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National Secular Society

Challenging Religious Privilege

Full face veil: should it be banned in public places?

The wearing of the full face veil in public has caused controversy throughout Europe. In some countries bans are being put in place — sometimes complete and sometimes partial — with women being denied access to state offices if they insist on wearing face coverings. Here, NSS Member Des Langford considers the pro and cons of a UK public ban and draws his own personal conclusions.

Arguments in favour of a ban

Women’s rights

There is a strong argument for banning the full face veil (“burka”, “niqab”) on the grounds of the equality and emancipation of women, because many Muslim women are forced or coerced into wearing it by their husbands and family. Clearly this is totally unacceptable in western society. On the other hand there are some women who argue fiercely that they freely choose to wear the full face veil for personal or religious reasons, and their views need to be taken seriously. It is very difficult to determine the proportions of women who are pressurised versus those who make a free choice. This would be a subject worthy of research investigation, although it would be difficult to ascertain the truth, since some women who claim to make a free choice may in reality be doing so through fear or intimidation.

Security and fear

In an era of (largely Muslim) terrorism the security implications of full face covering are very real and serious. If even one terrorist were to achieve his or her aim through the use of the veil as a disguise this could have devastating consequences. Full face veils could also be used to perpetrate other crime- and this applies equally to face coverings such as masks and motor bike helmets. In addition many people feel a fear of those who they cannot see or identify, and this fear is not irrational since criminals and terrorists have a greater incentive than most to hide their identity.

Integration

Minority groups such as Muslims need to integrate and communicate in order to be accepted by western society; otherwise there will always be fear and mistrust between different communities. This has been recognised by recent government drives to encourage immigrants to learn English as an essential part of gaining UK citizenship. Human beings communicate and build trust through facial expression as well as verbally. The covering of the face is a significant barrier to communication and trust, and therefore to the integration of Muslim communities in the western world. It is particularly significant because it is only women who wear the face veil, and it is normally women in Muslim communities who are the most isolated and whose opinions are not heard. To the extent that western society communicates with Muslims it is predominantly with men, and the full face veil is a significant barrier to the integration and acceptance of Muslim women.

Offence to the majority

Many westerners feel offended and affronted by the hiding of the face. This is because they feel that the person hiding their face is being secretive and not open. However the rights of the offended need to be balanced against the rights of the individual to exercise their free choice. Being offended is a personal matter and different individuals and groups will take offence at different things. To ban something because it may cause offence to someone sets a very dangerous precedent for civil liberties: no-one has the right not to be offended. It may even play into the hands of the religious fanatic who would like to prescribe many aspects of western society, such as clothing which they perceive as indecent or literature which criticises their religion. This argument is therefore weak and should not be relied upon.

Arguments against

Individual liberty

The principle argument against the banning of anything is that of the civil liberty of the individual to chose- a cornerstone of free western liberal democracy. This is a very weighty argument, and it is right that in a free society the assumption should always be against any ban, unless there are extremely good reasons otherwise. Nevertheless there are cases where bans have been enforced and where such action commands majority support. An obvious case is the banning of harmful drugs, the taking of which have serious consequences not just for the user, but also for society in general. On the other hand alcohol is freely available and permitted, and the majority support this, despite the many adverse consequences caused by anti social behaviour. A recent precedent for a new ban was on smoking in public buildings. This was probably largely due to the health consequences on third parties of passive smoking. The health of the majority (approximately 75% non smokers) was deemed to outweigh the free choice of the minority (approximately 25% smokers) The question is therefore: does the wearing of the full face veil have any significant consequences upon third parties- 99% plus of the population - which would be sufficient to justify the loss of liberty for the few (far less than 1%)?

Discrimination against Muslims

Such a ban might be perceived by some as discriminatory against Muslims. However only a minority of Muslims consider the full face veil to be an essential part of their religion. Therefore it cannot be discriminatory against the religion as a whole. Moreover, such a ban could and should – for reasons of security - be applied to any other form of face covering in public places, such as masks or motor cycle helmets. Such a broad framing of a ban should help to convince moderate and rational Muslims that the ban is not discriminatory.

Conclusion

There is a strong civil liberties argument for insisting that any bans should be exceptional and need to be justified by significant benefit to the majority of citizens. However in this case such strong justification does indeed exist as a result of very real public security concerns. Additional arguments relating to women’s rights and social integration also carry considerable weight. The argument from women’s rights would be considerably strengthened if it could somehow be demonstrated through research that a significant proportion of female wearers of the full face veil come under pressure to do so.

The balance of the arguments suggest that the needs of the many would justify the banning of the full face veil even though this places a limitation on the freedom of the tiny minority who would freely chose to wear it.


The views expressed here are the author's and do not necessarily represent those of the National Secular Society.