Dr Taj Hargey, an imam of the Oxford Islamic Congregation, is calling for burqas to be banned outright, much like they are in France (where it is prohibited to conceal the face in public). If 100,000 supporters sign his petition, the House of Commons will have to consider whether it should be forbidden for women to cover their faces in public.
If this debate does take place, it will require a frank discussion about the burqa that is not commonplace at the minute. The burqa tests two British values – that you should be free to wear whatever you like, and the equality of men and women – and leaves us tongue-tied.
As Nick Cohen suggested in a recent blog post, there is a difference between equality and diversity, even if we don’t like to admit such conflict exists. If we celebrate diversity, he says, it can mean imposing inequality. And what does the burqa do if not create an unfair restriction on women because of their sex? Yet in our soft, liberal country, we see the burqa as an indicator of how diverse a country Britain has become. As a result, diversity trumps equality.
The burqa makes me feel uncomfortable because I find it at odds with how I believe women should be treated in the UK. But equally, the woman wearing the burqa may feel uncomfortable if it was removed. Her position is – of course – a valid one too. Women who wear burqas should be free to defend their decision to dress the way they choose, if they do indeed choose.
But where are they? Where are the women proudly defending their right to wear the burqa? They seem few and far between. On Twitter, the occasional female voice defends this choice of dress. On liberal-left sites like the Guardian, certain commentators defend the burqa, but I have never (and I stand to be corrected) seen a byline photo of a woman wearing a burqa write to defend the burqa. Does this not suggest the burqa ensures many women are neither seen nor heard?
I do not think we should ban the burqa, because women should be free to wear what they want. But we should be free to discuss it from both sides of the debate. At the minute, you’re far more likely to hear Muslim men defend the burqa than Muslim women. Take from that what you will.
More Spectator for less. Stay informed leading up to the EU referendum and in the aftermath. Subscribe and receive 15 issues delivered for just £15, with full web and app access. Join us.