Does the right to wear what you want trump the right to see who you’re dealing with? The arguments for and against bannig the wearing of the Niqab
This week’s constant debate over the issue of the Niqab has seen arguments put forward by all kinds of different people, from all varieties of different backgrounds, with all types of different political views. Some are too busy debating whether or not to have a debate over a debate: others are blissfully shackled to the argument ‘If in doubt, call them a racist’. What I want to discuss is whether there are actually any valid reasons to ban the Niqab?
To start with, a clarification – the Niqab is the optional piece of clothing often worn by women of Islamic faith to either (a) avoid objectification or (b) do as they’re told by their husband. Naturally this is a rather controversial generalisation but I’m simply recounting what I consider to be the two most prominent choices.
To avoid the ever-present potency of feminism I’d like to focus on the former reason for wearing the Niqab – freedom of choice and/or of religious expression. Countless people argue along the lines: ‘the Niqab is part of their religious beliefs and we must respect that’ – but, as admirable as that is, I must object that the Niqab is considered neither crucial nor even necessary, but merely optional attire for the expression of Islamic faith.
With this in mind, we then face a principally philosophical question: ‘can the state dictate to its citizens what they can and cannot wear?’ For most people, the answer is a resounding no. Perhaps this is right: after all, the state considered as Leviathan (cf Hobbes) where all citizens must sacrifice all freedoms in order to reclaim some back doesn’t sound overly pleasant or tolerable.
But examine this further – doesn’t the state already dictate what we may or may not wear? An example of this could be a Nazi armband – the state forbids anyone to wear it, despite people wishing to have the freedom of political expression, for example. I don’t postulate for one minute an equivalence between Niqab and Nazi armband, but what I’m clarifying is that the state does have the authority to require sacrifice some forms of expression.
If we consider this realistically though – if an item of clothing is fundamentally causing no harm to any other individual or society as a whole, then what grounds may a Government forbid what someone may wish to wear? For me this seems entirely bizarre and more importantly totally abhorrent. But I don’t want to pretend that this is an entirely one-sided argument: there are some who say the Niqab fundamentally undermines society (e.g. lack of communication) and thus causes immense friction and even intimidation – as Lord Devlin once argued, individuality and immense negative freedom cause ‘fragmentation from within’, and thus led to society pulling in entirely different directions.
I sympathise with this viewpoint in some aspects, but I have to make an important point – the Niqab is worn only by no more than 4.8% of the UK general population, according to The Guardian, so I have to ask the serious question – can a number that small really destroy a society from within?
The banning advocates do have one legitimate argument – the wearing of the Niqab within schools, banks, courtrooms and shops undermines security, and, in the example of education, does undermine fundamental communication. If we begin with the three latter examples, then these are eminently fair points: why is it acceptable for one group of people to cover their faces in these places but another?
On the issue of court – as Westerners believe, remarkably, that we can read everyone’s every facial expression, divine exactly what they’re thinking, and unfold the truth from their eyebrows going up and down. For a minority, this might be true – but to suggest that everyone can, and thus that the Niqab must be removed in court represents, for me, pure naivetë. But on the other hand, if one person can cover their face in court, surely everyone can?
The general arguments I’ve been trying to set out is that both the ‘for’ and ‘against’ arguments have very valid points: but, for me, the compromise remains remarkably simple. The Government shouldn’t BAN the Niqab – but should instead support local businesses, banks, courts, etc., should they ask for the veil to be removed for security reasons – much like they do when a bank manager asks for a motor-cyclist to remove his/her helmet whilst being in the bank. For me there remains no difference, as, for me, equality before the law remains fundamental to society.
If a minority group has the right to do something that the majority doesn’t do, it causes outrage: the way to tackle this is simply to put people on a level-playing field – after all, can the state really dictate to who whom laws do and don’t apply? Is not Government’s role is to uphold the laws of the land in a neutral way?
With regard to schools, this remains much harder in some aspects but for me, both primary and secondary schools should still receive full support from the Government if they decide to ban the Niqab, as schools have the authority to set a school uniform for males and females. If a schoolplace’s jurisdiction is that the Niqab is not to be worn, then it must be respected in my view, as it must remain autonomous and free, albeit with checks here and there, to ensure all students perform at their best, and if it believes banning the Niqab will help, then for me that must equally respected.
In the case of sixth-forms, colleges and universities, the moment colleges allow 16+ children/adults to wear what they want is the moment they sacrifice any input into what is and is not acceptable, albeit with exceptions, once again, for extreme offence, etc. But on a general rule, you cannot have one and the other without radiating hypocrisy.
So the answer for me remains blunt. The Government has no right to intrude upon our civil liberties to freedom of expression: but equality before the law is something I consider so fundamental that, for me, businesses, courts, shops, banks and schools must have the autonomy/self-governance to decide for themselves what is best, and whatever that decision might be should be totally and unequivocally supported.