Banning the burqa and niqab is a terrible idea

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 Niqabwho 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.

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20 Responses to Banning the burqa and niqab is a terrible idea

  1. Steve Vowles says:

    The recent debate in the UK has centred around a court case – what are your views on that particular instance?

  2. CaitieCat says:

    I think I’m pretty much in the same boat as you are here – while I understand the impulse to ban, I have to return as a feminist to my basic principles to find my response, which is that to me, feminism is first and foremost a movement dedicated to bodily autonomy, for women particularly, but for all people in the general sense.

    Rather than relying on a simplistic solution like banning, I’d rather see us put more resources into fighting abuse within relationships, making it easier for people in such relationships to leave and be supported when they do by a system designed to do so, so that we can be much more sure that a woman wearing any sort of veil is doing so by her own choice.

    I have friends who are Muslim women – in fact, my daughter is a recent convert, though we’ll see how long that lasts, as she’s converted to other religions before – and who wear hijab (headscarf), and are not in relationships. This, to me, makes clear that at least some Muslim women are choosing to veil for their own personal reasons, rather than because anyone is making them do so.

    In the end, I don’t see how I can reasonably support taking away choices from women about how they want to dress. Just as I fought locally for the right for women to be topless in public (which right we won, here in Ontario, back in 1995), I will fight for the right of women to choose to cover themselves completely, if they want to.

    If we’re worried that some women are being forced to veil, then to me our clear appropriate response is to help relieve the compulsion, not to add another one.

  3. johnvmarsch says:

    It is overinclusive because it also affects the many Muslim women who choose to wear these clothes of their own volition.

    It’s difficult not to see this as special pleading. Leftist feminism has made it perfectly clear that dress codes designed to preserve female modesty (as defined by patriarchal religion) are a form of misogynist oppression. For left feminists, “modesty” means erasing women’s sexuality; and it’s hard not to see how a full face veil could be seen as anything other than erasing women’s very individuality. The veil may not be as horrific as genital mutilation or honour killings but how can a feminist deny it springs from — and reinforces — the very patriarchal misogynistic culture that gave rise to those more gruesome manifestations?

    If a white conservative Christian woman were to publicly proclaim her personal satisfaction with her religion’s concern for female modesty and wider vision of femininity, you can be damn sure feminists would diagnose her as suffering from internalised oppression causing her to engage in system justification and in urgent need of consciousness-raising to make her aware of her own oppression. Yet somehow Muslim veils are all about self-expression and bodily autonomy. Please.

    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.

    If Muslim men keep their wives and daughters under house arrest rather than let them go out unveiled — well then, let the state intervene to stamp out this monstrous patriarchal misogynistic abuse, because that is what it is, right? Perhaps a good place to start would be if the state put pressure on Muslim schools to dilute Islamic teaching on the role of women in society, just as it has leaned on Catholic schools to dilute Catholic teaching on the moral status of homosexual acts.

    Essentially you’re saying we should allow Muslim women to be degraded in this small way to stop them being degraded in a big way. The friendly interrogator who urges his prisoner to give him a few names just to take the wind out of his overzealous colleague’s sails couldn’t have done a better job.

    As for instances of veiled Muslim women being assaulted in the street … If you can argue that permitting the veil (understood as a form of misogynist oppression) is justified to forestall the even worse consequences of misogynist oppression in the home — well, I can apply the same logic and argue that the lesser evil of banning the veil (understood as an empowering expression of bodily autonomy) is justified to forestall the even worse consequences of being attacked in the street! Better to give the bully your lunch money than be beaten up.

    • David Neale says:

      Leftist feminism has made it perfectly clear that dress codes designed to preserve female modesty (as defined by patriarchal religion) are a form of misogynist oppression. For left feminists, “modesty” means erasing women’s sexuality; and it’s hard not to see how a full face veil could be seen as anything other than erasing women’s very individuality… If a white conservative Christian woman were to publicly proclaim her personal satisfaction with her religion’s concern for female modesty and wider vision of femininity, you can be damn sure feminists would diagnose her as suffering from internalised oppression causing her to engage in system justification and in urgent need of consciousness-raising to make her aware of her own oppression.

