‘Why don’t your women wear the burqa?’ asked the young talib on the bus between the Pakistan border and Jalalabad where the Taliban had just taken over in 1995.
‘Why do your women wear the burqa?’ I replied
‘Because if a man looked at a woman’'s face there would be a problem!’
‘What sort of a problem?’ I asked, already the knowing the answer...
‘Well a sin!’
‘So, who would be sinning the man or the woman?’
‘Well, the man!’
‘So why don’t you cover the man’s eyes then!’
Clearly this wasn’t an answer that fitted the Taliban rote learning of how to convert a non Muslim as the young Talib fell quiet and the rest of the bus full of Afghans quietly chuckled at someone finally getting one over on the Taliban!
In rural Afghan society the wife is regarded as the ‘property’ of her husband. She is also the public expression of her husband’s honour. So any hint of another man viewing a Pushtun man’s 'private property' would dishonour the man and could lead to divorce. While working as an aid worker in Afghanistan some years ago I learned of an incident in which another aid agency had most unwisely insisted on vaccinating everyone entering a Pushtun village. As they vaccinated an elderly burqa clad woman her husband turned to her and said ‘how can I look other village men in the eye now that other men have seen your upper arm, I divorce you I divorce you, I divorce you’ and he went one way and she went the other way. Shocking? The issue there was that the burqa was the outward form of oppressive values – that the women was her husband’s private property. In that situation the burqa was oppressive for women.
However, in other situations it is worn to protect women from the attentions of sexually predatory men. Let me explain. Even in moderate Islamic countries such as Pakistan women are expected to cover their heads with a chaddar or at the very least wear a duppatta (thin scarf) when out on the streets, because it is an outward symbol that she is a morally upright woman. In fact, a former lady colleague who had worked in Pakistan for over 30 years once told me that she had witnessed Pakistani prostitutes soliciting by removing their head coverings.
All the aid agencies that I worked for in both Pakistan and Afghanistan very wisely insisted that western women wore a head covering such as a chaddar (long shawl – not to be confused with the chaddari – which is a burqa covering the face). Many local men already had the impression that most western women were immoral, an impression largely gained by watching western films. So any western woman who did not cover her head in public would almost inevitably face repeated incidents of unwanted sexual attention such as local men attempting to place their hands on intimate parts of her body. In 2/3 cases of sexual assaults on western women in the aid agencies I worked for, there was an underlying issue of a western woman doing something such as letting her chaddar fall off her head – that would have no significance in Britain, but in that particular Islamic context sent out an unintended signal that she was sexually ‘available’. Local women of course knew exactly what such actions signaled, which is why they always covered their heads and some chose to wear a full face covering burqa when they were out on the streets. In that sense it was – to their minds – empowering them, it enabled them to walk on the street away from home without receiving inappropriate sexual attention from men. So don’t mock Caroline Spelman when she says that for some women she met in Afghanistan the burqa was ‘empowering’ – speaking to a woman they probably felt free to tell her more about their feelings than they would any man.
However, for other Afghans – such as the elderly village lady I described above, it is anything but empowering – it is clearly used by men as a means of domination and control of the women in their household.
One of the things one has to learn when operating cross culturally is the difference between ‘form’ – the outward appearance of things and ‘meaning’. The two example I have given above have exactly the same outward form – but very different, almost opposite meanings.
So how does this play out on the streets of Britain? Well it means that there is a deeply rooted emotional attachment among many British Muslims to the idea that a woman’s head covering is a symbol of moral uprightness. There is therefore a danger that any attempt to ban the burqa could be seen by many Muslim families who would never themselves condone the burqa, as being an attack on that whole outward expression of women’s morality that is central to family honour. We already have a serious problem with the radicalisation of a significant minority of Muslim young people being radicalised. However, if something was perceived to be an attack on Muslim morality and family honour, then there is at least a risk that it could lead to the radicalisation of a wider spectrum of the Muslim community.
