This week, Lib Dem home office minister Jeremy Browne kick started a debate on banning the niqab – the full face veil worn by some Muslim women. This followed some controversy over a woman being asked to remove her veil in court for the purposes of identity.
I dislike the culturally enforced covering of women a great deal. I hate the message it gives to women and girls about the shameful nature of their appearance and sexuality and the need to hide it away. I hate the message it gives to men and young boys about the uncontrollable nature of their sexuality, their lack of agency in controlling their sexual behaviour and the danger inherent to them in a woman’s appearance. I hate the difference this very visual symbol tells us is inherent in the sexual natures of men and women, boys and girls.
In my ideal world, the niqab and the burka would not exist. Because the culture that enforces the ideas that have brought these symbols about will have been defeated.
I dislike the idea of people – predominantly women – being forced by economic circumstances into having sex for money. I hate the way it diminishes the act of sex to something generally only enjoyable to one party rather than a shared experience. I hate the way it commodifies an act we can and do enjoy giving for free. I hate the way it can lead to a further commodification of human interaction by those jaded by being either punters or prostitutes.
In my ideal world, prostitution would not exist (beyond those for whom it is a particular part of their sexual peccadillos) because the circumstances that lead people – predominantly women – into prostitution wouldn’t exist.
But we are a long, long way from my ideal world. And while we are, we have to respond to the world as it is. If we are to make it better, we need to understand not just what is visibly wrong, but what the less visible causes of that injustice are.
Which is why I cannot support a ban on either veils or prostitution. To do so is to victimise the already oppressed.
To ban the niqab – presumably under threat of fines – would in all probability lead to two outcomes.
Firstly, it would limit the interaction with the world that women from strict families were able to undertake. They would still wear their veils, but would not – and in some case possibly would not be allowed to – leave their homes. The veil would continue to do it’s job of enforcing separation and sexual stereotypes, but hey, at least us woolly liberals wouldn’t have to see it happening any more. We would have forced women further into retreat from our society.
Secondly, those women who chose to break the ban would be punished. Not the society that tells them their body should be covered, but they themselves. This does not feel empowering to me.
The same is true of prostitution. The more we ban it, the harder we make it for prostitutes to be safe. We don’t stop them becoming prostitutes, we drive them underground so they are more vulnerable to pimps and traffickers. We so not deal with the economic circumstances that drives people to sell their bodies – we just punish them again for doing so.
I have no great problem with a certain amount of liberal hegemony. If I think a person within my culture has certain inalienable rights, then I think that is true of everyone whatever their culture. I want to see the banning of female genital mutilation enforced properly and immediately. I want to see women everywhere get safe access to legal abortions. I want to see an end to cultures that casualise and ignore rape and sexual violence everywhere.
It may have seemed odd to link the niqab with prostitution. The issues may seem at opposite ends of the issues spectrum. One being about the enforced hiding of sexuality, and the other about the enforced use of sexual behaviours. But in both cases, we see our society imposing rules to hide our failings rather than addressing their cause. They are solutions to our guilt, not to the problem at hand.
When our proposed so-called “solutions” are more likely to harm those already harmed simply to make us feel like we are taking action, I cannot support that. I will not support that.