      You’re missing the point. Of course it’s true that “modesty” is an oppressive and sexist concept. And it is right to campaign against enforced standards of “modesty” which repress women’s self-expression.

      But if someone proposed making modesty illegal, and forcing conservative Christian women to dress in ways they considered immodest, I am certain that we would all condemn this as grossly authoritarian and completely wrong. Sexualizing people without their consent is no less oppressive than forcing them to cover up; as Jadehawk points out, less clothing doesn’t necessarily mean less oppression. People should not be forced (whether by the state or by overwhelming social pressure) to dress in a way that makes them uncomfortable.

      The whole point is consent and bodily autonomy. The state shouldn’t be the fashion police; people get to choose for themselves how they dress and present themselves, whether it’s a bikini, a burqa, or anything in between. People’s bodies are their own, not the property of the state.

    • Crip Dyke says:

      It’s difficult not to see this as special pleading. Leftist feminism has made it perfectly clear that dress codes designed to preserve female modesty (as defined by patriarchal religion) are a form of misogynist oppression.

      What part of “It’s the codes and not the dress,” do you not understand?

      The government is now wishing to impose a dress code. We object to the government code controlling how women dress in the same way that we object to the religious code controlling how women dress.

      moreover, if you’re responding to the OP and not some straw-feminist, the OP was arguing on consequentialist grounds. “X has bad consequences, therefore don’t do X” is not countered by, “But you’ve also said Y has bad consequences and therefore don’t do Y; isn’t arguing against all things that lead directly to harm inconsistent?”

      You’ve shown you understand neither the feminist argument nor the consequentialist argument. Good show ol’ chap.

  4. johnvmarsch says:

    But if modesty is objectively “an oppressive and sexist concept” it follows that women who conform to it have already lost their bodily autonomy. They are not in fact making a free choice. If you argue that state legislation banning the veil is an unacceptably authoritarian response (although Rousseau, the fons et origo of modern radical leftism, had no problem with “forcing people to be free”) then what practical, concrete steps do you propose we take to eliminate oppressive Muslim sexism without penalising the victim or coercing her into the equal-but-opposite sexist oppression of modern Western female dress-codes? How exactly do we “criminalize the abusers”?

    • But if modesty is objectively “an oppressive and sexist concept” it follows that women who conform to it have already lost their bodily autonomy. They are not in fact making a free choice.

      Jadehawk is right: this is a false dichotomy. None of us make wholly “free choices” uninfluenced by social pressures. None of us is uninfluenced by patriarchy. That doesn’t mean that coercing people into dressing in certain ways is a legitimate means of fighting sexism.

      The message we should be sending is that people have the right to choose how they dress, and to present themselves in whatever way they feel most comfortable, and should not be judged, shamed or stigmatized for the choices they make. Forcing modesty on people is oppressive; so too is forcing sexiness on people. People’s choices about their own bodies should be respected whatever the reasons for them.

      If you argue that state legislation banning the veil is an unacceptably authoritarian response (although Rousseau, the fons et origo of modern radical leftism, had no problem with “forcing people to be free”)

      Radical leftism is not a homogeneous intellectual tradition, nor does it spring from the work of a single philosopher.

      then what practical, concrete steps do you propose we take to eliminate oppressive Muslim sexism without penalising the victim or coercing her into the equal-but-opposite sexist oppression of modern Western female dress-codes? How exactly do we “criminalize the abusers”?

      “Equal but opposite” are your words, not mine. Regardless, how to fight abuse and coercion in religious communities is not a straightforward problem. (A good start might be listening to the women affected, Muslims and ex-Muslims, and working to empower them, rather than imposing solutions on them by force from outside.) Banning full face veils, deceptively easy as it sounds, is not the answer and will do more harm than good.

    • Crip Dyke says:

      modesty CODES are an oppressive and sexist concept.

      CODES.

  5. Jadehawk says:

    “But if modesty is objectively “an oppressive and sexist concept” it follows that women who conform to it have already lost their bodily autonomy. They are not in fact making a free choice.”

