Tolerance makes for a strong society

Last updated 05:00 01/02/2014

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OPINION: New Zealand has wisely decided not to ban the burqa. This week Wellington schools showed the tolerance they practise in matters of religious dress.

Here, schoolgirls can wear the hijab, the scarf that covers the head and shoulders but not the face, although schools often require it in a colour that does not clash with the uniform. Girls can wear longer skirts than normal if their religion requires it.

Wellington principals told The Dominion Post this week that incorporating religious customs into the uniform was not a problem. And there is of course no ban on a woman wearing a burqa or niqab (face-veil) in public.

Some say this means New Zealand is colluding with the oppression of women. Muslim women, according to this argument, are forced to cover their faces in public, and the West should not allow it.

There is even an argument that face-covering is not a Muslim custom at all.

It is not required by Islamic law, some argue, but is in fact an older and darker custom merely taken up by Muslim extremists.

But the anonymous Muslim woman who has challenged in the European Court of Justice the French law banning the burqa testified that no man ordered her to wear it. Her lawyer said the veil was "as much a part of her identity as our DNA is of ours".

It would be farcical for Western authorities to get into an argument about whether or not the wearing of the burqa is "Muslim" or not. What matters is whether women want to wear it - and whether they should be prevented by law from doing so.

The French law has caused resentment and trouble and it is bound to add to the bad feeling between Muslim immigrants and the French authorities. This is a powder keg that periodically explodes in rioting.

Relations between Western governments and Muslim minorities are delicate enough without adding to the problem. Above all, Western governments should avoid anything that hardens feelings and might radicalise young people in problematic ways. Banning the burqa is just the sort of thing that might have that effect.

Of course many in the West do not like to see women wearing full-face veils. The full-body burqa, in particular, collides with liberal notions about the rights of women. To many Western eyes, a woman in a burqa is a woman imprisoned.

This common feeling led to the French law of 2011. French schoolgirls are not even allowed to wear the hijab. France bans all forms of religious clothing in schools, and this covers the hijab as much as it does crucifixes.

Plenty of people will understand why France has done all this. French politicians say they are upholding France's great traditions of secularism, freedom and human rights. The argument is consistent and even respectable. But it is mad.

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Telling people how to dress is not the Kiwi way of doing things. Banning dress codes by law is no part of our tradition. Liberal principles and ordinary New Zealand practice provide a much more sensible guide to how to treat people. That picture of two happy Naenae College school students, one in the usual dress and another in a hijab, says it all.

- The Dominion Post

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