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?

There are 63 comments.

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  1. Inactive

    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.

    • #1
    • July 17, 2010 at 6:59 am
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  2. Podcaster

    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.

    • #2
    • July 17, 2010 at 7:12 am
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  3. Editor
    Claire Berlinski, Ed. Post author

    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.

    • #3
    • July 17, 2010 at 7:29 am
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  4. Inactive

    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.

    • #4
    • July 17, 2010 at 7:41 am
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  5. Member

    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.

    • #5
    • July 17, 2010 at 7:53 am
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  6. Podcaster
    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…”

    • #6
    • July 17, 2010 at 8:06 am
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  7. Contributor

    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.

    • #7
    • July 17, 2010 at 8:19 am
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  8. Podcaster

    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?

    • #8
    • July 17, 2010 at 8:23 am
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  9. Member

    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.

    • #9
    • July 17, 2010 at 8:33 am
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  10. Contributor
    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!

    • #10
    • July 17, 2010 at 8:36 am
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  11. Inactive

    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.)

    • #11
    • July 17, 2010 at 8:41 am
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  12. Editor
    Claire Berlinski, Ed. Post author
    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?

    • #12
    • July 17, 2010 at 8:47 am
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  13. Editor
    Claire Berlinski, Ed. Post author

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

    • #13
    • July 17, 2010 at 8:49 am
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  14. Editor
    Claire Berlinski, Ed. Post author

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

    • #14
    • July 17, 2010 at 8:50 am
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  15. Podcaster

    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?)

    • #15
    • July 17, 2010 at 9:07 am
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  16. Editor
    Claire Berlinski, Ed. Post author

    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.

    • #16
    • July 17, 2010 at 9:08 am
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  17. Podcaster

    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.

    • #17
    • July 17, 2010 at 9:55 am
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  18. Editor
    Claire Berlinski, Ed. Post author

    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.

    • #18
    • July 17, 2010 at 10:07 am
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  19. Inactive

    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?

    • #19
    • July 17, 2010 at 10:15 am
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  20. Editor
    Claire Berlinski, Ed. Post author

    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.

    • #20
    • July 17, 2010 at 10:32 am
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  21. Member

    The comparison to nuns in habits is interesting. A nun wears a habit both to be modest and to signify her marriage to Christ. It’s much like a wife reserves the full beauty of her body for her husband and wears a wedding band to advertise her devotion.

    A nun’s habit reveals only her face. She is able to be social via facial expressions and be recognized as an individual person.

    I have seen only a handful of women in burqas apart from picture, but I suspect that they can similarly be social via expressions even when only their eyes are revealed. The eyes are the most vital element of body language, and expressions like smiles can likely be seen even behind cloth. But I wonder how much recognition of the woman’s individuality is hindered. Only people who know her well could recognize her by her eyes and voice alone.

    Do we not want to recognize persons as individuals in ordinary circumstances, when a fingerprint scanner or signature comparison is not available? I acknowledge a person’s right to be more communal than individualistic. I do not acknowledge a right to treat oneself as a faceless drone.

    • #21
    • July 17, 2010 at 10:35 am
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  22. Podcaster

    Claire speaks of both religious and political Islam. Do we ever speak of any other religion in that way? Even the “Jewish State” has a secular government.

    Islam stands alone as a major faith whose stated goal is world theocracy and has special laws for those who practice another (or no) religion. We wish to treat them as our equals. They wish for us to treat them as our superiors. Can there ever be a compromise?

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    • July 17, 2010 at 10:40 am
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  23. Editor
    Claire Berlinski, Ed. Post author

    We certainly did speak of Christianity that way until the 18th century.

    • #23
    • July 17, 2010 at 10:49 am
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  24. Podcaster
    Claire Berlinski: We certainly did speak of Christianity that way until the 18th century. · Jul 17 at 10:49am

    True. It took 1,800 years for Christianity to mature and divorce itself from the political. At that pace Islam should be ready to coexist with the rest of us in, say, 2432? I’m not sure that works in a nuclear world.

