The Ethics Of… Banning the Burqa

It doesn’t matter how you slice it, if you try to have a debate about religious stuff someone is going to get upset. So when the question being debated is whether a specific item of religious clothing should be banned, you’re already in hot water.

Throw in the fact that this item is also a serious cultural practice for a large group of people, and the fact that that group are also generally immigrants…well let’s just say calm, rational debate went out the window so fast it technically never existed. And as I’ve mentioned so many times before, the second emotions run hot in a debate, the nutters tend to take centre stage.



Yep, that’s sure to add something constructive to the debate.

For those who are not familiar with it, this is the burqa and some of its many relatives:


Basically, it’s a full body covering designed to obscure the wearer from the public eye. There’s a bunch of variations, but they’re essentially just cut-down versions of the same concept.

This garment is a serious part of many Muslim women’s religious practice. Interestingly, there is actually a bit of debate as to whether the burqa and its variants are actually required by Islam at all; many commentators argue that it is simply a cultural custom that has been absorbed into religious practice. Others argue that it is definitely a part of what Islam demands, usually referring to Quran 33:59;

“O Prophet, tell your wives and your daughters and the women of the believers to bring down over themselves [part] of their outer garments. That is more suitable that they will be known and not be abused.”

Ultimately though this is pretty much irrelevant – just as the Bible doesn’t say anything about the Pope, it doesn’t matter how the practice became a part of the religion, because now it most definitely is.

And I totally, utterly despise it.

This might seem like a bit of an over-reaction by someone who has previously gone on at length about the importance of cultural tolerance, but do me a favour and read that quote from the Quran again. Does “…that they will be known and not be abused” sound a bit problematic to you at all? If not then maybe a fresh perspective from senior Islamic Cleric Sheik Taj Aldin al-Hilali will make it a bit more obvious:

“If you take out uncovered meat and place it outside … without cover, and the cats come to eat it … whose fault is it, the cats’ or the uncovered meat’s? The uncovered meat is the problem. If she was in her room, in her home, in her hijab [the headdress worn by some Muslim women], no problem would have occurred.”

This was in reference to sexual assaults against women in Australia in 2010. So yeah, you can’t get a lot clearer than that.

Now obviously Hilali is at the extreme end of the spectrum and it’s worth noting he got his arse kicked by the Islamic community for this idiocy. But do his comments actually contradict the core idea behind the burqa? Not in the slightest.

The fundamental reason, both Islamic and cultural, for the burqa is to hide women’s bodies in the name of ‘modesty’. Why should women be worried about modesty? So they don’t make men horny. So they don’t tempt men into sinful behaviour. And, of course, so they don’t tempt men into rape.

The burqa is the physical statement that the behaviour of men is the responsibility of women.

As such, the burqa can piss right off.

Many argue that burqa is a personal expression of faith, and has nothing to do with men at all. But this either means that you are hiding your body for god himself, making him a sexist twat and a hypocrite (since, as a god, he can see everything anyway), or that god does not demand it and you’re doing it anyway just for fun. Neither of these is a compelling argument.

Others like to compare the burqa to the dress of Christian nuns, or the demands of fashion and beauty on western women, arguing that these are equally oppressive. And they have a point.

burqaIt’s well documented that I’m no fan of fashion, but I’m not sure exactly how comparing the burqa to high heels is a defence of the burqa. Personally I think it just emphasises how bloody stupid it is as an item of clothing.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERASeriously. Imagine trying to get around in this thing.

And even if you thought this comparison made a good point, ask yourself the question; when was the last time someone was thrown in jail (or just straight-up murdered) for taking off their high heels?

Another defence of the burqa is the underlying message doesn’t matter – the only thing that matters is that women want to wear them. Isn’t the entire point of feminism that women have the freedom to make their own decisions? How then can we criticise those decisions in the name of feminism?

burqua 4

Pretty damn easily actually. The freedom to choose does not excuse someone from criticism for that choice. Suggesting that every decision a woman makes is right simply because she made it herself is so blatantly wrong I’m surprised I have to point it out.

