Friday, 22 January 2010

Burkha ban and the multicultural model

After my post about UKIP's suggestion of banning the veil, apparently in France the governing party is actually intending to do it.

My previous post mentioned a lot of idealisms, but practical matters always have an impact - in both directions. So while I don't believe banning the veil, it's hard to see how young girls of some strictly Islamic families could shake off the shackles imposed by a family they probably love. In this sense, I realise in some circumstances and with the right arguments, I could be in favour of a ban.

However, when you get real, it's not a realistic possibility anyway: as a commentor on Gavin Hewitt's blog post says, while it's reasonable and sensible to ban the burkha in the workplace (although I'm not so sure about his reasoning that it would "scare children"), how do you write and enforce a ban that doesn't stop people covering their face with other clothing? A scarf in the cold, for instance, or a motorbike helmet if you're ... riding a motorbike.

Again, there's further practical considerations on this front - you can't wear a motorbike helmet in a bank (or probably an airport, I bet no-one's willing to try though). That said, you could argue this could/should apply to wearing the full veil as well.

Maybe small, practical bans might be the leverage to implement wider change. You could ban full face covering in banks and airports, and maybe for taxi drivers or other professions that require identification ("Hi, I've come to look at your gas meter? Here's my ID..."). In creating situations and circumstances where you say it is okay for a woman's face not to be covered, you create a train of thought that says it's okay to be uncovered in public as well.

I'm sure in some professions these "little bans" already exist because of existing, non-religious requirements such as ID cards related to a profession. And on the other hand, it's hard to say how many women who choose the veil or have it imposed on them would apply for occupations that require an open face at all times.

France, like a number of other European countries, is anxious that the multicultural model is not seeing integrated societies but parallel societies, where communities live in their own world. I think that is partly due to Europeans' resistance to difference - whether it's awkwardness (e.g. sitting next to a woman fully burkha'd up on the bus) or xenophobia (e.g. declaring all Muslims terrorists). In Britain we do both pretty well.

Secondly, there is also a question of numbers. While the distribution is probably not even, I don't think there's an awfully high number of women who wear the full veil - compared to the number of Muslims who don't, it must be a tiny proportion. Maybe politicians are concerned about cities in North of England where entire streets or suburbs are populated by Muslims and are even "no go" areas for white people. But the veil doesn't really have anything to do with this, and there surely can't be many of these places. Besides, there's still plenty of places in England which are no-go areas for brown or black people.

The multicultural model is a large, funny-shaped thing with fuzzy edges and unexpected possibilities, which is ultimately part of the Postmodern Globalised World Wot We Live In. Identities and lifestyles are multiplying and subdividing all the time, and cultures and religions are no exception. Being a dirty atheist and amateur feminist, I think the veil is backward and wrong, and I'd be perfectly happy if nobody wore one ever again. But in this real fast-changing world, the small collection of British female Muslims who wear the veil or the burkha or the niqab are no more than one subset of people, just like elderly climbers who live in Birmingham or transsexual birdwatchers in Aberdeen; it's hard to see the veil ever completely disappearing, and certainly not through a legal ban.

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