It’s important to make this clear: I am no fan of the burqa. Humans, being inherently social animals, rely on facial expressions as a crucial part of our ability to communicate. Not only does the burqa limit this but it also represents extreme ideals of modesty that are outdated and at odds with secular Western society. But all of this aside, I do not believe that the state has any business banning the garment.
In our day-to-day lives, we always come across certain activities and behaviours of which we do not approve. Whether this is your child dropping out of higher education or a friend smoking their second pack of cigarettes in a day; it is extremely common to find those you are close with partaking in behaviours you deem immoral. What is absolutely pivotal here is that the state does not – and should not – make these actions illegal because, although you may personally disapprove of them, they do not cause you any direct harm.
If we were to ban every activity that causes any offence, our freedom to do pretty much anything would erode. The burka may make a lot of people feel very uncomfortable, but past generations fought and died for the rights and freedoms we take for granted today – and those rights and freedoms were not designed to make us comfortable, they were designed to keep us free.
The wearing of the burqa comes under this remit. You may not like the idea or look of it, but someone wearing it does not harm you. This is why the garment must not be banned.
It is also important to accept that many Muslim women may be forced into wearing the burqa. This problem does exist, even in the West, and more must be done to help those who have customs enforced on them. However, if the decision to wear the garment is solely down to the choice of the individual, then their right to do so must be upheld regardless.
Now, I am a strong supporter of free speech. I don’t believe that there are any legitimate circumstances in which the state should stop you from criticising or mocking anyone or anything in society. Despite this, I would highlight that the right to be offensive does not translate into a duty to be offensive.
Especially if you are someone as popular as Boris Johnson. The fact that he used a column in a national paper to mock a group was always going to have serious side effects. People will follow suit and join in with the mockery, making the lives of those who partake in the custom of wearing the burqa a misery.
This is not an ideal state of affairs and it will not solve anything. If you had a friend who behaved in a way you disliked, you would not blindly insult them, you would criticise their behaviour in a constructive way. This will not only save them from being unnecessarily hurt, but they will also be more likely to listen to you.
The same principle should be applied in the case of the burqa. Fair and valid criticism of the practice may lead to some women moving away from it. It could also raise awareness to help those who do not wish to wear it but are forced to by abusive relatives.
Despite the fact that I don’t believe in making it illegal, the burqa is a custom that I dislike and believe should be open to criticism. However, I will never resort to mocking those who wear it, and neither should you. If we can finally open a positive dialogue on the matter, the tensions around it will truly change for the better.