About Rationally Speaking

Rationally Speaking is a blog maintained by Prof. Massimo Pigliucci, a philosopher at the City University of New York. The blog reflects the Enlightenment figure Marquis de Condorcet's idea of what a public intellectual (yes, we know, that's such a bad word) ought to be: someone who devotes himself to "the tracking down of prejudices in the hiding places where priests, the schools, the government, and all long-established institutions had gathered and protected them." You're welcome. Please notice that the contents of this blog can be reprinted under the standard Creative Commons license.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

On banning the veil

By Massimo Pigliucci

Several European countries — including Belgium, France, Germany and the Netherlands — have banned the full-body Muslim burqa, or are considering doing so. In Spain a similar measure was narrowly rejected by the Catalonian assembly. In the United States this is not (yet) a live debate, though there are other signs of religious intolerance, such as what I think is a rather moronic discussion about whether to allow a Muslim cultural center near ground zero (the answer, I should think very clearly, ought to be of course yes, because 9/11 was not about the Muslims against us).
I was hoping to get my own ideas about the burqa issue a bit more clear by reading a contribution by noted philosopher Martha Nussbaum in the New York Times’ The Stone blog, but I must say it didn’t really help much.
Nussbaum is a sharp thinker, and arguably one of the most incisive public intellectuals active today. In her essay she introduced the issue in terms of two philosophical traditions concerning the rights of minorities, in particular religious ones. According to John Locke, the law should not penalize religious belief, and should not be discriminatory, that is it should be applied equally to all practitioners of specific religions. Nussbaum’s example is a Supreme Court decision that allows ritual animal sacrifice for religious purposes (yup, you read correctly!) because not allowing it would represent an instance of religious persecution against a specific group (in that case, the Santeria worshippers). I do wonder what the Supreme Court would say if a religious group petitioned to carry out human sacrifices...
A more strict criterion for religious equality was proposed by Roger Williams (the founder of Rhode Island), who maintained that the law has to be written in order to protect minorities, and in particular not to burden consciences by allowing special exemptions, known as accommodations, for religious practices. For instance, the US Supreme Court ruled that the state of South Carolina could not deny unemployment benefits to a Seventh-Day Adventist who lost her job because she refused to work on Saturdays, as this would amount to a financial fine against a matter of religious conscience. Again, it is easy to see how this line of reasoning could be pushed too far: what if my religion tells me that I need to dedicate most of my time to god, so that I can work only once a week?
Be that as it may, with the above as philosophical background, let’s analyze Nussbaum’s reasons for why banning burqas is a bad idea. They are framed as responses to common arguments in favor of the ban. I will append my own commentary to each entry.
1. Reasons for ban: for security reasons people have to show their faces when in public places; also, a proper relation among citizens requires transparency and reciprocity, i.e., we ought to be able to see who we interact with in the course of everyday life.
Nussbaum’s objection: this criterion would be applied inconsistently if a ban were passed, which means that it would be discriminatory against a minority. After all, we have no objection to people wearing ski masks or scarves when it’s very cold outside; also, many professionals cover their faces in special circumstances, e.g. doctors in operating rooms, football players on the field, etc.
My take: this strikes me as rather disingenuous of Nussbaum. First of all, she must recognize that the situations she describes (like, wearing a ski mask when it's cold) are very different in nature from the burqa problem. Yes, some of us cover our faces when going outside in the cold, but there actually is a problem if we keep doing so inside (for instance, after having walked into a bank). As for doctors and football players, again that is a clear case of special circumstances that pose no threat to transparency or security (indeed, they increase security of the patient and of the players, respectively), and they are temporary.
2. Reason for ban: the burqa is a symbol of male domination, so a ban protects women from objectification.
Nussbaum’s objection: society is rife with subtle ways of objectifying women, including “sex magazines, nude photos, tight jeans” ... “and what about the ‘degrading prison’ of plastic surgery?”
My take: again, disingenuous is the first word that comes to mind. Yes, western society still has plenty of more or less subtle ways to objectify women, but if Nussbaum seriously wishes to equate the entirely voluntary option of undergoing plastic surgery to please a man (or to gratify one’s own vanity) with the non-optional mandate to wear a burqa under the penalty of beating or death, she is way off the mark.
3. Reason for the ban: women wear the burqa only because they are coerced, so a ban is about asserting women’s rights to independence from male coercion.
Nussbaum’s objection: domestic violence is not limited to Muslim societies and “given the strong association between domestic violence and the abuse of alcohol, it seems at least plausible that observant Muslim families will turn out to have less of it.”
My take: this seems to me somewhat of a non sequitur. First off, Nussbaum cites statistics about domestic violence in the US, which are readily available, and then gingerly claims that the equivalent numbers for Muslim societies are likely lower. On what grounds? Does she really think that those societies have the equivalent of western monitoring and protection mechanisms to reduce domestic violence? Second, this strikes me as a “tu quoque” (you too) argument, which is an elementary logical fallacy. Nussbaum should instead be arguing both against male-imposed burqas and against alcohol-induced domestic violence, not use the second as an excuse for the first.
4. Reason for the ban: burqas are both uncomfortable and unhealthy for women.
Nussbaum’s objection: when she goes to India, she “wears a full salwaar kameez of cotton, because it is superbly comfortable, and full covering keeps dust off one’s limbs and at least diminishes the risk of skin cancer.” Also, “wouldn’t we have to begin with high heels, delicious as they are? But no, high heels are associated with majority norms (and are a major Spanish export), so they draw no ire.”
My take: okay, high heels are indeed “delicious,” but once again she seems to either miss the point or willfully ignore it. Nobody forces Spanish women to wear high heels, and nobody forces Nussbaum herself to wear a full salwaar kameez. Muslim women wearing burqas are in a different category altogether.
I must say that it is rather distressing to see a progressive public intellectual with a rigorous training in philosophy arguing so badly. It is in fact rather ironic that throughout her essay Nussbaum accuses her opponents of adopting a double cultural standard, while at the same time flagrantly doing the same herself, point after point.
I am not so naive as to seriously believe that politicians who are proposing bans against burqas do it because of their disinterested concern for women. Nor do I believe for a second that most of the proposed or enacted legislature is not in fact a thinly veiled attempt to validate public fears about Muslims in general. But it doesn’t help to pretend that there is a problem on the other side as well.
Muslim societies are male dominated to a degree that the West left behind (though not entirely abandoned) centuries ago. Correspondingly, Muslim women are oppressed to a degree that is not even remotely approached in western societies — high heels, tight jeans and sexy magazine covers notwithstanding.
I do believe that religious minorities have a right to wear specific garments and practice specific rites, within limits. The discussion is precisely about what those limits should be, and there is no clear cut answer. I also believe that total bans are counterproductive on pragmatic grounds because they reinforce — on both sides — the “us vs. them” mentality that has been so pernicious throughout human history. Better instead to provide ample opportunities for education coupled with strict enforcement of anti-domestic violence laws.
Still, living in an open society is not equivalent to being able to do whatever one wants, no matter whether the reason is secular or religious. We should not be as open as tolerating intolerance, for instance, at least when it manifests itself in specific actions (as opposed to just words). Moreover, progressives in particular should strongly come out to condemn the obvious symbolism and actual enforcement of male domination and oppression of women that is so clearly represented by the burqa and other practices. Not doing so while protesting against high heels and plastic surgery comes perilously close to intellectual dishonesty.


