Friday, 30 April 2010

Belgium and the Burqa

The news that Belgium is banning the burqa (one Belgian MP referred to the garment as ‘a mobile prison’) makes me feel uncomfortable, even though I think the burqa is dreadful and the women who choose it – rather than having it forced upon them – are all bonkers.

The trouble is I don’t like banning – and in this country, the government’s recent decision to fund its new health policy by increasing tax levied on those addicted to smoking has highlighted once again the hypocrisy of its many bans on other addictive substances. Rather than banning, I wish that we could try persuading people of the drawbacks of using addictive drugs or of wearing the ridiculous get-ups that burqas and niqabs are.

Drug users, of course, will always be with us – in every population there is a percentage of genuinely addictive personalities who cannot be saved by anyone but themselves. The state’s role should be to give them the information that will allow them to make their own decisions, without adding to their problems by turning them into criminals as well as addicts.

Burqa wearers, by contrast, are unlikely to be acting from a desperate addictive need. With them, therefore, it should be possible to use reason to change their behaviour – and if that is unsuccessful, we might consider sectioning those who insist on continuing to wear the frightful things – using, in other words, the mental health act as an instrument rather than the criminal code. That would at least demonstrate that we are acting from compassion, thus making it harder for Islamists to complain that our behaviour is a form of persecution, when all we want is to take care of misguided souls (and, in this context, Ayaan Hirsi Ali's autobiography contains a really interesting account of how she went through various attitudes before recognising the foolishness of wearing the burqa).

To complicate matters, while I’m not happy with Belgium’s outright banning, I also don’t like Amnesty’s position, as expressed by their representative, John Dalhuisen, on ABC Radio National’s wonderful PM programme (presented by that national treasure, Mark Colvin – sign up to the group his fans have founded for him here:!/group.php?gid=15095471746&ref=this). They – Amnesty, not Colvin’s fans - seem to be arguing for the right of Muslim women to wear the burqa in Belgium – ‘we believe that individuals should be able to exercise free choice’, to quote Dalhuisen. I would be much more sympathetic to this position if I’d ever heard an Amnesty representative arguing for the rights of women to go about uncovered in Saudi Arabia, where the hijab is enforced by law. Is there a double standard at work here: Amnesty expects one thing of the west and something less exigent of the rest?

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