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Faith and community
23 September 2013

The unveiled threat to religious liberty

Even in today’s multicultural Britain, it’s a bit of a shock when you see one of them walking down the street towards you. Dressed in deepest black from head-to-foot, all hints of femininity are rendered invisible. Apart from the eyes, of course – those dark-rimmed eyes staring out at the world with unconcealed mistrust. But then that’s goths for you.

And not just goths. Youth sub-cultures of all kinds enable their members to stand apart from the rest of society – ‘expressing their individuality’ as they might put it, but in fact donning a uniform to signal a group identity.

So, if we are to ban the face veil worn by some Muslims, then why shouldn’t we ban all forms of attire that isolate their wearers from the mainstream? Leaving aside the particular circumstances in which facial recognition is necessary, why should we make a special example of the niqab or the burqa?

One could argue that face-veiling is demeaning to women, but as Jessica Abrahams argues in Prospect, the same could be said of certain other items of clothing:

  • “The British government does not have a policy on high heels, and it is right that women are free to wear them, but that doesn’t mean that heels are great for feminism or that they do not help to perpetuate sexist values. They do. And since one argument that is often raised in favour of banning the veil is that women are sometimes forced to wear them, it is worth pointing out that women are sometimes forced to wear high heels, too—either at work, through official company policy, or through social pressure...”
  • “We shouldn’t ban the veil, or heels, or make-up. Wearing them is (in most cases) a free choice. But that doesn’t mean those things are helpful to equality, and in discussing that we should turn our attention towards our own culture as much as to others.”

And what about tattoos? It’s no longer unusual to see people with tattoo’d necks or hands – not the ideal boost to their future job prospects, one would imagine. Moreover, unless you can afford the surgery, a tattoo is for life. A veil, at least, can be removed.

Various motivations lie behind the call for a general ban on veils – both well and ill-intentioned. Racially-motivated attempts to secure a ban are certain to fail, but aggressive secularists are more likely to make headway.  

According Christopher Flavelle's report for Bloomberg, the Canadian province of Quebec has gone a long way towards a general ban – and not just on face veils:

Among the religious symbols that would be banned are crosses over a certain size, headscarves, turbans and yarmulkes (the round caps worn by some Jewish men). You can see a graphic of what would and wouldn’t be allowed here.

No doubt, the people who came up with these proposals think that they’re standing up for liberal values. In fact, whether secular or religious in motivation, those who would regulate our clothes have an awful lot in common.


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