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Scarlett Nation » Religion » The Burka: The Next Stage in Punk

The Burka: The Next Stage in Punk

As the parents of teenagers everywhere will tell you, the right to dress how you please is a potentially explosive issue. From the moment we are allowed to make our own decisions, we’re aware that those decisions say something about us. Even those who purport to abstain from all elements of fashion will admit to giving someone a look for their ridiculous, attention seeking or unflattering outfits – so imagine then, how they would feel, if they were forced to dress that way too.

Imagine how you would feel. If you’re a dress down type of a person, would you feel uncomfortable if you were forced to wear smart business clothes all of the time? If you’re a bit of a tom boy, would you object to being made to wear pink and frills? Does it spark images of a dystopian future where individuality is stripped away in favour of a draconian moral absolute? Is it really that big a deal?

According to the French, yes. Apparently, my choice of outfit is more than just a fashion statement, it’s highly important social and political issue – okay, with you so far. But I’ll be honest, I can’t see why this is a reason to ban the Burka.

First and foremost, I accept that the question of choice is very important. None of the above applies when you’re forcing a woman to wear the veil against her wishes. But then I’m equally outraged by any old fashioned husband forcing his wife to wear only floor length dresses – doesn’t mean I’d ban them. To deal with women being forced to wear the Burka takes more than a public ban, it takes years of education, support networks and cultural change to give women the will and ability to make their own choices. Yes, that’s more difficult and requires far more finesse, but that doesn’t make it okay to take the easy option. We could get the rape conviction rate up pretty quickly by outlawing sex before marriage, but we’d be needlessly punishing something perfectly normal in the hope of getting to the thing we object to. And punishing women who choose to wear the veil, in order to stop other women being forced to wear the veil, seems a bit heavy handed if there’s nothing wrong with wearing the veil in the first place.

This in itself raises two questions; the first being can any women really chose to wear the Burka? Would any right minded women ever wear one if they were really given the choice? In a word, yes. I can’t think of anything worse, myself. But then I think that whenever I see a person covered in piercings. I don’t know why they do it, but this doesn’t automatically lead me to think that they’re mentally retarded or controlled – they may just be different. Maybe a woman wants to wear the Burka because she thinks it looks cool and mysterious. Maybe she’s fed up with everyone – men and women – looking at her body and her outfit choice and making judgements. Or maybe, just maybe, this whole Islam thing is a bit more than a wacky Middle Eastern cult and she feels passionately about the religious testaments that we’ve so quickly dismissed.

So the second part of the question, do we have a problem with the veil itself? Does this item of clothing actually cause a problem for society? Again, not really, no.

I’ve heard it said that Burka’s are a problem for security, because at some point we all became so paranoid that we have to be able to identify total strangers minding their own business in the middle of the street. I find this argument especially strange coming from the British, because I’m more used to them complaining about the amount of CCTV and government intrusion there is on our daily lives. We don’t need all of this surveillance, we say, when we’re talking about white people. I don’t see us campaigning for a CCTV camera in every store and on every street corner – what if a crime happens there, and the cameras aren’t there to spot it? And yes, I know certain private companies have attempted to ban the hoodie, but I don’t think the government would get all that far telling its white citizens that they can’t ever wear anything that renders them unidentifiable.

I’ve heard it said that the Burka is a problem for integration, for a variety of reasons. It separates the wearer from society and marks them out as different. It stops people being able to communicate because they can’t see a person’s mouth moving. It’s a display that the wearer won’t embrace our way of life. Well, I’m pretty sure Burka’s don’t cause these problems; I’m pretty sure people do. So what if it shows that a person is different? A person is allowed to be different and still integrate, and we manage to make room for any other non-conformist style of dress. Somehow women all over the Middle East manage to communicate without seeing each others’ mouth move. Same for people on ski slopes. Or, you know, on the phone. I think, with a minimal effort, this could be overcome. And wanting to hold on to your own culture isn’t the same as rejecting another. If I move to America I will do my best to learn about, observe and respect the culture and lifestyle over there – but I will still be saying ‘bollocks’ whenever someone starts talking bollocks. And if a Muslim woman is observing our laws, engaging with her community and contributing to the country then it really doesn’t make any difference what she has chosen to wear at the time.

I know that there is probably a religious element to all of this if I look hard enough, but I can’t help thinking it’s about something a bit more sinister. I just keep thinking back to those teen films of the 80s, when the evil Mayor is banning hippy kids from growing their hair long or outlawing the evils of dancing – is he actually doing anything different to the French government? Because I’m pretty sure that under all of the noise about security and multiculturalism there is the same sound of fear and confusion, the one that makes people go ‘I just want this to go away’.

People in Burkas make us nervous in exactly the same way that mods and rockers made our grandparents nervous – they’re not like us, we don’t know what they’re about, we’ve heard a third hand news story saying people like this sometimes commit acts of violence and they just weren’t around in our day. And our reaction is the same. We just don’t want to look at it. If a woman is being forced to wear the veil, we’d rather keep her at home with the same man and the same attitudes and deal with the real problem, the fact that we’re being forced to see. I suspect that if this knee jerk reaction were aimed at a popular, cultural movement it would instantly be vilified as exactly that – you can’t make me cut my hair man, because I’m one of many. But if I’m a member of a minority, if I don’t have 15 minutes to make an impassioned speech to camera about individuality or a big enough vote to bother the politicians, well, then you can force me to do what you like. Even if it’s not just a question of fashion preference, even if it’s a deeply held religious belief that it causes me great distress to break.

I don’t know if this debate will ever hit our shores – I hope not. But if it does I’ll be standing along-side the women in the Niqab and the Burka, and the Punks in their safety pins, and the women in trousers and the men with man bags and all other Great British people that made Great Britain great. And I’ll be wearing whatever the hell I want.

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Co-founder and contributor to Scarlett Nation.

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  • Martin

    Minor factual point: The law applies to all full-face coverings in public (with some specific exceptions such as carnivals) so a man can now be fined for wearing a paper bag over his head in the street, for example. Now I’ll admit I’m curious as to whether paper bag man’s wife gets sent on a citizenship course if she forced him to wear it or at what point the youthful hoodie/scarf/baseball cap combo becomes a “full-face covering”, but there is potential for a security debate here that would include everyone. Possible suggestions would be: Does a covered face constitute reasonable suspicion for the police to stop you? Should we ban all headgear to promote a more open society? – except of course that isn’t the debate France actually had, or the one the Media are having at the moment.

    This is a symbolic law allows people to say “France stands against the Burka” but requires them to do absolutely nothing whilst criminalising the very people they want to help.

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  • Myles Nester

    I just do not understand the fear of the Burkha, its just something I cannot comprehend. I also think the wording and style of the legislation smacks of a new kind of concussive liberalism. You will be free, how we define free. The great strength of liberal democracy is meant to be that its universal because it doesn’t make value judgements on behaviour. People are free to make their own choice about how they live, and the state doesn’t force them to do any one thing but allows as many options as possible that do not cause harm. If harm is not extended to mean being offended by two men kissing, as it absolutely should not be, what is the difference between that harm and the ‘harm’ of being scared of someone wearing a Burkha?