A new law in France, in effect as of today, forces women going out in public to show their faces.
The rationale behind the idea, supposedly, relates to the fact that the country’s more conservative and authoritarian Muslims insist that women cover their faces when out in public. This infringement of people’s rights is what the new law seeks to counteract.
Lawyer and political blogger David Allen Green is against the law, and sums up a good portion of his reasoning in his closing paragraph:
Many secularists and liberals would prefer a world where individuals do not want to hide their faces a part of their social interactions; many secularists and liberals would welcome a world without any face veils. But for such a world to be imposed by legal force makes it a secular and liberal world not worth striving for.
I would certainly prefer some versions of this world to others, and everybody feeling comfortable to make their own decisions regarding how much of their face to show in public seems like a better state of affairs than any alternative. But passing laws to coerce everybody to abide by how I would prefer the world to be is a dangerous road to go down. Even if I’m right, dammit.
Every time the Westboro Baptist Church do anything newly obnoxious, there’s much liberal hand-wringing from the left about the dilemma of supporting free speech but abhorring this speech. And it is a wrench to forego the desire to impose your preferences on society, even when it’s perfectly clear to everyone with an ounce of sanity that your world would be a lovelier place.
In the case of the burqa, some law-makers have decided that it’s time for action. But I’m not sure if they know exactly why they’re doing it.
According to the BBC’s reporting, it’s the way the veil “undermines the basic standards required for living in a shared society” which has prompted the French government to deem it unacceptable, and is why women wearing it risk being fined. Apparently wearing the veil is an undesirable and antisocial act in itself, whether forced or not, and enacting laws against antisocialism is presumed to be within the government’s purview.
From this angle, I suppose there is a worthwhile discussion there to be had about whether this form of “personal expression” causes society sufficient outrage or discomfort for the state to clamp down. Indecency laws no doubt have some place in the world, notwithstanding disagreements on whether their influence should stretch as far as, say, public breast-feeding. A private shopping centre might choose to take a more authoritarian stance on groups of teenagers wearing hoodies on its property. And you may want to insist on seeing people’s faces unobstructed, both in person and on their passport, before letting them fly on your airline.
But the argument that a few thousand Muslim women in France wearing veils is to the general public detriment isn’t one that’s been made a lot. Instead, the decision to pass this law has generally been sold as a liberal one, which stands up for women’s rights and defends them against a more virulent form of oppression. It’s not the veil itself that’s bad, so much as women being forced to wear it by men with purportedly divine justification.
(The truth might in fact be some odd mixture of the two: we don’t like the idea of the burqa, for reasons we’re disinclined to closely examine, and so justify legislating against it with claims that it’s the liberal thing to do.)
So the world we’d prefer isn’t necessarily one in which women didn’t wear the veil, but one in which they weren’t forced to by some patriarchal authority. But the laws against this latter case are, presumably, already in place. I don’t know exactly how some women are being forced to wear clothes they don’t want to, but if it’s through physical violence, or detaining them against their will, then these are already illegal means.
If the ban on the burqa is intended to make these laws easier to act on, then I don’t see how. Making criminals of the women who might have been so coerced won’t obviously bring to light new evidence of the coercion. Nor will inducing them to be urged simply to stay indoors.
In some cases, perhaps the brutal oppression that forces women into adopting a veil isn’t physical, but rather depends on the social pressures of a misogynistic system, and ends with the women themselves choosing the veil through a seemingly contorted form of free will. But when does the state stop passing legislation which claims to know what we want better than we do, once it’s started? If a woman does her best to honestly and sincerely express the desire to wear a veil, and the government insists she mustn’t because the patriarchy have probably just brainwashed her into wanting to do so… well, I can think of a number of worlds preferable to that one.
It seems likely that the burqa is a central part of some Muslim men’s efforts to keep some Muslim women under the thumb, and that this policy will cause more social damage and injustice the more widespread it becomes. The same could be said of Fred Phelps’s clan’s picketing, much of which is solely intended to induce grief and anguish as they gloat in others’ misery. But I don’t want anyone’s right to use placards curtailed, and I wouldn’t even if there was almost nothing they were used for except homophobic fury.
Of course, in the case of the WBC, few liberal commenters simply express a defense of their rights to spew what bile they like, and then leave it at that. They emphasise that these are terrible, wrong-headed people whose hateful message deserves to be utterly reviled – and this tends to play a more significant part in the conversation than the fact that, much as we would like to, we can’t really justify oppressive legal action here.
Although I oppose the ban on the burqas, that shouldn’t be the end of the ongoing conversation, or even the biggest part of it. The problems of oppression and social injustice which the ban seeks to address are still there. So what can we do about them? Is it just a matter of continuing the conversation, adding to the public discourse, and hoping that a free flow of information and opinion will lead inexorably to a freer society?
That’d certainly be handy for me. It’d mean I’m already doing everything I need to do to save the world.