About Me

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Australian philosopher, literary critic, legal scholar, and professional writer. Based in Newcastle, NSW. My latest books are THE TYRANNY OF OPINION: CONFORMITY AND THE FUTURE OF LIBERALISM (2019); AT THE DAWN OF A GREAT TRANSITION: THE QUESTION OF RADICAL ENHANCEMENT (2021); and HOW WE BECAME POST-LIBERAL: THE RISE AND FALL OF TOLERATION (2024).

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Should we ban the burka?

I have a minimalist view as to what kinds of individual conduct should be prohibited by the exercise of state power. Accordingly, I do not believe that the state should be in the business of telling us what clothing, if any, to wear in public. It should not ban wearing a garment such as the burka while, say, walking on a public street any more than it should ban walking on the same public street wearing no clothing at all.

Hang on, you say the latter actually is banned in most Western nations, so I've used a bad example? Well, I'm going to stick with this example, because I do think it's a good one. We shouldn't ban people wearing very skimpy clothing or no clothing at all on the public streets; nor should we ban wearing a burka. In neither case is there a sufficiently compelling state interest in enacting legislation that controls how people choose to present themselves in public.

In both cases, however, arguments can be put. I suppose the argument in favour of compelling people to wear at least some minimal clothing that covers the pubic area (in the case of both men and women) and the nipples (in the case of women alone) is that many people are offended at the sight of the particular parts of the body that are required, in most Western jurisdictions, to be clothed. (Actually, a thorough analysis of the law in various jurisdictions might show that it is now perfectly legal for women to go topless in many of them; that they almost invariably don't do so, except perhaps at the beach, demonstrates that practicality and social pressure are at work as much as the law itself when people choose to wear at least some items of clothing, even in summer.)

The argument that nudity is offensive is rather weak as basis for legislative bans. The level of offence caused by mere nudity is hardly grave - it is hardly the kind of offence that shades into real harm, as is the case with being exposed to nauseating smells or to sights that might induce nausea in many people (such as the sight of somebody nearby literally eating shit). Doubtless there are a few individuals who would be shocked if the very small amount of clothing worn by some young people in summer were totally discarded, but it seems like the sort of thing most would get used to. Already, we see many topless women on beaches in most Western countries, and we see naked people on the beach if we bother to go around the corner to less frequented stretches of sand or rock. Most people are not offended at this sight. If you are, you'll soon get used to it. In all, the legal requirement that we wear at least some minimal clothing is based on weak reasoning. Arguments based on offence should not control the debate. In reality, such laws are a holdover from the centuries of Christian hegemony, when sexuality and the body were considered shameful and associated with "sin". These laws should be repealed.

If they were repealed, however, I suspect that not much would change. Practicality would still impel most of us to wear some clothing most of the time. Except on hot summer days, clothing is simply practical to provide warmth. Even in summer, light clothes and hats are practical for anyone who is out in the sun for a long time and wishes to avoid skin damage - and, with it, the real possibility of skin cancer. For most terrain, it is practical to wear shoes of some kind - even people who enjoy walking barefoot outdoors are usually fairly choosy about the circumstances - while garments with pockets are also practical. So are sunglasses. And there are various other practical reasons why sweeping away these laws entirely wouldn't make a lot of difference. Even if you're not ashamed of showing various wobbly parts of your body at the beach, you might well prefer to stabilise and protect them when you're wandering around the supermarket or queuing to do your banking.

Indeed, there is an argument that these laws are not very oppressive because they are not currently causing all that much practical restriction on how people choose to present themselves on public. That's true, but the burden should always be on those who support restrictions on individual freedom. Even if the restriction is rather minimal and not terribly onerous in practice, that is not a reason to leave an unjustified law on the books. All laws forbidding public nudity should be repealed - although, given the state of the world, campaigning for this is not a very high priority.

At least, however, we can discusss the issue rationally.

If the burka were currently banned, I'd likewise suggest that the ban should be repealed but that doing so should not be a very high priority among all the others. After all, only a very small number of people want to hide their entire bodies in public, and there are many ways of going very close to doing so.

Still, the case for actually banning the burka is rather weak. Somebody who is wearing a burka does not thereby directly harm others, which would be the classic reason for banning a kind of individual conduct. Any ban would need to rely on some more controversial reason, such as indirect harm to others (perhaps via some kind of damage to the social fabric) or offence to others ... or, most likely, on the basis that wearing the burka harms the person wearing it.

I am suspicious about arguments based on indirect harm to others. If a harm is not imminent or direct, then there are many ways to deal with it other than by restrictions on individual liberty. Overall, pluralistic Western societies tend to survive and flourish quite well despite all the things that supposedly cause some kind of indirect, or intangible, or long-term, or whatever, harm that affects everyone in the society as a whole.

What about offence? Well, consider what the burka stands for. Part of the problem is that this is itself controversial, but it seems reasonable for people who are exposed to the sight of women wearing burkas in public to receive some kind of misogynist or puritanical message that reasonable men and women may well find offensive. I see nothing wrong with discussing what message the burka conveys to reasonable people, and whether that message is offensive. If the message is sufficiently offensive, and sufficiently contrary to progressive views about women, sexuality, the body, and so on, then it may well be that the burka is something we should not welcome. But that is not sufficient reason to ban it. There are many messages put out in pluralistic Western societies that are, arguably, unwelcome, but that is not a reason to ban them. That would be contrary to the principle of freedom of expression.

On the other hand, it is also contrary to freedom of expression if we are prevented from discussing what messages the burka might give, whether those messages are offensive, whether the burka is a welcome phenomenon in Western societies, and so on. Freedom of expression cuts both ways.

That does not mean that individuals should be harassed on the street for choosing to wear such a garment. As long as I am going about my business lawfully, I have an expectation, which the law ought to enforce, that I'll be allowed peaceful enjoyment of my environment, rather than have people harass me.

But say I choose to go around wearing the very minimum of clothing that I could possibly get away with under the law. Instead of turning up at the local cake shop wearing, say, black jeans, a T-shirt, casual leather shoes, and a tweed jacket (standard clothing for a middle-aged academic/intellectual sort of guy like me) imagine that I turn up wearing nothing but the sort of g-string-like "posing pouch" beloved of male body builders. Whereas before I might have been greeted in a friendly way, it is now likely that other customers will look at me askance. It is now most unlikely that the young shop attendant behind the counter will talk to me in a slightly flirtatious manner as she serves me my lamington or my custard tart. The whole atmosphere in the shop may become less friendly for me than it would have been, as a result of my choice of clothing. Well, tough. No one is obliged to be friendly to you; all they are obliged to do is treat you with the minimum level of respect that involves not actually harassing you - insulting you personally, acting in a threatening way, generally giving you a hard time.

All right, so the burka should not be banned on the ground that it gives offence. But nor should we be prevented from discussing what message it gives, whether the message is offensive, and so on. We can't be allowed to harass others merely for how they dress, but we are quite within our rights not to be as friendly to people whose dress offends or disturbs us in some way as we are to people who dress in a way that appeals to our values. If I'm vain enough to enjoy having shop assistants flirting with me from behind the counter ... well, I'll have to wear the tweed jacket, not the g-string. We all make these choices.

The final reason why we might want to ban the burka is paternalistic. Here, the case is stronger. Unlike someone who is naked, someone wearing a burka is restricted in her movements, is not able to convey emotions and general good will through facial expressions, and generally has her individual appearance erased. Although some individuals may welcome this, it does create a huge disadvantage. The point about affective communication is especially strong. Much of what is communicated in ordinary life between individual human beings is expressed via movements of the facial muscles. Of course, there may be some circumstances in which the advantages of clothing that hides the face outweigh the loss of capacity for affective communication - e.g., to borrow an example from Martha Nussbaum, it may be so cold on a winter's day in Chicago that there's value in wearing a whole lot of scarves and hoods, or similar garments, perhaps sufficient to hide facial expressions. In most circumstances, though, covering your face destroys much of your capacity to communicate with others and obtain their trust, while having no compensating advantages.

