Tuesday, 12 April 2011

Why Britain would never ban the Burqa

Civil liberties vs patriotism?
This week France implemented a law ratified last year that completely prohibits women from wearing the full face veil (niqab or burqa), becoming the first European country to do so. Although the bill will affect less than 3,000 women, it caused massive controversy, reigniting the old-age debate on whether society should favour civil liberties with no holds barred, or a tougher top-down approach whereby the government can impose limits on the rights of its people to freely practice aspects of their beliefs that it considers contrary to the national ethos.  

No sooner had the law come into force on 11 April, French police were already arresting demonstrators, although bizarrely on charges of holding unauthorized demonstrations, not for wearing the niqab. There is no doubt that the move towards such policies is coincident with the rising popularity of right wing political polities in Europe. Yet the prospect of Britain banning the face veil is remote, and here is why.

Britain differs considerably in its approach to integration compared to France. On the day that France banned the burqa, Britain commemorated the 30th anniversary of the Brixton riots, an uprising in south London by black Britons in response to police brutality.

 Burqas have always fascinated people
-by Iranian artist Shirin Neshat
Since wrestling freedom from the despotic French princes, the French have fiercely guarded their laïcité, a stringent secular conception of the state in which religious beliefs are respected, but are separated from political matters ("La France est une République indivisible, laïque, démocratique et sociale."). In the last few years, manifestations of religious identity such as the wearing of a cross or a hijab in a public building have come under fire for undermining France’s secularism. The latest move to ban face veils, fully supported by 80% of the French population, was to uphold France's secular values" according to President Sarkozy. Apparently, not showing your face is inconsistent with French values. To live in France is to be French, not French-Algerian or French-Congolese. Whilst this might bolster the French national identity, it spurns on the loss of cultural heritage and diversity.


Britain takes a radically different approach to the matter. It has a greater tradition of liberal attitudes to diversity. Although the burqa is seen as ‘over the top’ by most people in the UK, Britons are generally keen to ‘live and let live’. The British integration model places emphasis on celebrating the contribution of other cultures to society, and whilst ethnic and religious minorities are encouraged to integrate into British life, British identity itself is now seen as encompassing the diverse range of ethnicities and cultures living there. Although I don’t have quantitative data, I think Britons would prefer civil liberties over state-endorsed restriction on religious convictions, as long as those beliefs don’t harm anyone else. Whilst this approach fosters respect for diversity, it has also exasperated the confused idea of what it means to be British. The Union Jack, the British flag, is now associated with the repugnant far right British National Party rather than conjuring up quaint images of the Queen, cream teas and Paddington Bear.

'They're taking over!". Less than three thousand women will be effected
Out of the British integration model has also sprung a fear of being perceived as malicious towards other cultures, which carries a considerable stigma here, even if one is trying to be constructively critical of certain ethnic groups living in Britain. This has lead to a culture of political correctness in which people often overcompensate in trying to show their respect for ethnic and religious minorities, and positively discriminate in their favour. In recent years, the British government has introduced well-meaning policies to improve the lot of British minorities, but often disingenuously towards white Britons. The media frequently complains that the number of people of ethnic descent in in certain professions is underrepresented. Yet enforcing quotas to artificially promote one ethnic group at the expense of others only drives white Britons to the right wing parties.

Who said burqas couldn't be sexy?
Clearly, a middle ground between the French and British models is needed to garner effective integration whilst allowing diverse cultures to flourish together. It is unfortunate that the right wing seems to be on the ascendancy in Britain and the rest of Europe, although this probably has more to do with the economic crises we are facing. Rightist parties always prosper in these conditions, yet the deep-rooted British mantra of ‘live and let live’ will ensure that the burqa remains an accepted sight on British streets.

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