Personal thoughts on Burkas, religious freedom, religious privilege, and offence

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All the people in the picture above have dressed to make a point about their beliefs. Their deeply held beliefs. But the first two are different. For them making their point at a demonstration or in a poster is not enough. They want to wear this visible statement all the time, and they want us to allow them to do so. Should we?

Shirley Chaplin is a nurse. Her hospital had a dress-code which banned necklaces. Shirley said her necklace (a cross) was special and should be an exception because it was an expression of her Christian beliefs. The hospital tried various compromises like a badge rather than a necklace but Shirley decided to take her case to the European Court of Human Rights. She lost.

The lady in the Burka is currently facing charges of intimidating a witness. The dress-code in court is that the defendant’s face be visible. The lady, however, refused to remove her full face veil in front of any men. A sort of compromise appears to have been reached where she will be allowed to wear the veil except when she is actually giving her evidence.

So what do these two have in common?

  • In both cases the people concerned say that the way they dress is an expression of their religious faith, I have no doubt this is true. It is also true however, that the (for want of a better word) orthodox versions of Islam and Christianity do not require the wearing of a cross or the covering of the face. The people concerned have made a free, personal choice, not responded to a religious obligation.
  • The dress-codes that are being opposed are not in any way anti-religious. The rules apply to all colours, creeds, nationalities, sexes etc. equally. In each case it is being said that their necklace/veil is different because it is religious. If the other people in that picture went to work/court/school, dressed as they are in the picture, this would not be acceptable, and rightly so.
  • These people have all made free, personal choices, but only those two expect the rest of society to protect them from the consequences of their choices. I repeat this has nothing to do with equality and everything to do with religious privilege.
  • If you have read any of my stuff you will know that I am opposed to any form of special privilege, including religious privilege.

So what are the differences between the cross and the burka?

  • A lot has been said about how the burka is both symbolically and literally oppressive of women. I’m sure you can guess my opinion on this, but for now I want to look at it from a different point of view.
  • When a person wears a cross, or a skull cap, or headscarf, it says something about them. When someone wears a burka, it also says something about me. Leaving aside the slur on my sexual self control, it says I am allowed to see you but you are not allowed to see me. 
  • The burka introduces a fundamental asymmetry into a relationship which is, in my opinion, insulting to the person not wearing the burka.

I’ll be honest, I hate the burka, I think it is oppressive of women. I think it is an insult to men and I am offended by it. I think many women do consciously choose it but I think many others are also bullied into it by men. I have lived in Bradford and Halifax for the last 30+ years and  20 years ago it was almost never seen. I believe it is an indicator of the rise of Islamism which is an ideology which is opposed to every concept of liberalism and freedom that I hold dear. So I will be a big fan of a ban right? –

Absolutely not.

It is precisely because I believe in liberalism and freedom that I am completely opposed to a blanket ban. I don’t think that something should be banned because I disagree with it and  I don’t think something should be banned because I find it offensive and I don’t think something should be suppressed because it doesn’t fit with my culture. I just wish that some (not all) of those who are so keen on the burka felt the same.

Allowing these to be special cases however, to grant them religious privilege, to give in to demands that the rest of society should make special exceptions to protect them from the consequences of their own free choices is not equality. It is appeasement. So wear the burka, the anonymous mask, the cross, the pink hot-pants, and anything else to make your point, and I will defend your right to do so.  But don’t expect to wear them at work/school/court etc. with impunity or immunity.

I am lucky, and so are you  Shirley, and so are you Burka Lady. we all live in a country that (for the moment) still genuinely values freedom. That’s why I am free to condemn Islamism and the burka, and you are free to wear it. It’s also why I really hope we do not ban-the-burka.

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