Seeing through a burqa ban

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					Banning burqas will not stop women being oppressed. Let Sarkozy score points in
France The Times (Sun, 28 Jun 2009)

Seeing through a burqa ban
Daisy Goodwine – The Times

Dress codes in this country have, since Elizabethan times, been
enforced not by legislation but by cultural consensus
I was cycling through London’s Hyde Park last week and noticed the annual
migration of burqas had begun. Around this time of year Kensington Gardens and
Edgware Road fill up with refugees from the heat of a Gulf state summer. Crow-like
figures walk sedately through the groups of sunbathing office workers showing off
their Wonderbras and Lycra-clad yummy mummies being put through their paces by
their personal trainers. Their arrival, for me, marks the beginning of the London
summer: at first those billowing black-clad figures are disconcerting, even sinister,
but by mid-July the eye adjusts and in the parts of the park where the burqas and
their menfolk predominate, it is the Rollerbladers in hot pants and the red-faced
joggers who begin to look out of place.

Hyde Park is a space that contains every kind of national dress (and the burqa is a
cultural rather than a religious institution) from cavalry officers in full uniform to
Italian teenagers in head-to-toe Benetton and Russian “models” in Chanel trainers.
You can even spot the odd Sloane still wearing her Husky gilet while she walks the
labrador. The only thing you can’t wear in Hyde Park is your birthday suit. Stripping
off would merit a lot of attention from the fluoro-vested bike cops who are otherwise
occupied with pooper-scooper offences and Rollerblade rage. And that I think is as
far as the state should go in telling people what they should or should not wear.
However, judging by the amount of support in this country for President Nicolas
Sarkozy’s proposal to ban the burqa — Taj Hargey, of the Muslim Educational Centre
of Oxford, said “the French president should be applauded for initiating an essential
public debate” — there is a feeling in Britain that we should ban the most extreme
forms of the hijab, or headscarf, the requirement of modest dress for Islamic
women. Now, like most women in this country I can’t think of anything worse than
walking around under a black tent just in case a strange man should catch a glimpse
of my right earlobe and become inflamed with desire — but on the other hand I don’t
want the bicycle bobbies of Hyde Park to be handing out tickets to the ladies in black
simply because their adoption of a medieval style of tribal dress makes me feel
uncomfortable. If we ban burqas because they are alienating, should we also ban full
body tattoos or multiple piercings because they, too, make us feel uncomfortable? I
think the only place where you can make a case for women being compelled to
remove their burqas is within the legal system itself. I was talking to a judge who
told me about a case he had tried where one of the key witnesses was a woman who
was wearing a full veil, with no part of her face visible. My friend felt justice could
not be served if the jury could not see her face or hear her voice clearly. The woman
was reluctant to unveil but after some tense negotiation she agreed to face the

So far as I am aware, no woman has given evidence with her face covered, but in a
world where four-year-olds are cross-examined by video link, it would be
unacceptable to allow a witness to wear the veil. With this exception, I think
sartorial laws are absurd. They don’t work, for a start. Queen Elizabeth I introduced
sumptuary laws in 1574 that made it illegal for anyone to dress above their station:
purple, sables and cloth of gold could be worn by members of the royal family and
dukes, marquesses and earls. She decreed: “None shall wear any velvet, tufted
taffeta, satin, or any gold or silver in their petticoats: except wives of barons,
knights of the order, or councillors’ ladies, and gentlewomen of the privy chamber
and bedchamber, and the maids of honour”. The laws were introduced to make sure
everyone knew their place. Of course, these laws were unenforceable and except for
a few burghers who got fined for wearing the wrong kind of ruff, no one took any
notice. Seventy years later Oliver Cromwell’s New Model Army got pretty worked up
about women wearing make-up. It wasn’t just women who were slagged off;
William Prynne, the puritan firebrand, who got his ears partly cut off for implying
Queen Henrietta Maria was a “whore” by appearing in a court masque, said that long
hair on men, particularly lovelocks, “were indecent, lascivious, wanton and
dissolute”. But come the Restoration, every man had long hair and no self-respecting
court lady would dream of covering her bosom. Since then, all dress codes in this
country have been enforced not by legislation but by cultural consensus: no one
made Victorian widows wear veils for the first year after their bereavement but it
was pretty universal among middle and upper-class women. Fifty years ago no
woman would have gone to church without covering her head; now the only place I
can think of where women have to wear hats is at royal garden parties.

I’m not a cultural relativist. I don’t believe that female circumcision, forced
marriages or “honour killings” should be tolerated in this country — they are crimes
— but if women want to cover themselves in black shrouds, it’s going to be hard to
determine whether or not they are doing it of their own free will. Banning burqas will
not stop women being oppressed. Let Sarkozy score points in France (and with his
wife) by banning the burqa — all it will do is give French Muslims a chance to have a
great big flouncy protest. The burqa is a trend in the Islamic world that, like all
trends, will have its day; we mustn’t let a flimsy piece of cloth destroy the tolerant
fabric of our society. Now is the season of university open days where flocks of
would-be students trail around colleges and campuses trying to decide where they
will rack up the debts that they will spend most of their adult life paying off. But it is
not just the students who go. One Oxbridge admissions tutor told me that his
college’s open day now regularly attracts as many parents as it does applicants. And
the helicopter parenting doesn’t stop there: “The parents come with their kids to the
interviews and are quite shocked when they are asked to sit outside.” If the result
doesn’t go their way, those parents are on the telephone demanding to know why.
The only upside to all this hovering is that the bribes on offer are going up way
ahead of inflation: “We used to be offered pictures or Wimbledon tickets — now it is
cash and plenty of it. We turn them down, of course, but it’s nice to know our value”.
Starting price for a place at a top Oxbridge college? It’s £30,000 — and that’s before
you start paying the fees.

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