Tuesday, April 12, 2011

On the Banning of the Burka

Mike Labossiere gets it right in The Philosopher's Magazine:
The main stated justification for the law is that it is intended to protect Muslim women from oppression. The idea seems to be that Muslim men in France force women to wear the veil. As such, it is a sign of male oppression. This line of reasoning has been used to win over support on the left in France. 
This does have some appeal. After all, Islam does not have the best track record when it comes to the treatment of women. It is also the case that some Muslim women are forced to cover themselves against their wills. 
However, the law does not  merely forbid forcing women to cover up. Rather, it also outlaws appearing in public while covered. While the fine and jail sentences for forcing someone to cover up are greater than those to be imposed on those who are caught covered up, it seems reasonable to question the claim that this law is aimed at protecting women from oppression. A law aimed at protecting women would, it seem, only punish those who forced women to cover up. Women who freely chose to cover themselves should, one would imagine, be exempt from such punishment. After all, a person who chooses to dress in a certain way would not seem to be the victim of oppression-even if others might not approve of her choice.
We should aim our criticism at the barbaric and patriarchal ideology out of which the burka is a manifestation, rather than carelessly legislate the wearing of cloth.

8 comments:

  1. The problem, however, is that one would never know whether a certain woman clad in a burka is wearing it because she freely chose it, or because it has been foisted upon her and she has been silenced under threat of ….you know..well many colorful acts of violence that many Muslims are fond of. That's the only reason why the burka needs to be completely outlawed. It would be pretty easy for a parent of a husband to obligate their girls/wives to wear burqas and threaten to harm them in some way if they don't. Then we would have an apparently "willing" woman wearing a burqa, but who's actually being oppressed.
    With this law, women (most of whom have migrated from their places of origin in search of freedom) can happily use this nation-wide prohibition as THE excuse to not wear a burqa, thus eluding punishment from their oppressors.

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  2. That is precisely the problem, "that one would never know." I'm willing to go so far as to say that the majority of covered women, even while claiming they wear of it freely, are actually directly or indirectly pressured by threat of stigmatization into wearing it - or else have convinced themselves they want to. However, as a freedom of expression purist, I don't believe that these prohibitions are defensible on the unproven suspicion that such clothing choices may have been coerced.

    If I lived in Paris and wanted to wear the burka, freely, I would quite literally be committing fashion crime. Furthermore, laws which are targeted at specific minorities have a torrid history.

    There's a sheet that some wear in the Southern U.S. that I also find offensive, but I'd never think to legislate against its wearing.

    To ban the burka is to ban a symptom. The sexist oppression behind it remains, and that is what needs addressing.

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  3. However, as a freedom of expression purist, I don't believe that these prohibitions are defensible on the unproven suspicion that such clothing choices may have been coerced."

    I want an sincere answer.

    What is more likely, that women who have migrated to a free non-theocratic country in an effort to emancipate themselves from Islamic oppression enjoy living in cloth bags, or that they are being consistently prodded into submission by patriarchal religious demagogues and observants with PROVEN unfavorable antecedents on the treatment of women?

    I'll bet the farm that the latter's probability far outweighs the probability of the former.

    Plus, your incurring a patent fallacy of 'special pleading'. According to you, to say that women are being forced to wear burqas is JUST an unproven suspicion (one wonders how you could prove it anyway). But this implies that believing that they are doing it because they choose to is somehow born out by some unspecified evidence, which is clearly not the case. We have conflicting testimonies among female muslims, but this is beside the point. I think the decision to ban the burqa is rightly based on the dismal history and actual theology of observant muslims.

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  4. Excuse me, but this is not special pleading. I also never implied "to say that women are being forced to wear burqas is JUST an unproven suspicion," which is made obvious by your insertion of "just" in all-caps. In fact, I said:

    "I'm willing to go so far as to say that the majority of covered women, even while claiming they wear of it freely, are actually directly or indirectly pressured by threat of stigmatization into wearing it - or else have convinced themselves they want to."

    That much is obvious. But discerning which women do and do not is too difficult a task for the law, so the lazy recourse was to institute a ban.

    Answer the following:

    Five women deeply believe they must wear a burka to be good Muslims, which they truly want to be, and therefore wear it. Another five women feel pressure to wear the burka, directly or indirectly, and therefore wear it. Another two feel the same pressure, but choose not to. Is it right to resolve the issue by legislating a ban in a country with purported freedom of religion, even though this means infringement on the rights of the former five?

    I'm a consequentialist, and considering that the actual numbers are almost impossible to know, I foresee this law's precedent-setting infringement upon freedom of expression as more harmful than the alternatives in the long run, even though I passionately hate the burka and all it stands for.

    By the way, you already know I agree with you here, so you don't really have to ask the following question:

    "What is more likely, that women who have migrated to a free non-theocratic country in an effort to emancipate themselves from Islamic oppression enjoy living in cloth bags, or that they are being consistently prodded into submission by patriarchal religious demagogues and observants with PROVEN unfavorable antecedents on the treatment of women?"

