The Malta Independent 20 April 2024, Saturday
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Malta is a free country. So ban the burqa/niqab

Daphne Caruana Galizia Sunday, 12 July 2015, 14:03 Last update: about 10 years ago

There’s a big fuss being made at the moment because somebody posted a photograph on Facebook of a woman wearing a full burqa/niqab, and claimed that it was taken in Malta, which I think is completely unlikely. I have yet to see a woman wearing the full black eye-slit deal in Malta, even walking about let alone driving a car. And quite frankly, the photograph is so unclear that it could be anyone, any gender or wearing anything that might include a balaclava of sorts.

But that’s not the point. The subject has come up and it is being discussed, so let’s go with it. The main argument being used against this kind of clothing, and the primary reason people are saying that it should not be allowed in Malta is terrorism. Terrorism? Why? People committing terrorist acts don’t need to wear a burqa or niqab. They don’t even need to keep their faces covered. The man who went wild with a gun on a beach in Sousse a couple of weeks ago didn’t wear anything over his face, while the ‘Charlie Hebdo’ murderers didn’t disguise themselves as women in burqas but wore the standard outfit of terrorists since the 1960s: black clothes and a black balaclava – the same kind of clothes, incidentally, that are worn by the special forces of law and order when dealing with members of, say, the Mafia, so that they are not recognised and killed or threatened.

There are only two proper reasons why this kind of clothing should be banned in Malta. The first and most obvious is that in civilised society everyone is expected to keep his or her face uncovered. It is one of the norms of socialised behaviour. The face is the person. This is the reason why, in European society, masks and the concealment of facial identity are associated only with Carnival: because that was the one night in the year when the rule of law was ignored and people were allowed to go about with their faces obscured in public. In Malta today, that rule survives in the police laws, not the Criminal Code. Going about with your face masked in public, on any day/night of the year except Carnival, is not a crime in Malta, but it is a contravention.

Being part of society, living in civilised society, means keeping your face uncovered. This is not a matter of freedom of expression in one’s choice of clothing. We are not allowed to go out with our bottoms uncovered, and women are not permitted to run around with their torso completely naked, not even on the beach. There are some conventions of dress and undress that are the norm in civilised society and which we are all expected to adhere to under the law, the reason being that it makes life more pleasant and workable.

But by far the greater reason why the burqa and niqab should be banned in Malta is that this is a country in which men and women are equal under the law and in which the oppression, repression and subjugation of women is not allowed. That clothing exists to repress, oppress and subjugate women. It is among the worst symbols of extreme subjugation of women to the will of men and their classification as inferior, as chattels. It is also rarely worn through choice – not real choice – and so banning it will leave women free of being forced to wear it. Of course, the risk there is that those who are not allowed to make their women wear complete covering, including their faces, will instead keep them locked up indoors, which is much worse. But then that is like arguing that you shouldn’t ban the lashing of horses in public because their owners will lash them once they’re back in the stables instead.

Permitting the covering of the head and face has nothing to do with freedom of worship. That custom is not mandated in the Koran but is a secular choice devised and enforced by secular authority. Educated Muslim women raised in the West don’t even cover their heads, let alone their faces. The Muslim girls at my school in the late 1970s – St Dorothy’s Convent in Mdina – wore the same uniform as everybody else and nothing on their heads or faces. Out of school, their clothes were indistinguishable from those of everyone else, and so were they. Nobody thought ‘Muslim’ back then. This is completely a recent thing. Just as the custom started, so it can be ditched.

Human rights? No, not even that. There is a landmark judgement of the European Court of Human Rights: Leyla Sahin v Turkey (2004). Sahin was a student at a university in Turkey – where the majority religion is Islam – where the wearing of headscarves was banned. Sahin insisted on turning up to university wearing the ‘Islamic’ head-covering and was repeatedly turned away. She was told that if she showed up wearing it during exam period, she would not be allowed to sit for her exams. She did, and she wasn’t. She took her case to the European Court of Human Rights, and she lost. The ECHR ruled that the university was perfectly within its rights to ban the wearing of that particular item of dress.

Now here’s the thing. What Leila Sahin wore was the sort of thing we see on Muslim women routinely – just your usual scarf, the sort other women might wear wound round their neck or thrown around their shoulders, but folded round her head and chin in the fashion now associated only with Islam and not with the Queen out walking in the fields. It is wrapped round the head and instead of being tied beneath the chin, like the Queen, is instead folded round the neck. So you will see that it is not the scarf itself or even the covered head that is the problem, but what that particular way of wearing a headscarf symbolises – not Islam but the oppression of women and the tyranny of religious fundamentalism.

Commonsense will tell you that it is not banned as a religious symbol – some countries ban the head/face covering in public places but not the wearing of a crucifix. The burqa/niqab, though perhaps not the mere headscarf, should be banned because they are a symbol of, and symptomatic of, the outrageous oppression of women. And we can’t have that, not in a civilised society. The places where the burqa and niqab originated, where they are routinely worn, and where women are forced to wear them, are far from civilised. Women need rescuing from those terrible situations. Those who come to Malta, to the European Union, have to know that now they are free.

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