Friday, July 23, 2010

House Points: Buts on the burka

My House Points column from today's Liberal Democrat News.

Ban banning

Philip Hollobone is the Sharon Hodgson of the Conservative Party. We have heard from him before, calling for Kettering to become to volleyball what Wimbledon is to tennis. And we have seen him interrupting a fraught prime minister’s questions on the death of Baby P (Peter Connelly, as we can now call him) to ask Gordon Brown to encourage more children to take up the ocarina.

Now Hollobone is in the headlines for real. He has announced he will not talk to women constituents who wear full Islamic dress. And he intends to move a bill that would make it illegal for people to cover their faces in public.

It is easy to laugh at Hollobone, though not easy to laugh enough. He is not quite the man who put the berk in burka, and certainly not the one who put the IQ in niqab.

We Liberal Democrats, of course, believe people should be free to wear what they want. We could just about stomach Jack Straw’s practice of asking Muslim women to remove their veils when they met him because we knew they were free to refuse.

But before we congratulate ourselves on being so liberal here, let’s enter a couple of buts.

The first is to point out that what people wear often tells us something about society. Yes, the hoodie has been demonised, but where it represents an arms race between security cameras and youths it brings us unwelcome news. Maybe it also tells us how much effort teenage boys in some communities have to invest in not catching the eyes of other teenage boys.

And the second is to remember the central place that dress reform once played in radical politics. In the 19th century it was an important movement that aimed to free women from the confining and even crippling fashions that held them back. Radicals then did not shrug, say it was “part of their culture” and move on.

The moral is that we should not fall into the Labour (and often backbench Tory) habit of wanting to ban everything of which we disapprove. But nor should we abandon our principles out of a fear of being seen as racist. If we think something is wrong we should say so.

1 comment:

Stephen Bigger said...

Hi Jonathan, I discuss this in Stephen