  1. Hello Massimo,

    I realize it is not central to the theme of your post, but I wonder if you could elaborate on your comment above about the Supreme Court allowing ritual animal sacrifice. Based on your parenthetical remark: "yup, you read that correctly", you seem to think that allowing animal sacrifice is absurd.

    First, let me state that I agree with your (inferred) point that killing animals without a good reason to do so is immoral. However, both the law of the United States and the opinion of the vast majority of human beings on the planet say that it is perfectly acceptable to kill (non-human) animals for food.

    Given that it is possible (even beneficial in many ways) to live a happy healthy life as a vegetarian, I do not see the distinction between killing an animal for food and killing an animal for a religious ceremony. Both actions make the assumption that the lives of animals have little or no value, and that ending them is not immoral. It seems to me that the particular reason for ending them, be it human pleasure in the form of a tasty meal or human pleasure in the form of following the doctrines of a particular religion, is irrelevant if you accept the basic idea that killing animals is OK.

    And to answer your (rhetorical) question, it seems obvious to me that the Supreme Court would not allow human sacrifice for religious (or any other) reasons, just as they do not allow cannibalism. In the legal system and based on societal norms, killing animals is acceptable but killing humans is not.

    So, while I agree that it should be illegal to sacrifice animals for religious reasons, I think it would be very inconsistent to ban animal sacrifice and not ban eating meat. I'd be interested to hear your thoughts on this.


