Banning the Burqa

France’s lower house of parliament recently approved a bill to ban the wearing the burqa in public. I’ve posted a bit flippantly about this before, but in fact it’s an issue about which I’m genuinely deeply conflicted. I loathe the burqa with every atom of my being, the more so because I live in Turkey and can see exactly what the garment means, every day–not only for the women who wear it (very few, here), but for the women who don’t. They, too–or perhaps I should say, “we, too,” since I live here as well–are gravely affected the culture that gave rise to the notion that this garment is a terrific thing. But I just can’t be insensible to the religious freedom arguments. Martha Nussbaum recently made what I think is the best case that can be made against the ban. She responds to her critics here.

Do you find her arguments persuasive? If not, why not?

  1. outstripp

    I have a slightly different angle. At a conference recently, at a beach resort in Penang, Malaysia, I shared the breakfast patio with three burqa-wearing women and their husbands. I suppose they were Arabs vacationing in a liberal, muslim country. Aside from the oddity of visiting a beach resort in a burqa, the other thing that struck me was the clothing of the husbands. All three were dressed in what might be called “hip-hop” fashion. Now, I could sort of understand if they were real conservative people (like the Amish) and they insisted on their wives playing along. But, it seemed so incongruous—those 21st century guys and their 7th century wives.

  2. EJHill

    What we all have a problem with is the idea that these women are not wearing this on a volunteer basis. The ban, I believe, is give women who are being forced to wear it an out.

    Mark Steyn has pointed out that there is nothing we in the West can to do to reform Islam, that that has to come from within. However, these kinds of laws can help. Civilization has always sprung from the breast of a woman. They channel all of man’s worst instincts into the good. A freer and less intimidated class of Islamic women may make reform possible.

  3. Claire Berlinski
    C

    But what do you do with women who are wearing it voluntarily? I haven’t spoken, I confess, at any length with a woman who claims voluntarily to wear the burqa. But I’ve spoken to many women who tell me that they voluntarily wear the headscarf, here in Turkey, and I believe them. Some of their explanations sound very much to me like those I’ve heard from Orthodox Jews about why they keep kosher: They say, for example, that the daily, tangible ritual–in a sense, the inconvenience of it–reminds them continually of their commitment to God. “When I look in the mirror,” one woman told me–and this was a woman who had started veiling later in life, well after leaving the family home, where no other woman veiled–”I’m reminded that I’ve chosen to have a particular kind of relationship with God.” Seen that way, it’s no nuttier than many other religious rituals that demand symbolic acts of sacrifice, renunciation, inconvenience. I have to imagine there are women who wear the burqa because they believe it pleases God. Not all are coerced.

  4. Devin Cole

    Claire, I think it is important to understand your point regarding the women who view wearing a burqa or other clothing that veils their features in some way reminds them of their relationship with God. I do not think the government should impose a burqa ban. If a Muslim woman in a western country is in a situation wear she is wearing a burqa against her will under the dominance and oppression from a male within her own family, a burqa ban likely will result in her being further oppressed in that she will no longer be allowed to leave the house. On the other hand, such a law will deprive those women who wish to wear a burqa the ability to do so and potentially drive them into further isolation as well.

    I have also seen the incongruously dressed Muslim families, and I do not think that this can possibly be a positive cultural choice. However, I do not think governments improve the situation by reducing this oppression through legislating a burqa ban.

  5. Jules

    Sorry, freedom doesn’t work that way. You want to wear it, you should be allowed to wear it.

    Unless you believe your rights to free expression are derived from the state, as the french do. Liberte, Fraternite, Egalite and all that. Thus Egalite must be enforced by the state that gave it to you in the first place.

    This is a slippery slope back to sumptuary law. Next they’ll be trying to ban Axe deodorant because it offends the dignity of any self respecting man. From my cold dead hands.

    If you think burqas are bad, or certain scents shouldn’t be present on the person of a man, then your only avenue is social ostracism. People need to stop legislating their way to everything. Its how our ancestors got rid of parachute pants.

  6. EJHill
    Anang: People need to stop legislating their way to everything.

    The law is a people’s collective sense of morality. I have no problem when someone in a legislative body stands up and says, “I believe ‘X’ is wrong and should be illegal” or “I believe ‘Y’ is right and should be encouraged.” What I do have a problem with is when that’s outsourced to the bureaucracy and the courts or buried in some totally unrelated but totally necessary appropriations bill.

