I remember the first time I saw a woman in Dublin wearing a burqa. It was May, 2003; the final day of my third-year college exams. I was sitting on the footpath on the South Circular Road, doing some last-minute revision. As I was skimming through my notes, I noticed what appeared to be a large mound of black material trundling in my direction. It took me a second or two to realise that the mound was, in fact, a human being. The figure’s height and outline were the only visible clues as to its gender: limbs, torso, neck and head were all covered in heavy fabric and even the woman’s face was hidden behind a dark meche. Beside her, walked two little boys in white summer outfits. I found the whole scene pretty depressing.
The next time I saw any form of veil at close quarters was a couple of years later, when I was in England studying for a Masters degree. While I was there, I lived with thirteen other women, including two Muslims, both of whom wore a hijab to cover their hair and neckline. Since it was an all-female house, both of the women frequently took off their hijab indoors but it was expected that we would warn them in advance if we were having any male visitors so they could cover up. One evening, a friend of mine arrived into the kitchen unannounced, which resulted in much consternation and at least one woman hiding behind a fridge.
Both D. (a lawyer from Malaysia, whose parents were extremely disappointed when she began to wear a veil) and Z. (a bubbly divorcée from Jordan) felt that wearing the hijab was a demonstration of their commitment to their faith but neither felt any religious requirement to cover her face or to wear a burqa. Both regarded the burqa as a cultural, rather than a religious garment, the wearing of which was not demanded by the Qu’ran.
The practical differences between the hijab and the burqa or niqab are huge and, personally, I think that the recent banning of the latter garments by the French parliament is a positive step for human rights. It’s not a question of racism, intolerance or Islamophobia – it’s about identity, which, in any State, is both a right and an obligation. In his arguments in favour of the ban, President Sarkozy stated that “the defining duty of French citizenship is to engage with ones fellow citizens, which is to say, to engage face to face in the public sphere and in the workplace, the metro, the market”. No woman whose face is covered (even if its covering hasn’t been imposed on her) can expect to play a full and active role in public life – I certainly can’t imagine a scenario in which men would be granted the dubious privilege of wandering around in public wearing a mask.
With all this in mind, I was surprised to see David Mitchell, in his Observer column, speaking out against any equivalent ban in the UK:
Governments and legislatures shouldn’t tell people what they can and can’t wear… As long as people aren’t wearing crotchless jeans outside primary schools or deely boppers with attached sparklers on petrol station forecourts, we’ve all got the right to wear exactly what the hell we like and I can barely believe that we’re having this debate.
But we are. Stupid people are thinking about an issue that doesn’t need to be thought about and a YouGov survey says 67% of us want full-face veils outlawed. Just when I thought my estimation of humanity couldn’t fall any further, I discover that two-thirds of my fellow countrymen are, or at least were for the duration of taking a survey, morons.
The reality is that people are told what they can and can’t wear all the time, sometimes by governments and legislatures. We can’t wear crotchless jeans outside primary schools, we can’t wear sunglasses when we’re having our passport photos taken and we can’t expect to engage with bureaucracy while wearing a balaclava. What’s so special about a burqa?