First of all, let’s not ban the burqa.
David Mitchell wrote an excellent piece for the Guardian recently, on the subject of the illiberality of the recent French parliamentary decision to ban the traditional Islamic face veil in public. I agree with just about every word he writes, and even flatter myself that he even expresses it in a similar tone to mine, when I’m on especially blinding form. (It’s the part where he starts calling people dicks that particularly rings true.)
I’ve no doubt that many extremist conservative Muslims of religious authority are assisted in their efforts to oppress women by the burqa. But outlawing it altogether is just oppression in a different direction, because we’ve decided that “our” values are superior to “theirs”. And even if we’re right – which, let’s be honest, we totally are – the fact that we don’t legally force other people to go along with our way of doing things is vital to our retaining any sort of moral high ground.
A lot of people claim that the ban is a way of standing up for women’s rights, by preventing their tyrannic oppressors from telling them how to behave. No matter that a ban would also tell them how to behave, but with the full weight of the law behind it this time – again, our values are superior, so that’s apparently fine. But it’s not even fair to say that supporting a ban is the only way to stand up for the rights of oppressed Islamic women.
David’s whole point is that the respect/ban dichotomy is false, and there is a “huge gulf of toleration” in between the two. It’s absolutely possible to object to this unfair treatment, without calling for sweeping legislation to make criminals out of anyone who does what we don’t want them doing. Just because we don’t want those laws made, doesn’t mean we support anyone’s right to force women to dress a certain way.
And, in fact, the law already doesn’t support them doing that. I don’t know how senior Muslims in France or Britain would normally enforce their own personal rulings on women’s dress, but if it’s by violence, or threats of violence, or imprisoning women indoors until they comply, then that’s already illegal. If it’s just through less legally problematic routes, like social castigation or religious pronouncements, then it’s really not the government’s place to get involved.
(Also, let’s not confuse the burqa-specific ban, supposedly enforced on grounds of religious tolerance, with the more general legislation about the visibility of people’s faces in certain public arenas. The latter certainly has a place, but then religion is an entirely moot point. If you’re having your passport photo taken, it doesn’t matter whether you’re wearing a burqa or a Guy Fawkes mask, it’s got to come off.)
There’s an important factor which doesn’t get much play, though.
David Mitchell isn’t simply flat-out against banning the burqa. While professing his antipathy to the ban, he’s also explained clearly, eloquently, and entertainingly the reasons why he’s against it, and made equally clear that this doesn’t mean that he supports in any way the burqa’s use as an “empowering” garment, and that he finds a “massive flaw” in the belief system that requires it.
And I think this is an important part of the debate. If you just say that you’re against the ban, it can seem like your position is callous and unconcerned regarding the plight of oppressed Muslim women. It’s really up to you to frame your argument in such a way that people can’t easily get the mistaken idea that you’re blasé about what many Muslim women are going through, or that you don’t think it’s any big deal.
Just like when everybody drew Muhammad, some people could be forgiven for thinking we were just being provocative dicks, and I argued that it was vital to explain why standing up for this particular irreligious right, in the potentially offensive way we were doing, was important.
So, I hope I didn’t come off back then as being needlessly provocative or obnoxious, and I hope my intentions are clear now as well. Misogyny is a terrible thing wherever it happens, and it can be especially disturbing under Islamic law. This needs to be fought, with education, campaigning for progressivism, outreach, satire, and whatever we’ve got, but I can’t support passing laws banning women from doing things we don’t want to see them forced into doing.
I’m a borderline libertarian nutcase when it comes to freedom of expression and what other people choose to do with it. The best answer to bad speech is usually more speech, and I think we could do with hearing a lot more of that on this subject.