Once again, the “national debate” over the niqab is filling the pages of our newspapers. The latest discussion comes after Birmingham Metropolitan College reversed a decision to prevent Muslim students from wearing the veil, and a Lib Dem minister suggested that the government should consider a ban to ensure freedom of choice for young girls.
In the Observer, Victoria Coren Mitchell compared wearing a veil to a woman taking her husband’s name—“a strong and happy choice,” and not to be considered “a blow against feminism,” when done freely—while in the Telegraph Sean Thomas made the less flattering comparison to a slave wearing shackles. On the one hand we have those who feel that everyone should be free to wear what they want; on the other, those who worry that the veil has damaging implications for gender equality and that we should take steps to protect women from having to wear it.
These positions are often represented as mutually exclusive—but they’re not. A commitment to the freedom to wear whatever we want does not imply that clothing is never morally or socially problematic.
I agree that everyone should be free to wear what they want. I am understandably hesitant to quote Dan Hodges in a feminist debate, but he put it succinctly in the Telegraph yesterday: “This is Britain. And in Britain you can wear what you want.” The argument for banning the veil simply doesn’t work. To quote Dan Hodges again (last time, I promise), the argument essentially holds that:
“We as a society are concerned that people are culturally discriminating against—indeed oppressing—women by insisting they wear specific forms of dress. That runs contrary to our values and heritage… In fact we’re so alarmed that people are being prescriptive about what women can and can’t wear, we’ve decided to prescribe what women can and can’t wear.”
The argument doesn’t hold. And with the exception of very specific circumstances—the need to identify court witnesses and so on—it is not the business of the state to determine what a person can or cannot wear.
That said, we do not have to maintain that all clothing is equal as an expression of equality. Allie Renison is wrong to argue (also in the Telegraph) that, “it is governments getting involved in prescribing and proscribing dress sense which affords clothing any such meaning [of oppression and inequality].” The British government does not have a policy on high heels, and it is right that women are free to wear them, but that doesn’t mean that heels are great for feminism or that they do not help to perpetuate sexist values. They do. And since one argument that is often raised in favour of banning the veil is that women are sometimes forced to wear them, it is worth pointing out that women are sometimes forced to wear high heels, too—either at work, through official company policy, or through social pressure. Similar arguments could be applied to make-up, and shaving, and lingerie, and, yes, niqabs. All of these things are problematic for feminism, but we’re only having a debate about banning one of them. It is easy to portray the veil as an imported symbol of discrimination that doesn’t fit with British values of freedom and equality. It is harder to notice that many everyday aesthetic norms for women don’t fit with these values either.
We shouldn’t ban the veil, or heels, or make-up. Wearing them is (in most cases) a free choice. But that doesn’t mean those things are helpful to equality, and in discussing that we should turn our attention towards our own culture as much as to others.