Monday, June 7, 2010

Banning the burqa

This extends a comment I made here.

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.

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.
Columnist Elizabeth Farelly considers the difference between ethics and morality:
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 kindness
to 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.

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.
The issue of banning the burqa has wide resonance across the West: being highly popular even in Canada and extremely popular in Quebec.

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".


  1. Charles RichardsonJune 8, 2010 at 12:14 AM

    Hi Michael -
    I think that's all fine as far as it goes; given its actual role in actually existing society, I don't have any argument in principle against banning the burqa. (In a free & equal society one could defend it as an act of choice, but it present it's clearly not that.) The question is whether banning it would have good or bad effects in practice, and it seems to me overwhelmingly likely that it would have bad effects: firstly because many Muslims would see it as an attack on their religion (which wouldn't in fact be your motive, but realistically probably would be the motive for a lot of supporters of a ban), and secondly because women who are now forced to wear the burqa would, if unable to do so in public, quite probably be forced to stay home, and that doesn't seem like any sort of gain at all.

  2. I have also struggled with this issue. However, so far I am not ready to blame or ban the burqa.
    The assumption of loss of freedom, identity or effective communication pre-supposes that revealing one's physical presence in public enhances that freedom, identity or communication. I'm not sure that is necessarily self-evident. Our "free" society creates dress codes and body images that give both men and women an identity full of sexual and other stereotypes that surely do limit our effective communication, limit our freedom and pre-determine our identity for many we meet. I'm not sure that is better. It seems to me we have our own equally public ways of embracing sexual inequality.
    By all means let's ban sexual violence, FGM or racial vilification. But somehow it offends my libertarian nature (including freedom to wear clothes that others do not understand) to ban clothing.

  3. As you may have gathered from my post, I am not convinced either way. Charles, you advance a good argument against.

  4. Hope you don't mind me double-posting from SL. But I cannot believe this issue is actually being pushed by an Australian legislature. Fred Nile has successfully introduced a burqa-ban bill into the NSW Upper House

    I have a lot of sympathy for the peculiarities of foreign polities, and thus respect that sometimes legal bans and censorships are necessary. For example, I empathize with the decision to outlaw Holocaust denial in say Austria, but would never accept it in Australia. Similarly, with the burqa issue in Belgium, France, and Turkey. I also respect bans in places like Thailand and Singapore on 'revealing' attire, and so forth. But clearly, think these would be inappropriate in the Australian context.

    But Australia has nothing like either the political history of France, Belgium, or Austria, or the current immigrant integration problems which beset continental Europe and the UK. We do not NEED or even ASK for - let alone DEMAND - the banning of anything; including the burqa.

    Australia has a lot more honey to attract the boganization (aka 'integration/assimilation' ;) ) of its Muhammadan migrants, compared to the vinegar of council-estate life among the lower-orders in France, the UK, Netherlands, Denmark, and so on.

    Why are both Labor and the Libs supporting a private members bill by serial christian cook Fred Nile?

    And to our legal eagles and skeptics, why is the NSW upper house able to initiate legislation in the first place?

    The only parties to oppose it were The Greens and FF. WTF?

  5. I understand the distaste, even revulsion, burqa's create, the more I think about it, the more banning it seems a highly inappropriate response: particularly, as you say, in Australia.

    This issue would not even get off the ground in the US, as no-one thinks it would pass constitutional muster.

    But distaste, revulsion, foreignness and anxiety can get you a long way.

    Consider the silly bans on crossbows and snuff, for example.