    This is a false dichotomy. For starters, no one makes “free choices”. We’re all “brainwashed” by patriarchy, so all our choices to a degree reflect that. E.g. I don’t cover up my upper body in summer because it’s my “free choice” to do so; I do so because of an internalized and oppressive sexist concept. But doing so, or choosing to take the harder route and rebel against it, are both choices I have a right to. People have a right to navigate the maze of oppressions as they chose to, and restricting them, especially when it concerns their own body, is abusive.

    • CaitieCat says:

      Exactly. And again, if we’re concerned about people being coerced into a given code, then that does give us a mandate as progressives: to fight the coercion, not the coerced, just as we do with trying to make clear that people can choose whether or not to shave parts of ourselves, or to wear high heels, or to do or not do anything else that might be approved enforced by the kyriarchy.

  6. johnvmarsch says:

    Quite an epistemological mare’s nest. How can we know if any of our choices are (mostly) ours or (mostly) the result of social brainwashing? Jadehawk thinks she detects a rogue patriarchy program still running in her brain which makes her cover up in summer. Say she rebels against her programming and proudly strides forth as a latter-day Amazon. Is she free or has she fallen victim to another insidious program installed by Patriarchy 2.0 — a program designed to objectify women through exposure rather than through concealment, pandering to men’s rapacious sexuality while humiliating the unattractive into the bargain? Tits out for the lads!

    Listen to the women! urges David. We listen — but are we hearing what they really want or what they’ve been programmed to say they want? Where is the red pill that will allow us to see beyond the patriarchal Matrix?

    Crip Dyke suggests a way to freedom — hack deeper into the programming and destroy the codes. But is that even possible? A world without codes would be a world without sense. Social life is nothing other than the accumulation of such codes. There can be no ‘pure’ individuality outside or behind or beyond the social context: like Kant’s transcendental subject, the human individual cannot be disencumbered from social convention without vanishing like the Cheshire Cat into pure nothingness. Where there is nothing to conform to (and thus to rebel against) there is no liberation, just a dissolution into a chaos of unmeaning fragments.

    • David Neale says:

      How can we know if any of our choices are (mostly) ours or (mostly) the result of social brainwashing?

      This is still a false dichotomy. None of us make choices uninfluenced by social pressures. All human behaviour is affected by the cultures into which we are socialized, and we live in a patriarchal society in which we all absorb some degree of sexism. The fact that particular choices we make are influenced by social pressures and cultural values doesn’t mean that those choices are not “ours”: otherwise no choice could meaningfully be said to be “ours”. And it certainly doesn’t mean that people should be punished for making choices about their dress and appearance of which other people disapprove.

    • Jadehawk says:

      “How can we know if any of our choices are (mostly) ours or (mostly) the result of social brainwashing”

      Rephrasing that false dichotomy doesn’t make it not a false dichotomy. There’s no such thing as “ours” as opposed to “result of social brainwashing”. We are what our environment (plus our biology) has made us.

      ” Say she rebels against her programming and proudly strides forth as a latter-day Amazon. ”
      For the love of everything secular, please learn to read more carefully.

      ” but are we hearing what they really want or what they’ve been programmed to say they want?”
      Again: that’s the same thing. there’s no “real” you beneath the social conditioning. You are what your social conditioning and your biology have made you.

      ” Where is the red pill that will allow us to see beyond the patriarchal Matrix?”
      In social conditioning that presents other options and shines a light on the negative consequences of the various already existing options.

      “Crip Dyke suggests a way to freedom — hack deeper into the programming and destroy the codes.”
      For the love of everything secular, please learn to read more carefully.

      “A world without codes would be a world without sense.”
      Spoken like an authoritarian. Or like someone who didn’t understand what Crip Dyke said. There’s no loss of “sense” when you no longer have strict and harshly enforced rules for what’s the “right” kind of clothing and what’s the “wrong” kind.

      ” There can be no ‘pure’ individuality outside or behind or beyond the social context”
      We know this. I’m not sure you understand it though, given your constant repeat of the false dichotomy of “oppressed” and “free” thought.

      “the human individual cannot be disencumbered from social convention”
      You have not actually read anyone suggest that all social convention should be done away with. Only that rules on the correct degree of cover-up are bullshit either way; and that legal rules enforcing dress codes are abusive.

