'Ban the burka': why is the veil so divisive?

Rightwingers and feminists are united against the burka, but their opponents say a ban would be un-British

A mother and child outside an East London Mosque
(Image credit: Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)

The European Court of Human Rights has upheld France's ban on wearing a burka in public, reigniting the debate on Islamic dress with a ruling described by human rights groups as setting a 'dangerous precedent'.

Surveys show that the majority of British people would support a ban on the full face veil worn by some Muslim women in the UK.

Why is Islamic dress such a divisive issue in the UK and how has the debate been seized on by an "unlikely alliance of rightwing politicians and feminists"?

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The veil is 'oppressive':

The most common argument advanced by feminists in favour of a ban is that the veil is a form of patriarchal oppression. "Women should be clear that the burka is a symbol of oppression and segregation," Conservative MP Sarah Wollaston told The Guardian.

Wearing a veil implies that "women are dangerous to men and society and must be covered and that's what we cannot accept", says author Yasmin Alibhai-Brown, who is a Muslim.

But many Muslim women and campaigners argue that for a lot of women, wearing the veil is a personal choice and it is 'offensive and patronising' to believe that all Muslim women lack the ability to make that decision.

"It's as if the female, as an adult individual, is obviously ill-equipped to make such decisions on her own," says columnist Faraz Talat. Theresa May, the Home Secretary, has also said that Muslim women must be "free to make that choice".

It is 'anti-social':

Many anti-burka campaigners argue that the veil serves as a barrier between women and society, preventing open social interaction. People report feeling "uneasy" and "uncomfortable" around Muslim women who choose to cover their face.

These "bin-bags", says Telegraph journalist Allison Pearson, "prevent women from playing a full part in society."

A ban would be 'Islamophobic'

Opponents of a ban claim that the controversy surrounding the veil is based on prejudice and anti-Muslim feeling. A burka ban is a "flagrant exhibition of institutional bigotry", said Talat.

A recent report by Amnesty International accused European governments of "pandering to prejudice" by supporting bans which would no nothing but promote violence, fear and hatred.

Marco Perolini, Amnesty's expert on discrimination, said: "There is a groundswell of opinion in many European countries that Islam is alright and Muslims are ok so long as they are not too visible."

A ban would be 'un-British'

When questioned on the issue, Nick Clegg said imposing a ban would be "un-British" as it goes against values of liberty. Campaigners argue that it would be unacceptable to have "the government policing your wardrobe".

Allowing people to wear what they want was the very "basis of a free society", Baroness Warsi, Britain;s minister for faith and communities, told the Telegraph.

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