This article was originally published in The New Daily on November 8, here.
“The full-face veil is not acceptable in our country.”
This is not Donald Trump’s latest tweet. Rather it is refugee-welcoming German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
Merkel sparked rapturous applause while addressing her conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU) conference Tuesday (see here). Mrs Merkel went on to say that full face coverings “should be banned, wherever it is legally possible.”
If this call were to be made by Donal Trump on Twitter, an outrage would follow. But Merkel is seen as a progressive and moderate leader.
So should Burqas be banned?
When I first moved to Pakistan as part of a UN humanitarian team I found a gym around the corner from my temporary home. I thought ‘ripper’ and put on the shorts and t-shirt ready to run to the gym and do a workout.
I got half a block before the abuse turned me around. I did not realise that shorts were an unacceptable form of dress for men in Pakistan. I knew women had such restrictions, but I was surprised at the immediate and hostile reaction to a man showing too much skin.
I could have asserted my ‘right’ to wear what I wanted free from discrimination. I could have sought to impose my will on the local culture.
Or, I could accept local cultures, customs and norms and adjust my dress accordingly.
So I wore track pants.
I believe every culture can set the customs and norms that they wish.
Having lived in Islamic countries I understand the complexities of Islamic dress. Often women feel – as some said to me – ‘liberated by a full covering as I am free from the ogling gaze of men’. Other women felt some dress standards were an imposition on their freedom.
Islamic dress codes are complicated, even for those who habitually live in Islamic countries.
I maintained then no definitive view of my own regarding Islamic dress, particularly for women. Neither the impacted culture nor the impacted gender was my own. Instead, I highly valued listening to the competing and alternative views men and women would espouse. I maintained an open mind.
But Burqa banning in western cultures is my culture.
Away from the Islamic world, I understand that some in liberal democracies defend people’s right to dress how so ever they choose. That, after all, is freedom.
To be consistent though, those who support a woman’s right to wear whatever clothes she wants, free of judgment, must extend that principle to as little – or as much – covering that she may choose for herself.
In western societies those fighting for women’s freedom tend to defend the right to wear fewer clothes free from abuse. I agree up to the point of common decency. Less often do these people defend a woman’s right to fully cover up, if she so wishes.
If a woman wants to cover up I see no reason to stop her. I am not saying that we should defend a man who demands that a wife, child or family member should wear fewer or greater amounts of clothing. A woman – or man for that matter – in our society should be able to wear what she or he so chooses –up to the point of ‘common decency’.
So what is ‘common decency’?
Like my choice on shorts or track pants in Pakistan, there are consequences to clothing choice.
When making a decision on what one wears, one may claim a right to wear what one wants free of judgment. In reality, judgments are made by many people, most of the time. People do judge books by covers. That is why I keep my shoes clean and polished. To do so does say something about me.
Equally, I see the view that some people in western countries can feel threatened by the full face coverings. Face to face communication is a comforting cultural norm for many. Hiding one’s face can be seen as a threat in western societies.
Is covering one’s face an affront to ‘common decency’? Should we ban the burqa in Australia too?
I do not respond with a definitive ‘yes’ or ‘no’. Rather, I hope that a well-reasoned debate can happen in western countries around competing rights that potential bans on clothing may raise. But let us run this debate around ‘common decency’ and free it from racially or religious based bigotry.
Andrew MacLeod is a visiting Professor at Kings College London, a corporate director in Australia and the US, a former high-level UN official and former CEO of the Committee for Melbourne. He can be followed on @AndrewMMacleod