Burka — the real problem

So Boris Johnson is in trouble again. His comment on Muslim women wearing burkas as looking like bank robbers or letter boxes has caused enough stir even to knock Brexit off the front pages. I am no particular fan of Johnson but I read him because he produces interesting and provocative ideas. My aim today is not to discuss the issue although I think our society is turning towards being a nanny state. What I want to consider is the rôle which facial expressions play in the human race.

If we begin at the beginning we go back of course to Aristotle. He tells us that humans are a social race, and he derives from this the moral laws needed to sustain this condition. For example, we must avoid falsehoods because the communication of truths sustains society. We could go back further, even to evolution, to recognise that societies can only flourish if they respect and develop their social bonds.

The process, psychologists tell us, as a result of their studies, works like this. When we listen to people we hear and understand the words, but we can also recognise the feeling of the speakers. If, for example, someone is telling us a sad story we expect to see a sad face, and that affects our feelings. What happens is that the muscles of our own faces unconsciously react in accord. The brain is then triggered to recognise the presence of a sad feeling.

Psychologists and trained counsellors, who are using talking therapy, have to be skilled at this. And it is not easy to become accurately conscious of the feelings of the client. But, without this, therapy is unlikely to succeed. After all, our feelings are at the heart of our internal attitudes and choices. But at another level it applies in the pedestrian world. What happens if you don’t correctly recognise the feelings of your child, or the feelings of your spouse? Or judge them incorrectly?

I assume that the burka exists to defend Muslim women from having any social interplay with others than their own family. They can use words for necessary communication but avoid the emotional intimacy which their faces inevitably express. So I think they are a bad idea as they interfere with the social bonding a society needs. A moral theologian might describe it as against the natural law. But, unlike those countries which forbid the burka, I think we should permit it (leaving aside occanions such as court appearances or aviation passengers). I am very much against any regulations which prevent people making their own choices, unless it is absolutely necessary to do so.

So, thanks to Boris for putting the burka into the limelight, and making me think about it.

About Quentin

Portrait © Jacqueline Alma
This entry was posted in evolution, Moral judgment, Neuroscience. Bookmark the permalink.

15 Responses to Burka — the real problem

  1. galerimo says:

    I once had a good friend who was a Carmelite nun. I visited her often and enjoyed a lot of deep and stimulating conversation with her for years. For all of that time she sat behind a curtain in the parlour of her convent.

    When that curtain was finally removed and we got to see each other face to face I anticipated a big difference. In fact something was lost. Curiosity was satisfied at the expense of some really bonding communication.

    Civilised behaviour preceeds Aristotle by thousands of years.

    Much older cultures today still refrain from looking at people in the face when they interact. This is a way of showing respect. It contrasts strongly with our “in your face” multi media society.

    Do we need all that visibility all the time?

    Shakespeare’s Polonius advises that “clothes maketh the man”. Our feelings which are described here as being at the heart of our internal attitudes and choices, are also communicable by the way we dress and very effectively so.

    Boris dresses to look like an unmade bed.

    He comes across as being just as disordered as a person as in the way he dresses. As a journalist which is basically his trade, he knows how to sensationalise in a way that keeps his profile high in the public view. I am sure his contrived appearances will work for him.

    • Quentin says:

      This reminds me of my great aunt. I only met her once (when her convent was moving elsewhere). And it was through a veil, as you describe. She could not meet my wife as we were not yet married. But she corresponded with my wife for many years. She was not allowed to correspond during Lent.

  2. milliganp says:

    Having written last weeks about the use of words, I would suggest we consider an alternate form of words.

    You write: – I assume that the burka exists to defend Muslim women from having any social interplay with others than their own family

    If this was restated as: – I assume that the burka exists to exclude Muslim women from having any social interplay with others than their own family

    We end up with a more worrisome situation to consider.

    Similarly you write: – I am very much against any regulations which prevent people making their own choices

    One has to consider how free the choices are when a woman has expectations placed on her by her father, brothers, husband in a society where women may have little genuinely free choice.

