Banning the Burqa

I don’t really understand what good a ban on wearing a veil in public would do.

As far as I can see, there are three broad arguments in favour. First, the Burqa symbolises a rejection of western values. Second, covering the face is anti-social and/or a security risk. Third, it is a symbol of the oppression of women. These arguments strike me as inconsistent, illogical and discriminatory.

This first point itself rejects western values and singles out Islam alone for criticism. It is, first, unclear why covering one’s face per se is a rejection of “western values”. Western values prize free expression; the right to wear what you like without interference from the state. To be free to choose whether to cover one’s face is the very freedom denied to many women in the middle east. What’s more, many other articles of clothing reject “western values” or society at large: countercultural outfits, Ché Guevara T-shirts, bad-taste balls, deliberately offensive shirts (Warning: definitely NSFW). Yet society tolerates all of these. What is so different about the Burqa, an article worn by a minority within a minority, that we feel the need to ban it? Why are we willing to toss overboard centuries of tolerance and the freedom to wear what we want over this one item? How does it promote “western values” to have our police harass and arrest, Iran-style, women who wear a certain garment?

Tied into this is the argument that the veil is anti-social because it obscures the face and symbolises detachment from society. Well, too much Botox is also antisocial for similar reasons, but nobody proposes banning that, despite the health-risks. Why is a facial veil inherently more anti-social than the Jewish man whose face is obscured by a large beard and a hat? What about a smog mask? Or perhaps the practice of covering one’s face in cold weather? Many women who wear the veil participate in wider society and the professions. They wear it as a sign of piety. To view it as an attempt to separate oneself from wider society is to misunderstand it. To ban it would only widen a gulf. More importantly, a free society includes the right to be anti-social. I can lock myself in my house, cover the windows, refuse to communicate by anything other than Post It notes on my front door, and lead a hermit-like existence. I am being far more anti-social than anyone wearing a veil, and yet the law won’t bother me. Is the difference perhaps because we don’t like the message wearing a veil projects? I’m afraid that isn’t a good enough argument for a ban. Freedom and tolerance are not about a society where you see and hear only what you find agreeable, but putting up with (tolerating) messages you don’t like. Why this should be any different in the case of Muslim women is beyond me.

The alleged security risk posed by the veil is rather over-stated. Veiled women have shown their faces and passed through airport security without fuss for decades. Moreover, as we move from relatively unreliable human facial recognition to biometric systems that work by recognising a person by their iris and fingerprints (i.e. those parts not covered by the veil), this issue becomes increasingly obsolete.

The oppression of women argument is the one I have the least time for. Martha Nussbaum picks up on this:

Society is suffused with symbols of male supremacy that treat women as objects. Sex magazines, nude photos, tight jeans — all of these products, arguably, treat women as objects, as do so many aspects of our media culture. And what about the “degrading prison” of plastic surgery? Every time I undress in the locker room of my gym, I see women bearing the scars of liposuction, tummy tucks, breast implants. Isn’t much of this done in order to conform to a male norm of female beauty that casts women as sex objects? Proponents of the burqa ban do not propose to ban all these objectifying practices. Indeed, they often participate in them. And banning all such practices on a basis of equality would be an intolerable invasion of liberty. Once again, then, the opponents of the burqa are utterly inconsistent, betraying a fear of the different that is discriminatory and unworthy of a liberal democracy. The way to deal with sexism, in this case as in all, is by persuasion and example, not by removing liberty.

Moreover, how does a ban on veils, or any ban on womens’ conduct, help stop their oppression? As Jack of Kent notes:

In all cases, what banning something means is that if that thing now happens it can be attended by certain consequences. This is because law is not actually any good at “banning” things but for providing for sanctions and liabilities should something happen. To use the law to ban something is not to invoke some magical power to prevent it happening… but the introduction of new knock-on effects. [Heavily edited for stylistic purposes]

Thus a ban on wearing a veil is not to stop, by command of Her Majesty, women wearing the veil, but to attach criminal sanction to a woman wearing a veil in public. If, then, we assume that women only wear such veils because men oppress them into doing so, what is the likely consequence? Will it be that women suddenly stand up to their men, shake off their fabrics of oppression, and emerge in public newly empowered? Or is it not more likely that they will be forced to stay inside? In what way is it “feminist” to punish women for their oppression at the hands of men? Surely it provides an abusive partner the perfect excuse to keep his wife entirely away from public view?

If there are any other arguments in favour I’d be glad to hear them, but I haven’t yet seen a single convincing one in favour of a ban.

Note: Though the opinions expressed here are mine, much of their expression is owed to the Martha Nussbaum article I quote from above. If you want to read a detailed feminist critique of veil bans, I highly recommend that article.

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#2 kbf on 07.21.10 at 7:24 pm

Rather interestingly, I read somewhere that the burqua originally fell out of use because outraged fundamentalists saw it as a sign of improper freedom. There was apparently a great deal of disapproving comment from religious leaders on the grounds that, as it gave complete anonymity to the wearer, it allowed both men and women to carry out lewd assignations with little chance of being caught.

I wonder how much of the current social criticism of the burqua in this country comes from a) an underlying disapproval and discomfort with being unable to codify and categorize an individual into a recognizable socio-economic class and b) the belief that the body, especially the female body is a social property, not belonging to the individual subject but the consumers of that that property i.e. “the gaze”. By deflecting “the gaze” with BLACK cloth, the subject is transforming herself into a negative space and hence refuting the right of the gaze to consume. The consumer thus feels resentful at being made to feel as though the gaze is inappropriate not only in this case, but in all other cases and his belief in the right to “the gaze” is shaken.

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