Previously published in The Times Ireland Edition.
The first time I ever saw a picture of a burqini, being worn by Nigella Lawson on a beach, my reaction was to wonder why I’d never heard of it before. It’s a fabulous, logical invention, especially if you’re someone like me who follow’s Billy Connolly’s observation that Scottish people in the sun start out first as blue, then white, red, then white again. The sun and I are not friends, and I can see how a person would want something like this. There’s also the fact that there’s nothing particularly Muslim about wanting to preserve one’s modesty on the beach. There’s nothing European about having to show off all the goods either, just that you have the right to if you feel you’ve got goods worth showing. For what it’s worth, a male burqini, if such a thing exists, would transform me from badly shaved bear to strange bearded whale. Either way my modesty would almost certainly be protected by averted eyes and the odd queasy stomach.
The decision by various French mayors to ban the burqini is just plain wrong and to me shockingly un-French. In short, it has been targeted because it is being worn by one particular religious group, not for any practical reason. Wearing a burqini does not affect the enjoyment of the beach by others, nor is it any less hygienic (a particularly dodgy claim) than wearing a wetsuit. This is simple straight bigotry targeted at one religion in the hijacked name of liberalism.
The veil, on the other hand, is different. It goes against a core value of European culture about face to face interaction, and is a direct challenge to that culture. In short, those who wish to wear the burqa in Europe must ask themselves does their desire to wear it trump their desire to be part of European society, because that is the choice. Indeed, perhaps it is time that Europe go even further on the veil. There are, no doubt, women in Saudi Arabia and elsewhere who do not wish to wear the burqa, and women in Europe who do. Would it not make more sense for both our societies and for those women themselves to live in a society that mirrors their values? I for one would have no problem swapping liberated Saudi women for their European shuffling letterbox peering counterparts.
All this raises a broader question of European values in themselves, and what values must a person subscribe to be part of European society. In Germany, France and Austria it is a criminal offence to deny the Holocaust occurred. In the past, I’ve believed that such an offence is an infringement on the freedom of speech, despite the absolutely loathsome concept of the offence in itself. But today, I’m not so sure. Would it be possible to draft a charter of civic European values that we all aspire towards, and more importantly, being opposed to them becomes a crime in itself and also grounds for denial of refugee status? Now, it’s true that going from west to east Europe gets more conservative, and you won’t get the same rights for gays in Poland that you will in Ireland, but even within that spectrum you have a set of values that are broadly transferable. No EU member state jails gays or mistreats Jews, and those are values that are a beacon of progress in other parts of the world.
But it also raises the question of whether, for example, we really want people coming to live in Europe who support the burqa? Or see Jews as less than equal, or deny the Holocaust, or regard homosexuals or women as inferior? It’s true, there are many native born Europeans who would have problems with some of those values, but so what? This isn’t an anti-Muslim charter but an anti-extremist one. But more importantly, let it be the litmus test for asylum seeking in Europe. These are the values you have to subscribe to, and if you question them, keep walking.
Immigration is a good thing, and I can see both the hijab and the burqini become part of European culture in a way that doesn’t threaten our core freedoms. I would not be surprised to see either feature on the walkways of Paris or Milano in the future, and we have nothing to fear. But the veil is different, and it has no place in a society that regards the genders as equal.
Women who are forced by husbands or families to wear the veil must be helped, and their oppressors (for that is what they are) must be confronted by our laws. Forcing a woman to wear a veil is an act of oppression. As for the women who choose to wear it by their own choice, that is their right, as it is to find a society more in tune with their values, because Europe is not that place.