But we get by in many situations communicating without facial expressions. I am doing so right now as I type away at my computer. People also do so on the telephone, although I dislike telephones for exactly the reason that they reduce me to a mere voice. They take away gestures and facial expressions, and it is difficult for many of us to communicate emotionally on the telephone to someone with whom we're not already emotionally bonded. I wonder what it must be like to wear clothing that forces you never to communicate with strangers by means of facial expression. It deprives you of one of the main ways in which friendly relations are maintained between people who are not family or intimate friends, etc. It's a real loss.

All that said, I am still not fond of the idea of the state intervening to tell adults how to act for their own good. Although we do accept some paternalistic laws - e.g. those related to wearing seat belts - paternalistic laws requiring us to wear certain clothing, on the basis that it will free our limbs and enable us to communicate more readily by showing our facial expressions, are a step too far. When we are dealing with the choices of adults, or even of relatively mature minors, the presumption is that the state should not claim to know better than the individual concerned what she should do for her own good. Just as we should not ban the use of marijuana - all such laws should be repealed - we should not ban wearing the burka.

Once again, the case for banning the burka on paternalistic grounds is weak. But once again, we do have some paternalistic laws, including some that already go too far in my opinion. It is perfectly legitimate to debate just what paternalistic laws are justifiable. Moreover, the fact that a self-destructive practice such as using certain drugs - or using them frequently and excessively - should not be banned does not mean that it should be welcomed.

In all, there is only a weak case for banning the burka - just like the case for banning pornography, total nudity, and marijuana smoking. None of these things should be illegal, but that does not mean that everyone must approve of them all or that there should never be a debate about what offence they cause, what harm they do, or whether they are welcome innovations in a modern pluralistic society.

Some of these things may be more welcome than others. It's not at all clear to me that the burka is something we should welcome. Nor is it clear to me that somebody who instigates a debate about it should be condemned as fanning religious hatred - as the Melbourne Age did this morning in its one-sided and unnuanced editorial about France's President Sarkozy. Western societies have become too quick to discover religious hatred under every bed. The arguments for banning the burka, though weak, are no weaker than those against some things that are banned already. If some kinds of Islam demand that women wear such a controversial garment, well too bad. No subject should be off limits merely because religious sensibilities are involved. (Indeed, once religion is brought into the equation it raises the suspicion that at least some women - I'm not suggesting the majority - are currently wearing the burka against their will, under pressure from their co-religionists, rather than from choice. That would strengthen the arguments for banning it.)

Is the burka welcome? No. There is much to be said against it. But should it be banned? No. That would be going too far.


Brian said...

Great article, but your flaunting of the lunchbox at the cake-shop pretty was a crack up. Even if only in thought experiment. No wonder you call this place the hellfire club. :)

Better read the Age editorial you speak of....Do you think the Age is getting more conservative by the day?

Elephant said...

Excellent analysis.

One niggle is that the rules are currently skewed in favour of the burqa-wearer. She is allowed to wear her chosen attire. The shop or other service provider is obliged to serve her, under anti-discrimination laws. This is a mismatch. On the one hand, she can wear a political statement which declares "I am not like you", and on the other she has a legal remedy if anyone dares to treat her as different.

Would you regard this as a problem with the burqa or with anti-discrimination laws? Or not a problem at all?

ColinGavaghan said...

Nice analysis, Russell. As you probably know, the Feinberg approach to whether a particular prohibition is justified is one of which I'm pretty fond, and you used it well. (Though I wonder if you may be unduly pessimistic about the cake-shop girl's response to your posing pouch!)

There may be another sense in which the burka rubs up against the harm principle. Most UK banks (remember them?) have rules requiring that motorcycle helmets and other face-disguising attire be removed upon entry, for obvious reasons. This is, we might think, a specific manifestation of the general social value in identifiability. If witnesses/CCTV, et al, cannot tell who we are, then we are free (or more free) to act without regard to the law.

And generally, our first responses to masked people (outwith specific cultural contexts like carnivals and hallowe'en) is tied to this. If I am at a football (soccer) match, and see fans with scarves tied around the lower halves of their faces, bandit style, I'll steer clear on the basis that trouble is likely to be near at hand. Likewise at a demo. And, from the other side, the sight of cops with 'robocop' visors and taped-over ID numbers is pretty chilling, precisely because of the difficulty of holding them to account for any excessive force.

Is there, then, a case for prohibiting the deliberate concealment of our identities, in particular contexts if not in general?

Russell Blackford said...

Elephant, I don't think these sorts of Millian principles (as modified by the likes of Feinberg) are absolutes. There may always be extra considerations. In particular, they don't necessarily apply so well to the behaviour of someone who has set up as an employer and/or as a business supplying goods and services to the public. Anti-discrimination laws that would be unconscionable if applied to individuals in their private lives might be appropriate to businesses/employers.

In my private life, I should be free to act on my own whims or prejudices in relation to whom I ask to dinner, or seek as a friend or a lover or a spouse. But I think that we should see employers and businesses that offer goods and services to the public as in a category where more is expected. Otherwise, a relatively small group of people in a locality might be able to shut whole groups out of fair employment or out of being able to obtain goods and services. I think that public policy should resist that outcome, though I favour developing anti-discrimination laws piecemeal rather than, for example, having some sweeping law against all arbitrary distinctions between people in employment or provision of goods and services (a more sweeping provision might well be appropriate to actions by the government and its agencies).

Accordingly, I favour some basic anti-discrimination law, and I'm happy for it to have the effect that the shop assistant at the local bakery cannot refuse to serve a woman in a burka.

However, it would become intolerable if the law told her to treat everyone exactly the same ... to the point where if she flirts or gossips with one customer she must do so with all. She is still a human being and should have at least some discretion as to how she interacts with the people she encounters.

Colin, again, the extra considerations might include the issues you bring up. A scheme of criminal justice might collapse if everyone went around wearing identity-hiding clothes. My answer to that is that we should draft laws based on this consideration as narrowly as possible. As you say, they should be drafted to deal with particular contexts; they should not be overly broad, and should be based on the idea that these contexts are exceptions against a generally permissive background. At this stage, I don't think the case is strong enough to ban the burka in public or even to ban wearing it into a bank, but I could change my mind if solving crimes by burka wearers became a real problem. Even now, however, it might be necessary for everyone to be required to show her face for a photograph on her driver's licence. While the case for banning the burka may be weak, that does not mean that there is a positive right for someone to hide her face behind it at all times and in all situations.

And again, we must resist people who would try to stop us from even discussing the pros and cons of the burka by accusing us of religious hatred or of something even worse.

PML said...

The main complaint I would raise against the burqa and the nijāb (putting aside the issue of cultural sensitivity to a religion not exactly known for its progressiveness) is that in a society like ours, the wearing of it verges on uncivil: the veil is a barrier to communication on numerous levels, which also has the effect of preventing the wearer from full participation in society.

Naturally freedom of expression allows anyone to wear whatever they like, though in public there are often some restrictions imposed by law or common sense, such as the prohibition against general nudity, or crimes against fashion like wearing only your underwear to the opera; and I don't really see the burqa or niqāb being such a high priority issue.

However, I believe there is a ban on being able to wear the burqa while driving a motor vehicle? Or at least one would hope there is; I also get the feeling that the social pressure which obliges women to wear the burqa also puts obstacles in their way learning to drive, or getting permission.

That Guy Montag said...

I'm reminded of watching Abu Hamza walking to court, dutiful burka in tow. At what point does this constitute domestic abuse? Given that battered spouses so often defend their abusers how safe would we feel saying it's their choice? If we do simply say it's their choice, isn't there a compelling civic and possible state interest in making clear to the person that this isn't right? I admit it's not a perfect analogy with laws against domestic violence already in play, but maybe there is some comparison to be made.

ColinGavaghan said...

I agree, Russell; there is a (non-discriminatory) logic to banks and other businesses requiring the removal of all id-concealing garments as a pre-condition of entrance to their premises, but this need not be translated into a legal requirement.

I would also worry that a ban on the burqa would have the effect of depriving some of the most socially marginalised women in our society of what meagre contact they currently have with the outside world. For many, the alternative to shuffling around inside a portable tent would not be to cast the wretched thing off, but to stay concealed indoors.