  2. At the risk of coming across as a libertarian I don't think you should ban anything on the grounds of "symbolism".

    I'm sure many would argue that the burqa "liberates" women from the pressures of male lust, while others would argue that high heels and plastic surgery are symbolic of the rejection of the the oppressive religious doctrines. And all this assumes that a woman is incapable of deciding for herself.

    But I don't accept "objectification" as a serious issue anyway as opposed to pure sexism. If anyone's willing to link a essay to convince me otherwise I would be grateful.

  3. Good discussion, and I generally agree, but it is a tricky issue.

    My problem with some of your criticism of Nussbaum is of choice. (By the way, this is the second article by Nussbaum I have been dissapointed in recently, but I think it is just that she is taking on more general problems in articles that are not quite so philosphically thorough.)

    I think we can generalize that in Muslim countries many or most women are forced to wear the burqa, if they do so, but does that hold up in western countries. I saw a woman, in public, at a mall in Texas, wearing a burqa, and was absolutely appalled. This was the first time I had seen this. Are Muslim women in America threatened with death for not wearing it? More forced to wear them than say a woman growing up in Amish country is forced to cover her hair? More forced than say a woman growing up in a conservative church chooses to follow the customs of not wearing short skirts or shorts, say, simply because she knows she would be outcasted from her "life" if she chose to go against such regulation?

    I hate to go down this road, but if I fully believed that woman in the mall was absolutely being forced, through threat of physical harm to wear the burqa, with no significant way to reject such a practice, I think it would be time for those who understand what was happening to step in. And such a thing would be intolerable, and if this was the only reason for woman wearing the burqa, fear of threat, then of course it should be banned. But surely many women wear them just because they in general accept their social and religious customs. As stupidly degrading as such customs are, if the women are simply accepting their religious and social position, then it at least becomes on the scale of the high heels, thin jeans, woman-as-object problem that women face in this country, one that they cannot reject without becoming socially outcasted, at least to some degree, as well.

  4. Mike,

    a detailed discussion of vegetarianism would be beyond the scope of this post, so I'd rather go back to the issue at some future time. For now let me just say that I don't think that ritual sacrifice of animals is on the same ethical level as killing animals for food. While it is possible to live a vegetarian life, it does not come natural to omnivores like ourselves, and it requires effort if one wishes to avoid negative health effects (especially if one is a vegan). But I see no reason at all to carry out sacrifices except the intrinsic irrationality of the belief.

  5. It seems like the appropriate response then is: no ban, but also no special exemptions (eg, banks could refuse entry to someone so covered).

    Uh oh, that seems dangerously close to a libertarian position ;)

  6. Thanks for your take on that Massimo. I think one essential point of Nussbaum's is the question of whether our western secular democracies should ban these garments. Clearly we should not. There seems to be many ethnocentric assumptions that these women are not exercising any choice in whether to wear them. But are we so sure? I don't think we are. Within their cultural mileu, which yes may be male dominated, they accept, and choose to wear the burqa. Yes they are under cultural and family pressure to conform, but to a certain degree they agree to conform. If they are living in a secular democracy, then they do have some power, opportunity, and external support to exit that cultural mileu. Nussbaum's point is that within our secular democracies, domestic violence can occur within both Muslim and non Muslim households, and we have the secular law to deal with those issues in Muslim and non-Muslim households.

  7. I'm with Lyndon and BJ on this. As a general principle I feel that people's freedom to do what they please shouldn't be restricted unless it could harm someone else (hence we may need security restrictions, as BJ said).

    The other key is, as Lyndon noted, making sure that the women really are doing as THEY please, and not being forced to wear the burqa. If they were being forced, then a burqa ban might be the only way to protect them against that coercion. But if we have no good reason to suspect coercion, then I can't see any grounds for taking this choice away from them.

  8. Julia,

    but that's precisely the issue: are these women being forced in less subtle ways than western women who wear high heels? Contra Sheldon, I think we have good reasons to believe that they are, and not just in Muslim societies. I still don't think a ban is the best (or just) response, but it is also disingenuous to compare the situation to the "prison" of plastic surgery, as Nussbaum does.

  9. I have a big problem with the idea that we would consider banning a veil (or whatever) because we *know* the wearer was coerced into wearing it in accordance with some sexist religious mandate. It would not be difficult to find many Muslim women to deny there is any coercion and to praise their religion's protection of their modesty (or whatever).

