Personally, I see no particular problem with niqabs or burqas. Their main function seems to me to be to allow ultra-conservative Muslim women, who believe their faces should not be seen by non-family members, to go out in public. I think one of the main impacts of banning full-face veils would be that such ultra-conservative women would not leave their homes at all, or would do so only very rarely. I don’t consider that a desirable outcome.
But that’s just me. Others have other views and are entitled to express them. One of the more popular such views — supported, according to opinion polls, but a large segment or voters, perhaps even a majority — is that they should be banned outright, as already happens in several Continental countries. Those who believe veiling should be banned attack the practice in all kinds of ways, claiming it’s oppressive and backward and reduces women to things and so on. None of that could reasonably be described as respectful of veiling — indeed, it’s saying it’s so wicked and oppressive that it should be banned altogether.
Another view, in between mine and that of those that say full-face veils should be banned, is that full-face veiling should not be banned but the practice should not be respected. It says that people should disrespect veiling to the extent of refusing to talk to people in their veils in any professional or formal setting. Another form of disrespect here is to ridicule the way veils make people look or the practice itself. It’s obviously not as disrespectful to say that a veil makes you look like a “letter box” or that you’re wearing a “bag” as is it to say that veiling is “mediaeval” and “backward”, but it’s clearly not respectful — and not intended to be. And it’s obviously not as disrespectful to say that one should refuse to talk to someone in a veil in a professional setting as to say that veiling should be banned, but again it is nonetheless pretty disrespectful. That’s the point — the disrespect, in this case, is presented as a more liberal alternative to an outright ban.
Now I don’t agree with either those who say that full-face veils should be banned outright or that their use should be subject to social pressure via a refusal to deal and ridicule. But I think those offering each of these points of view are entitled to have their case heard. Furthermore, as a society I think we should tolerate those in either of these other camps — I shouldn’t shun someone for saying veils should be banned and I shouldn’t shun someone for disrespecting and ridiculing veiling.
We are not obliged as a society to respect everything we tolerate, and just because something is legal that doesn’t mean we have to respect it. That doesn’t mean I would advocate putting up with disrespecting anything and everything. If you started calling Sikh men “towel-heads” or urging that Jewish skull-caps be banned, you and I would not be friends for long. But just because we ought to respect some things it doesn’t follow that we have to respect everything, and the advocacy of disrespecting some things does not open the floodgates to disrespecting everything.
We have a healthy tradition of the mockery of head-gear in this country. Folk have all kinds of fruity comments to make on the hats worn by George Galloway or Vince Cable, George Osborne’s hard hat habit as Chancellor, William Hague’s baseball cap, Jacob Rees-Mogg’s top hat or George W Bush’s cowboy hat. If you really want to see mockery of headgear, look up the online abuse directed at Congresswoman Frederica Wilson, who has literally hundreds of hats (typically cowboy hats) and is notorious for her efforts to get Congress to lift its ban on head coverings during House sessions. Mockery of their headgear would not mark out ultra-conservative Muslims from the rest of society — rather, it would be a withdrawal of the exemption from mockery they might otherwise have as a minority group.
Similarly, criticism of clothes is routine. Dresses are said to look like a “blancmange” or a “marshmallow”. High fashion headgear is said to look like “you have a bird’s nest on your head”. Nuns are described as looking like “penguins”. When Alan Yentob faced the MPs of the Public Administration Select Committee, political sketchwriter Quentin Letts described Camila Batmanghelidjh’s dress as making her look like “a bowl of fruit salad”. To describe a woman in a niqab as looking like a “letter box” is not to mock her clothing in a way the clothing of other ordinary Britons would not be mocked. Rather, it is to remove a special exemption from mockery that her clothes have carried up to now.
As I say, I do not agree that veils need banning or respect withdrawn. But mine is a minority view here, and I see no good reason to demand that Boris Johnson or others must agree with me. I certainly do not agree that their proposal of withdrawn respect is less acceptable than the obviously less respectful option of arguing for an outright ban — as already happens in a number of European countries that fashionable Britons like to see as liberal paradises.
So if Boris Johnson wants to disrespect veils, I say go right ahead. I don’t agree but I shan’t shun you for it, and neither should anyone else. In a liberal society we need to tolerate others. I do not believe that the Conservative Party should exclude conservative Muslims who believe women should be veiled, I don’t believe the Conservative Party should exclude those who argue for veiling to be banned, and I don’t believe the Conservative Party should exclude those who argue for a middle course of withdrawn respect. If we start saying ridiculing clothes is a reason for withdrawing the whip from MPs, we’ll have crossed into a dark and illiberal place.