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A Bad Time for the Burqa?

Photograph: Sipa Press/Rex Features.

About The Author

Lewis Bedford (Former Writer)

Lewis is a third year law student at Newcastle University. Lewis' main interest lies in politically weighted areas of law, in particular regarding conflicts of law and religion. He is also interested in legal philosophy.

The Face Coverings (Prohibition) Bill, purporting to criminalize the wearing of certain face coverings, is set for second reading late February next year.

The Bill is Britain's latest contribution to the burqa ban unveiling across parts of Europe. The Bill states, “a person wearing a garment or other object intended by the wearer as its primary purpose to obscure the face in a public place shall be guilty of an offence”. As a result, the accused will be fined up to £200.

Hollobone, Nuttall, Bone, and Chope, among other advocates, first presented the private Bill earlier this year. The Bill was brought forward as part of what they call 'The Alternative Queen's Speech'.

Peter Bone notes this agenda as the true-blue recapture of the common ground of British politics. They claim the coalition's liberal “mish-mash” of policies, afraid of offending anyone, is pushing the electorate further right along the political spectrum. As a result, they argue their proposals better reflect the consensus of the British people today. However, despite Bone's bold remarks, their to-do-list has received little hospitality.

In July this year, Angela Eagle joked:

Their Alternative Queen's Speech is so off the wall I can't help but wonder what they will do next, a bill to disenfranchise all but the landed gentry perhaps? A repeal of the factory Acts? Or a bill to confirm the Earth is indeed flat?

Her comments undeniably carry weight. The line-up consists of forty equally contentious proposals ranging from a referendum on same sex marriage, to renaming the late August bank holiday Margaret Thatcher Day. Nevertheless, whether the Face Coverings (Prohibition) Bill should be swiftly swept under the carpet with the others is open to review.

Recent investigations as to the whereabouts of a terror suspect able to slip surveillance under a burqa have caused widespread concern. Consequently, the coalition's latest changes made to the UK's counter-terrorism laws have already fallen heavily under fire. It seems likely that face coverings are also going to fall victim to increased scrutiny. Furthermore, according to YouGov statistics, a clear majority amongst the population back the ban.

In addition, the Bill is almost identical to the prohibition of face coverings in France. Those advocating a ban will undoubtedly point towards the French approach in a bid to ratify their argument.

The grounds to the French Government's decision to ban the burqa can be split into two broad limbs. Firstly, proponents often argue that it is not a sign of religion, but subservience and sexism. Secondly, supporters underline the founding principle of the French Republic: the segregation of law and religion under the notion of secularism. They argue that private religious beliefs and customs should not be overtly displayed in public.

Although many argue banning the burqa is progressing gender equality, such 'progress' has perhaps come at a price. While the burqa ban may reduce subjugation and coercion, women have also lost their freedom of choice. Whether this is extending the gender-divide rather than shortening it is again a worrying question.

From a wider perspective, whilst some would argue the ban has increased integration, opponents often argue the prohibition is only increasing the plight of 'islamaphobia' within western civilization; alienating minorities. Samia Bano, a leading socio-legal scholar, often underlines the 'us' and 'other' culture Western societies are frequently burdened with. Critics claim that rather than reducing religious intolerance, the ban is merely fanning the flames; strengthening the divide. Consequently, many have argued the intervention will provoke far-right terror groups into retaliation. Indeed, in 2009 a number of threats were reportedly made by the Islamic Maghreb towards the former French President, Nicolas Sarkozy.

Whether the UK will adopt the French perspective seems doubtful, but not impossible.

The principle backing the Bill seem to lack sincerity. With Philip Hollobone likening the burqa to “going round with a paper bag over your head”, the rationale underlying the Bill seems somewhat unappreciative towards cultural sensitivities. With such a controversial topic, and the rights of individuals muddled in the squabble, it seems only appropriate to demand the utmost respect. Whether those who have openly admitted they are not afraid of offending anyone should head such a contentious issue begs reason.

In addition, no formal distinction between law and religion stands in the UK, and the Bill seems to struggle on one leg. As Hunter-Henin highlights in ‘Why The French Don't Like the Burqa: National Identity and Religious Freedom’:

The differences between secularism and multiculturalism, often associated respectively with French and British traditions, should not be exaggerated

She contends:

multiculturalism rests on the recognition of diversity which it then seeks to accommodate whereas secularism purports to construct a transcending common unity

The UK generally takes the former, noninterventionist approach, allowing religion to run uninterrupted. In fact, there is little limiting religious diversity.

The Arbitration Act 1996, which provides a means of settling disputes outside of court, has been heavily criticised as giving birth to a parallel legal system(see Hansard 23 April Column 289WH, Kris Hopkins MP). The Act, for example, provides a mechanism for parties to resolve disputes outside of court in line with their own religious practices. There have been examples of cases where parties have been able to circumvent religiously ignorant law, which would otherwise render claims (see Kohn v Wagschal), through use of arbitration. Whilst the coalition government are unenthusiastic about departing from this system of arbitration, they are comparatively unenthusiastic about prohibiting a ban on wearing the burqa in public. Indeed, this exemplifies the British non-interventionist approach. Nevertheless, a ban on religious headdress would create a paradox between the perspectives of secularism and multiculturalism as explained above.

Although it seems unlikely that Britain will follow France’s example, one thing we can take from the whole debate is that many people do want change. I hope that those backing the ban are not blind to its possible repercussions, particularly where those directly affected have little weight in a system absorbed by the majority rule.

Myriam Hunter-Henin, ‘Why the French don't like the burqa: national identity and religious freedom’ (2012) (copy available on WestLaw)

Jemma Wilson, ‘The Sharia Debate in Britain: Sharia Councils and the Oppression of Muslim Women’ (2008) (copy available on WestLaw)

Ned Simons, The Huffington Post UK, ‘Peter Bone Complains About 'Tory Taliban' Nickname’.

Peter Bone, The Huffington Post UK, ‘The Alternative Queen's Speech’.

William Jordan, YouGov, ‘Most still want the burqa ban in Britain’.

Mark Wallace, Conservative Home, ‘The Alternative Queen’s Speech – the full list of 40 rebel Bills’.

Isobel Coleman, Council on Foreign Relations, ‘Why Does France Want to Ban Burqas?’.

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Tagged: Discrimination, Human Rights, Religion

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