Generally, I'm suspicious of what Roger Brownsword calls 'dignity as constraint', i.e. the paternalistic claim that, since your conduct contravenes some pseudo-objective notion of dignity, I am justified in restricting your conduct for your own good. (His paradigm case involved the bizarre vogue for dwarf-throwing in France.)

All in all: no case for a general ban, justification for a ban by private companies on security grounds, absolutely no moral case for requiring employers to allow it in the workplace, and no real problem if you turn up your nose at the sight of one (though you might like to think about the effect that would have on the woman).

Btw, I used to delight in the ironic thought that, in the days of the Khomenei fatwa, Salman Rushdie might have ambled about London quite safely concealed inside one of these...

Unknown said...

you know, i cant help but think that you havethe nudity law is actually skipped over an important aspect public nudity. the problem (admittedly this is not where the laws come from) these days is that nude people, especially women, tend to get photographed/recorded without their permission (and often knowledge) and used on the internet for pornography. now i think that the paternalistic state has a stronger case than you might admit for banning public nudity for these reasons, especially amongst younger people who do not appreciate the full ramifications.

btw - the university of michigan worked hard to ban their students from their annual nude run for this exact reason. although, knowing the way the world works, it was probably more out of fear of being sued/their image than any real care about students wellbeing.

ps. forgive my lack of caps using 'shift' on my laptops new tiny keyboard is a pain

ColinGavaghan said...

Russell, if I'm blog-hogging, just tell me to get lost, but it's been a while since I've been involved in a proper test of the harm principle's limits, and I'm finding this really interesting.

Stuart, I'm not sure how I feel about that issue. On the one hand, someone who chooses to go nude in public (as opposed to a semi-public setting, like a nudist beach) is surely implicitly accepting that people might look at them. And of course, we have no control over what goes on in other people's minds. As well as the acceptance issue, we might wonder what harm there is in someone else deriving private sexual pleasure from looking at us (however ick that might make us feel if we knew it).

Recording our image and putting it on the internet is a different, and trickier matter. Privacy law is still at an early stage in the UK, but it's already clear that there may be legal remedies available against this, in some circumstances.

Of course, legal redress is not the same thing as complete prevention (and anyway, relies upon finding the culprit). But I wonder if the harm in, say, an 18-year-old having their naked image displayed on the web, when they were happy to parade around town in that state, is really severe enough to merit such a paternalistic prohibition.

Teenagers can make all sorts of embarassing or disastrous mistakes that they later regret, from getting catastrophically drunk to sleeping with inappropriate people, to getting married, having kids, or even joining the army! That, I'm afraid, is life.

Steve Zara said...

If the message is sufficiently offensive, and sufficiently contrary to progressive views about women, sexuality, the body, and so on, then it may well be that the burka is something we should not welcome. But that is not sufficient reason to ban it. There are many messages put out in pluralistic Western societies that are, arguably, unwelcome, but that is not a reason to ban them. That would be contrary to the principle of freedom of expression.

I do have a problem with this. The Burka is not just an unwelcome message. I think there is a good case for it being a form of bullying, both of women by men and of women by other women. It is not just an item of clothing, it is a political statement of the inferiority of women.

Supposing there was a culture that insisted on wearing T-shirts saying "fags will burn in hell" in public. They also harassed gay members of that culture into wearing such T-shirts as well.

Should we consider that acceptable in public? Should we support not just a 'message', but what seems to me to be active bullying?

יאיר רזק said...

As I understand it, the idea of disallowing burqas is that participation in society as a human being, not a vague voice, is an unalienable human right. Just like a woman cannot decide to become someone's slave, she cannot decide to hide herself so completely, turning herself into a talking sack. It's inhuman, degrading, and unacceptable - even if the woman wants it.

Steve Zara said...

Ah well. Just had a long debate with my husband about this and I have changed my mind. It is dangerous to challenge this kind of freedom, no matter what the clothes symbolise.

So I now agree with Russell.

Unknown said...

colin - doing a nude run after graduating high school when you're 18 and finding ten years on that you're a teacher in a small town and everyone has seen these photos of you on a pornographic website is a scenario the state feels they have the right to protect.

and i'm a little uncomfortable with the fatalistic approach 'people do dumb things so why bother' ;)

ColinGavaghan said...

Stuart, my argument is more: people do dumb things, but let's not go overboard and start criminalising all sorts of conduct to proptect adults from their own subsequent regrets. That way lies a very, very illiberal society.

In your example, I would say it's the morality of the small town that needs to be challenged, if they have such a hang-up about innocent teenaged frolics in the distant past.

Unknown said...

Colin, two excellent points.

I am convinced of the first one, however, your second one troubles me. It is simply a matter of practicality, it is all very well to say 'but if the world was like X than it wouldnt be a problem' but since it isn't, does the government have the right to act paternalistic in this case?

ColinGavaghan said...

Hi, Stuart. Re the second point: I'm going to mull that over and get back to you. I'm sure there's a knockdown argument stirring in the grey matter ... ;-)

Russell Blackford said...

Lots of people do things that turn out to be unwise, though, Stuart. That's usually not enough to justify the government stopping them. We usually only accept the government overriding our judgments about the wisdom of our choices if either the burden on our freedom is very trivial (as with wearing a seat-belt) or the choice requires a lot of technical expertise (as with many decisions about self-medication), or some other special reason or combination of reasons.

Yes, an 18-y.o. might appear in public nude, if it were allowed, but (1) the stigma of doing so would be much less if it were allowed, since no crime would be committed; and (2) while it might be used against this person 10 years later and s/he might one day regret it, it's also possible that this will be just the occasion when he or she meets a wonderful friend or something - or at least the person may later look back on the memory with fondness. How many of us did lots of things in our younger days that may have seemed foolish to our elders but which actually did us no harm and which we remember fondly? I'll put up my hand. :) I'd hate to live in a world where we adopted a jurisprudential principle that tries to prevent this.

Generally speaking, I think we do well not to let the government make too many consequential decisions for us. It would cut off all sorts of possibilities in our lives, even if in some cases the decisions we actually make may not turn to be the wisest ones.

Russell Blackford said...

Perhaps, though, I've really just elaborated Colin's first point.

ColinGavaghan said...

No worries, Russell, it benefited from the elaboration.

Greywizard said...

On the whole, I'm inclined to agree with Steve Zara's first inclination. She says:

"I do have a problem with this. The Burka is not just an unwelcome message. I think there is a good case for it being a form of bullying, both of women by men and of women by other women. It is not just an item of clothing, it is a political statement of the inferiority of women."

Notwithstanding her change of mind (after a long debate with her husband), it seems to me probably true. In parts of Europe, for instance, even non-Muslim women are being forced to dress in ways prescribed by the sensitivities of at least some Muslims in order to escape harassment and abuse, and Muslim girls who choose not to use the burka or other concealing dress are in danger of gang rape by young Muslim men whose religious or cultural identity have interfered (often unjustly) with vocational choice and success, and who have resorted to fundamentalist varieties of Islam in order to maintain a sense of self-worth and identity. It is not all that long ago that an imam in Australia compared young women in less concealing clothing to 'fresh meat on display'. The implied warning of that should not be ignored.

Recalling that dress which bears a social message of inferiority and oppression may be (and, I should argue, must often be) forced, and may lead to extension of this coercion to others, is perhaps to provide special reasons for restricting the use of such dress. It is certainly arguable that the use of such dress implicitly subverts the equality of women which has been (still only partly) attained in democratic polities with great struggle over decades. There is no reason, therefore, why the limitation of freedom, by banning such dress, should not be very seriously considered. President Sarkozy, it seems to me, should be thanked for having grasped this particular nettle, and much good may come of it. Certainly, we should not be too quick to dismiss the danger to secularism which religious dress of this sort (whether or not it is based, in some cases, on free choice) may bring about. To compare it with the right to dispense with clothing altogether is, I suggest, to trivialise something that may be of enormous importance to maintaining our freedoms, and especially the rights of women.

nichole said...

It seems to me that wearing a burka or other religious accoutrements in public could be considered inflammatory and disruptive.

I'm just mentioning that because your public nudity example reminded me of what a cop told me once. He said that we can't let women walk around topless because there would be too many car accidents.

