The burqa, dress codes and democracy

By Andrew L. Urban  

Inflamed by the notorious case of a Muslim woman falsely accusing a Sydney policeman of forcibly removing her face covering (June 7, 2011), the public bushfire over the banning or not of the burqa continues to burn. In the July 3, 2011 edition of The Sunday Telegraph (Sydney) NSW Police Commissioner Andrew Schipione is quoted as saying that police should have the right when circumstances legitimately require it, to demand the removal of any face covering, whether a helmet, a veil or a balaclava (sporting or otherwise).

His moderate and commonsense approach were generally well received, but sadly, much of the language used in the debate around the world is inflammatory and the arguments muddled, emotionally charged and sometimes plain silly. The fire had been smouldering – especially in Europe – for some time. The French (after banning it in schools in 2005 and after months of legal processing) finally banned wearing full face veils in public, except in places of worship, just months before the Sydney incident, the British have been agonising over it …

This volatility is due to the incendiary nature of the accelerants that are at the centre of the debate: religion, culture, tradition, tolerance, paternalism, misogyny, freedom of expression, security, individuality, feminism and immigration are the most obvious ones. Ignorance and prejudice should also figure in there somewhere. All these issues are divided by values that are in irreconcilable conflict.  

Religion enjoys unique (and some would say unwarranted) privileges in Western society, it is self evident that this tolerance has to have limits that are sometimes unspecified in law. These culture laws are developed and evolve over time, and they change over time, too. Each community lives by its enacted laws and by its perceived culture laws, the latter guiding daily life at least as much as enacted law. Early societies developed culture laws before they had enacted laws. The manner in which each individual interacts with others and with the group is well defined in each society, in the most intricate and subtle forms.

Such culture laws apply in equally powerful measure to all societies.

The margin of tolerance for those deviating from the accepted culture laws varies, which is why some migrants are better integrated and accepted by their adopting societies than others. Importantly, it is the accumulation of deviations from a society’s cultural laws as much as any individual breach that attracts criticism, which can soon grow to intolerance and eventually hatred.

Dress codes are an integral part of our cultural communication and cohesion, confirming – within fairly broad limitations – the acceptance of and adherence to the values by which the host society lives. Hence there is a reasonably wide range of acceptable attire in most Western societies (but less so in other societies).

Just how subtly yet aggressively dress codes are applied in society is easily tested: many private and public establishments have their own, non-negotiable dress codes, from nightclubs to Wimbledon, from the Festival de Cannes to Royal occasions, from the beach to the bar. While Western society is tolerant enough not to arrest those who breach such unwritten cultural laws, entry is denied. We accept such unwritten culture laws because they evolved organically from within the society. In other words, we made them ourselves.

The more extreme the transgression, the more extreme the reaction – but it’s all relative to the mores of the era. The public outrage at the sight of a mini skirt when the high profile model Jean Shrimpton wore a short white shift dress, made by Colin Rolfe, on October 30, 1965 at Derby Day, first day of the annual Melbourne Cup Carnival, is part of fashion and social history.

The relative extremism of the burqa is compounded by the fact that it can at once be portrayed as a feminist and an anti-feminist statement. It can also be portrayed as both an expression of personal freedom and of personal oppression. It depends who is making the argument and for what reason. But what is inarguable is that it offends the dress code of Western society when worn in the context of daily life. Ceremonial clothing of even the most extreme kind is accepted at official functions, but street attire must conform to the dress code of the surrounding culture for smooth interaction. Hence penis sheaths are perfectly acceptable in New Guinea highland culture, but would contravene dress codes in Paris and Riyadh and offend people as much as the burqa does.

To go shopping in Saudi Arabia, say, Western women would not be allowed to wear mini shorts and bikini tops as they do in the beach resorts of southern France. Much less would the Brazilian dental floss bikinis be acceptable anywhere but Brazil. The subtleties of dress codes extend to the workplace for both men and women. We even abide by dress codes on casual occasions such as Aussie barbecues; you would become something of a social outcast if you regularly turned up in black tie, or even a business suit.