From an ethics point of view (remembering here that ethics is about what we should do, not just what we should be allowed to do) it doesn’t matter if Muslim women want to wear the burqa. It doesn’t even matter if they like wearing it or if it makes them somehow feel more empowered (yes, some people actually argue that). What matters is why they wear it and whether that reason can be justified.

And given those reasons can basically be boiled down to;

  • oppression by men,
  • believing god is both a nutter and a hypocrite, or,
  • a really, really stupid fashion choice,

then the answer is very bluntly, ‘no’. The burqa is unethical.

So…all steam ahead on a ban then?

No. Absolutely, definitely, emphatically, NO.

Remember a few weeks back we discussed how it’s important to distinguish between the principles and the practicalities of a situation? How, just because your cause might be correct, it doesn’t give you a license to be a dick about it? Well this is one of those times.

I hate the burqa because it is based on the idea that women are responsible for the action of men. I would like to see the burqa disappear because these women no longer suffer this oppression (and it is oppression, even if they willingly participate in it).

Given this aim, my next question should be ‘How can we bring this about most effectively’. Reckon a ban is going to be effective in doing that?

b4I’m going to go with ‘no’.

While eliminating the burqa may be right in principle, the practical fact is that it is a serious part of many people’s religion and culture – the same way that the extremely unhealthy and dangerous practice of getting drunk is part of many Australian’s culture.

Attempting to ban practices like these will not only fail to improve the situation, it might actually make it worse – driving the practice underground, building resentment and alienation, and ultimately further marginalising the very women we’re meant to be helping here.

muslim woman burqa conondrum - islam mullah wear - west sam dont wear - same thing

So what’s the answer then? If history is anything to go by, ironically the answer is to do nothing.

Back in the 1990’s Australia was gripped by the paralysing fear of the Asian Invasion – mass migrations of Asian people to our fair country, bringing their customs and language over here, refusing to assimilate, speaking their foreign lingo, taking our jobs! It’s bullshit mate! They should go back where they came from! Etc, etc, etc. Entire Tea Party-esque political movements were created nearly exclusively to oppose this threat, but thanks to those liberal-commie-pinko-pooftas, who though policy shouldn’t be based on xenophobia, not much actually changed.

20 years later, the full and terrible effects of the Invasion are being felt: the food option have improved.

Every single time a new ethnic group immigrated to Australia we go through the same panic about ‘losing our way of life’, and the same thing happens – absolutely nothing. It’s almost as if immigrant communities tend to adopt the customs and culture of their new country when you leave them alone and treat them like human beings!

This is especially true when those communities start to have kids here, who go to Australian schools, speak English as a first language and have no strong ties to their parent’s homelands – any more than most white Australians do with England.

Banning the burqa is probably the single most effective thing we could ever do to encourage its survival. Education, tolerance and treating people like people is by far the greater weapon in any culture war.

19 thoughts on “The Ethics Of… Banning the Burqa

  1. Very well said as always. I agree that when religious practices are outright made illegal, this tends to strengthen them not weaken them. The burqa will disappear in Australia likely after the first big wave of immigrants passes away. There is only so much education you can deprive from people in Australian culture so it won’t take long for the women to realize that the burqa is bullshit. I hate it too!

    I might have pointed you in the direction of the youtube channel qualiasoup, but they have a great bunch of videos regarding various secular themes. One is called “Good without Gods” discussing how morality can be derived through science and logical arguments on ethics. At one point the narrator asks the question “what if a group of women are complicit with their oppression” is a practice then morally okay? And the answer of course is no “when a group of a people is complicit with their impression, this is a cause for more concern, not less”.

    • Thanks Swarne! Unfortunately its one of those ideas that has a lot of in that I’ve weight – if people are OK with being oppressed, is it still oppression? 5 minutes serious thought tells us it definitely is, but if you don’t make that effort (or can’t/won’t) then it tends to be a persuasive argument.