Of course it's unfair to ban "the burka" in particular. They should have to ban all outward expression of religiosity... Which would be neat but would never work or happen. Like it would totally be neat if we stopped polluting tomorrow.

Athena Andreadis said...

I'm with יאיר רזק on this, especially since the comments to this post have come almost entirely from men: wearing a burqa is not equivalent to nudity. It does violence to the wearer. For men, it's abstract -- an issue of social justice, or morality at most. Not so for women.

If sub-groups in Western societies are allowed to have their women wear burqas, the next step is to not send them to school, have forced marriages, have clitoridectomies, the whole inhumane shebang. This is already happening in Germany and the UK and to some extent in the US.

I wrote about this issue briefly here: And Ain't I a Human?

Steve Zara said...


The issue of the Burqa is not abstract for me. I personally find it deeply oppressive. I am gay, and it represents a culture that considers me evil and my lifestyle punishable.

But after much recent thought I am still against banning. Me feeling oppressed is just a feeling.

Athena Andreadis said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Athena Andreadis said...

Steve, for you it's a feeling. For women in Islamic countries it's a reality that affects their lives decisively. The equivalent is not laws against nudity. The equivalent is laws against "miscegenation" or against gay adoption. Or, as יאיר רזק said, laws legalizing slavery.

Steve Zara said...


We aren't here talking about Islamic countries.

We are talking about a possible ban on types of clothing. On types of symbols. In public spaces. Within supposedly liberal societies.

We can show our extreme dislike of such clothes and symbols in non-violent ways.

But surely what we want to do is to change cultures, not ban symbols. To me that seems like a trivial and easy way to avoid dealing with real problems. It is a gesture, not a solution. Will it stop some men oppressing women as a result? Or will it simply make people who no longer have to see burqas more comfortable?

I believe we have to allow people to even bully each other with words and symbols in public.

My opinion in what happens in state organisations like schools is quite different. There, a ban is quite appropriate.

Athena Andreadis said...

Steve, I don't think we disagree on whether burqas are good. And in my original post I should have said "Islamic enclaves", which includes groups living in Western countries.

I also agree that cultures must change intrinsically, rather than on the surface. Nevertheless, symbols are very powerful and allowing them implies at the very least tolerance of what they represent. Wearing a burqa in public annihilates the wearer as a participant in society. That goes further than painting a swastika.

The pertinent point in this case is not freedom to wear whatever you want (trivial) but freedom to participate in society as an equal (fundamental). Wearing a burqa negates that freedom.

Steve Zara said...

Nevertheless, symbols are very powerful and allowing them implies at the very least tolerance of what they represent.

I do think you are wrong here.

Although I am gay, I support the right of someone to walk along the street with a sign saying "Gays will go to Hell". There is no support at all for the view, but support for the right to present the view.

Freedom of speech does not imply acceptance of what is spoken.

Wearing a burqa in public annihilates the wearer as a participant in society.

I agree that this is a real concern. But I worry what might happen if burqas are banned in public spaces. Would this stop the insistence that women wear them? Or simply confine women to ghettos where the rules aren't so strongly applied?

Would it not sweep the problem under the carpet?

Athena Andreadis said...

Well, then, how do you propose to solve the problem, Steve? If you think banning this monstrosity is too coercive, how do you change things? The real issue is not the women, but the men. The women have practically zero power, as you can tell by the attempts of Saudi women to relax the Wahhabi rules. Whereas the Sultans of the other countries on the Arab peninsula could (and did) single-handedly change the societies they ruled by edict.

When the British (and some Rajas) wanted to stop suttee, they didn't politely tell those practicing it that it would be nice if they stopped. They outlawed it and hauled its practitioners to jail. Now we have people practicing clitoridectomies in the West, yet it's Hirsi Ali who has to go around accompanied by several bodyguards for "offenses against Islam".

France did something relatively simple. It essentially stated that all its citizens have to follow a minimum of rules in terms of their conduct and attire in public. That's rational enough for me. Seeing women around me increasingly covered is demoralizing and scary.

Steve Zara said...

I don't think it is reasonable to compare a compulsion to wear certain clothes with suttee.

The solution to this is the solution to almost all faith-based problems. Education and public campaigns. Ban the burqa in schools, and remove support for faith schools. Encourage critical thinking and open-mindedness in children. I have friends who work to do precisely this.

France did something relatively simple. It essentially stated that all its citizens have to follow a minimum of rules in terms of their conduct and attire in public. That's rational enough for me.

Who gets to define the attire, the conduct?

Seeing women around me increasingly covered is demoralizing and scary.

Some people say that seeing gay people parade is demoralising and scary.

We can't ban scary things in public because they are scary.

Steve Zara said...

It is very easy to come up with things that we don't like, that we find oppressive, that scare us, than even revolt us. But it is very hard to decide if and where the law should be involved. Whenever we get new laws about such matters they remove OUR rights too. They can be hard to remove.

Athena Andreadis said...

We'll have to agree to disagree, then. This reminds me of John Howard Griffin's experiences and conclusions when he "passed" as a man of color in the early sixties. Why don't you wear a burqa for a week? Then you can opine on it.

Steve Zara said...


I really don't think you are being fair.

People don't need to experience the oppression to detest it. I have been very grateful by the number of my straight peers who have supported gay rights even though they have never experienced what it is like to experience prejudice.

I am gay, and yet, I feel that the homophobic BNP should have the right to march.

Athena Andreadis said...

Look, Steve. As I said earlier, you and several other posters seem to consider wearing the burqa a cultural choice. I and several other posters consider it slavery. This determines our responses. It's that simple.

I grew up in Greece from the late fifties till the early seventies, an era when de facto and de jure discrimination existed against women. I came from a persecuted leftist family and my adolescence happened during the junta. You're not the sole person with firsthand experiences of oppression.

Steve Zara said...

First, I have to say I have experienced little or no oppression personally. I was just describing how people not the target of oppression can sincerely want to help those who are, and be effective in doing it. Just wanted to clear that up.

Secondly, I have do disagree with you. This may sound pedantic, but I think it is important.

Is wearing an item of clothing slavery? Of course not.

Is being forced to wear an item of clothing possibly part of slavery? Yes, it certainly could be.

By banning the burqa will we stop the slavery? I honestly don't think so.

I suspect all it will do is hide the slavery, and perhaps make things even worse for the women concerned. It will restrict their movements.

If we believe that women are being put under extreme pressure to wear the burqa, can we honestly believe that a public ban will stop that pressure?

What are we supposed to do enforce such a ban? Cart women off to prison? What would that achieve?

I am willing to have my mind changed, but right now I just can't see what legal action would achieve, or how it could be enforced.

ColinGavaghan said...

Athena, if a woman is forced, under threat of violence, to wear a burqa, then your analogy with slavery is valid. I think all of us would agree that this is unacceptable, and a legitimate target of criminal law. But this is not true of all wearers; consider the experience of the young French convert to Islam, interviewed in today's Guardian: http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2009/jun/26/sarkozy-france-paris-islamic-veils. Her choice to embrace this particular strain of Islam strikes me as more analogous to the choices of previous generations to join nunneries.

Second, to reiterate the point I raised earlier, what do you think would happen to those women who currently wear burqas if they were banned? Do you think their misogynistic and oppressive husbands/fathers/brothers would simply shrug and allow them to stroll out of the house in jeans and t-shirts? Or is it more likely that they would be prohibited from going out of doors at all?

Challenge that culture, by all means; I think we're all together on that one. But making a statement affects real people's lives too, and not always in the manner which you intend.

Btw, re earlier discussion re banks, etc. - interesting example in the Guardian story of a teacher who refused to release young children into the custody of a burqa wearer. Another context where facial identification might be justified?

ColinGavaghan said...

Sorry, last bit should have read: 'where a requirement for facial identification...'

Athena Andreadis said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Athena Andreadis said...

Colin, for the fourth time I will repeat the following points:

1) Wearing the burqa is equivalent to slavery if women are forced to wear it on threat of violence or ostracism (which is most of the time).

2) The real power and choice lies with the men in those cultures and enclaves. So punishing the women is indeed not the solution because it puts them in a double bind, just as prostitutes are almost always punished but not their johns.

