There has been much political discussion recently about when and whether it is appropriate for women of Islamic faith to hide their faces. Birmingham Metropolitan College attempted to ban the full-face veil or niqab, but pulled back from this rule. The Liberal Democrat MP and Coalition Minister Jeremy Browne MP criticised the wearing of full-face veils and Jeremy Hunt, Secretary of State for Health has asked the NHS to look at its policy on dresscode, due to the feelings of disquiet some patients have when treated by a medical professional who keeps their face hidden from them.
The matter that sparked off this debate was when a defendant in a criminal trial wished to hide her face when in the box. The judge required her to remove her veil when under examination, so that the jury could observe her facial expressions. This seems a commonsense solution. The defendant might have felt subject to unwanted scrutiny when her face could be seen, but when you are a defendant in a criminal trial that is an inevitable part of the process.
As a conservative who believes in freedom I would be very reluctant to follow the French example of banning the veil in public places. France is an avowedly secularist country and can therefore consistently ban expressions of religious faith. On these islands we are a free society with a Christian heritage. To ban expressions of religious faith goes against the grain. With an established church and Lords Spiritual in the upper house, religious faith is woven into the fabric of our constitution. And so is freedom. Not the French idea of freedom based around secularist ideology, but the freedom to be left alone – an Englishman’s home is his castle, as the expression goes.
The trouble is when a very different culture is grafted on to a longstanding society such as ours that is based on unspoken norms of behaviour, there can be cultural clashes and misunderstandings. Yes we are a free society, but we achieve that by giving each other space and not forcing our opinions on each other.
The veil adopted by some Muslim women is a strong and uncompromising expression of religious opinion. In a free society it should not be banned, but the blogger questions whether the veil is actually the sartorial equivalent of forcing your opinions on others. It creates an awkward social situation just as someone talking about religion and politics down the pub makes for an unpleasant atmosphere. It steps over a certain boundary and while strictly-speaking it is simply an individual choosing how they dress, it is really a non-verbal statement and creates a physical barrier. To put it bluntly, in ordinary every day life, the veil can be perceived by non-Muslims as crossing the boundary into bad manners.
In our culture it is good manners to look a person in the face when you speak to them. I do not condemn recent immigrants who have not yet adjusted to Western society. Rather, the fault lies with those in the political class and liberal elite who close down debate about the veil in the name of that chimera the multicultural society. This means people new to our society do not appreciate how many of us are made to feel awkward by the hiding of the face.
I am sure there are good cultural reasons in Muslim countries for the veil – I do not presume to say otherwise. The flipside of this is that to help the new immigrant societies to integrate they should be helped to understand that the hiding of the face in our culture sends a very different message.
Many would argue that it is up to us to be tolerant of this choice of dress. In terms of the law I agree; it is not for the state to criminalise dress. It is however, the role of society to nurture good manners. To give a less controversial example - Perhaps in some cultures the physical contact of a man’s and a woman’s hand through the handshake would be unacceptable. In our culture to decline the handshake would seem bad manners.
A blanket ban, outside of the workplace, is not right in a free society; however, the blogger cannot see anything wrong with requiring employees or students to dress in a way compatible with those institutions' dress codes. In the health service, when people are often feeling vulnerable and are unwell or in pain it seems very sensible to ban the full-face veil.
Interaction between people is enhanced by facial expressions. You can tell how someone is reacting to what you say. It is about being able to engage fully. If immigrant communities dispensed with the veil it would make it all the easier for stronger bonds to be built with individuals of the indigenous community.