THE BLOG

Going Undercover: Human Rights and the Niqab

03/07/2014 10:48 BST | Updated 31/08/2014 10:59 BST

This week saw one of those fleeting moments when Daily Mail readers will have felt a great big load of love for the European Court of Human Rights.

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Judges in Strasbourg ruled on Tuesday that governments are allowed to criminalise the wearing of niqabs - the face-covering worn by some strictly observant Muslim women - and that it is not an abuse of religious freedom for them to do so.

I've always felt that people should have a right to dress how they want and that unless showing one's face is necessary for some compelling practical reason (at passport control, say) there can be no justification for telling Muslim women they have to unveil simply to conform.

I had an experience the other day that opened my eyes to the other view. It didn't convince me, but I finally understood where the mentality that led to the ban had come from.

On Saturdays I teach a group of children at a Liberal synagogue: Liberal synagogues are the ones that allow women to become rabbis, recognise same-sex marriages and so on. But this Liberal synagogue uses a building shared by other sections of the Jewish community and on this particular Shabbat, a very large group of young Charedi (ultra-Orthodox) girls had been having a sleepover.

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I was the first person to arrive - bare-headed, carrying a bag, using a mobile 'phone, wearing a T-shirt, unintentionally looking as far from ultra-Orthodox as imaginable - and was unexpectedly confronted by the sight of about 80 teenage Charedi girls in long skirts and long sleeves turning in unison and staring at me. Presently they all bustled out of the building, none of them quite making eye-contact, but still all staring.

It was an astonishing experience and one I'm glad I had despite how unsettling it was: I've never felt like an outsider in quite that way before, at least not while in Europe.

I saw for the first time how people might be disquieted by being made to feel a minority 'on their own turf'. This is the point made by Nigel Farage with his "I was on a train and nobody spoke English" story, and the point made by the government of France when it chose to ban niqabs from its streets because "the reciprocal exposure of faces [is] fundamental in French society".

This definitely opened my eyes but it didn't turn my head. Just as I would have been furious had the ultra-Orthodox girls asked me to put on a black hat and conform to their lifestyle while I was in their presence, nor would I dream of asking them to roll up their sleeves and conform to mine.

In fact, the Israeli courts are currently considering a case remarkably similar - and at the same time diametrically different - to Strasbourg's niqab decision.

The Israeli Movement for Progressive Judaism (sister movement to Liberal Judaism here in Britain) has mounted a legal challenge to so-called "modesty signs" in an ultra-Orthodox neighbourhood of Jerusalem, which ask passing women to cover up so as not to embarrass Charedi men studying nearby.

Modesty signs are, fairly obviously, an outrage. If men don't want to look at "immodest" women - and since "immodesty" includes shorts, and since Israel is quite a hot country, this is admittedly going to be an issue for them - why is it expected that women should inconvenience themselves?

The recent invention of blurry glasses for ultra-Orthodox men, which literally impair the vision of the wearer to prevent them from seeing anything 'unholy', sounds stupid but has been endorsed by Israeli feminist groups: as journalist Allison Sommer has said, "If Charedi men have issues with a life that includes seeing and interacting with half of humanity, it is indeed a problem. It is their problem. Let them deal with it. Let them find solutions that limit their comfort and movement."

Turning back to Strasbourg, is the niqab question really that different? If French citizens are unsettled by the sight of someone wearing a niqab, that is understandable. A judge in New Zealand ruled in 2005 that an observant Muslim witness giving evidence from behind a niqab "quickly brought to mind the voice of the rogue computer in 2001: A Space Odyssey, as a voice conveying some sense of character but without an effective physical presence to fill out one's sense of a person."

But a slight sense of unease, which would no doubt dissipate over time and with increasing familiarity, is not a proper basis to ban someone's deep-rooted cultural practices.

France told judges at the European Court of Human Rights, "The face expresses the existence of the individual as a unique person, and reflects one's shared humanity with the interlocutor. The effect of concealing one's face in public places is to break the social tie."

Well, observant Muslim women throughout the world are no doubt grateful for the French government's feedback, but clearly they take a different view. The French cultural tradition (and English, come to that) undoubtedly involves facial interaction: for recognition, communication through smiles and frowns and many other social forms of interaction as well.

But is the ability to detect someone else's smile necessary in a democratic society? It is not. Whereas, is an ability "to accommodate a wide variety of beliefs, tastes, pursuits, customs and codes of conduct" (as the appellant to Strasbourg put it) necessary for democracy to flourish? This seems more likely.

Logically, it cannot be any better for the secular to order women to uncover, than for the religious to demand that they cover up.

I hate mushrooms. I always have, and I cannot understand what would possess anybody to want to eat one.

But I don't think they should be banned.