Denmark have banned the burka and the niqab, because “we must be able to see each other and we must also be able to see each other’s facial expressions, it’s a value in Denmark”, according to Justice Minister Søren Pape Poulsen. That’s a strange sort of value: taken literally, it would presumably also mean a ban on motorcycle helmets and many kinds of carnival costumes.
We should call this out for what it is: an illiberal attempt to bait Muslims for electoral gain; and an attack on both freedom of expression and freedom of belief. This was my view when France enacted similar legislation in 2010, and in 2016 when some French municipalities tried to ban the ‘burkini’ on their beaches.
I find myself in the unusual position of agreeing with Boris Johnson on this issue. He wrote about it in his Sunday Telegraph column yesterday. Many people have criticised Johnson for likening the clothing (and the women who wear them) as ‘letterboxes’, which was indeed insulting and wrong. But I think the column as a whole is a classically liberal argument against harassing a minority. The veil might not be our choice, but its wrong to stop others from choosing it. I hate what you wear, but defend your right to wear it, as Voltaire or Tallentyre might have put it.
However, there is one piece of conventional wisdom on this issue that I think should be challenged. Johnson writes:
human beings must be able to see each other’s faces and read their expressions. It’s how we work.
Is it though? I suspect this ‘intuitive’ knowledge may not be as true as we think it is. A couple of years ago, when OFSTED said they would mark down schools where a veiled teacher hindered learning, a friend of mine wrote to me about her experience of being taught by a teacher thus attired:1
I went to a school in East London where five girls in my year group wore a full face veil. All five of them got awards for having the highest GCSE’s in our year.
My maths teacher had a full face veil and I was in her class from year 9 to 11. My maths grade improved from a failing U grade to me getting a C on the Higher Maths Paper. She was the best maths teacher I ever had. I learnt the most from her and improved my maths tremendously. My teacher before her was a man and he made me feel like I was really bad at maths.
It doesn’t matter if a teacher is veiled in my opinion. Even when they’re veiled the body language comes across. It really doesn’t matter at all.
See also the viral blog post by Thomas Mauchline, ’15 things I learnt about Islam and British values being a gay boy living opposite a mosque’:
You can do that look British people do to each other, when someone near by is making a scene, in a full face veil.
The eyes are the ‘windows to the soul’, apparently. So maybe its eye contact and one’s voice that are the real essentials for good communication, rather than facial expressions?
Earlier today I called the Vanessa Feltz breakfast show on BBC Radio London to make these points. The entire programme, with contributions from women who choose to wear the veil, is very interesting. My short twopenn’orth was at about 9:35AM, and you can listen to what I said via the player below or on SoundCloud.
1. Reproduced with permission, and lightly edited to remove names and places.