3) Equating wearing the burqa with public nudity is ridiculous at best, pernicious at worst: public nudity is always freely chosen and the burqa affects only one gender. It annihiliates women as persons and prevents them from participating in social life and civic interactions.

4) Writing tomes on whether banning the burqa is "correct" for the high-order ethics of a privileged society while ignoring the serious problems besetting women in these immigrant communities is like "straining gnats while swallowing camels".

As I said to Steve, you may wish to do the high-flown theorizing if/when you have lived through equivalent circumstances. This is very similar to men arguing about -- and legislating -- all the fine points of fetal rights while ignoring even basic rights of the "fetal vessels". In the end, it boils down to brute control disguised under layers and layers of sophistry.

ColinGavaghan said...

Anthea, you have now repeated several times the sexist accusation that men are interested only in ethical abstractions rather than people's lives. Well, for me, ethics is precisely about people's lives. Faced with difficult choices, where either one of two paths could cause a lot of harm, it provides a framework to adjudicate or navigate between them. It is not - or should not be - a parlour game for privileged academics (though no doubt many philosophers - of both genders - are guilty of treating it as such.)

As to your own - superior, female - approach, I'm not clear that you are suggesting anything especially practical either. You acknowledge that criminalising burqa wearers would be counter-productive. So what should the law do? In a situation of slavery, it is easy to identify, and punish, the slave-owner. But who do we punish when we see a woman in a burqa?

ColinGavaghan said...

(Btw, Anthea, if nothing else constructive comes of this exchange, I've at least discovered your own blog, which I'm enjoying very much.)

Athena Andreadis said...

Glad you're enjoying the blog, Colin. It's Athena, not Anthea, by the way. And if you go over the comments to this entry, you may notice I'm not the only one to raise the points you dislike. I'm just more persistent than the rest. An uppity feminist -- very unwomanly. Just like Ophelia Benson: an oracle, if you agree; strident, if you don't.

Steve Zara said...


I will also look at your blog. From your comments here, I have no doubt it will be valuable. The world needs far more feminists of all kinds.

What I would like to ask you is how you suggest that a ban on clothing is actually imposed. I think this is real problem.

J. J. Ramsey said...

Athena Andreadis: "an oracle, if you agree; strident, if you don't."

I find you neither an oracle nor strident. You are, IMHO, wrong, but you have not engaged in personal attacks, well-poisoning, or other things that mark the difference between the jackasses and those who simply state their opinions strongly.

Anyway, part of the price of being in a liberal society is that it allows people broad leeway to do things that are stupid, that are distasteful, and even hateful. We pay that price because the alternative is worse. Do you really think that one can allow a legislature the authority to ban the burka without allowing it authority to ban other kinds of clothing that make a statement, even statements that you would find laudable?

Ophelia Benson said...

One thing I think Russell and most of the commenters (except Athena!) haven't taken into account is that we can in a sense afford to take the libertarian view (so far) because the burqa is such a minority thing. But what if it weren't? What if a large minority or a small majority wanted to wear it? Then there would be pervasive pressure for all other women to wear it. And then what?

Well Athena and I would have to emigrate - if we could find a burqa-free place to emigrate to.

This isn't a mere counterfactual, it's how this stuff works. The hijab was very rare in Egypt a few decades ago and now it's almost universal. I think it's at least worth noticing that it's easy in (say) Australia and the UK and the US to say the burqa shouldn't be banned because so far it's not much of a threat (except to women who will face local pressure to wear it).

Steve Zara said...


My views aren't related to the Burqa being an aspect of a minority community. Quite the contrary.

It is far less of a problem to set up a law to ban symbols worn by a minority. Set up the ban, and the symbol disappears only to be seen in private spaces and ghettos, and we can forget about it.

If burqas were worn by a majority there would be more demand to deal with the real problem - the cultural oppression of women, rather than only hiding the symbol of that oppression.

That Guy Montag said...

I have to admit I've found myself wavering between both sides here trying to find a point at which to stand my ground and it's been tough. That said, Ophelia's point is a startlingly strong one: this is genuinely a tension between Liberalism and Libertarianism and therefore an easier one to resolve. Just as freedom in a fundamentally unjust world is not freedom, the freedom to wear the burka is no such thing.

Ophelia Benson said...

"If burqas were worn by a majority there would be more demand to deal with the real problem - the cultural oppression of women, rather than only hiding the symbol of that oppression."

Steve that's just an assumption. Majorities are powerful (read Tocqueville, who inspired Mill!), and it's just way too easy to assume that if burqas were worn by a majority the result would be more demand to deal with the real problem. It's much more likely that the result would be ever more pressure to conform.

J. J. Ramsey said...

Benson: "What if a large minority or a small majority wanted to wear it? Then there would be pervasive pressure for all other women to wear it."

You are skipping steps here.

First, what is your scenario for how this small majority/large minority comes about? Are we talking some perverse fashion trend? Large-scale immigration of Muslims? A lot of women converting to Islam? A non-Islamic movement to promote female modesty that happens to co-opt the burka? Those different scenarios would make huge differences in the pressure on women to conform to this hypothetical trend.

Second, the U.S., Australia, and the assorted European democracies are very different from Egypt, certainly in their religion backgrounds and in their cultural expectations of the role of religion, so why do you think what happened in Egypt is a good indicator of what would happen in countries that are so unlike it?

Also, may I ask what your opinion would be on laws banning people from wearing Ku Klux Klan garb, or swastika armbands, or T-shirts that say that that gays will burn in Hell? How would one be able to ban those things without setting legal precedents that would have chilling effects on free speech? Why would banning a burka not have those effects?

Russell Blackford said...

Thank you all for a constructive discussion. Please continue. :)

I only want to clarify one thing. The discussion of nudity is intended to illustrate the legal principles. It is not intended to imply some kind of moral equivalence between nudity and the burka. As it happens, I see nothing morally problematic about nudity. I do see something morally problematic about the burka. I think that that is itself a contrast that ought to be made in this debate, since issues about nudity or scanty clothing often get raised in an odd way by supporters of the burka. Perhaps I should have emphasised that in the original post, though it was a bit tangential to the argument.

Also, note that, though I argue against an actual ban, much of the post is about our right to say that there is something morally problematic about the burka - and to argue that we should not be accused of religious hatred when we say why it is not welcome in liberal societies.

To digress slightly, it's a bit ironic that we still ban something that is pretty much not morally problematic (full nudity in public) while allowing something that is clearly morally problematic (the burka). But of course I don't think the law should be used in any straightforward way to enforce morality. I rely on broadly Millian principles when I argue about what we should and should not actually ban.

That Guy Montag said...

"How would one be able to ban those things without setting legal precedents that would have chilling effects on free speech"

That depends on whether you cconsider the burka as an act of comment; Surely you're better off comparing it to shackles or a collar?

That Guy Montag said...

Just to carry on the analogy, how would you feel about banning shackles? Would it change anything if an African man walks up to you, takes the shackles and places them around his own legs and tells you 'I am a slave of my own free will.' or maybe 'I am a slave because my god says I am less than a white man.' Is is even possible to conceive of a more frightening image?

ColinGavaghan said...

Athena, oops! 'pologies for the name error (my next door neighbour is called Athena as well, so really, no excuse!). And no, I don't find strident, argumentative, even aggressive women remotely 'unwomanly' - another gender stereotype that doesn't fit, I'm afraid. ;-)

I can sort of see where you're coming from here, but since you are so keen to challenge other posters about high-flown ethics and lack of pragmatism (quite rightly), I'm still unclear as to what you're actually suggesting should happen. We're all agreed that criminalising burqa-wearers, or banning them from public places (which would amount to the same thing, I guess.) So, what should the law do?

My second concern - and the reason why the seemingly flippant comparison with nudity maybe does have some merit - is that the claim of 'social oppression' wouldn't stop with the burqa.

Both radical feminists and 'radical' conservatives argue that how women dress and behave in our society is largely imposed upon them by a patriarchal and/or sex-obsessed culture. Revealing clothes, on this logic, annihilate women's identities just as surely as the burqa, reducing them to sexual displays of body parts rather than people.

