The UK Burqa debate: Another sign of the Marco Polo syndrome?

There has been a growing move within European and other Western Governments to ban women from wearing the face veil in its various forms. The niqab and burqa’, two styles of covering, have been particularly targeted.

In 2010, both France and Belgium moved to ban the wearing of the face veil in public, with the Netherlands eager to do the same. In December of 2011 the Citizenship and Immigration Minister of Canada announced that the face veil must be removed for the citizenship ceremony when a person declares their Oath of Allegiance. Germany, Denmark, and Spain also have certain restrictions placed upon the Muslim face covering, with numerous additional countries debating whether or not to follow suit.

This week the UK entered the debate with two news items hitting the headlines within days of each another. The first was the choice of Birmingham Metropolitan College to reverse its decision to ban students from wearing the face veil. Their decision came after a huge uproar from various quarters of society and a petition calling for the lifting of the ban, signed by close to 10,000 people.

This incident was followed by the crass remarks of Jeremy Brown, a Liberal democrat and the Home Office Minister, who called for a debate on whether or not the state should ban the face veil in order to prevent girls being forced into wearing it. To reach such a conclusion Mr. Brown must surely have based his opinion on the premise that all women who wear the veil are forced to do so.

Depicting the ‘other’

St. Mark Preaching in Alexandria

The image of Muslim women wearing the full face veil and outer garment is nothing new to the Western imagination. The 16th century painting St. Mark Preaching in Alexandria by the Italian artist Gentile Bellini depicts a group of Ottoman women, dressed in the full Islamic garb, sitting in a courtyard listening to St. Mark preaching. Descriptions of Muslim women’s dress also reached the West through medieval Byzantine writings, the travel logs of famous explorers such as Marco Polo, and the many artistic depictions of the Arabian Nights.

Gerardo Mosquera, the renowned curator, coined the term ”Marco Polo Syndrome” in the early ’90s. The term describes what is seen by some as the modern Western and Eurocentric insistence on depicting the ”other,” whoever he or she might be, through the eyes of Western hegemony, reaffirming stereotypical depictions over reality. Mosquero explains: ”What is monstrous about this syndrome is that it perceives whatever is different as the carrier of life-threatening viruses rather than nutritional elements.”

In further constructing what Mosquera was alluding to, Professor Rachel Bailey Jones writes: ‘Within the confines of this syndrome, art created by those outside of the West (sometimes referred to as the Rest) is either disregarded as derivative of greater Western products, or is valued as exotic, ‘authentic,’ creations of the Other. If the artist does not appropriately reference ‘traditional’ visual codes and represent his/her culture the way that it is imagined in the West, then the artwork is deemed inauthentic and not valued in the establishment.’

Though Mosquera coined this term with art in mind, it seems apt to extend the spirit of its meaning to the Muslim face covering, which many in the West consider a symbol of the non-Western Muslim ‘other.’ A representation, as it were, of the inequalities of the East. It might be fair, therefore, to suggest that the Muslim face veil invokes within the Western mind a type of Marco Polo Syndrome.

This certainly shone through Sarah Wollaston’s take on things last week. Commenting on the face veil, the Conservative Member of Parliament for Totnes wrote:

‘Those students who exercise their personal freedom to embrace the niqab may feel a sense of victory but they risk limiting the life chances of others. Women should be clear that the burka is a symbol not of liberation but of repression and segregation.’

Such statements can surely only amount to a projection of Western ideals upon the other, in this case the Muslim, rather than to represent the pluralism that she would no doubt otherwise call for. Surely pluralism dictates that each group has the right to operate within society as it pleases so long as its activities remain within the confines of the law? Surely arguing the case for everyone’s rights to be upheld is what should be considered British.  

Is it also legitimate for any person or group to dictate to another, by way of proposed legislation, how they should interpret their own – extremely personal – life choices? The Arab uprisings, supported almost unanimously by the West, have seen much of the Arab world spill its blood and wealth to oppose this very form of autocracy.