    If you talk to Muslim women, they often refer to veiling – in it’s various forms – as being about modesty. This is a sexual rather than a social dynamic. Even indoors in Muslim households there is often de facto segregation between men and women; how can we tell if choices are genuinely free if there is no situation in which a person can fully communicate their feelings?

  3. John Nolan says:

    The face veil Boris was referring to is the niqab. The burka covers the whole body and even the eyes are hidden behind a tiny gauze screen. I have never seen it worn in this country. I would not favour an outright ban on the niqab (nor does Boris) as long as we make it clear that there are many occasions when it is necessary for the face to be seen. It would apply to all the professions, and jobs or situations which involve interaction with the public at large. I suspect in practice this already applies.

    Galerimo has a point about the ‘in your face’ culture. At Mass in your average Catholic parish the priest is eyeballing the congregation throughout. Even when someone else is doing the reading he sits in his chair facing the people, presumably making sure that everyone is paying attention. In the traditional Mass he is instructed to keep his eyes downcast when he turns to face the people.

    However, observe the Brits on public transport. They have got avoiding eye contact to a fine art.

  4. John Candido says:

    I think that a burka is a cultural artifact of clothing that reflects patriarchal power. I have heard some women on television say that they wear it because it ‘frees’ them to respect their bodies. They are entitled to both wear the burka and hold any views that they have about the matter. The burka has nothing to do with the Muslim faith.

    Women should be free to wear whatever they want to wear, and that includes the burka or other forms of head covering.

    However, the burka should reveal the face of the woman in situations where it is important.

    For example, where they are a witness or a defendant in a court of law. A woman’s face should be revealed when speaking to a police officer after the officer has respectfully asked to see their face.

    If they are a doctor with patients, a lawyer with clients, or a teacher with pupils, all patients, clients or pupils have a right to see who that person is in a professional context.

    Women who wear a burka should uncover their face when having their photograph taken at a police station or for a passport, for the production of any photo ID, or for a drivers’ licence etc.

    Women who wear a burka should be free to do so for their entire lives if that is what they wish. Except for where it is important that they are identified facially in situations as previously outlined, they have a right to wear whatever they want and should be left undisturbed by the rest of society.

    Boris Johnson is a giant boofhead and should be ignored.

    • John Nolan says:

      John Candido

      I agreed with you until your final sentence. Johnson only just missed a First in ‘Greats’ at Oxford. Literae Humaniores is a four-year course in Greek and Latin language, literature and philosophy. So, far from being a ‘boofhead’ (whatever that means), he is probably more intelligent than you or I.

      I work alongside Moslem women who dress modestly – hijab (headscarf), no make-up – and it engenders respect. It is also counter-cultural when you look at the half-naked drunken slappers sprawled on the pavements of English market towns every Friday and Saturday night.

      Catholics are also called upon to be counter-cultural, especially when faced with a hedonistic society which not only tolerates but encourages sexual perversions which would have made the ancients blench; and would turn morality on its head with regard to abortion and euthanasia.

  5. John Candido says:

    Boris Jonson is a sloppy individual who arrogantly reveals his unattractive prejudices betraying his One Nation principles.

    For all his alleged intelligence he spouts immature stupidities at a great rate of knots solidifying his reputation for empty headedness.

    Should Johnson seek any future reproachment with his political constituents he may benefit by reattaching himself to Benjamin Disraeli’s One Nation legacy by being a true conservative who truly values all people regardless of their apparel.

  6. John Nolan says:


    I assume by ‘reproachment’ (no such word) you mean ‘rapprochement’. Johnson’s constituents (the good people of Uxbridge and South Ruislip) saw fit to re-elect him in 2017 with an increased share of the vote. Perhaps the term ‘constituents’ means something different in Oz.

    There is more than a touch of irony about castigating someone else for his prejudices and then displaying your own with regard to the same individual.

    As for ‘one-nation’ Conservatism, its founding father is not Disraeli but Peel, who realized that after the Reform Act of 1832 the Tories needed to appeal to a wider constituency. His ministry of 1841-6 addressed what was then known as ‘the Condition of England question’ by cautious social reform legislation underpinned by fiscal stability and economic expansion.