I don't personally agree with this (in general; there may be particular instances where it's true). But it would be naive to think that, once we start down the road of banning clothing, various demands won't follow for an extension of that ban. And especially if we are concerned with 'pervasive pressure' (to borrow Ophelia's term) rather than actual threats, those demands may be harder to ignore.

J. J. Ramsey said...

K.Greybe: "Would it change anything if an African man walks up to you, takes the shackles and places them around his own legs and tells you 'I am a slave of my own free will.'"

Absolutely not. I do not want the government to even go near banning expression simply on the grounds that it advocates things that one finds abhorrent. There is too much opportunity for abuse there. Many people find blasphemy abhorrent, so should blasphemy be banned? How do you make sure that the government only bans the right things, so that only foolish things like shackles and burkas are banned?

Steve Zara said...

Something that I am curious about is how such a ban would work in practice.

Athena Andreadis said...

Ophelia, thank you for eloquently re-emphasizing and extending points that I brought up. It's good to have a sign that I'm not living in a parallel universe.

Perhaps the liberalism versus libertarianism distinction is the right one to follow. However, it is equally inescapable that such issues are fought literally over the bodies of women. I don't see men being forced to wear "cultural-specific" clothing through either legislation or social pressure. Social pressure, enforced by threats of ostracism or bodily harm, is not choice.

In my opinion, the "slippery slope" argument that many here employed is invalid because it disregards the radical nature of the burqa. It's not a yarmulke, it's not a cross, it's not a nose ring. Along those lines (and Ophelia's argument), it's interesting that even the hijab is a matter of intense debate in Turkey. The Turks know, from the inside out, and not as an intellectual exercise, what such items imply and what they can bring about.

Steve Zara said...

Actually I am not a libertarian. I just don't see how a probably unenforceable law to ban use of a symbol by adults in public achieves much in changing a culture.

Athena Andreadis said...

Here are excerpts from two essays directly pertinent to the issue.

Author: Ophelia Benson
Article: Cultural Relativism

"Is it the culture of the women who are murdered? Or is it only the culture of the men doing the murdering. If the latter, why should their culture be privileged?

In fact it's quite strange the way a line of thought that's intended to side with the oppressed often sides with oppressors in the name of multiculturalism."

[AA's note: And in the name of "maximum individual freedom" denuded of all other context.]

Author: Athena Andreadis
Article: And Ain't I a Human?

"The revisionist attitude, part guilt, part geopolitical convenience, part belated recognition, has resulted in “respecting traditions” by tolerating inhumanity against women in non-Western cultures — even allowing enforcement of separate, regressive family, education and healthcare laws in non-Western communities embedded within Western societies."

Steve Zara said...


This seems to me to be the exact opposite of cultural relativism. Relativism would surely be banning something except for a particular cultural group, for example if Sikhs were allowed to carry knives for religious reasons where they were generally banned.

The view expressed by Russell is about not banning.

Look - I am prepared to have my mind changed. What I need is a clear line of reasoning from banning public wearing of a particular item of clothing to changing long-held traditions of oppression to women. I need to know how this works.

Athena Andreadis said...

Many here have asked me if I can suggest a concrete action about what to do if faced (sic) with a woman wearing a burqa in public.

I think I will propose a solution that comes from sharia law. Sharia makes male relatives absolute custodians of all the women in their family. It also allows "equivalent" punishment -- as in the case of the Pakistani adolescent girl who was gang-raped by her fellow villagers because her brother was involved in a disapproved relationship.

So this is my solution: If faced with a burqa-wearing woman, the authorities should arrest her nearest male relative and keep him in prison as long as the woman wears the burqa. Very traditional and totally respectful of Islamic precepts.

I just saw your post, Steve. Surely you didn't think this through. If we follow your reasoning, the burqa should be banned without any mental contortions. No one is allowed to hide behind masks in most countries. Occluded faces include robbers, lynch mobs, rapists and terrorists, to name a few.

Steve Zara said...

So this is my solution: If faced with a burqa-wearing woman, the authorities should arrest her nearest male relative and keep him in prison as long as the woman wears the burqa. Very traditional and totally respectful of Islamic precepts.

Unfortunately against all principles of fairness, and would not (I hope) stand a chance of being put into law in Western democracies.

No one is allowed to hide behind masks in most countries.

I know of no such laws. It would make the public wearing of fancy dress illegal, for example.

Athena Andreadis said...

Not at all, Steve. In Islamic law, men are like parents in terms of their standing vis-a-vis the women in their families. The arrest would be based on suspicion of terrorism. That mandate has been broadened to include anything these days. It just so happens that in this instance it would actually be valid, though not as originally meant by the law. A neat example of unintended consequences.

And if you think that wearing a ski mask will pass by unremarked by your neighbors and local police, you and I must indeed be living in different universes.

I will not post further on this. I do believe it does boil down to liberalism versus libertarianism, as well as fundamental differences in perceptions of what the burqa means. One of the many reasons that I left Greece was to escape exactly such oppression (mild though it was in comparison with everything East of there). To me, legalistic arguments about allowing burqas in First World countries are a sign of serious dysfunction.

Steve Zara said...

In Islamic law

But we don't live under Islamic law, thank goodness. We should not try and impose a version of it on Muslims. That certainly would be cultural relativism.

I don't happen to see this as related to liberalism or libertarianism, although I would classify myself as liberal.

A burqa-banning law would be a strange thing. You would have to come up with some legal definition of 'burqa', as banning something simply because it has cultural significance would be a real problem.

I can imagine absurd situations where a shift in size of a mask by a few mm makes it no longer a burqa. But the oppression still continues.

If the burqa is a symbol of oppression and bullying, then we need to deal with the oppression and bullying.

I can understand revulsion about the symbol, but I think that to react to that by banning the symbol would result in bad, messy, unenforceable law.

I think we need to deal with the problem, not symbols representing the problem. We have methods for doing that: laws against domestic violence, about school uniforms, and education systems. Those may take time to work, but I think they are the only practical way forward.

Ophelia Benson said...

I should add, just for clarity, that I'm not arguing for a ban. I don't really think there should be, for the Millian reasons Russell cites. But I also have problems with making that an absolute. I don't think there is any good solution to this.

ColinGavaghan said...

Athena, I agree entirely with your rejection of cultural relativism. If oppression of women is wrong, then it's wrong everywhere. And I couldn't agree more with the point of Ophelia's rhetorical question (as posted by you) about whose culture it actually is anyway.

Unfortunately, for all the passionate and doubtless heartfelt arguments on here, we are still no closer to a solution, as Ophelia also acknowledges. I assume your 'punish the husband/father' suggestion is indeed tongue in cheek, but even if it wasn't, we come back to the point I raised at the start: sanctions for burqa-wearing (whoever gets punished) might be better for some oppressed women, but it might just as well mean that some of those who are currently forced to wear it are instead denied the chance to go out of doors at all.

That is an intensely practical question as well as a moral one, and it's one that I would need to be reassured about before I could accept that a ban would be better for those women.

(That said, it's possible that a ban would still be better for women generally, by virtue of the statement it makes.)

Ophelia Benson said...

The statement is important. What Sarkozy said was important and valuable, even if one considers the banning of burqas illiberal. (I find it very annoying to agree with something Sarkozy says. Oh well.)

That Guy Montag said...

To be frank I'm still inclined to see the wearing of a burka as different from a normal act of expression. Sufficiently different in fact that there might not actually be a Free Speech concern here.

In terms of implementing a ban a limited ban on perhaps the full burka or keeping the face covered is I suspect enough and why even use jail as a sanction? A caution or a fine should be good enough to have some impact.

Finally on whether women will simply hide away, is there any reason to be so pessimistic Collin? Seems to me that even in the most bullying of relationships, both parties need to pull their weight and at least then the women will have the opportunity to become involved in the world as a person in their own right, something I would actually see as a duty of the state to promote in a liberal democracy.

Steve Zara said...

or keeping the face covered is I suspect enough

We should introduce fines for keeping the face covered?

Isn't there going to be a problem then with the use of scarves in cold weather?

I'm not joking - this is going to be a very dodgy legal area.