    Here's the next stop on the slippery slope: I grew up an Orthodox Jew, and my mother and four sisters and even my ex-wife all covered their hair with hats, scarves and wigs when they were in the presence of men other than their husbands. This is clearly a similarly sexist custom, one that started driving me really batty before I left that lifestyle. My ex-wife would now agree with me, and in fact stopped following that tradition a few years ago. But the rest of the women in my family would passionately argue that there's nothing sexist about it, and it's a beautiful tradition.

    Would we be correct in saying that they're wrong? That we know better: they're suffering from sexism, we're not going to tolerate it, and we're going to make a ban on wigs?

    Simply put, the Bill of Rights guarantees religious freedom, and that means people can even worship religions that are harmful to themselves (most people reading this probably consider that statement redundant). If we start deciding which aspects of a religion its practitioners consider sacred should actually be protected, we now have inserted government into the religious process, and effectively gutted the first amendment.

    Is teaching children Young-Earth Creationism a form of intellectual child abuse? I think so.

    Is attending a program to cure yourself of homosexuality a disgusting bit of psychological self-destruction? I think so.

    Is waving live chickens over your head to transfer your sins to it before the High Holy Days a form of animal abuse? I think so.

    Is circumcision a barbaric act of mutilation inflicted on a defenseless baby? I think so.

    But we allow all these things. They are harmful to children, animals, and the individuals themselves. But as long as those doing it think it is a necessary component of their beliefs and want to do it, we need to let them.

    ...Or we need to pass a constitutional amendment. Meanwhile, the proper recourse is speaking out, educating the public, and having an open dialog with religious minorities, not entrenching them in a defensive position, retreating them further into religious zeal.

  10. Yeah, Massimo, I definitely agree about the disingenuousness of the plastic surgery comparison!

    And you may also be right about the coercion (to wear the burqa) being strong enough that the women really don't have free choice, which would justify a ban. I'm not 100% sure, though.

    This partly just comes down to differing personal preferences for when state intervention starts to feel paternalistic. For instance, some people might say that the threat of being socially ostracized for refusing the burqa would be bad enough to justify the state stepping in and banning it, whereas others would say that only the threat of physical violence would be bad enough to justify the state stepping in and banning it.

    I'm not sure exactly where on that spectrum I'd place myself, and I would also need to know more about just what kind of threat these burqa-wearing women would face for abandoning it.

  11. Oh, and Mike Tucker -- I agree with you about animal sacrifice and meat-eating both being equally justifiable (or un-justifiable), since they are both things that people want to do, but don't *need* to do.

    But, that said, let's stick to the original burqa debate for this thread, and I promise to address the animal sacrifice debate in an upcoming post, OK?

  12. I think this points up an interesting tension between American individualism and cultural freedom. Imagine a woman covered from head to foot but the material is bright tie-dye. It's odd, but not so loaded an image, because you're pretty sure she's not a Muslim. She's a hippie. You go girl!

  13. When i leave the house i am obligated (by law) to wear clothes. Should we ban clothes? I am also forced (by indirect, milder coercion) to wear pants and not a skirt. Should we ban pants? Well that of course is completely secular and has nothing to do with christianity. Those sexist pigs think they are in a position to tell women what to wear when we, enlightened rationalists, obviously are in a position to tell women... What not to wear. They are sexist when they force women to wear burqas but we are not if we force them not to. But of course its not the same seeing as "they" are men who dont share our enlightened ideology (complete assertion) and "we" are not just men. Cant anyone else see a flaw in this kind of reasoning ?

  14. Julia, I am pretty close with you on this, I wonder the validity in claiming that women are forced to wear the burqa because of the "threat of being socially ostracized," instead of threat of actual physical harm, and, if it is only socially ostracization, whether we should start legislating against such norms. You quickly fall into the head scarf problem (as BJ above noted), and the same social stigma against not wearing a headscarf ensues. It is pretty hard not to claim that the Muslim headscarf is being worn for the very similar reasons as the burqa, and that it similarly (not equally) is used to control, dominate, make women less than men, etc. Then the ban on the burqa is just banning a particular groups taking of the legitimate headscarf wearing to the next step.

    Anyways, I just don't know if we can justify political recourse, as commonly accepted now, against those wearing burqas, or headscarfs, simply if they are avoiding social ostracization. Education of women (and men) and cultural bombardment of better practices and norms seems like the only recourse, to me. Heartbreakingly.

    I agree plastic surgery and most self-objectifying procedures are a bad comparison.

  15. I also believe that total bans are counterproductive on pragmatic grounds because they reinforce — on both sides — the “us vs. them” mentality that has been so pernicious throughout human history.

