The front page of yesterday’s Daily Express carried a stark message: ‘Ban the burkha here in Britain’.
Riding on the coattails of Sarkozy, various groups are arguing that Muslim women should be freed from being ‘prisoners behind a screen’.
Many people might agree with the French President.
But there’s nothing wrong with a religion insisting that its followers wear certain things in public - whether it’s a burkha, robe, dogcollar or giant banana suit. The problem only comes when such religious duties leave the realm of voluntary choice, and are forcibly imposed on individuals by the state.
Of course we need to be realistic. Even in a pluralist society, many people’s decision to wear religious garb may not be truly their own in some cases. Huge cultural or familial pressures can often be behind an individual’s decision to wear such clothing.
However, we should bear in mind that we all face pressure to conform to various social ‘norms’. Such norms can vary according to our culture, age and background. And yes, different people can face different norms to conform to, with varying amounts of pressure. Yet no-one who lives in human society is exempt from such social demands. And these demands can present very thorny problems, which often have no easy answers.
Ultimately, the best we can do is to ensure we live in a society with a legal framework that enables us – as far as possible – to live the life we choose. We should be under no legal obligation to live a particular life that is of someone else’s choosing. So whether someone wants to wear a burkha, short skirt or trousers in our society, they should be free to do so.
Speaking from a purely personal level, I admit to finding burkhas slightly depressing.
Then again, I have the same reaction to people who wear socks with sandals.
I don’t leap to the conclusion that such clothing should therefore be banned. (Well, not most days.)
Unfortunately, the French policy of laicite (loosely, secularism in government) is currently in danger of embodying exactly the kind of intolerance that it’s supposed to prevent. Whether its origins are religious or secular, intolerance is still intolerance.
Besides, throughout history the French have continually dressed themselves in ridiculous outfits, so they’re hardly in a position to throw stones.
So, Daily Express readers: do you really want a society where the state decides what you can and can’t wear?