Steve Zara said...

Do you really find it so hard to tell the difference between a person wearing an "I Hate Fags" t-shirt and a person in chains?

To be honest, yes. I know, this sounds odd, but when you think about it...

How do you define shackles?

I think a good sign of potential bad law is that questions like this are possible.

Actually, there may be one way to deal with the burqa - if it can be shown to be a physical hazard for the wearer - sort of like driving without a seatbelt.

An example might be that the restricted vision as a result of the burqa means that a woman wearing one could not, say, look after a child safely.

That Guy Montag said...

I don't know, should I just point out laws that prohibit people being tied up, that whole false imprisonment business? I think it's germane I'm just not sure...

Facetiousness aside, I'm not going to say there isn't an ambiguity here. Chaining someone to a wall for example is an obvious wrong in a way that a woman in a full body sack isn't but I'm pretty convinced that they're a similar class of action. The ambiguity comes from that fact that the woman appears to have chosen her "chains". That they're chains though I think is unambiguous enough that we can use it to legislate as long as we don't fall into the trap of comparing it to something trivially similar.

Steve Zara said...

We can say what a burqa reminds us of. It reminds us of slavery. It reminds us of chains. It reminds us of a prison.

But it is an item of clothing.

If we start to ban things because of what we think they represent, then I think we are in trouble.

That Guy Montag said...

'If we start to ban things because of what we think they represent, then I think we are in trouble.'

Sorry, but chains represent nothing, they are a restriction, ditto the burka. The problem with the burka is that how they restrict is more subtle and includes the illusion of being voluntary, not whether either you, I, the woman wearing the burka or her husband/father/patriarcal bastard believe it restricts her: we all agree it does, that's their purpose.

Steve Zara said...

So now you are wanting to ban an item of clothing because of what someone believes about it? A belief is illegal?

That Guy Montag said...

Steve, I've been trying to avoid accusing you of being less than generous in your interpretation, but now it looks like your being worse. In fact, am I wrong in accusing you of being out and out dishonest? How can you sit there and look at my argument that the fact of both shackles and burkas is that they are real physical impediments and then come to the spurious conclusion that I'm arguing it's because people believe they are? I would hope you were above spurious cherry picking and I'd suggest you think a little before posting your reply this time.

Steve Zara said...

Laws can be nasty beasts. They can trap you in ways that you don't expect.

The way to highlight how dangerous laws can be is to look at edge cases; extremes. These may sound absurd, but they are important. Why? Because we tend to fall into the trap of assuming that a law will be implemented by reasonable people. Sometimes they are not. One new law here in the UK means that people have been arrested simply for photographing policemen, in totally harmless situations.

Let me give just one example of how an 'anti-burqa' law could go wrong. A law stating that faces should not be covered in public sounds reasonable. I may joke about 'wearing scarves', but what about if a dissident wants to protest in front of an embassy, while remaining anonymous?

Please believe me, I don't post here on matters like this either lightly or without considerable thought. I respect Russell too much.

Athena Andreadis said...

Steve, I've concluded (along with K. Greybe) that either you don't get it or you don't want to get it. Your objections can be summarized by a Greek saying: "The world is burning while some people are combing their pubic hair."

Steve Zara said...

I am sorry you have to resort to ad-hominem attacks.

I have found this a very important discussion about a subject that highlights the problems when an oppressive culture tries to exist within a democratic liberal society.

How do we deal with the oppression without oppressing ourselves? How do we deal with a cultural problem without resorting to cultural relativistic solutions?

There may be some way to deal with burqas, but I notice that in France a large legal team is taking a long time to research this problem, which I think indicates how difficult it is.

So far I have heard nothing practical here; nothing that won't be a major legal problem, or that won't threaten general rights.

But I appreciate that Russell has given space here for this discussion.

That Guy Montag said...

I'll try and point out what seems an important part of our disagreement. At no point do I need to look at the burka as an article of clothing comparable to a shirt or even a mask. The point has always been that it's not. To repeat the analogy, someone can wear chains/shackles as ornament but we still have laws preventing someone being put in chains and this hasn't as far as I can tell led to a major legal problem. Could you really conceive of a defence of 'I'm sorry m'lord but as you can tell the shackles tying the victim to the wall were purely ornamental.' This is the kind of case the burka compares to, not as I said before an 'I Hate Fags' t-shirt.

To preempt a possible objection, I'm not going to say that this is an unambiguous case. Doubt in a case such as my erstwhile chained friend comes as far as I can tell from questions of consent, not definition. I certainly don't want to stop consenting adults engaging in whatever it is that gets their rocks off: shackle away in the privacy of your own home and with a well established safe word, engage in burka parties if you wish. Out in the world however, beyond obviously sacrosanct privacies, I want the state to be providing as much of a buffer to coercion as it can.

Steve Zara said...

At no point do I need to look at the burka as an article of clothing comparable to a shirt or even a mask. The point has always been that it's not.

Please forgive me if I seem persistent here, but I need to emphasise that you are talking about your own view. Actually, you are describing my view too. The problem is that the law needs more objective evidence than that.

However, I do think you may be on to something there.

To repeat the analogy, someone can wear chains/shackles as ornament but we still have laws preventing someone being put in chains and this hasn't as far as I can tell led to a major legal problem.

Being put in chains against their will. But when someone is walking around in public, how do we tell for sure that this is against their will?

Could you really conceive of a defence of 'I'm sorry m'lord but as you can tell the shackles tying the victim to the wall were purely ornamental.'

I see what you are saying, but I just can't see any attempt to define a burqa as equivalent to shackling someone to a wall standing up in court, even though the analogy may be pretty close.

I think you are raising a very useful issue here. I think what needs to be considered is the difference between a simple mask and some equivalent of shackles.

If there was sufficiently strong cultural evidence that the burqa was indeed a form of shackling, then there might be a way to make progress.

Perhaps a better analogy is with a whip used to keep someone in line. Wearing a burqa might be considered as equivalent to walking around being whipped into line. It doesn't matter if it is consensual or not, someone walking along a public street whipping themself would still be considered inappropriate. That is best left for behind closed doors.

The burqa as some combination of sadism or masochism. I can see some benefit to that view. I am far from convinced (yet), but I can see where you are coming from.

Unknown said...

wow i go sailing for a few days and the debate rages on.

"(1) the stigma of doing so would be much less if it were allowed, since no crime would be committed"

sorry russell i have to disagree with you. you said yourself that in many places women can go topless. let's say here in north queensland is one. women topless on the beach = no one bats an eyelid. women topless walking down the street = would offend many people. it's cultural, not based on laws.

having said that, this doesn't really support my claim strongly enough to counter your second point

Ophelia Benson said...

Let's go back to the beginning for a second.

"Still, the case for actually banning the burka is rather weak. Somebody who is wearing a burka does not thereby directly harm others, which would be the classic reason for banning a kind of individual conduct."

That's true (if it is true) only in places where the burqa is a minority custom - and in fact it's not really true even there. Shabina Begum's schoolmates wanted her to lose her case, because they didn't want to face social pressure to wear the jilbab once she started wearing it. A burqa has social, political, sexual meaning, and not wearing it when wearing it is an option perforce becomes a statement, and the statement is one that a lot of people will want to prevent girls and women from making. The burqa just can't be treated as a neutral free choice - it's a garment freighted with its history of massive coercion of women. I hate to say it, but Sarkozy is right - it is degrading, and it degrades all women by its presence.

That could in a perfect world be different - but then who would want to wear the burqa at all? It's hardly a comfortable or practical garment! So the 'right' to wear the burqa makes sense only when no one wants to avail herself of the right.

I think this just isn't apparent to most people who live in places where the burqa is very rare.

Ophelia Benson said...

In fact - there's another aspect. The only girls and women who will want to wear the burqa are ones who aren't in a position to choose it freely. It's what you might call overdetermined. That's not by itself a reason to ban it, of course - but given that it is an inherently degrading garment which women are killed for not wearing in some places, it is at least a reason not to be too blithe about rejecting the idea of a ban.

Steve Zara said...


Your contributions have been important, but have, as far as I can see, added nothing to the case for actually banning the burqua. You have said (correctly) that it has a social and political message.

