Burqa's de-humanize. And they selectively de-humanize. That is what causes the discomfort they generate amongst many (including myself)—and I am confident that they would cause less discomfort if they did not de-humanize women specifically.
There is very much a feminist critique to be made of the burqa, as ABC newsreader Virginia Haussegger has expressed:
I wanted to stop and ask why she had such disrespect for herself and our culture that she would hide her face and body under all that black cloth, designed to render her shapeless and inhuman. But her husband shot me a glance, and I was silenced. Dumbfounded.Columnist Elizabeth Farelly considers the difference between ethics and morality:
I abhor the burka, and the niqab. I hate what it does to women. I am appalled that women are separated from the world in this way. And I am furious that some women will continue to choose to wear it. But then, throughout history, feeble women who are afraid of modernity have always been complicit in their own oppression.
The burka, with its tiny window of mesh over the eyes, and the niqab, with its letter-slit opening, are tools of patriarchy used to subjugate women. This shroud of cloth thrown over women defies freedom. It is a symbol of control. Wearing it signifies an acceptance of segregation of the sexes. The cultures which demand such segregation are societies in which men are considered the natural superiors to women.
Ethics, in this sense, come into play where there is conflict between moralities, or between rules within a morality - as when the truth imperative cuts across kindnessto argue that:
Democracy pivots on the universal franchise; the presumption for each individual of a public identity, as well as a private one. To cover someone's face in public, to reduce them to a walking tent, is to declare them lacking such identity, destroying any possibility of their meaningful public existence. It is, literally, to efface them.The issue of banning the burqa has wide resonance across the West: being highly popular even in Canada and extremely popular in Quebec.
To hide the face is to hide the person. As Shada Islam, Europe correspondent for the Pakistan paper Dawn, wrote last week, most European Muslim women have little patience with the burqa or its wearers, seeing it as ''a sad process of self-isolation and self-imposed exile''.
And while you could see even exile as a personal right, it does directly contradict a public duty, the duty of public presence. The morality of identity-erasure may be (barely) acceptable, but the ethics are not.
Humans are built to be extremely good at recognising and distinguishing faces, facial features, facial expressions, even body language. What burqas do is cut off all those levels of communication: things we use much more than we perhaps realise to "read" and judge what others are about.
So, what burqas are doing is denying others the chance to read your humanness. (Which matters in court, for example.) The implied statements in all that are likely to cause discomfort and distrust. Made worse by the fact that the burqa is specifically saying that women are to have very limited public role indeed. As a recent piece put it:
Why does political correctness fall away when it comes to the niqab? Because other Islamist inroads, like Sharia banking, happen offstage, so to speak. They are not “seen” by the public. But the niqab is open to the collective public gaze. Individuals responding to their own discomfort observe that discomfort mirrored in other people’s faces, which in turn emboldens them to protest.Let us also acknowledge that the wider context of the burqa matters. Not merely the public embracing of misogyny, but radical Islam’s association with violence towards others. The deliberate embracing of excluding otherness carries with it more hostile associations that are, entirely understandably, part of the reaction. Hence appeals to public safety by various opponents of the burqa have some resonance.
The discomfort the burqa causes is not some mere "taste" or "offense" or "problem with difference". It is about their attack on basic levels of social discourse and interaction. So, while I tend to be fairly libertarian in most things (and think attempts to ban religious clothing in general grossly illiberal), I can see an argument in terms of insisting on a certain level of commitment to elementary communication for banning garb that de-humanizes.
This may be one of those appropriate areas for "experiments in public policy".