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Sunday 14 August 2016


Don't ban the burqa, but restrict where it is worn

‘In Arab societies, male self-control is a foreign concept, and women are temptresses to be hidden from view to save men from sin’

There were happy photographs from Syria last week. In Manbij, just liberated from the putrid embrace of Isil, a young man beamed ecstatically as someone cut off for him the heavy beard required by the Islamist 'style police' and a young woman smiled serenely as she added her hated garment to a bonfire of niqabs. There was nothing happy about the recent past, where - as we were shown in a photograph from an abandoned headquarters of religious police - weapons like chains and pipes were used to beat men and women who committed sartorial sins.

Last week too, there was a row about Islamic clothing in Cannes, where women have been banned from wearing burkinis, swimsuits that cover everything except face and feet, on the grounds that they "symbolise Islamist extremism". In Germany, politicians debated joining France, Belgium, the Netherlands and parts of Bulgaria, Italy, Switzerland and Catalonia in variations of a ban on veils.

Over in Rio, encased from head to ankle in black, Kariman Abuljadayel, the first Saudi Arabian woman to compete in the 100m, won sympathy and support from all over the world as she gamely sought, but failed, to qualify.

I dislike Islamic dress, not least because it so often consigns women to a public life wearing shapeless black while their menfolk can wear whatever the hell they like. Even if the men also conform - in Saudi, for instance - they're in white, which suits a hot climate. But the veils are an appalling imposition that sends a hostile signal to non-Islamic society by preventing any kind of normal social intercourse.

The worst is the all-enveloping burqa - invented in Persia three centuries after Mohammed died and now ubiquitous in Afghanistan and Pakistan, as well as parts of the Arab world and recently West Africa - which has a mesh screen through which women peer. The niqab - which doesn't actually cover the eyes - was a variant imposed by the fundamentalist Wahhabis who came to dominate Saudi in the 20th Century.

On Radio Ulster the other week, I was engaged in a long-distance debate on the issue with a guy called Muhammad. I said that although I was against an outright ban, I hated face veils and thought their wear should be restricted. Having, in the beginning, made the issue one of the human right of people to wear what they like, Muhammed then later took refuge in the claim that veils had to be allowed because they were a religious requirement.

This is rubbish, for, as I pointed out, there is nothing in the Koran about women having to cover their faces. (The key passage is: "Say to the faithful women to lower their gazes, and to guard their private parts, and not to display their beauty except what is apparent of it, and to extend their headcoverings (khimars) to cover their bosoms (jaybs).")

He then lost it, claiming that I hated Muslim women (which vexed me, for I've been writing about their oppression for years), so I added that face coverings were a manifestation of misogynistic Arab cultural practices (incidentally, for the delectation of their husbands, many of the better-off women dress like hookers under those robes).

The simple truth is that in Arab societies and those following their culture elsewhere, male self-control is a foreign concept and women are temptresses who must be hidden from view to save men from sin. Isil is the most degraded manifestation of this sickness, peddling a view of Islam that is solely in the interests of men and permits sexually repressed males to take sex slaves and rape them in the name of Allah.

We didn't get on, Muhammad and I, but then I rarely get on in discourse with the kind of Muslim apologist who explains that women love covering up. Sure, the occasional young woman does so as a gesture of rebellion against liberal parents or society in general, but there are many immigrant communities in Europe where they are imprisoned in their homes and forbidden to learn English, become educated, get a job or make their own decisions about whom they marry.

Of course, the vast majority have no option but to do what suits the men who call the shots and give the orders.

My social liberalism makes me disinclined to have the state interfere without good reason in how other people live their lives, but there are very good reasons for imposing restrictions on face coverings. Security comes first: there was a crazy period in the UK when women with burqas were waved through passport control.

With Muslim terrorism threatening Europe, and some enterprising male jewel robbers putting on the burqa before entering shops in England and Canada, no one should be allowed to pass a security point without showing their face, nor should anyone be allowed to work in the public sector with a covered face - or enter universities (I'm told some have appeared in the University of Limerick), courts, social welfare offices, hospitals and any other public places where people's expressions matter. It should also be banned for anyone under 18 - for it is child abuse.

Women were treated like second-class citizens until comparatively recently in most Christian countries, but with nothing like the brutality they are accorded in many Islamic societies.

It's a disgrace to see so many on the left allying themselves with fundamentalist Islam and turning a blind eye to hideous practices like female genital mutilation or honour killings. When it comes to the battle of the burqas, we can be more tolerant than France, but we don't have to be pathetic, favour-currying cultural relativists smiling on woman-hating customs imposed by bigots like those just driven from Manbij.

Ruth Dudley Edwards' 'The Seven: the life and legacies of the founding fathers of the Irish Republic' was published by Oneworld on March 22

Ruth Dudley Edwards

© Ruth Dudley Edwards