evidence against a defendant whom he cannot see. It is unfair to ask a juror to pass judgment on a person whom she cannot see. It is unfair to expect that juror to try to evaluate the evidence given by a person whom she cannot see, deprived of an essential tool for doing so: namely, being able to observe the demeanour of the witness; her reaction to being questioned; her reaction to other evidence as it is given. These are not trivial or superficial invasions of the procedure of the adversarial trial. At best, they require a compromise of the quality of criminal justice delivered by the trial process. At worst, they go to its very essence, and they may render it altogether impotent to deliver a fair and just outcome. They drive a coach and horses through the way in which justice has been administered in the courts of England and Wales for centuries. I would add that, although of lesser significance in the case of a judge, it is also unfair to require a judge to sentence a person he cannot see.

68. The question is how these considerations should be balanced. Leaving aside questions of identification, I do not consider that it is necessary to ask a defendant to remove her niqaab for the purposes of the trial generally. While it remains true that juries scrutinise defendants throughout the proceedings, and take note of a defendant’s reaction to the evidence as it is given throughout the trial, I am not persuaded that this is of sufficient importance to require a restriction on the defendant’s right to wear the niqaab.

The judge’s previous decision on the plea was sold as a compromise when actually it was nothing of the sort. The subsequent decision on the trial has been sold as some kind of heroic victory for our legal system (“Muslim woman must remove veil”) when that legal system in fact now finds itself slumped on the ropes. This most certainly wasn’t a victory. Both decisions, and the way they’ve been portrayed, demonstrate how embarrassingly low we’ve set our success threshold against Islam’s never-ending and rarely reasonable demands. Pour a few drops of neat, toxic, 7th century religious ideology into otherwise sturdy 21st century legal pipework, allow to simmer, then stand back and watch with drooling multicultural glee as appeasement is redefined as compromise and defeat as victory. There’s a word to describe anyone who isn’t deeply troubled by the heavy blows our fine legal system has been apparently content to soak up and that word is delusional.

One of my earliest posts was about the veil and my position then was that I wasn’t keen on a criminal ban. Now I’m not so sure. So I thought it was about time I looked again at some of the arguments for a ban.

We often hear how the full veil has “nothing to do with Islam”. Well blow me, that’s strange because whenever I speak out against it I’m called an “Islamophobe” and whenever others argue for the right to veil they talk about religious freedom. Which religion would that be? Mormonism? The Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster? A mystery unnamed religion? Has the religion of peace now been rebranded as the religion of no name?

The position we seem to have settled on, then, is that the veil can be justified by Islam but it can’t be criticised on the basis of Islam. More anti-logic and collective denial there, courtesy of Islam.

Whether or not the veil is a requirement of Islam is irrelevant. In fact given the inability of people of the same religion or even the same denomination to, er, see eye to eye on anything, establishing what is and isn’t a requirement of a particular faith is a pointless and impossible task. Moreover it’s actually undesirable because it outsources key issues of human rights and religious freedom to the loudest and most regressive self-appointed faith “leaders”. This is something I discussed here and here in the context of the ECtHR cases at the beginning of this year.

Anyone with an ounce of honesty knows that Islam hangs very heavy here. The question isn’t whether the veil is a requirement of Islam though. The underlying questions are whether a symbol of undoubted female oppression should be allowed in public, what the state’s position on this is, and how the decisions (or more often than not, the forced decisions) of those wearing the veil affect the rights of others.

Let’s assume there are two groups of women (and children) who veil: those who are forced to veil to one degree or another, and those who choose to veil.

As far as the coerced veilers are concerned, I’d hope that even the most morally invertebrate, culturally-relativist pseudo feminist would agree this is harmful and undesirable. What to do about it then? It’s clear we’re getting nowhere fast because people are absolutely petrified to talk about the veil. Unless we do something now then in ten or twenty years’ time we’ll see pictures like this and this showing how the UK has changed in the same way Afghanistan and Iran have.

Are the women and children who are forced to veil not entitled to some protection from the state? Does the state not have a duty to strongly condemn this? The most effective way of the state doing this is to use the criminal law. In an ideal world this would be unnecessary because the creation of a new criminal law should always be a last resort. Well maybe the depressing events of last week show we’re already in the last chance saloon of last resorts. Whereas previously I might have been opposed to a criminal ban I’m not necessarily now strongly in favour of one. But nor am I strongly opposed to a criminal ban. I just want this problem solved. If we can do that without a new law, great. If we need a new law, then so be it. That’s life.

Will it be a difficult law to enforce? Most probably, and this is a common argument against a ban. Many laws are difficult to enforce though and that’s no reason not to have them as laws. Imagine being the person who first suggested the idea of income tax. “How the hell are you going to do that? It’ll never work. People will just lie about what they earn”, the doubters would have presumably argued.

Making a particular activity illegal has a very strong effect. It makes it socially unacceptable, it creates legal protections and it creates legal remedies. It puts the state on the side of the victim and not the oppressor. The state itself takes a position.

