At the end of an interview at a community event at Sir William Ramsay School, I was asked to comment on recent discussions regarding banning the burka (we might more accurately have discussed the niqab):
CREATING a law to ban the burka would be “just absurd”, Wycombe MP Steve Baker says.
The wearing of the Islamic face veil has been the subject of a heated debate this week.
It follows Tory MP Philip Hollobone’s comments that he would not meet constituents wearing a burka unless the veil was lifted.
I wasn’t particularly prepared for the question, so my remarks lack polish but I am content with the sentiment: within the bounds of public decency, the law should be silent on what people may wear. It is a matter of free choice.
Those debating the question often point to the counterexamples of wearing motorcycle helmets in petrol stations or balaclavas in banks. Neither counter-example is particularly useful: banks and petrol stations both suffer specific problems with theft, so it is wholly reasonable for owners of these types of property to require customers to reveal their identities by showing their face. Such property owners might require everyone to show their faces as a condition of business, and that would be a reasonable requirement1. This is not the same as a general legal prohibition on a particular item of clothing.
Resolving these questions requires values. On this question, I am applying equality before the law, freedom from arbitrary government and property rights. The law should be blind to people’s identity: everyone should receive the same treatment under law. We should know in advance how the law will treat us: parents taking their children out on halloween shouldn’t have to worry about whether their children are illegally covering their faces. That is, the law should be simple and universally applicable: it would be utterly wrong to target a particular item of clothing worn by a particular group of people.
Moreover, a person has a right to wear what they wish, since we are all self-owning, and the act of wearing an item of clothing affects no one else’s property, even if it is not to that other’s taste. Where would we be if we started legislating for clothing to avoid offending anyone’s sensibilities? Strictly Come Dancing would be off the air for a start! However, a property owner is entitled to refuse to do business with someone who appears to be equipped to steal from them.
This may mean some property owners choose to be culturally insensitive. We may have to put up with that, but we should not ban the burka.
- As a spectacle-wearing motorcyclist, I find it extremely irritating, but it is still a reasonable requirement in the circumstances. [↩]