    But declaring these women to "have migrated to a free non-theocratic country in an effort to emancipate themselves from Islamic oppression" sounds a little cheeky, given that you presume these women emigrated of their own volition, rather than their husbands', and that you also presume to know their reason for it was primarily to escape Islamic oppression rather than, say, to get a better paying job/better opportunities for their children, etc.

    I can only hope I'm under a misinterpretation when I read you as insinuating my response was not "sincere."

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  5. I think I've condensed our discussion to its core point of divergence.

    We agree on all the facts, the most relevant one of which I believe to be that it'd be almost impossible, at least in practice, for a justice system to discern among women who wear burqas, which of those are willing and which have been successfully coerced and threatened with punishment if they denounce said coercion. In other words, to cull the ones that are being genuinely forced against their will from the ones that feign consent is a fool's errand.
    Note that to advocate for the criminalization of those who force women to wear burqas is banal and unnecessary. In a free country legal consequences for such blatant form of oppression should be taken for granted.

    So, to answer you hypothetical scenario:

    "Five women deeply believe they must wear a burka to be good Muslims, which they truly want to be, and therefore wear it. Another five women feel pressure to wear the burka, directly or indirectly, and therefore wear it. Another two feel the same pressure, but choose not to. Is it right to resolve the issue by legislating a ban in a country with purported freedom of religion, even though this means infringement on the rights of the former five?"

    Yes it is. Because to do otherwise would entail that 5 women would be left to suffer abasement and coercion by their oppressors.

    You seem to prefer that we allow freedom of speech to the benefit of group X , though at the cost of the abuse and coercion that will inevitably be visited upon group Y. I believe that we can trim our freedom of speech a bit, if only to set Y free from their oppression.

    I appreciate your enthusiasm and empathy for those sincere religious observants, but in defending them you prove remiss not to also stand for those women whose freedom is also being curtailed in a more egregious way.

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  6. "Yes it is. Because to do otherwise would entail that 5 women would be left to suffer abasement and coercion by their oppressors."

    No, those five women are still subject to such even if the burka is banned. What if, in keeping with proscriptions of leaving the house uncovered, these women are similarly coerced to remain effectively jailed in their own homes?

    "You seem to prefer that we allow freedom of speech to the benefit of group X , though at the cost of the abuse and coercion that will inevitably be visited upon group Y. I believe that we can trim our freedom of speech a bit, if only to set Y free from their oppression. "

    Unashamedly so. It is through freedom of speech and expression that group Y will be emancipated and their oppressors' ideology legitimately vanquished. To shift the oppression of group Y by religious thugs, to the oppression of group X (and the rest of us, by extension) by the government is to punish all the wrong parties. The crime is of oppression, not expression.

    "in defending them you prove remiss not to also stand for those women whose freedom is also being curtailed in a more egregious way."

    That's what our voices are for. If you read this blog a bit I think you'll find it strains credulity to imply that I don't stand with every single one of those women.

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  7. I hate to sound repetitive, but I think you missed the point of my last reply. I'm 100% with you on the pricelessness of freedom of speech. By my lights, the only valid context in which it is reasonable to restrain expression is when someone's expression itself inhibits somebody else's. It seems to me that this is a quintessential instance of such state of affairs.

    Some women whose best use of freedom consisted in covering up from head to toes are seeing this right infringed upon by the recent legal ban. Nonetheless, women who were formerly being obliged to wear burqas are now - by way of this prohibition- free to express their dissent.

    You can't please everybody, and on this occasion we unfortunately have to take one side. I side with those previously afflicted by the government's indifference. You side with the ones currently afflicted by the ban.

    "No, those five women are still subject to such even if the burka is banned. What if, in keeping with proscriptions of leaving the house uncovered, these women are similarly coerced to remain effectively jailed in their own homes?"

    Your "what if" is simply a digressive speculation that could work both ways.

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  8. "I hate to sound repetitive, but I think you missed the point of my last reply."

    You do, but that's okay. No, I didn't miss the point. What I did was try to explain why it was poorly reasoned.

    "I'm 100% with you on the pricelessness of freedom of speech."

    But you are most evidently not.

    "By my lights, the only valid context in which it is reasonable to restrain expression is when someone's expression itself inhibits somebody else's. It seems to me that this is a quintessential instance of such state of affairs."

    Exactly. Except this, here, isn't such a case- because the women who freely choose to wear what they like are not themselves inhibiting others' freedom of expression.

    "You can't please everybody, and on this occasion we unfortunately have to take one side. I side with those previously afflicted by the government's indifference. You side with the ones currently afflicted by the ban.

    This is exactly wrong - but I've already adressed that. I'll leave it to individual readers to decide whether this has been answered.

    "Your "what if" is simply a digressive speculation that could work both ways."

    That's how it was meant. "What if" is usually a dead giveaway that what you're about to read is speculation. I'll point out that, 1) you did the same in your first comments, which is perfectly acceptable, and 2) this what if has an extremely high probability when you consider what other beliefs are corollary among groups who enforce the burka.

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