    That’s the nastiness of all these “reforms.” “The secretary shall determine and direct…”

  7. James Poulos
    C

    Good question, great comments. Nussbaum of course is a very intelligent woman and a very careful political theorist. In this case, as in others (this is a woman who denies Nietzsche can make any contribution to political theory), she is too clever by half.

    Here is my approach, which Nussbaum edits away before even beginning her case. It is unclear, in a deep, profound way, whether Christian or secular morality lead us to judge that the burqa is incompatible with human dignity. Nussbaum neatly assumes that the burqa does not strike a significant blow against human dignity, when, in reality, this is the very heart of the issue — if not the entire issue itself…!

    How, then, are Western societies — that is, societies whose cultures are typified by a complex mix of Christian and secular morality — supposed to decide the issue? Surely the answer cannot be “Wait until there are so many Muslims present that the answer is decided for us.” That would be not only a cultural capitulation, which is our prerogative, but an abandonment and a rejection of the whole purpose of politics, which is not. We can’t say there mustn’t be a burqa ban.

  8. EJHill

    Claire, when women tell you that the ritual connects them or reminds them of their relationship with God, have you ever asked them, “Isn’t life hard enough without covering yourself head-to-toe in black in 98 degree temperatures and 95% humidity?”

    Religion is all about finding and accepting God’s will among the suffering of everyday life. So why create additional suffering on your own?

  9. Aaron Miller

    Nussbaum makes a good case against burqa bans. I don’t have a definite opinion, but I’m inclined to think burqa bans can be acceptable.

    Free will is balanced with other values in all societies. The “each to his own” claim is shallow and insufficient.

    We already ban public nudity, primarily for cultural reasons. Banning burqas seems like the opposite end of the spectrum. It is perhaps inconsistent to ban one and not the other.

    At issue is not just the free wills of burqa-wearing Muslims but also of non-Muslims. Nations, like individuals, have a limited right to define themselves.

    Every culture I know acknowledges that homeowners and hosts may set certain cultural standards for their guests. It can be something as simple and symbolic as removing one’s hat in the house. Norms of hospitality (present worldwide) both burden and empower hosts. May a nation not also set “house rules” which are not independent of culture?

    Without a clear cultural identity, a nation is merely a political district. It seems reasonable for a nation to set baseline standards of behavior to encode and preserve cultural unity. Unity doesn’t happen without sacrifices and trade-offs.

  10. Ursula Hennessey
    C
    Devin Cole: Claire, I think it is important to understand your point regarding the women who view wearing a burqa or other clothing that veils their features in some way reminds them of their relationship with God. I do not think the government should impose a burqa ban. If a Muslim woman in a western country is in a situation wear she is wearing a burqa against her will under the dominance and oppression from a male within her own family, a burqa ban likely will result in her being further oppressed in that she will no longer be allowed to leave the house. On the other hand, such a law will deprive those women who wish to wear a burqa the ability to do so and potentially drive them into further isolation as well … I do not think governments improve the situation by reducing this oppression through legislating a burqa ban. · Jul 17 at 7:41am

    I was convinced, tepidly, by Nussbaum. I had a hard time concentrating throughout her entire article, though. Writing seemed a bit bogged down. However, Devin Cole (referencing Claire) provides the most convincing argument yet. Thanks for brevity and clarity, here, Mr. Cole!

  11. Sister

    Claire, I do believe that Martha Nussbaum has made a good case. I’m sorry that I am in a hurry and can’t say more – but I cover myself “head to toe in black in 98 degree temperatures and 95% humidity.” (And, I’m flying to Phx on Monday.) And, I am not Muslim – I am Christian. I wear these clothes absolutely by choice and still delight to be following the tradition of countless monastics over many hundreds of years. (This will be the first time I’ve flown since 9/11 and I’m allowing plenty of time to get through security.)

  12. Claire Berlinski
    C
    EJHill: Claire, when women tell you that the ritual connects them or reminds them of their relationship with God, have you ever asked them, “Isn’t life hard enough without covering yourself head-to-toe in black in 98 degree temperatures and 95% humidity?”

    You could ask that question of orthodox Jews. Or nuns. You could certainly ask a priest, “Isn’t life hard enough without taking vows of celibacy?” You could ask Buddhist monks, “Isn’t it hard enough without sitting alone in a cave and meditating for twenty years?” You could also ask atheists, “Isn’t life hard enough without rejecting the hope that there is a God?” But those questions don’t amount to much of an argument for anything, do they?

