Burqas are back on the agenda in the UK. This is because there was a recent furore within the British legal aystem. A Muslim woman was barred from serving on a jury because she refused to remove her veil. In a controversial ruling, a judge said she could not sit on an attempted murder trial because her full face covering (niqab) concealed her expressions.
Knowing this is controversial, I would like to give my tuppence worth because I am against the wearing of such veils and I will tell you for why… It is a complicated issue with good arguments for and against, splitting liberals in their conclusions. However, I have come to feel quite strongly that it is an ill-advised decision to wear such garb.
It is said that some 80% of communication is nonverbal. Over to wiki: James Borg states that human communication consists of 93 percent body language and paralinguistic cues, while only 7% of communication consists of words themselves. Some researchers put the level of nonverbal communication as high as 80 percent of all communication when it could be at around 50-65 percent. Different studies have found differing amounts, with some studies showing that facial communication is believed 4.3 times more often than verbal meaning, and another finding that verbal communication in a flat tone is 4 times more likely to be understood than a pure facial expression. Albert Mehrabian is noted for finding a 7%-38%-55% rule, supposedly denoting how much communication was conferred by words, tone, and body language. However he was only referring to cases of expressing feelings or attitudes.
As such, given that the niqab, and potentially a full body covering, there is a chance that one can only receive some 7-30% of the communication of a wearer. This to me is extremely important because it is inherently unfair. If I am speaking to someone and they are able to read nearer to 100% of my body language, and I am only able to read a meagre 25% or so of theirs, then there is an unfair disadvantage for me. In fact, if the wearer is happy to claim that they have a right to a freedom of expression, then I will simply claim a right to an equal basis with which to communicate with someone. If English is a second language, then this issue can be compounded further. This is the deal-clencher for me.
2. Communication. Again.
Being behind a veil inhibits soundwaves. That is an empirical fact. I tell children not to talk with their hands or anything else in front of their mouths. The same applies here.
3. Women’s rights.
This is a tough one because it goes both ways. Many niqab wearing women will claim a freedom of expression based on a feminist ideal. However, it is not so simple as that. Firstly, there are many countries where it is not a choice. And these countries have the poorest of human rights records. So it seems somewhat suspect and ironic that ‘Western’ wearers declare that they wear it for their own human rights and a sense of female liberation. There are many ways to dress that allow a woman to keep her modesty which do not involve covering up the whole face but for the eyes, and even then they can be covered too.
The problem with women making the ‘choice’ to wear such a piece of clothing for modesty’s sake is twofold. First of all, it demonises men unnecessarily. It seems to be equating not wearing a burqa or niqab with wearing hot pants and a crop top. Somehow, immodesty is simply not wearing a burqa, and as a result such a woman is automatically seen as a sex object. As The Independent’s Yasmin Alibhai-Brown says,
“That whether opted for by the woman or pushed on her by others, the inherent message of the veiled woman is that femininity is treacherous – which is an evil slur.”
Secondly, and more importantly for me, is the notion that wearing such clothing for the sake of modesty may seem, prima facie, as a choice for and by the woman, but looking more closely, it clearly comes from a patriarchal book, culturally steeped in male superiority and inequality for women. It seems that the Muslim men are all too happy with this state of affairs since it is often their idea (if not their decision) and promotes a sort of dominance over women.
“Women that wear the burqa say they are making an “independent choice,” but this choice is heavily commanded by a fundamentalist religio-cultural context, in which they are made to believe that wearing the burqa is a requirement by God. Nobody comes to these conclusions “independently”, just as nobody discovers a religion or a culture on their own. They come to it because a muslim preacher, their community, or family tells them that it is the “proper” interpretation of the Quran and God’s will. These religio-cultural contexts originate from Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, and Jordan, where burqas are almost universally worn and in which the worst violations of women’s rights on the planet occur. This is where women are not able to leave the house without their husband’s permission and with a burqa on, and where they are often not allowed to work, drive, and engage in socially meaningful lives. These fundamentalist contexts are what drive the “choice” of women in the West to wear the burqa. Trying to separate these oppressive contexts from the “choice” is naive. Women are making the “choice” because they have been taught to believe that it is God’s will to live as second-class citizens under the control of men and that somehow the burqa is “modest”.” http://debatepedia.idebate.org/en/index.php/Debate:_Ban_on_Muslim_burqa_and_niqab
As the Independent reported after the ban in Italy: “In Italy, a fully veiled woman was fined €500 (£426) and now her husband says he will keep her indoors because he can’t have other men looking at her (a fixed prison replaces a mobile one).” This is a clear example of the man making the decision on behalf of the woman.
4. It is cultural and not religious
As is generally known, the burqas and niqabs of this world are not divinely ordered. Modesty may be, but the interpretation of that is up to the individual. It does seem incredible double standards that someone is not allowed to enter a shop wearing a motorbike helmet, and yet someone wearing a niqab is. Neither are religious requirements (not that that should automatically entitle anyone anyway). We cannot have such an example of special pleading where it is one rule for one, and another rule for religious minorities.
5. The greater good
As Alibhai-Brown also says, “For me, the overwhelming argument against the burka (and various coverings for children, another growing abomination) is that there is such a thing as society. Community fetishes cannot override social communication, connection, obligations, equality, duties and understanding. Security and safety-measures too require facial identification. Politicians need to get assertive and argue that they believe in non-racist, universal human development. Effective policies to halt the spreading habit (in both senses) will then naturally follow.”
6. Face-covering veil makes economic/social participation impossible
Jean-Francois Cope. “Tearing Away the Veil” New York Times. May 4th, 2010: “The ban would apply to the full-body veil known as the burqa or niqab. This is not an article of clothing — it is a mask, a mask worn at all times, making identification or participation in economic and social life virtually impossible.” This places these women at a huge disadvantage economically and socially, threatens their success in life, and generally undermines their ability to climb socio-economically. This is certainly unfair and unequal.”
And some other quick reasons (http://debatepedia.idebate.org/en/index.php/Debate:_Ban_on_Muslim_burqa_and_niqab):
7. The Burqa being banned would protect women from the pressure to wear it.
8. If men were religiously required to wear burqa, it would end.
9. Those wearing burqa increase pressure on others to wear it.
10. There are implications while driving a car, as the full facial veil limits peripheral vision, presenting some traffic safety issues.
11. Freedom of dress is limited, including for full veil
Jean Francois-Cope. “Tearing away the veil.” New York Times. May 4th, 2010: “The fact that people are prohibited from strolling down Fifth Avenue in the nude does not constitute an attack on the fundamental rights of nudists. Likewise, wearing headgear that fully covers the face does not constitute a fundamental liberty.”
12. Burqa is socially divisive and damaging.
The burqa generates anxiety among those that fear Islamic terrorism. It also generates frustration and concern for those that see it as representing the oppression of women. None of this is justification alone for a ban, but it is a cost.
13. Burqa worsens attitude of men toward women
Burqa cultivates an attitude that women are possessions, or “jewels” to be protected for a man’s own use. This attitude, and the sexual repression that comes from an environment where men can’t even see women until they are married to them, creates a dangerous combination that fosters abuse, sexual harassment, molestation, and even rape.
There are many other reasons too, and of course, some good reasons to think that the burqa or niqab are a good idea. However, on balance, I would posit that such an article of clothing is a regression for society.
[This originally appeared on my old website / blog]