When France’s ban on full face veils in public spaces entered into force in 2011, I spoke out against it, fearing that it would contribute to the oppression and marginalization of Muslim women. Sadly, I think that subsequent events have proved me right. Since the burqa and niqab have become much-discussed topics here in Britain in recent weeks, and politicians have called for a “national debate”, this seems an appropriate time to remind my readers of why such coercive legal measures are an appallingly bad and counterproductive idea.
In the words of Angelique Chrisafis, the ban has put some French Muslim women “effectively under house arrest”. While there has been little enforcement of the law by the police, the existence of the law has enabled the worst forms of bigotry: some members of the public have taken it as licence to abuse Muslim women verbally in the street, and even to assault them. This is the very opposite of liberating Muslim women: it actively restricts their freedom and drives them out of the public square. Banning women from wearing the burqa or niqab in public places does nothing to protect victims of abuse who are forced to wear these garments against their will. Indeed, some women who have experienced this kind of abuse spoke out against the ban when it was introduced. Djénane Karah Tager, author of the autobiography Sous Mon Niqab – who was forced to veil by her abusive ex-husband – has opposed the law on the ground that it simply confines women to their homes, letting their abuse go unnoticed.
And we also should not ignore the views of those Muslim women who choose of their own volition to wear the burqa or niqab. Some of them have spoken out, too. Some readers may dislike and disapprove of their choice; and it is certainly not my wish, as an atheist, to defend any version of the Muslim faith or its teachings. But to suggest that their choice should be criminalized, that they should be punished by the state for dressing as they wish to dress in public places, amounts to erasing their agency and denying them the basic personal freedoms which the rest of us take for granted. It seems paternalistic and infantilizing to suggest that they cannot make their own choices, and that the state ought to define how they ought to dress and punish them if they refuse to comply. And it seems almost Orwellian to claim that such laws are intended to liberate women and combat misogyny. You are not “liberating” marginalized people by forcing them to conform to your ideals! And a social-justice-oriented discourse needs to involve listening to the people actually affected by such policies, instead of dismissing their views and assuming that we know better. In a society committed to the ideal of bodily autonomy, no one has the right to police others’ personal choices about their appearance.
I will doubtless be accused, as leftists often are, of espousing a kind of strawman cultural relativism. We are often accused of being uninterested in fighting misogyny within minority communities: we are even from time to time accused of being allies of radical Islam. This criticism is utterly misplaced. I do not believe – and I have never known a leftist who believes – that the state ought to turn a blind eye to abuse and violence merely because it forms part of the tradition of a minority culture. Many of us speak out against abusive cultural practices such as female genital cutting and forced marriage, and indeed campaign for the rights of asylum-seekers who are fleeing these abuses. I will be the first to argue that the state should protect people of all cultures from abuse and violence, whether it comes from within their own communities or from outside. But it plainly does not follow that the state ought to regulate how Muslim women dress, and punish them for expressing their faith through their clothing.
If the ban is supposed to “liberate” women who are forced against their will to wear the burqa or niqab, then it is both overinclusive and ineffective. It is overinclusive because it also affects the many Muslim women who choose to wear these clothes of their own volition. And it is ineffective because it does not actually liberate the victims of domestic violence, it simply confines them to their homes out of sight. An effective strategy for fighting domestic abuse in minority communities should not criminalize the victims, it should criminalize the abusers. We cannot liberate people by declaring them criminals.