Wednesday, 18 September 2013

Burqa and Niqab – a national age ban?

Following the recent initative of Liberal Democrat Jeremy Browne, Simon Jenkins writes an interesting piece in The Guardian on this delicate issue of whether to ban or not to ban Muslim full-faced veils (niqab and burqa). An issue that can crudely be translated to one of state authoritarianism versus cultural relativism. Or to put it in nation-state terms: the French versus the British approach to such thorny issues, very much part of the modern multi-cultural state.
The crux of Jenkins’s piece is that this issue is not worthy of a national debate in the UK. Well, Jenkins is absolutely right in proportionalizing the issue. The percentage of women wearing full-faced veils are minute (in France, a country of 65 million, including a Muslim population of 5-6 million, about 2 000 women wore full-faced veils prior to the French ban in 2011). However, Jenkins seems to only see the debate in terms of local practicality and adult women, at least he does not differentiate the age variable. If one does, I believe it becomes primarily a matter of national principles to which the local practicality aspect is subordinate. Sure, the latter might be the main aspect with regard to adult women who can ‘independently’ decide to wear the full-faced veils (no need here to touch on the patriarchal underpinnings that condition these ‘independent’ choices). But for girls and young women who are not old enough to make such decisions, I think it justifiable to have a national discussion on an age ban (currently there are various age bans on various issues, mainly ranging from 16-21 years old).
Take female genital mutilation (FGM) on girls and young women. In that case, too, it is not a proportionally huge problem. Does that disqualify the issue from being suitable for a national debate and for furnishing national strategies? I grant that FGM and full-faced veils are not completely clear-cut comparables. But FGM removes a vital muscle from the girl. Which full-faced veils also does, removing the arguably most vital muscle we use in our daily life: the face, with all its fascinating and complex signals, a crucial tool in our development, almost as vital as speech as a means of communication in our quotidian interactions with fellow citizens – the full usage of the face ultimately, perhaps, central for becoming a full-fledged member of society.
As for the leftists who believe it commendably tolerant to support the adults who ‘insist’ on these girls wearing full-faced veils – purportedly believing that these girls are self-determining indviduals, independent of their community, able to refuse if they don’t want to – well, these leftists might very well come from the same regressive strand that in the 1970-1980’s wanted to decriminalize paedophilia (as natural love between child and adult), and questioned the criminalization of FGM (on grounds of inter-cultural tolerance).
So, to summarize: I think it legitimate to have a national discussion on an age ban on such intrusive, gendered clothings as the niqab and burqa. Such a ban would thus mean French state authoritarianism to a certain age, thereafter British cultural relativism. I’m afraid, Jenkins, that in this regard national principles trumps your local practicalities. A national debate on this matter is surely a debate worth having.