    Nowadays the term ‘one-nation’ is assumed by Tories of all different stripes. Margaret Thatcher described herself as such, as did her opponents; nowadays it is used by Brexiteers and Remainers alike. It’s practically meaningless since no political party would claim less than universal appeal.

    Did Johnson say he valued people less because of the way they choose to dress? Of course he didn’t. And he was a popular and successful Mayor of London, the most ethnically diverse capital in Europe, for eight years.

    ‘Spouting immature stupidities’ is the sort of comment which you would be well advised to avoid, lest it invite a ‘tu quoque!’

    • John Candido says:

      I am reminded of what Boris Johnson once said when both sides of politics have equal levels of popularity.

      ‘Throw a dead cat on the table’.

      In other words, shock people, wake them up, do almost anything to get peopke’s attention, pull a rabbit out of a hat, do something for God’s sake rather than nothing.

      Dead cats can be putrid and this is the concern of responsible people from all walks of life and of any political persuasion.

      Johnson is a nasty politician because he knows full well that he can choose to say nothing about women who wear a burka, but he would prefer to throw a dead cat on the table to gain a political edge on his political opponents, regardless of the feelings of other people.

      It is just to bad if any Muslim people feel hurt or insulted by his comments.

      Stating that Johnson never said anything negative about other people misses the bus entirely.

      Muslim women are being used by Boris Johnson to keep him in the centre of the public’s eye in order to cement his political position.

      It is just too bad if they may feel aggrieved by his commentary about the apparel of their choice.

      • John Nolan says:

        Firstly, JC, you are well aware that nowadays it is impossible to say anything without somebody taking exaggerated and usually faked offence. Nor is one saying that Johnson doesn’t say anything negative about other people – we all do. Secondly, he does what all politicians do, and if he’s ‘nasty’ then the rest of them are too.

        ‘It is just too bad if they may feel aggrieved by his commentary about the apparel of their choice’. Yes, life’s a bitch, isn’t it? I remember Cardinal Pell being ridiculed in certain Catholic circles for wearing the cappa magna, but he didn’t parade his hurt feelings on social media.

  7. John Candido says:

    The well known conservative Australian Cardinal George Pell has enough ego for you, me, everyone on SecondSight, and the rest of humanity on our planet combined.

    Only Pell would press ever onwards to make a spectacle of himself, by donning the cappa magna!

    For those on SecondSight who are not familiar with the ‘cappa magna’, its translation means ‘great cape’.

    It is a bishop’s official vestment and includes all ranks up to cardinal.

    Who else would bother with a splendiferous, striking, and spectacular show of Roman Catholic pomp and ceremony by wearing a cappa magna with its long train, other than another conservative named American Cardinal Raymond Leo Burke?

    Conservatives have a natural penchant for the display of power and status through their official apparel.

  8. John Nolan says:

    John Candido

    I sense that the only thing longer than the train on a cappa magna would be a list of your prejudices. Boris Johnson, Cardinals Pell and Burke, conservatives in general – anything else to add?

    In the context of a Pontifical Solemn Mass the bishop enters in cappa magna but on reaching the sanctuary is divested of it, symbolizing renunciation of worldly pomp; he is then vested in the garments of a subdeacon, deacon and priest.

    An increasing number of bishops are celebrating on occasion the traditional Pontifical Mass, so the cappa is seen more often. Malcolm McMahon OP, not a noted conservative, wore one as Bishop of Nottingham in 2010 and more recently as Archbishop of Liverpool. The late Cardinal Castrillon Hoyos wore his in Westminster Cathedral in 2008.

    Perhaps you should follow Bob Dylan’s advice and ‘don’t criticize what you can’t understand’.

  9. John Candido says:

    I must quit while I am ahead by saying that I could never be as popular as American Cardinal Cardinal Raymond Leo Burke!

    His Facebook page has 31,118 people who have liked his page, and he has 31,251 who follow him!


  10. John Candido says:


    What is the world coming to!

  11. This is exactly my stance. I wrote a rather long piece on it, but this would be my summed up opinion :D.

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