Our dress codes are not legislated in law, but they are nevertheless quite rigid and enforced by social interaction. Dress code is only one such restriction self imposed by society; civility is another.

In the debate about the burqa (more so than with any other full face covering like a safety helmet), there is the added impetus of cultural conflict; Muslim migrants move to non-Muslim countries in search of a better life and generally integrate and publicly live by the host society’s rules and cultural laws. The offence taken by those in France (and elsewhere) against the burqa is driven by a deep seated resentment that the outsider refuses to adhere to the culture laws of the host country. Whichever way it is expressed or labelled, the threat of such obvious and profound cultural defiance is at the root of the anger, driven by the fear of the ‘other’.

And another thing: the burqa is generally seen by Western eyes as the product of a rather outdated tradition (by Western standards) in which women do not enjoy equality with men in many respects. The total invisibility of the human being under the burqa strikes at the core of contemporary values about individuality and about the role of women. In the context of a religious culture where women are silent, second class citizens barred from activities we take fro granted in the West, the burqa is an extreme display of modesty.

By any reasonable measure, the burqa is a complete anachronism in a society in which women enjoy the privileges of an open, secular, gender equal society (and are even allowed to drive cars, unlike in Saudi Arabia; Saudi women are protesting such a law at the time of writing, July 2011).

In summary:

In Western society, the burqa (or any full face veil), even when worn willingly by women, is a profound violation of highly developed and nuanced Western dress codes and shows an offensive, insensitive disregard for the ‘host’. Western visitors are encouraged to abide by local customs everywhere they travel. For residents, that compliance is mandatory.

The burqa is neither a feminist nor anti-feminist symbol, nor a symbol of repression or freedom. It is neither obligatory religious dress for Muslim women, nor defensible when living in a different culture. It is a relic from a paternalistic and misogynistic tradition of the past in which (far back in time) women who showed their face were deemed to be immodest. “Men who see a woman’s body part, even her face, will be aroused and driven to sin.” That sentiment, if taken seriously, leads us to ponder whether Muslim men are thought to have less self control than the billions of non Muslims around the world who are able to resist their urges on the sighting of a female – even in a bikini. How does that sentiment reconcile with the fact that women in burqas mingle with women whose face is uncovered in daily life – all of them unmolested.

The burqa is an inappropriate form of dress in modern Western society where women are full and equal participants in all aspects of daily life.

The burqa poses problems of security as well as efficient law enforcement, as evidenced by the Sydney incident referred to above.

As to the ban on the burqa in public being an infringement of individual rights, as is often cited by critics of the ban, that is an argument which fails the test of logic. Every law is a restriction to some degree on individual rights and every individual cedes some rights for the smooth functioning of society as a whole. Freedom carries its own responsibilities.

In an ideal world, there should be no need for a legal ban on the burqa in public anywhere in the world; full face veils should be voluntarily discarded as a matter of respect where the culture of the host country calls for it.

“It is rare to find a contemporary Western nation pass legislation that is so lacking in redeeming social and moral value that almost nothing can be said in its defense. In my mind, France’s recent ban on the Muslim burqa represents such a rarity. In my more than 25 years as a Muslim, I have never known a single woman who wears the conservative face veil–not one. Indeed, the overwhelming majority of Muslims throughout the world do not believe the burqa is a mandated Islamic prescription.  Not only is there a remarkable absence of textual evidence in the Qur’an and prophetic traditions for this heightened brand of religious modesty, but many Muslim scholars go so far as to discourage wearing the burqa because of its alienating effect vis-à-vis non-Muslims. Few are aware that the conservative Damascene jurist, Ibn Taymiyyah (1263–1328), discouraged Muslims living in majority non-Muslims lands to dress in a manner that was distinct from their compatriots. In his mind, conspicuously religious garb could prejudice non-Muslims towards a true understanding of Islam’s universal message.” – April 19, 2011, Reflections on France’s Ban on the ‘Burqa’: An American Muslim’s Perspective, by Abid Quereshi, on Blood is no Argument

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