  13. Claire Berlinski
    C

    I must have hit “publish” at the same moment as you, Sister. Glad you posted — it makes my argument less abstract.

  14. Claire Berlinski
    C

    Not that I’m sure it is my argument, mind you. I can go either way on this one in a matter of seconds.

  15. EJHill

    I understand tradition but not necessarily ritual. Tradition is an embrace of the past and can be discarded without scorn. Ritual is demanding and forces things to be done without thought. One of my friends in my youth was a Catholic nun. I only saw Sister in habit once, at my father’s funeral. It didn’t lessen her devotion or piety.

    I look upon it like the baseball player that crosses himself in the batter’s box. It is the mindlessness of it all. (Furthermore, I don’t think God cared who wins sporting events. What if the pitcher is out there singing hymns like Orel Hershiser?)

  16. Claire Berlinski
    C

    By the way, Nussbaum remarks,

    My judgment about Turkey in the past — that the ban on veiling was justified, in those days, by a compelling state interest — derived from the belief that women were at risk of physical violence if they went unveiled, unless the government intervened to make the veil illegal for all. Today in Europe the situation is utterly different, and no physical violence will greet the woman who wears even scanty clothing — apart from the always present danger of rape, which should be dealt with by convicting violent men, not by telling women they can’t wear what they want to wear.

    This is absolutely not true. There are many neighborhoods now in Europe where women report that they do not feel safe or comfortable walking uncovered.

    In the Muslim suburb of Courneuve, France, 77 per cent of the veiled women carry veils reportedly because of fear of being harassed or molested by Islamic moral patrols.

  17. EJHill

    Isn’t this tread really about cultural confidence vs cultural and moral relativity? Of all the European nations France has always been the least shy about that, haven’t they? (Well, at one time the Germans were very aggressive about it and we know how that worked out…)

    Banning the Burqua is a statement that there are certain aspects of Islam that we find antithetical to Western civilization and we are going to take a stand against it. The Sister who replied earlier is the member of a religious order to which she joined willingly. She does not expect others to wear her choice of clothes or seek a theocracy that would demand it.

    If the West does not draw cultural (and legal) lines now, when can they? Islam is serious about our demise. Are we serious about our survival? A functioning multicultural society is more just more pavilions at the local folk festival.

  18. Claire Berlinski
    C

    Yes, but religious freedom is not antithetical to Western civilization–it’s one of the glories of Western civilization. I surely agree that political Islam is something against which we must take a stand. But there are aspects of the Islamic faith that are, if not innocuous, not the state’s business. I discuss this here, by the way. The burqa is right on the borderline–it’s unquestionably both a religious and a political symbol. It’s really a difficult problem.

  19. Byron Horatio

    As a conservative, I find the idea of the government collecting garbage from my lawn objectionable, and so the fact that I support a legislative ban on burqas does cause a little mental conflict. However, I do feel that society has a reasonable expectation to be able to see peoples’ faces in public. This question is not rhetorical, but are people allowed to go into stores/banks/businesses with ski masks on? I can’t imagine that would be allowed in most places. And it hardly strikes me as a Big Government position to deny people the right to wear ski masks, and therefore burqas in stores and in public.

    But putting aside that argument, I think banning the burqa would be a step in the right direction. It would at least present the opportunity for Muslim women to free themselves of the thuggish, patriarchal culture that is endemic to Islam in the Middle East and Europe.

    By the way, does anyone know how Ayaan Hirsi Ali comes down on this issue?

  20. Claire Berlinski
    C

    She’s for it.

    Q: One of your arguments in Nomad is that European countries have enabled homegrown jihadists by not insisting Muslims assimilate. I assume you support the proposed burka bans in Belgium and France?

    A: I think to demand to cover your face in a public place in an era of terrorism is preposterous. For the French government, and other governments, to say, “You can wear whatever you like, but we would like to see your face”—I think that’s reasonable. I’m not talking about the face covering as a manifestation of religion, just in terms of safety. Every time I go through an airport I have to remove my shoes, my belt, my coat. After the attempted underwear bombing in the name of Islam, we have to go through a machine that scans us. So for someone to come around from that religion and say, “I demand that I cover myself”—it’s unreal.

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