Saturday, August 10, 2019

The Burqa Ban

I live in a country where it has recently become illegal to wear a Burqa in public. Well, I think the correct term for the garment most commonly worn in these cases is Niqab, but it is commonly referred to as a Burqa over here ("boerka" in Dutch). Moreover, though, the Burqa alliterates nicely with ban, which is why I picked it for the title, and it's also the translation of a common moniker for the ban in Dutch. In order to be more correct in my text than in my title, I will use the term Niqab in the rest of this post. Of course, the ban does actually cover both garments and so does most of what I have to say, so neither is actually wrong.

I decided to write about this topic after reading an article about a protest against the ban. The whole thing is a difficult matter. It's a complex situation. And I don't really know what to think about it. I see why people are against the ban. I also see why the ban does make some sense. I'm not going to write towards a conclusion because I don't have a conclusion. Still, I felt like writing down my thoughts. And writing on my blog again after it has been far too long is a nice way to do that.


I think it's hard to deny that the Niqab is a clear sign of inequality between men and women. While men aren't entirely free to wear whatever they want, they also do not have the same limitations as women. Not being allowed to show your face is a pretty strong restriction.

Of course, this is a much stronger point when you are looking at the Hijab. It's much harder to deny that wearing a Hijab is something that girls and women do not get a say in in many cases, they just have to. This can range from fear of violence from community members if they don't wear it to merely the disapproval of parents. This disapproval can include (fear of) getting disowned, but can also be limited to just the way a parent feels about you. Of course, disapproval by a parent over a simple choice like that can be quite harmful all by itself. Alternatively, it might just be the thing you were brought up to do.

Just the other day, I passed a man with a number of children on my bike. It was a hotter day, so the man was wearing a sleeveless shirt. The boys in the group were dressed less casually, but they were still just wearing shirts. The girls in the group were wearing very long sleeves, clearly not in keeping with the weather, and Hijabs. All of the kids looked like they were in their late single digits or early teen years, so I doubt that they were making independent decisions about this. As I overtook the group, a chill went down my spine because that's not what equality looks like to me.

The Niqab is a more extreme garment. Not showing your hair because you are female just isn't as extreme as not showing your face because you are female. I think either is a clear sign of inequality, but the Niqab is simply more polarizing because it is more extreme, even though it's harder to say to what degree the women in question feel they have no choice but to wear it.

It doesn't really matter to me whether women actually make an independent decision to wear a Niqab - or a Hijab, for that matter. All that does is show that they have been raised in a culture where they are taught it's okay to put such limitations on just one of the two genders. It shows that the inequality is systemic, not that there is none.

A Symbol

At this point, it's clear that the Niqab is a symbol of inequality between men and women. When you consider the limited number of people who wear it and the claim by many that it is their own choice to wear it, it becomes clear that it's not a big part of the inequality itself.

However, I don't think that banning a symbol is the way to go. It's never very effective because it does not address the underlying issue at all. And even if all the main symbols of a problem are banned, new symbols will crop up to take their place. You simply cannot expect the banning of symbols to actually have much effect on a systemic problem.

I don't think inequality between men and women should have a place in our society. There is still a lot of it and we have a long way to go before we have actually banished the inequality all together. I also think that the Niqab and Hijab are indicative of a culture that has more inequality than our "Western" currently does. However, I don't think a ban will change anything, even though I do not have any other ideas on how to get rid of this heightened inequality in this subculture of our own.

Real Motivations

On the other hand, I also think it's clear that this ban is religiously motivated - or perhaps even racially motivated, the two are strongly related here after all. No decent politician will admit that, though. Nevertheless, it is clearly a law introduced to cater to the part of their following that is intimidated by the muslim influence on our culture.

That's the most wrong thing about this ban. Even if the ban can be defended, the real - as I see it - motivation of the ban just cannot. It's one thing to be ineffective by attacking symbols or to end up attacking a problem that isn't really too big because the number of people involved is quite limited, but it's an entirely different thing to be attacking a group of people based on their culture or religion.

Hiding Faces

There are other reasons you can give for the ban, and those are the reasons that make a lot more sense to me. It basically comes down to the reason why I avoided using the word "discrimination" in the previous paragraph. While the law is colloquially known as the Burqa ban, that's not literally what it is. Rather, it is a law disallowing covering one's face. This is not really a new thing, as it wasn't really allowed before either. The new thing is that the freedom of religion does not count as a reason to do it nonetheless.

The balancing of different rights is always something that is required and hard at the same time. One way you have to find this balance is to see where the right of equality cuts into the right to freedom of religion. Another way is to look at how far the right to freedom of religion trumps our laws and cultural norms. To understand that, we have to look at why we do not allow one to cover their face in public places in general.

Whether it's a police officer, a bus driver or your local baker, when you interact with someone, you are creating a sort of contract with a person. In person, this contract traditionally does not include anonymity. The other person knows who they are dealing with and that's generally a good thing. One can easily look at online anonymity to see how it can bring out the worst in people. It's much easier to be rude to someone if you know they can't really recognize you on your next encounter anyway.

Of course, we also behave (somewhat) nicely to people we do not expect to see ever again. Maybe that means that covering you face does not mean you will treat others poorly. However, there's also the fact that it's hard for others to build the rapport with you and understand your intentions when they cannot see your face. Facial expressions are an important part of the way we communicate and taking that away takes away a lot of our ability to figure out someone's true intentions.

The final point is one that perhaps is a little less closely related by the ban because it's not actually related to covering your face. It is related to the rest of the outfit a Niqab often comes with. This is about how when your garb comes with religious protection, it becomes a lot easier to hide things in it. This could mean that you hide the assault rifles you are going to rob a bank with, which you would probably stand out a lot more with when it wasn't just a religious garb you were wearing. It can also refer to petty theft in a grocery store, at which point it becomes a lot harder to check if someone has hidden the item they claim they do not have when there's the protection of a religious garb to hide it with.

I'm not sure how I feel about the last point I raised. It does assume the worst of people. On the other hand, freedom of religion also means a lot of protection when you simply claim to follow a religion without the need to prove that you do. It also doesn't directly relate to the ban on covering your face. Perhaps that's why we shouldn't really take it into account here.


As I promised up front, I don't really have a conclusion.

There are some sensible reasons for the ban, there are some misguided but well-intended reasons for the ban and there are some absolutely horrible reasons for the ban. Unfortunately, I think that the real reasons for politicians that pursued this bad to do so were in the last of the three categories, even if they won't admit it. And that's a very bad thing. Does that reflect on the ban itself? I don't know. It definitely doesn't make it look too good. Yet, the ban itself is separate from the reasoning of the people who supported it. And... well, I just don't know.

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