    Massimo, I don't understand why a ban reinforce an “us vs. them” mentality. Seems to me that part of the population segregating themselves by covering their faces is more likely to be causing that mentality.

    Many of you seem to argue that the most important question in relation to a ban is whether the women who wear the burqas are oppressed or not. I, too, think this is important (and don't accept, btw, that because many women want to wear them, that that means that they aren't oppressing - I suspect there is a sort of Stockholm syndrome for cultural practices involved), but I also think it's important what the effect is on the rest of us.

    As Hitchens say about the French trying: "To the contrary, they are attempting to lift a ban: a ban on the right of women to choose their own dress, a ban on the right of women to disagree with male and clerical authority, and a ban on the right of all citizens to look one another in the face."

  16. I used to know a very traditional young lady who came from a family where they still did arranged marriages, etc. Somehow, she was allowed to go off to school. As she was separated from her traditional family, and was allowed to experience life outside of the social oppression, she began to open up to new ideas, and wasn't subjected to an arranged marriage (and actively worked to avoid having one). She went from 'no boys allowed in your apartment', to having many male friends (who spent much time at her apartment).

    So that adds another dimension to this. Do they really want to wear the burqa because its what they want, or because they are culturally immersed in it? Even without the threat of violence, there still is the threat of ostracization from their family, a burden that most people are averse to. Banning it would certainly cause some tension there, but what would the results be? Would they just move to a more 'burqa friendly' country? Or would the women be forced to stay home because they are not allowed to wear the burqa, a mandate from God? Or would they accept the law? Effectively, you run the risk of making it worse, by not allowing those women to experience the culture (a culture, that by all accounts, is thriving in spite of no burqas, where women are equals (mostly)). Without experiencing that culture, even through the slit of a burqa, could they ever hope to voluntarily cast off the shackles?

    I personally see the burqa issue more as a individual issue, one that should be fixed with education, and not mandated. We have seen a lot of forward development in non-muslim cultures over the past few hundred years. The burqa ban is an attempt to accelerate that progress with muslims in our western countries, so I think the artificial nature of it will likely cause more backlash then is worthwhile, and could cause a backwards slide by alienating those who it is actually trying to help. Perhaps patience will pay off.

    And to respond to the OT sidenote in the comments, ritual sacrifice is often dictated with certain killing methods. While I don't have a problem with ritual sacrifices per say, they should be regulated in the same way slaughter houses are. (Ever seen video of a kosher kill floor? That disgusts even me.) Unnecessary suffering, even by a dumb beast like a cow, should be stopped. I agree with Massimo; while you _can_ live as a vegan, we are not evolved to live as a vegan.

  17. Hi,

    I once dated a fella from Iraq (a very lovely man) and through him became well-acquainted with some families in his Halifax-based Iraqi community. We were visiting one of these families one day - I was in the kitchen attempting a conversation with the woman, doing the best we could with facial expressions, gestures and tones, as she had no English and I had no Arabic. At one point I called my boyfriend down to the kitchen to translate something for us. He came around the corner and then drew back with alarm. The woman ran into the bathroom and hid. It took me a moment to realize what I had done -- she was so embarrassed because she had not had her headscarf on (even in her own home).

    This led me to consider how much women who have to wear these items do internalize the norms they are expected to follow. Just as members raised in any society/culture buy into what they have been told since birth. If we ban the wearing of burkas/coverings, we will only serve to isolate women in their homes (more so than they already are).

    Liberation requires assistance from others, but must come from the oppressed. For so long as women themselves feel that they cannot interact in society without being covered, we should not tell them they are not make rules that prevent them from engaging in society in the ways they see fit.

    Education is the key to women's freedom - not laws that doubly punish them by forcing yet another rule on them.

    -Katie R-S

  18. Julia,

    I draw the line at physical coercion, cultural pressure is not enough. I'm just not sure at all that physical coercion doesn't go on within some Muslim groups in western societies. That wouldn't justify a ban, however, only a strict enforcement of anti-domestic violence laws.


    that kind of analogy is similar to Nussbaum's reasoning that high heels or plastic surgery are on par with burqas. They are not, and it doesn't make much sense to say that because we all have to wear clothes than it's okay to force women to cover their bodies entirely.


    I don't buy Hitchens' reasoning. Selectively banning a religious / cultural garment is a naked (pardon the pun) attempt at making a particular minority feel discriminated against. That's precisely the sort of pompous posturing on Hitchens' part that makes me distrustful of most of what he says.