That doesn’t mean I support women wearing the burqa in Britain. I happen to agree with Damian Green that it simply isn’t British to require the police to check up on what women are wearing! nor is it compatible with British values of what it means to live in a free society. As Ben Rogershas eloquently argued, one doesn’t combat Islamism by compromising our own values. Whilst it is true that Syria has recently banned the burqa in their attempt to combat militant Islamism, there is a major difference – Britain is a free democratic country. It is also questionable how effective such legislation is, as banning the burqa has sometimes fueled Islamic fundamentalism. For example, King Amanullah of Afghanistan (1919-1929) tried it nearly 100 years ago and was eventually forced to abdicate when his army deserted rather than put down the rebellion that ensued. So, there is a very real risk that actually banning the burqa could actually inflame radicalisation – the very thing we are trying to stop.
However, Philip Hollobone an Roger Helmer are bsolutely correct that there is a problem with the burqa in Britain – and in many Islamic countries. The problem is that Islamic dress for women and to a lesser though still significant extent for men, has become symbolic of Islamisation. A good illustration of this is the following pictures of the English faculty at Cairo University sent to me some time ago by Peter Goodwin, Deputy Chairman of South Leicestershire Conservative Association. The pressure to conform to an increasingly Islamic dress code for women is very evident in the more recent photographs.
1959 - Bare elbows for some women
1978 - Long sleeves for most women
1995 - Head covering for many women
2004 - Hijab head covering for most womenIn Britain, an earlier generation of British Muslims mainly from the sub continent typically wore shalwar kameze with women additionally wearing either a chaddar (shawl) or duppatta (thin scarf worn over the head or around the neck). However, now those who have been radicalised are likely to move on from these to what they consider to be ‘more Islamic’ dress, which in practice normally means Arabic dress such as the hijab (full head and neck covering with only front of face exposed), niqab (full face veil with just the eyes exposed) or burqa
(strictly speaking an Afghan dress with the whole face covered with either thin material or a small grill to see through).
Once these start appearing in a Muslim community then there can be enormous social pressure exerted by Islamists on other Muslims to follow suit and in the Islamist’s words... ‘act like proper Muslims’. That is why it is extremely dangerous for schools and other public institutions to allow these more radical Islamic symbols. A few years ago I visited a school in a Muslim majority area of Leicester – every single girl wore a hijab – yet outside the school large numbers of Muslim women simply wore traditional shalwar kameze and either a chaddar or duppatta. It appeared that the school giving ‘permission’ to a few girls to wear the hijabhad led to social pressure on other parents to ensure their girls were dressed in what the Islamists would call ‘the proper Islamic manner.’ Similarly, when a teaching assistant in Dewsbury claimed the right to wear the full face covering niqab in class the then local Labour MP Shahid Malik, himself a Muslim commented that many of his constituents would definitely not send their children to a school that allowed its classroom assistants to be veiled. In doing so, he was speaking up for a large number of ordinary Muslim families who have been disempowered by repeated concessions made to more radical elements over such issues as Islamic dress in schools.
So, where Philip Hollobone and Roger Helmer are right is that we need to tackle the spread of the burqa. That means we need to say very clearly that it is outside the boundaries of acceptable dress code for people in the public services. We need to ensure that schools are given clear legal powers to set the parameters of what is acceptable uniform so that our schools do not inadvertently subject Muslims pupils to social pressure and intimidation to wear Islamist clothing. In these sorts of ways we can try to defuse the spread of radical Islam, whereas an outright ban on the burqa may actually spread sympathy for radicalisation.
It may well be that at some point in the future the security services may ask for the power to ban in a specific geographical area or type of location any full face covering that hides a person’s identity, including for example hoodie/scarf combinations, full balaclavas etc as well as the burqa. That would be a very different issue from a blanket ban on the burqa, but would still need to be handled with immense sensitivity.
However, right now I really don’t see banning the burqaas the most important part of the fight against Islamism in the UK and as such isn’t worth risking the possibility of provoking a strong emotional backlash among ordinary Muslims. What is important though is that we review many of the concessions on ‘Islamic dress’ that the last Labour government allowed across the public sector such as allowing the hijab as optional uniform in the Metropolitan Police and make sure that we are not empowering radicals who want to islamicise British society, but instead are looking out for the interests of ordinary British Muslims who want to integrate with British society, but may still be very reasonably concerned to protect cultural symbols of female modesty such as wearing the chaddar (shawl) and duppatta and shalwar trousers none of which are in any sense incompatible with British values in the way that the burqa is.