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For the Sake of Faith, Remove Face Veils

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Is it possible to be passionately committed to religious freedom and yet opposed to face veils such as in the burka or niqab? I would argue 'yes'.

As a Jewish person living in Britain, I belong to a minority group and I am well aware that I am fortunate to be in society which values tolerance and seeks to accommodate differences.

That is reinforced by the fact that I am heavily involved in inter-faith dialogue, where one of the pre-conditions is accepting the integrity of other peoples' traditions and not seeking to change them.

It therefore feels very uncomfortable to assert that the face veil is a ritual that should have no place in British society today.

The reason is simply that its effect is to impede the most basic forms of social intercourse, face to face communication. Of course one can talk perfectly well over the telephone without seeing another person, and of course blind people can be highly sensitive to verbal nuances and other signals that sighted people can miss.

But, generally, we do use facial expressions as a way of interacting with someone. Conversely, hiding one's face, involves hiding away from them.

Concealment also creates a sense of suspicion - why are they hiding? Do they present a danger to us? Or do they find us threatening? Whether justified or not, it raises a barrier.

Is this anti-religious? Certainly not, for there is no problem with the nun's wimple or Sikh turban or Jewish head-covering, none of which interfere with facial communication.

So is this simply Islamphobia? Again no, as there is no objection to the hijab, which covers the head but not the face, and allows open communication.

But is this not still dictating religious norms? It is easy to argue that wearing a face veil is not a religious obligation at all - as many Muslim scholars hold - but merely a cultural tradition, which is why many observant Muslim women do not don it.

However, it is probably more honest to say that, yes, it is dictating a norm - on the grounds that tolerance can only be tolerance if there are limits, otherwise it is merely a free-for-all without any boundaries; and it just so happens that the particular case of a face veil crosses a red line that most other religious or cultural rituals do not, by negating the interaction upon which tolerance rests in the first place.

I am aware that some might see opposition to the face veil as an excuse to attack many other rites, but it would be wrong to withhold criticism when it is due for fear of facing it when it is not.

To be fair, there is an argument that the rest of society should make an effort to understand those who chose to wear a face veil - but there is an even stronger one that a ritual developed in other countries where a different milieu exists is not appropriate in a society that operates in a completely different way.

As for the notion of modesty, that is to be respected, but there are many other ways to be modest in dress other than by wearing a face veil. Moreover, modesty should apply to men as well, and should affect not just clothing but also behaviour and speech.

There are additional issues over face veils causing security risks, impeding juries in law courts and women being pressurised to wear them against their will, but the social one is paramount. In a society where we are working hard to create inter-faith harmony, the face veil is seen as a symbol of disengagement and should be abandoned.

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