    Yes, we want to live up to our own stated ideals. But that option should not include cultural suicide. Our Declaration of Independence originally condemned slavery, yet that sectioned was abandoned lest it abort America’s birth. We believe in a multicultural society and yet imprisoned Americans of Japanese ancestry during WWII.

    Barbarity must be called out and actively resisted. Civilizations to not fall to the more civilized. Freedom does not give way to the more free.

    • #24
    • July 17, 2010 at 11:09 am
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  25. Member

    Not exactly on point, but my best friend works for the IRS in Philadelphia and they don’t require Muslim women who wear the full burqa to remove their face coverings for their photo IDs. I may be wrong, but it seems to me that we won’t have to worry about the US outlawing burqas anytime soon.

    • #25
    • July 17, 2010 at 11:13 am
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  26. Member

    EJ, the explicit goal of a worldwide caliphate is only a concern of government if force is the explicit method of achieving that goal. Political dissent is acceptable in speech and in democratic efforts. It is only armed rebellion that is illegal.

    Christians hope that all people will become Christian, even if we do not believe that will ever happen and our focus is on the afterlife. It’s not a problem if Muslims hope all people will become Muslim. It’s only a problem when people try to enslave others and enforce their worldview through brutality.

    That said, you might have a point. If burqas are only associated with the branch of Islam that promotes conversion by force and dhimmitude for non-Muslims, then banning burqas could indeed be a defense of one’s political system, albeit a circumstantial one. It would be like banning gang colors. I’m not sure that’s sound policy, though.

    • #26
    • July 17, 2010 at 11:21 am
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  27. Podcaster
    Peter Robinson: It therefore has the right–it must–to outlaw practices that prove incompatible with American life.

    And the oft quoted story of Englishman Charles James Napier about the Hindu practice of Sati:

    “You say that it is your custom to burn widows. Very well. We also have a custom: when men burn a woman alive, we tie a rope around their necks and we hang them. Build your funeral pyre; beside it, my carpenters will build a gallows. You may follow your custom. And then we will follow ours.”

    • #27
    • July 18, 2010 at 1:07 am
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  28. Founder

    I no sooner hit the “post” button that I realized I’d left my little argument incomplete. If the wearing of the burqa were only a political act–a defi–then it would certainly be protected under the First Amendment. The tricky question: What if it represented not merely a political act but something close to an incitement? That is, what if the wearing of the burqa represented not merely speech, but speech from which action, intended, in one way or another, to undermine American life, were more or less certain, sooner or later, to follow?

    • #28
    • July 18, 2010 at 1:11 am
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  29. Contributor

    Peter raises a hard question that has long bedeviled the Supreme Court — what happens when society passes a law prohibiting conduct that impacts a religion’s core practices. The short answer is that a 5-4 majority, led by Justice Scalia (who is pretty accommodating to religion on most other questions), says that a generally applicable law that does not discriminate against religion on its face will not be held to violate Americans’ right to free exercise of religion.

    In English, religious belief does not amount to a get out of jail free card.

    The Court’s answer comes from a 1990 case: an American Indian religion used peyote (an illegal drug) in its ceremonies. Justice Scalia held that the defendants who used the drug could not claim an exception from the criminal laws. He worried that to give free rein to this claim would effectively create an individual right to ignore general laws (what Peter here sees as the laws that allow us all to live together in one society).

    The answer would be different in the law were not neutral or generally applicable, but were obviously designed to suppress a religious group.

    • #29
    • July 18, 2010 at 1:13 am
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  30. Founder

    Next question, John, if we may turn from discussing a bedeviled Court to spending a little time bedeviling you: Can you imagine circumstances–any at all–in which the Supreme Court would uphold a ban on burqas? Or–just to bedevil you a little more imaginatively–can you imagine circumstances in which Mr. Justice Scalia would uphold such a ban?

    • #30
    • July 18, 2010 at 1:35 am
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