Unlike other notable western nations, the views expressed by Brown and Wollaston, among others, are drowned out by the voice of the Great British nation, which appears to have a far greater grasp of the liberal values upon which Great Britain was built. In addition to the 10,000 people who petitioned Birmingham Metropolitan University to reverse its decision, a poll conducted by the Telegraph found that 85% of the 100,000 people polled believe that the veil should not be banned and that ‘…everyone should be free to observe their chosen religion’.

In her critique of Wollaston’s article, Allie Renison insightfully wrote:

‘The notion that equality should be defined by and wedded to a single set of concepts is obtuse in the extreme. Who am I to tell a woman I meet in the street or sitting next to me on the bus that because I cannot see her face she is not completely equal nor able to participate fully in society? Such thinking reeks of hypocrisy and judgement on the basis of a fixation with the aesthetic. Whatever happened to the idea that there’s far more to us than just the way we look?’

Renison understands, as the above polls demonstrates most of us do also, that society is exhausted by the ‘…fixation with the aesthetic’ that has so long plagued our everyday lives. And her view runs parallel with the philosophy behind the Islamic teachings on modesty. To value one’s fellow human, male or female, with dignity and purely according to the measure of their virtue and integrity is the only true way that one person can be distinguished from another. Islam teaches that outward dignity must be preceded by a pure heart.

Unlike Wollaston’s sweeping generalisation, this view justly values and appreciates the countless women who, for more than half a century, have freely chosen to wear the face veil and risen to the heights of their personal, academic and professional pursuits.

Muslim doctor wearing the face veil

Muslim doctor wearing the face veil

Beginnings of a slippery slope

A nation enters upon a slippery slope when the legislature begins to dictate what forms of dress should be deemed ”intimidating.” or ”acceptable”. If it is the Burqa’ today, then tomorrow it may be people’s piercings, hair colour, tattoos, facial hair, turbans, crosses, or skull caps – all being things which some people find ”intimidating” and against their ”social norm.”

Any move to legislate dress or what THE correct doctrinal approach is, should not arise in a secular and pluralistic state. Meaningful questions should surround whether or not various modes of dress amount to illegality within the secular legal framework. In answering that question it would certainly be legitimate to argue that it is both in the public interest and safety for women to remove their face veils on the basis of security (i.e. at airports or for identification and security purposes, etc.).

Of what benefit, however, would it be to the rule of law for women to be banned from choosing to dress how they please under ordinary circumstances? The only benefit, if it can even be termed as such, would be for stiff-collared eccentrics to affirm western hegemony above what they perceive to be ”backward” Eastern practices.

Freedoms of thought, opinion and expression are each fundamental cornerstones of democracy and should always flourish in any society. The legislature, however, is there to create an environment wherein balances of rights, all conducive to the rule of law, are maintained. It must not become so autocratic that it removes the rights of minorities purely for the comfort of the majority. This would amount to an intolerance beyond the dignity of democracy and, as Ghandi famously stated: ‘Intolerance is itself a form of violence and an obstacle to the growth of a true democratic spirit.’

Progress, tolerance, and mutual respect cannot flourish unless the prevalent Marco Polo syndrome is relegated to a thing of the past; something the British government and people, amongst others, and to their credit, have invested much time and effort to successfully achieve and maintain.


4 thoughts on “The UK Burqa debate: Another sign of the Marco Polo syndrome?

  1. Everyone have the right to practice their faith if there is a security issues can be solved with so many other ways. I think no one have right to interfere Anyone’s religion.

  2. Khalid: You have not evidenced why you believe the article is biased.

    The statement regarding the Canadian Government was neutral, drawing no conclusions, and simply highlighted the current Canadian position. Those for could argue that removing the veil is quite reasonable. Those against could argue that making it mandatory for a woman to remove her face veil when there is no necessity to do so is to impede upon a her right to practice her religion freely.
    It is also perplexing that in order to formally become a Canadian a woman cannot wear a face covering, but to then live as a Canadian she can wear one.

  3. A very biased article not taking any interest in the other side of the argument. The article mentioned the Canadian government considering banning faces being covered during citizenship ceremonies when they have to repeat the oath of allegiance – isn’t that reasonable? I’m a devout Muslim and I think part of that is being honest in our opinions even if it’s against or own beliefs.

Join the Discussion

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s