The face veils worn by a small number of Muslim women in the UK are once again in the news this week, after Boris Johnson wrote a controversial article in the Telegraph in which he compared them to “letter boxes” and “bank robbers”.
Mr Johnson is now under investigation by the Conservatives after the party received complaints over his comments.
In parts of Europe, it’s illegal to wear a full-face veil in a public place. Despite the storm around his comments, Mr Johnson used this week’s article to actually argue against the policy. It seems, on this question at least, he and the Prime Minister are in broad agreement: in 2017, Theresa May appeared to rule out any possible “burqa ban”.
But what do Brits think about the idea?
Before we start…
In the UK, we often use the word “burqa” to describe a face veil where only the woman’s eyes are visible. But that is actually a niqab. The burqa is even rarer in the UK and involves the complete covering of the face and eyes, with a mesh to see through. You can find out more here.
For the purposes of this article, we’ll use the word “burqa” as that is the term mainly used by political pollsters and UK public at large.
Is support for a burqa ban declining?
In July 2010, more than two-thirds of UK adults said they thought the burqa “should be completely banned in Britain”.
The latest YouGov data from April 2017 suggests – apparently for the first time – that less than half of UK adults (48 per cent) would support a burqa ban, although they still outnumber those who oppose it (42 per cent).
Source: YouGov polls
Is it all about the question?
Support for a burqa ban appears to have dropped significantly in the last two years. Could this be because YouGov changed the question it was asking?
People taking part in the 2010, 2011 and 2013 surveys, were asked:
“A burkha is a loose garment worn by women in some Islamic traditions for the purpose of hiding a female’s body and face when out in public. It is worn over their usual daily clothing and removed when the woman returns to their household, out of the view of men that are not their immediate family members. To what extent do you agree or disagree with the following statement? ‘The burqa should be banned in Britain’”
But from August 2016 onwards, the question didn’t mention the idea that a burqa might be worn to keep women out of the view of men. It also gave respondents three statements to choose from: the burqa should be banned, “people should be allowed to decide for themselves what to wear (including burqas and niqabs)”, and “don’t know”.
These differences are important. It’s possible that the early polls prompted more people to say that they were in favour of banning the burqa because the question itself suggested that the burqa is oppressive to women or is about male control.
It’s also possible that the later polls encourage people to say they don’t want to ban the burqa because one of the options is “people should be allowed to decide for themselves what to wear”. This is an argument used against banning the face veil and, expressed in terms of freedom of choice, is more attractive.
Overall it’s difficult to tell how the “true” level of support for a burqa ban has changed over time – if at all. You could argue that the recent question asked by YouGov presents a more balanced picture of the arguments for and against the burqa ban, as it now refers to the idea that people should be allowed to wear what they want.
Is it all about Boris?
A separate poll by Sky Data released on Wednesday found that 59 per cent of Brits think the burqa should be banned, with just 26 per cent opposed. The survey also concluded that 60 per cent of people think Mr Johnson’s comments were not racist.
There are a few conclusions we could draw here.
It’s possible that since the last YouGov poll on the topic was conducted in April 2017, attitudes towards the burqa have hardened among the British public.
It’s also possible that the burqa debate has, in the minds of some people, become a proxy for how people feel about Boris Johnson himself. The Sky poll was conducted within days of his article, referred to him by name, and used exactly his words. If you’re a Boris fan, you might be more willing to defend his comments – and if you’re not, you might be more inclined to say they’re racist or worthy of an apology.
We should also consider how the questions were ordered.
The 1,649 people who took part in the Sky Data survey were first asked whether Boris Johnson should apologise for his comments, then whether the comments were racist and finally, whether they would support or oppose a burqa ban.
This is potentially significant. If you have just said in question 1 that Mr Johnson should not apologise, you might be more likely to say in question 2 that the language he used is not racist. Both of those questions make it more natural to respond to question 3 by saying the burqa should be banned.
Academics in social sciences and other fields that rely on surveys have long known that the order of the questions you ask affects the answers you get. (You can find out more about “order effects” here).
It’s also worth saying that – like the early YouGov polls – the Sky Data question did not present any arguments against a burqa ban. So it’s not that surprising that the Sky poll results were similar to those we saw from the older YouGov surveys.
Who supports a burqa ban?
The best data we have on who supports a burqa ban comes from the YouGov poll that was conducted just before the 2017 Election.
That survey found that 85 per cent of UKIP voters want to ban the full-face veil. Just under two thirds of Conservative voters also agreed that the burqa should be banned.
Source: YouGov poll, April 2017
Conversely, Liberal Democrat voters were the most likely to reject a ban: 67 per cent agreed that “people should be allowed to decide for themselves what to wear (including niqabs and burqas)”. The ban was also rejected by 63 per cent of Labour voters.
Men and women were equally likely to support a burqa ban (48 per cent each), although slightly more women than men said they “don’t know”.
Source: YouGov poll, April 2017
A more striking difference happens between different age groups.
Only about a quarter of 18 to 24-year-olds think the face veil should be banned. The opposite is true among people over 65, just a quarter of whom agree that “people should be allowed to decide for themselves what to wear (including burqas and niqabs)”.
Source: YouGov poll, April 2017
According to this poll, there is a direct correlation between advancing age and increased support for a burqa ban.
Every poll we’ve seen suggests more Brits would support a burqa ban than oppose it.
However, the extent of support varies from survey to survey and seems to be affected by how the question is asked. When pollsters present both sides of the argument (should the burqa be banned or should people be allowed to wear what they want?), respondents are less willing to support a ban than in surveys where only one side of the debate is mentioned.
A poll out this week suggests very significant public support for a ban (two-thirds in favour). But unlike other polls, this survey puts the question in the context of Boris Johnson’s recent comments – so it’s harder to work out if respondents are sharing their genuine views on the burqa, or if the issue is clouded by how people feel about Mr Johnson himself.
In terms of party loyalties, it seems UKIP voters are by far the most likely to support a burqa ban (85 per cent), followed by Conservative voters.
Liberal Democrat voters are most strongly opposed to a ban, followed by Labour supporters.
Age is also a significant factor: just a quarter of 18 to 24-year-olds think the full-face veil should be banned, compared to three quarters of people over 65.