I have to be honest. I have felt in a strange position on this thread. My posts have been both reacted to with intensity, but also ignored. In view of this, I will summarize my views as follows:

1. How does one go about banning an item of clothing from being worn in public?

2. How does banning an item of clothing from being worn in public assist women to free themselves from oppression?

I have asked this before, but I have had no response.

Ophelia Benson said...


But I'm not necessarily trying to add anything to the case for actually banning the burqua. I'm mostly trying to underline that it's a mistake to make the case against banning it by pretending it doesn't cause any real or serious harm.

I don't see how a ban could be anything other than intrusive and coercive (coercive about things people shouldn't be coerced about). At the same time I think the burqa does very serious harm in several ways. I don't see any way out of this trap, but I think we should be clear about both parts.

Steve Zara said...

I do hope I have not given the impression that I don't consider the burqa harmful.

I think it is a dreadful way for a woman to be treated.

I just don't see any easy way to deal with this by laws.

Ophelia Benson said...

No, I don't either. We don't disagree on much.

ColinGavaghan said...

@Ophelia: like Steve, I'm in the awkward position of agreeing with your assessment of the burqa as replete with oppressive and misogynistic symbolism, but seeing no sensible way of responding to it through law.

Part of the problem - as you have also recognised, I think - is that women in different situations are likely to be affected differently by any attempt to ban. I've never lived in a patriarchal muslim society like Saudi or Afghanistan (has anyone posting here?), so I'm not quite sure how things play there; maybe a ban would indeed accomplish more good than harm in those places. But I would have two or three concerns about attempting a ban here in the UK.

One is that it may (as I've said before) make things worse for the most oppressed muslim women, for whom the alternative to shuffling about in a sack would be never to be allowed outdoors at all. Another would be the danger of 'legislative blowback'; many well-intentioned laws have ended up being employed against unforseen & unfortunate targets, and the prospect of, say, masked protestors being arrested is not far-fetched.

But one that hasn't been mentioned, I don't think, is the danger of radicalising the burqa. Many left-wing groups in the UK (loosely aligened under banner of the Stop the War coalition) have embraced 'islamophobia' as a cause celebre in recent times.

Some of this is justified; the response from some of our media and politicians to 7/7 and the Glasgow Airport attack was little more than thinly (ahem) veiled racism. OTOH, some of it has been naive at best, opportunitic at worst.

In any event, an attack on the burqa is seen by some of those groups as an opportunistic attack on an already relatively powerless, besieged minority, and an opportunity to inflame 'islamophobic' attitudes. Just have a look at sites like Lenin's Tomb (unofficial blog of the Socialist Workers' Party) for an idea of what I mean.

When Sarkozy and the right-wing press are lambasting the burqa, and the far left are sticking up for it, maybe we progressives need to consider the symbolic status of our own position. We certainly wouldn't want the burqa issue to become some sort of anti-racist rallying flag. (In case this seems unlikely, there were plentiful accounts of moderate French muslim girls wearing the hijab for the first time, in defiance, after l'affair Levy.)

Ophelia Benson said...

Colin, sure, but on the other hand, it's necessary to compare the possible harmful effects with the possible beneficial effects. It's not as if all the possible effects are automatically on the harmful side. I'm not arguing for a ban (or against one), I'm arguing for a complete discussion rather than one which paints the status quo as allgood and a ban as only potentially harmful.

It's possible to argue that the principle - of personal freedom, religious freedom, privacy - trumps all but the most obvious and radical harms, but even then the discussion is more informative and more...more of a discussion of the actual issues if it isn't all weighted toward the assumption that noban is a slam dunk.

ColinGavaghan said...

@Ophelia: yes, fair point.

Athena Andreadis said...


"I've never lived in a patriarchal muslim society like Saudi or Afghanistan (has anyone posting here?), so I'm not quite sure how things play there; maybe a ban would indeed accomplish more good than harm in those places."

In an earlier post, I mentioned that I grew up in Greece at a time when there was de jure discrimination against women -- though mild compared to Islamic countries, let alone Wahhabist ones. Life was a constant rain of harassment and disempowerment that permeated and distorted everything -- personal, political, private, public.

That is one reason why I tell people to try wearing a burqa for a week -- and see how they feel and, equally important, how they are treated.

"When Sarkozy and the right-wing press are lambasting the burqa, and the far left are sticking up for it, maybe we progressives need to consider the symbolic status of our own position."

Yes, you do. Context matters as much as absolute content.

J. J. Ramsey said...

Athena Andreadis: "That is one reason why I tell people to try wearing a burqa for a week -- and see how they feel and, equally important, how they are treated."

Treated by who? Putting on a burka isn't going to make me subject to the same treatment as the women who normally wear it get day in and day out. Obviously, I would get treated differently. Coworkers may wonder what the heck I'm thinking, and I'd probably get stares from the people I pass at the grocery store, mall, etc. However, I'm not going to have the experience of having a Muslim husband, or of being my father's chattel. The burka itself is incapable of providing that experience.

But then, as I said, on its own, the burka is an arrangement of cloth, so that makes perfect sense.

That Guy Montag said...

Because I've only just become aware of this:


And there go any hopes I could conceive of an argument to ban. Yes the judges took a line similar to the one I've been taking so far; no I'm not happy with the result.

Athena Andreadis said...

From the much-lauded (here and elsewhere) Johann Hari review of "Does God Hate Women?" -- which seems to repeat some of my points.

"Methodically, they [Benson & Stangroom] go through the excuses offered for these raw abuses of human rights by the religious, and their apologists.

The first – especially beloved of the Vatican and Islamists – is that women are not being treated worse, just “differently”. // But this is an abuse of language. As the authors note: “Permanent consignment to a limited and lesser role in the world is not what ‘dignity’ is generally understood to mean.”


The religio-misogynists then claim that it is “racist” or “imperialist” to oppose such abuses. This merrily ignores how women within these cultures protest against their treatment – very loudly. They aren’t objecting to being imprisoned in their homes, or having their genitalia cut, or being stoned for having sex, because a white person told them to."

ColinGavaghan said...

I was just about to mention that, Athena. Terrific review, very well done Ophelia!

J. J. Ramsey said...

Athena Andreadis, you are offering a strawman, as the justifications here for not banning the burka have neither been on the grounds of burka-wearing women being treated different but not worse nor on the grounds of the idea that it is racist or imperialist to ban the burka. What we have pretty consistently been saying is that a ban on the burka would be impractical and set precedents that would backfire.

That Guy Montag said...


You're still too hung up on the wrong point. The fact remains we all agree that the burka specifically is wrong, illiberal, a genuine harm. It's not hard for courts to do the same. The strong case against the ban, the Millian principle, is simply that we can't think of a good reason for state intervention on harms to the self; Harms to others yes and in cases where we might question whether a person actually chooses the harm or is coerced. Quite frankly this position doesn't care a whit about the irrelevance you keep going on about. This particular point came into very harsh relief when reading about Operation Spanner for me.

ColinGavaghan said...

(C'mon, guys, one more and we push Russell over the hundred comments mark!)

Mel said...

This has been a fascinating discussion. It so happens I am in the middle of writing a post about the proposed ban and this has been inspirational.

I would like to take issue with one thing.

"I don't see men being forced to wear 'cultural-specific' clothing through either legislation or social pressure. Social pressure, enforced by threats of ostracism or bodily harm, is not choice."

I'm going to have to disagree with you vehemently on that one. In many places in the U.S., it is actually illegal to dress "inappropriately" for your gender.

If you were born with a penis and dress in what society considers womens clothing you are likely to be beaten or even killed.

Lunchbox Cake Shop said...

Here's a better argument for covering the pubic area in public spaces: health.

You want want someone grinding their bare ass into your chairs or rubbing their wang on everything. It's unsanitary and a threat to public health.

If I'm checking out a book I would rather have a lower chance of someone's cock being rubbed all over it. If I'm getting food I would rather not have urine, pubic hair, and possibly semen on the counter tops.

Maybe the answer is giving business owners the option, here, to be nude friendly or not

I can imagine an anti-nude advocacy group called "Keep your wang off our goods."