Recently French president Sarkozy, upon returning from Afghanistan stated that the burka was not welcome in France and argued for it to be banned despite it being a rare practise in the province.
There have been calls in favour of this , largely due the argument of it being synoymous with oppression and subjation of women, whereas others argue state intervention in how people dress to be a dangerous ground to tread, and its subjectivity.
Surely state interference in what is acceptable to wear in public (as France may very well be on the path towards) makes it similar to other countries who enforce various dress codes for its citizens (e.g. Saudi, & Iran – and Afghanistan during Taliban rule). These countries are often attacked for being limiting, intimidating and impinging on rights of its citizens as a result of their laws and regulations, some being puritanically enforced moreso than others.
Much of this discussion has spread into Britain which has its own chequered history regarding the niqaab, as was the infamous comment made by Jack Straw who found interacting with niqaabed women as “uncomfortable”. Others argue the aggressive alienation that niqaab perpetuates, it indicates “I wish not to talk to you” or “I wish to be different”. Perhaps the Emo’s, Punks and Goths (and the numerous other groups who pride on being “different”) are trying to be inclusive by their demeanour? Another commentator in a tabloid newspaper stated the niqaab prevents communication and explicitly states “I don’t wish to talk to you”. I don’t recall there being a single occurrence where I have witnessed a hubbub of conversation on the Tube amongst complete strangers. None of them are “impaired” by having a niqaab on. All but a rare few have their face on full show for communicative purposes, so where is this chitter chatter?!
Despite calls by some segments of the population to follow Sarkozy’s call for banning burka (niqaab), such an enforcement would not be possible in the UK which prides itself on being a multi-cultural country, and promotes cultural diveristy, where freedom of faith and religious practise is key. Much argue this multiculturalism is the cause of the lack of integration and assimilation of slivers of the minority ethnic, and was the often touted cause for the 7/7 tube bombings and concern over growing and silently breeding extremism/islamism amongst its Muslim minority. And of course the result of this and many other situations involving individuals from BME communities, has led to the increasing popularity of the right wing political group, the BNP.
Instead discussions involving niqaab and its undesirability in the UK have focused on issues of identity and security and have remained within those parameters. Very occasionally has the discussion spilled over the veil being a male symbol of repression of the woman quite as fiercly as Sarkozy has propositioned.
One would argue in a free society (which Britain supposedly is – despite the much Big Brother style surveillance) the state cannot dictate what is or isn’t acceptable to wear in public. So you can dress in niqab, hijab, a turban, a Somali style khimaar, Orthodox Jewish attire, long robes, small shorts and a tank top, vest tops and hot pants or in your underwear etc. Only thing illegal is nudity in public spaces, unless it is has a permit to allow nudity.
The argument of whether the niqab is a religous order or a cultural phenomenon is irrelevant as the primary focus in this discussion sparked by Sarkozy is the item of clothing itself and its symbolic association with repressive practises. Despite interpretations and associations of the symbolic nature of the niqaab (confused with the burka here) there will remain a proportion of women who will wear it with convinction of it being a personal choice, regardless of the arguments of its requirement or otherwise on religious grounds.