  2. Great post! I totally agree we need to focus on the underlying issues rather than the headwear it’s self
    Sent from Lea Young

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  9. Found this post through a link from another blog this is a very well thought out argument. I definitely agree with you on the burqa. I’ve seen the same thing in US history. Every new wave of immigrants is feared, its culture held as highly suspect. Then they assimilate to the country’s culture and add some easily shareable aspects of their own to ours (like food) and suddenly they’re joining everyone else in hating the next wave of immigrants. It’s ridiculous that this keeps happening.

    • Thanks Nancy! Always glad to hear when people think I’m on to something. You see a lot of this sort of thing in big social debates – two sides staunchly against each other while generally ignoring each others’ arguments entirely. Abortion, mental illness, naming and shaming pedophiles, criminal rehabilitation, and indeed with the burqa, one side tends to point to the principle of the issue (and ignores the practicalities), while the other argues about its practicalities (while ignoring the principle of the thing. By distinguishing between the two, we can generally help forge a path between what IS and what SHOULD be.

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  13. I think that your part about blaming women for men’s lack of control is right, but banning the burqa isn’t okay. Women should be encouraged not to wear it, but it’s totalitarian and oppressive to ban it, you’re trying to force your opinion on others. I think burqas should be allowed but not required so that the people who wear them are free to make their own decisions concerning their faith without the government butting in.

    • Hi Sage, thanks for the comment. I think we’re in agreement – that pretty much the position I landed on at the end of the article. I don’t agree with the Burqa, but banning it would defeat the thing we are seeking to achieve – ie. women having a free choice to dress how the want, without external influence from others.

  14. How about social and cultural views on wearing a burqa? If there’s only one person wearing a burqa while 999 do not, it makes little difference but if 500 do wear burqa, it will put pressure on the rest 500 too. And when you think about how burqa represents conservative and extreme islamist ideology, it can be seen as a political uniform, planned to make islam visible and rebelling women easy to single out and be labelled as sluts. Culturally, this practice will gain ground and wll be passed on to next generations, as it is practice that is planned and forced for the vulnerable ones, ie. women and children. When the cultural phenomenon becomes widespread, it will change social norms, what is acceptable, what are seen as individual’s rights etc. Thus it is not a question merely of individual autonomy and one person’s choices but about collective, social and cultural action that can change the whole society, how people will behave towards a woman who is not wearing a burqa, how oppressing women might become a new normal, etc.

    • Hi Borisbeckrer, thanks for the comment.

      You’re quite right about the collective influence throughout society over time of an idea – if the cultural norm of the society supports or promotes the burqa then you’re right, the odds of it spreading, becoming normalised, and subsequently being used to pressure others into taking it up, is very high. Of course that one issue doesn’t operate in a vacuum and other social influences will interact with it, but overall I agree – if there is a powerful social pressure to promote the burqa then it is likely to spread, at least in the short term. As I hope was clear from the article, I argue this would be a negative thing.

      That said, while social pressure for the burqa is definitely a reality in many nations/communities, this article was more in reference to developed western nations like Australia, France and the USA where such bans are being considered. These nations thus far very much do not have social pressure for the burqa, and often very much against it. In that context I’m not worried about the practice becoming more popular – it’s likely to linger among conservative communities, particularly first generation immigrants, but as with nearly all such groups, the second and third generations will almost certainly shed such practices and they diversify their social circles – not to argue they will/should abandon all aspects of their original cultures, but given the burqa in particular is an incredibly impractical concept apart from anything else, I doubt anyone would choose to keep it with those cultural/traditional pressures removed.

      Ultimately the question is what approach will be most effective in promoting the end of the burqa? And as you point out, that depends heavily on context. In a nation where the burqa is widely promoted different tactics will be required than in a country like Australia, where it is seen as deviant. That said though, a straight-up ban is unlikely to be effective in either context, since it tends to alienate the target audience further from the norms we’re trying to promote rather than include them like we aim. Would be happy to see any contrary examples though!

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