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.
Toby Young is associate editor of The Spectator.