      “Where there is nothing to conform to (and thus to rebel against) there is no liberation, just a dissolution into a chaos of unmeaning fragments.”
      This is confused and misses the point of what liberation is. It doesn’t exist for its own sake.

      • johnvmarsch says:

        So you’re saying the true dichotomy is not between social conditioning and an illusory freedom but between good conditioning and bad conditioning.

        I’m not sure how that really clarifies things. Once you admit that individuals engage in ‘system justification’, it follows that simply listening to what individual women say is no sure guide to telling the good from the bad. Even if you declare direct legislation and clearly defined dress codes to be objectively abusive impositions, there surely remains ample scope for more subtle influences to impinge on individuals’ bodily autonomy via ‘internalised oppression’.

        Perhaps you envisage a society where people are ‘conditioned’ to place a pre-eminent value on their own individuality, and where there is no social pressure to conform to the most informal norms. Individuals will then feel free to dress in whatever ways make them “feel comfortable”.

        I confess I cannot conceive of such a society. “Feeling comfortable” is never just a matter of straightforward physical comfort. People will always seek group-identification with a thede; and a traditional function of clothing has precisely been to give expression to that tribal allegiance from which people derive their social identity.
        That is what I mean by a world without codes being a world without sense. Do you think the 21st-century world is becoming less tribal?

        And even if such a deracinated set-up were theoretically viable, you’re still left with the thorny question of how to implement it in the face of a community’s staunch sense of cultural solidarity without resorting to coercive imposition. Are you going to tell Muslims that they shouldn’t raise their children in the traditional way, that they should consider alternative “social conditioning that presents other options” to their traditional standards of sexual modesty? Good luck getting that past the local imam.

      • Jadehawk says:

        “So you’re saying the true dichotomy is not between social conditioning and an illusory freedom but between good conditioning and bad conditioning.”

        No. I don’t find black-and-white thinking useful at all.

      • Jadehawk says:

        “it follows that simply listening to what individual women say is no sure guide to telling the good from the bad”

        the good or bad what? listening to what women say is about understanding how to remove unfreedoms from them, rather than piling them on. You listen to them regardless of whether their choices stem from “good” conditioning or “bad” conditioning, or whateverthefuck you meant.

        As for the rest of that comment… well, it has precisely nothing to do with the ethics of banning the veil. So what if other things are difficult? So what if there’s internalized oppression? Women should be free to navigate the matrix of oppression to the best of their ability, not the way you want them to. Certainly replacing one kind of internalized oppression with another kind won’t be useful.
        And I fail to see how identifying with a group necessitates internalizing oppression, either.

        In other words, I have no flaming clue what your point is or how any of that relates to the topic at hand, so I’m not gonna bother with picking the individual bits of nonsense apart.

      • Jadehawk says:

        actually, one more thing:
        I find it interesting that you assume it’s an outsider’s job to change Islam. Are you ignorant of that work being done within it, or are you merely dismissive of it?

  7. johnvmarsch says:

    I don’t find black-and-white thinking useful at all.

    Sure you do. You talk about the desirability of “removing unfreedoms”. Unfreedom bad, freedom good. Patriarchy bad, feminism good. “Existing options” bad, “social conditioning that presents other options” good. Bigotry bad, openness to the other (or whatever you understand the opposite of bigotry to be) good. Und so weiter. Binary oppositions galore.

    Women should be free to navigate the matrix of oppression to the best of their ability, not the way you want them to.

    So if a woman concludes that what you see as oppression is really liberation, that traditional codes of sexual modesty actually empower her as a woman, you’re OK with that?

    I find it interesting that you assume it’s an outsider’s job to change Islam.

    I don’t assume it’s anyone’s job to change Islam. I wasn’t setting out my position, merely pointing out what seemed to me a deep incoherence in your position. Why would I want Islam to become more like the revolutionary West, which I regard as every bit as bad as Islam? I want the West to embrace counterrevolutionary traditionalism and become more like Islam (again). That would have the added benefit of improving the West’s prospects of keeping Islam at bay (again).

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