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Posts Tagged ‘burqa’

Francois Tremblay has a post up about what it really means to tell somebody what they can or can’t do.

Nobody would really deny that we can demand some limits on other people’s behaviour. My right not to be murdered in my sleep trumps anybody else’s right to break into my house at 3am and stab me in the face. But the line isn’t always so obvious, and it’s possible to get quite confusingly tangled up in deciding just when such rules are preserving more freedom than they’re inhibiting.

It’s common to hear complaints about fine upstanding citizens having gay rights shoved down their throats, as if their own person were somehow being violated and assaulted by the presence and free expression of gay people. People who don’t want to endorse any kind of homosexual behaviour often paint themselves as the victims for being “forced” to exist on the same landmass as such perversity.

Of course, “You’re oppressing my right to dislike gay people” is markedly different from “You’re oppressing my right to physically assault anyone whose sexuality upsets me”, and it’s easy enough to identify a position on these which actually supports freedom. But it’s not always obvious where something like “You’re oppressing my right to misrepresent reality to support my claim that all gays are an unnatural abomination” falls in between the two.

Francois rightly highlights the problems with looking at individual actions in a vacuum, and deciding on a moral standpoint without considering the broader context. From his closing paragraph (emphasis mine):

What people do is their own business. But having a healthy functioning society demands that we try to stop people from hurting each other, be it directly (through acts of violence, threats of violence, or hierarchical control) or indirectly (through acts of racism, sexism, and other forms of hatred).

So, while physical assault might be obviously unconscionable, actions that cause indirect harm tend to be seen as acceptable free expression. And yet, certain kinds of hate speech can perpetuate and exacerbate a social environment in which such assaults are common, even if the single act of speaking can be argued not to infringe on anybody else’s freedom.

Denying people the “freedom” to murder or assault others is sensible and important. But denying them the freedom to publicly say words and express opinions is something we should be much more reluctant to do, even when the opinions are repugnant and the words incite violence. Can it be justified by the same reasoning?

This is where I’m not really convinced. It’s true that the less proximal effects of one’s actions are certainly real, and too often forgotten about. But even a well-intentioned insistence that we have the right to restrict other people’s actions, based solely on the indirect harm they may do down the line in a way that’s impossible to precisely measure, is a step down a dangerous road.

I’ve written before about why I’m against banning the burqa. This oppressive religious garb is symptomatic of a serious problem, and the illiberal, extremist values behind such clothing do merit a proactive response.

But Francois seems to be arguing that allowing women to continue wearing the burqa amounts to a tacit endorsement of an oppressive religious regime that subjugates women.

I would say that not allowing women to wear the burqa is a far more explicit endorsement of the idea that we have the right to tell women what they may or may not wear, in the name of fighting sexism, because we know what’s best.

Like I say, it’s tricky to untangle sometimes. But claiming that actions should be suppressed only because they’re known to spur other people to cause direct harm seems shaky to me. Some people are always going to be hateful, but in a free society their ability to harm others should be no more than that of empty words.

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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.

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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.

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