As for those who claim to disapprove of forced veiling but argue against banning it on the basis it will cause more problems than it solves (for example, because the women “won’t be allowed out”), well presumably they do accept that the veil is a problem then? In that case what are they doing to solve the problem? Answer: nothing.

Let’s think now about those who choose to veil of their own free will. Let’s assume they’re not mere puppets and that they’ve managed to unshackle themselves from the hundreds of years of religious and cultural misogyny that created the veil. Let’s assume they have all the freedom of a soaring eagle.

What I say to those individuals is this: if you’re emancipated enough to genuinely make all your own decisions, then great. I’m very happy for you. Many of your co-religionists aren’t nearly so lucky. The flip side of your freedom is that you’re emancipated enough to take criticism of your clothing choices without crying persecution and you’re presumably also bright enough to understand that very few freedoms are limitless. You should be able to understand that your choices have consequences for others. You should be able to understand that others also have rights.

People will often completely dismiss the idea of a criminal ban on the basis there are some individuals who freely choose to veil. Case dismissed, they’ll say; a criminal ban would be an unacceptable infringement of personal liberty, so goes the argument. Well sorry but that’s not good enough. The discussion doesn’t end there. Yes, in analysing the case for a criminal ban on anything we must always approach the argument on the basis of personal liberty. But when that exercise of personal liberty results in that person concealing their identity in key state institutions or other public places, and displaying a sign of female oppression, is that still a valid right?

I say it isn’t. I say the state has the right and even a duty to take a position on the veil. I say I have the right to see the face of a fellow citizen in certain places. Whether that right of mine is a legal one or a moral one, I’m not too sure. Maybe it’s a bit of both. Hey, maybe it’s even a……cultural one!! What if my culture is gender equality, secularism, opposing misogyny, and advocating open human interaction? What do the cultural relativists have to say about that?

Whatever the basis of that right, I think it exists. Am I not entitled to see the face of a fellow female citizen in certain public places? Not the tits, not the arse, not the private lady parts. Just the face. How about we consider the rights of people other than Muslims for a change? (I’m assuming the rest of us still have rights. Right?)

And while we’re on the subject of rights, don’t state institutions, businesses and educational establishments have the right to set rules for people on their premises? Is it not reasonable to require of those entering their premises that they don’t conceal their identity?

One thing at least is perfectly clear. If one sector of society can conceal their identity in public then we all can. If freedom of religion/culture/belief is absolute then it’s absolute for all religions, for all cultures and for all beliefs. If the defendant in the court case had been a white supremacist (as opposed to an Islamic supremacist) who refused to remove a KKK mask to enter a plea, what do you think the judge’s decision might have been? Would a “compromise” have been reached where, say, the KKK member would only remove their mask in front of a white person? (Altogether now…..“NO!”). It would have been dealt with on the only sensible basis possible: contempt of court.

A criminal ban on concealing one’s identity in, say, public buildings and state institutions might indeed restrict the personal freedom of a certain number of people who choose to veil. Well if that’s the worst infringement of individual rights that can be pinned on secularism then I’ll take that and I suggest any religion worthy of the name “peaceful” ought to take that too, and it ought to stop whinging just for once.

I’m far more bothered about the individuals who are forced to veil than the ones who aren’t. After all, the ones who voluntarily veil don’t seem remotely bothered about my right to feel comfortable and secure in a public place. They don’t seem remotely bothered about my culture. They don’t seem remotely bothered about perpetuating a symbol and a tool of female oppression at the expense of those who don’t have the freedom to choose. They don’t seem remotely bothered that I don’t want to be surrounded by faceless zombies. At least I agonise over whether to restrict their liberties. They never do the same for me.

It’s upsetting how unwilling some Muslim women are to express their disapproval of the veil openly (but credit to Yasmin Alibhai-Brown for piping up). A female colleague of mine, an Ismaili Muslim, once told me she was “secretly very pleased” that France banned the veil. Why “secretly”? Does she realise how much harder she makes it for people speaking out against the veil, and for people who are forced to wear it, by keeping silent?

It’s time for everyone who hates this cloak of oppression to say so. Especially Muslims, and especially female Muslims. If everyone spoke up then wearing the veil in public would be completely socially unacceptable, just like wearing a KKK mask is, and we wouldn’t have to recalibrate our collective intellect to pander to it by pretending the veil is a demonstration of personal freedom and women’s rights. We wouldn’t even need to think about banning it. But this is what happens when religion has power. This is what happens when religion causes fear. Madness. Absolute bloody madness.

The state has views on lots of things and it often uses the criminal law to express those views. Maybe, just maybe, it’s time the state expressed a view on the veil and whether people can conceal their identity in public for no rational reason whatsoever.

I for one would very much like to know the state’s view.

And I’m guessing the poor women and children who are forced to veil might like to know, too.