Status anxiety

Why I want my schools to ban the burka (and the miniskirt)

21 September 2013

9:00 AM

21 September 2013

9:00 AM

For most people, the question of whether to ban the burka is a purely theoretical one. Not for me. As the chairman of a charitable trust that sits above two schools, it’s something I’m obliged to consider. Usually, the heads of the schools fight tooth and nail to preserve their autonomy, claiming that such and such an issue is an ‘operational’ matter and therefore none of my beeswax. But in this case, they’re happy to kick the decision upstairs.

It’s not a matter for me alone, but for the trust’s board of directors, of which I’m only one. And I can’t predict how the board will vote. Nevertheless, I will be arguing for a ban.

I should begin by saying I’m not in favour of passing a law to ban the burka outright. As a classic liberal, I’m conflicted about the issue and can see the argument for prohibition, namely, that it’s illiberal to tolerate a religious practice that involves treating women as second-class citizens. The counter-argument is that those women who wear burkas are choosing to do so and, therefore, banning them would be a violation of their rights.

Plenty of ink has been spilt over this point, with those in favour of a ban arguing that women in traditional Muslim households don’t really have a choice about whether to wear a burka. That’s a decision made for them by their husbands or fathers. At the far end of this spectrum we find Yasmin Alibhai-Brown, who thinks the burka should be banned even if a majority of Muslim women are opposed. According to her, they’ve been ‘brainwashed’.

My view is that, on balance, banning the burka would be more illiberal than tolerating it. If some women are being forced to wear them against their will, the solution is for the state to protect their rights more aggressively, not to make a particular choice illegal. For Alibhai-Brown to argue that any woman who chooses to wear a burka in the absence of physical coercion has been ‘brainwashed’ is tantamount to claiming that she’s a better judge of what’s in their interests than they are. That’s a profoundly illiberal principle that could be used to justify prohibiting all kinds of choices.

But just as I’m in favour of limiting the state’s power to dictate the choices of individuals, I’m also in favour of limiting its power to dictate the choices of institutions. So I don’t think schools should be legally prohibited from banning the burka. And that’s a perfectly consistent position for a conservative to take. To give another example, it’s why I’m in favour of same-sex marriage but against forcing churches to hold gay weddings.

Why do I think the burka should be banned in my two schools? It’s partly for practical reasons. Head teachers and their staff spend quite a lot of time trying to get to the bottom of incidents in which a child is accused of having broken the school rules and the child in question denies it. Teachers already have to cope with Rashomon levels of complexity and it would make their lives even more difficult if some children were allowed to cover their faces.

It’s also harder to teach children if they’re wearing burkas. Teachers are constantly scanning the faces of their pupils to see if they’ve understood what’s just been said. A good teacher adjusts the lesson in response to this information and allowing children to cover their faces would disrupt this feedback loop.

But it’s mainly because our two schools are firmly rooted in a western liberal tradition that involves treating men and women as equals. The schools aren’t aggressively secular — both schools have a ‘cultural Christian’ ethos — and we don’t ban religious headgear as a matter of principle. Headscarves are permitted, as are skullcaps. But we should draw the line at any form of dress that implies women should be taken less seriously than men, and that includes miniskirts as well as burkas.

The reason I think schools should enjoy this latitude, but not the state, is because people can exercise a choice about where to send their children to school. Provided not all schools ban the burka, Muslim parents who want their daughters to observe this custom can always send them somewhere else. The same argument doesn’t apply to the state since people cannot easily choose to live somewhere else if they object to an outright ban.

I hope that doesn’t sound like a fudge. It remains to be seen whether I can convince my board.

Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.

Toby Young is associate editor of The Spectator.

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Show comments
  • There was a time when a mini-skirt did not induce men to rape – still doesn’t among my ‘cohort’ when did that change?

    When did the UK slip back into the dark ages? What caused that? Any ideas?

    • I don’t think that it’s fair on the boys for the girls at school to try to attract their sexual attention while they’re supposed to be studying.

      After all, would we allow schoolboys to wear ultra-tight, ultra-thin lycra over their nether-regions?

  • John Smith

    Sounds pretty fair. Interested in your view on taking exams, courts of law, security & taking driving tests.
    There is a lot of circumstantial evidence that identities are being abused whilst taking driving tests. Of course this has very important safety connotations

    • HR

      > There is a lot of circumstantial evidence that identities are being abused

      Could you share some of it/or provide some links at least?

      • davidshort10

        Not necessary. The examiner needs to ascertain that the person being tested is the person named on the provisional licence and the photo is proof of that. Also, it would be damned dangerous to drive a car wearing a burqua which shuts out peripheral vision. I spend much of my time in Tunisia, which has one of the highest road death rates in the world because both drivers and pedestrians are extremely careless. Some of the worst drivers are women wearing big headscarves and sunglasses (even in dull weather) and the full burqua would make it worse.

  • Nicely said Toby.

  • Alixir Chabloz

    Not sure what Toby Young wants to ban here. A burqa is a head-to-toe garment, usually blue and worn by Afghani women. The Saudi-style niqab is a black face veil for married women which conceals all of the face except the eyes. Further still, the hijab is a head scarf worn by Muslim women who only wish to hide their hair.

    Suggesting that Muslim parents would want to send their daughters to school with covered faces is misleading and exaggerated.

    How about Young gets on the case of who are currently offering a line of school uniforms for girls branded as ‘Miss Sexy’. How would he feel about girls turning up to school wearing clothes more suitable for pole-dancers?

  • Alex Knisely

    Reasonably put. Good luck with keeping your institutions free from that sort of nonsense.

    Comment on non-related theme: THE SPECTATOR shot itself in the foot again with that sad little contribution from Auberon Waugh’s daughter. Trying to put together a few pages to lure wine advertising? Well, as assistant editor, please be apprised: When you let that woman get away with “Eschézeau” for “Échezeaux”, you lose, as an institution, whatever credibility in matters of wine to which you want to lay claim. I wouldn’t buy a bottle that Simon Hoggart recommends — tarred with the same brush, you see, as home with good wine, all of you, as is Rod Little. Invest in fact- and spell-checkers, Mr Young, for THE SPECTATOR’s sake.

  • edlancey

    “As a classic liberal”

    ffs, more like a bumptious little toad.