I vividly remember the time when Salman Rushdie was receiving death threats because of the publication of the Satanic Verses. I had fully anticipated that public figures in the UK would rally around him with robust support for freedom of speech. In fact, the support was muted. Although in part this was because of fear - as noted by Christopher Hitchens, - there were others who clearly felt a tension between such support and a need to empathise with the offence caused by the book. Roy Hattersley, for instance, recommended against publication of a paperback version of the book. And the Chief Rabbi wrote to The Times (4 March 1989) that 'the book should not have been published' because of the need to respect and 'generate respect' for other people's religious beliefs. Subsequently, when Rushdie was offered a knighthood, it was that staunch liberal, Shirley Williams, who emphasised the offence to Muslims, leaving it to Christopher Hitchens and the right-wing Boris Johnston to defend freedom of speech. So an asymmetric relationship was validated: I can’t criticise you because it might offend you, but you can not only criticise what I say, but also insist that I don’t say it at all, on pain of death.
Ayaan Hirsi Ali emphasised a similar trend in her memoir Infidel: liberals, she argued, were reluctant to take action against practices such as forced marriages and genital mutilation, because they did not like to be seen to be criticising another culture. Never mind that the culture was inflicting physical and mental damage on its women. This kind of logic was taken to an extreme by Germaine Greer, who argued that attempts to outlaw genital mutilation were an ‘attack on cultural identity’.
My own views on the matter are quite simple. I will tolerate the views of others so long as they tolerate me. I will respect their cultural identity so long as it does not discriminate against others on the basis of sex, ethnicity, or sexual identity. But I expect my cultural identity and beliefs to be correspondingly respected.
So where does that leave the burqa?
Some liberals adopt the easy argument and say that the burqa is a symbol of oppression, and should therefore be banned. There’s no doubt that the burqa has been used to oppress women, most notably by the Taliban. But it is an oversimplification to argue that all women who wear a burqa are oppressed. There are some (including the young Ayaan Ali Hirsi) who choose to wear it. Yes, that choice is bound to be influenced by the attitudes of those around her, but that is equally true of any woman’s choice of attire, whether it be stiletto heels and a mini-skirt or an all-encompassing robe.
So if it comes down to a woman’s right to choose what to wear, what’s the problem? The issue was mocked on Radio 4’s News Quiz last week, as the participants called for bans on other offensive items of clothing, such as socks with sandals or culottes. Andy Hamilton described the French attitude as: “We will force them to be liberated and if they refuse we will put them in prison”.
But the burqa is different from other clothing choices in two important ways. First, it interferes with communication. Liberal-minded people in the UK have no problem with others wearing symbols of their religion such as a turban or headscarf. The real problem is that in face-to-face interactions, wearing a burqa is at best discourteous, and at worst threatening. It creates an unequal relationship, when you can’t even verify the identity of the person you are interacting with, let alone read facial cues. There’s a vast literature in social psychology looking at how nonverbal cues are important in interpersonal communication (e.g. Knapp & Hall, 2009) . We use them to judge another person’s attitude, honesty, boredom and engagement, for a start. If one person has access to these cues and the other does not, that creates an asymmetry in the interaction. Just as British people must learn to respect the culture of others by not wearing skimpy clothing in Arab countries, Islamic women should respect cultural expectations that it is important to see the face of someone we interact with in person.
The second problem with the burqa is the rationale behind its adoption. As many in the Islamic community have emphasised, the burqa is not mandatory attire for a religious woman. However, Islamic women are required to dress modestly, and some interpret this as requiring total cover-up. I suspect that for some women this is an extreme reaction to our highly-sexualised Western society. But what message does the burqa give to men? I think it is offensive insofar as it implies that they are sexual predators whose lust may be inflamed by the sight of a woman’s face. I liked the response from a participant at the UN Human Rights Council, who suggested that rather than expecting women to cover up, men should stay indoors until they learned some self-control.
So if a woman is to wear a burqa, she should be aware of the impact on others: her choice will appear discourteous to many people, especially men. Qanta Ahmed, who describes herself as a moderate Muslim, makes a related point, noting that, far from giving an impression of modesty, part of that impact is to draw attention to oneself, make others feel threatened and increase hostility to Islam.
I don’t agree with Ahmed that the burqa should be banned; this will simply increase intolerance on both sides. I’m pleased that the British government is showing no signs of going down the same route as the French. Nevertheless, while I don’t think this is an issue that should be dealt with by law, I do think it is reasonable to exert social pressure. A woman has a right to cover up if she wishes, but she should be aware that this is regarded as culturally inappropriate in many situations in Western society. Employers have a right to expect their staff to have a sense of what is appropriate dress for a job; in many situations, a burqa is no more appropriate than hot pants or a crop top.
So in sum, I would defend the right of a woman to wear a burqa if she chooses. But I would also defend the right of someone like MP Philip Hollobone to refuse to meet with a constituent unless she reveal her face, and for an employer to require more appropriate clothing for someone interacting with the public. To do otherwise is to treat the burqa-wearing woman as someone who has rights but no responsibilities.