The tabling of Philip Hollobone MP’s Face Coverings (Prohibition) bill — which aims to ban the burqa in public places — has reginited the debate surrounding this controversial issue. Commenting on similar bans in Belgium and France, Thomas Hammarberg (the Council of Europe's commissioner for human rights) has described such legislation as “capitulation to the prejudices of xenophobes”. It is indeed arguable that the burqa issue has been used as an ideological weapon with which to criticise immigration and associated issues.
It's worth examining the tangible consequences of such a ban in other countries, rather than the motivations behind those who advocate it here. In the case of France, banning the burqa was followed by a wave of verbal and violent attacks on Muslims: some estimates suggest that physical attacks on women wearing the niqab increased by as much as 34% after the introduction of the ban. Such vehement hatred of Muslim custom doesn’t seem to be as prevalent in the UK, but state-sanctioned discrimination would likely encourage similar hate crimes. Tensions in France spilled over on the Muslim side too, with riots in Trappes earlier this year sparked by a scuffle concerning the removal of a face veil.
Proponents of the ban say that gender equality is the goal of such legislation. Yet, by banning the burqa, women pressured into wearing full-face veils by their religious leaders or husbands will be placed under virtual house arrest, whilst those who actively want to wear them in everyday life will be prevented from doing so. This is hardly in keeping with British values of individual liberty and tolerance, as Mohammed Shafiq, chief executive of the Ramadhan Foundation has said: “We take great pride in the United Kingdom's values of individual freedom and freedom of religion and any attempt by illiberal male politicians to dictate to Muslim women what they should wear will be challenged."
The truly liberal approach is the moderate one, taking both property rights and individual choices into account. One section of the Face Coverings (Prohibition) bill goes some way to acknowledging this sentiment:
"…where members of the public are licensed to access private premises for the purposes of the giving or receiving of goods or services, it shall not be an offence for the owner…to request that a person wearing a garment or other object intended to obscure the face remove such garment or object; or to require that a person refusing a request…leave the premises."
If the ‘burqa ban’ were simply the above recognition of the rights of property owners to exercise their own discretion – undeniably beneficial in the case of banks and airports – then it would not be a problem. But to use the blunt instrument of a universal public ban would be fundamentally illiberal, and profoundly un-British.