  19. My take is that it's legitimate to pass laws that ban any garment that covers the face in cases where there is a legitimate need to see a face (any place where face scanners are used). But by making laws that specifically target one minority group, we are being discriminatory and unjust.

    Perhaps the best ways to deal with other cases of Burqas and Niqabs is to strengthen laws surrounding coercion and spousal abuse. Both are likely difficult to prosecute, but those are the real crimes being committed. It's similar to when police try to use polygamy laws to target fundamentalist Mormons who marry many (often underage) women and girls. The issue there is child and spousal abuse, not polygamy, but it's harder to prosecute the former, so they use archaic Christian-based laws.

  20. I don't find any of the four rationales for a ban particularly persuasive. Though I agree that the veil (in whatever form) is mostly a tool of male domination, I think we need to ask ourselves if it isn't equally paternalistic to tell women they cannot wear one. After all, the rationales for the veil that I've heard from Muslim men are of the "for your own good" variety (protection from predatory men). Western governments wanting to ban the burqa are also doing it "for the woman's own good" with the rationale of protecting Muslim women from male domination.

    The people whose voices I've heard least from, and whose voices would be most persuasive to me in this debate, are Muslim women. FAIR did an interesting analysis this week of how few Muslim women have been consulted in the media about their opinion of these measures that would affect them more than anybody. Link: http://www.fair.org/blog/2010/07/16/burqa-ban-coverage-of-a-law-to-free-women-leaves-them-voiceless/

  21. Massimo and Julia,

    Thank you for your responses and I look forward to a future discussion on both animal sacrifice and vegetarianism.

    I apologize for attempting to hi-jack your burqa (my new favorite scrabble word) discussion. I'm a 'reluctant vegetarian', in that I love the taste of meat but have decided it is unethical. As such, I'm constantly searching for someone to talk me out of my moral position, so I felt compelled to jump into the opening you left with your post :-). Again, my apologies.

    (not to whoever is monitoring comments: no need to post this if it can simply be forwarded to Massimo and Julia, I don't wish to compound my crime with another off-topic post)

  22. I think a good discussion would be about power and abuse of PATRIARCHY IN THE US.

    Much of the way I feel about these issues is similar to the way people of colour and women felt during the Vietnam era, when white-ruling class males were pitifully justifying Vietnam by means of "freedom," while systemically oppressing people here at home.

    Before one espouses such a popular idea like "women should have rights," it is important to acknowledge that women and men, in the US in 2010, are NOT equal. In most law, yes, but in areas where is REALLY matters like occupation opportunities, income, objectification, an socialization.

    Also, much of what you wrote was clearly sexist (e.g., "high heels are 'delicious'"), but that is NOT this issue that I want to take issue with for now.

    Here is what is devastating and most problematic with what you wrote, to write "Muslim societies are male dominated to a degree that the West left behind (though not entirely abandoned) centuries ago," is a LIE.

    Women only got the right to vote in 1920 (90 years ago)!

    In 1970, The Miss America Pageant is the BIGGEST SOURCE OF SCHOLARSHIP MONEY FOR WOMEN!

    In 1970,women couldn't be students at Dartmouth, Columbia, Harvard, or Boston College, among other all-male institutions! (Read "A Day Without Feminism" by Baumgardner and Richards.)

    What you just did, was silence the fact that women only recently have begun to fight for their rights as human beings in the US and try to absolve yourself (white, male, intellectual) by writing that women's oppression was something of the past and does not occur today. Silencing is a serious, strategic form of oppression.

    You need to read your history of what oppression and domination looks likes socially, politically, and economically before you further write on this subject.

  23. Yikes, I didnt realize how much intellectuals disliked Libertarians. Everyone is so careful about sounding like one. Anyway, I dont really understand the banning of burqa's. If you live in a free society how can you logically argue the value of it. If the woman is a U.S. citizen, she has the right do walk out on whoever she wants. She is not forced to wear it by law. Its a simply arguement in terms of law. It is an attempt by the law (of a supposed free society) to govern the rules of an individual religion. So it is an infringement of the first amendment. You can obviously make the deeper arguements that Massimo is making. But you cannot logically say your for the first amendment and for the banning of Burqa simultaniously. So the question is: which one is more important. Once the people have accepting something like banning of burqas, how do you logically protect anything that a religious person does that may not be completely comfortable for him or others. A baby cries when they are baptized, it is perhaps quite uncomfortable for the baby. That baby doesnt have the ability to speak for itself. The parents are performing this act without his/her choice. Should we ban baptism? Take it s step further. Lets say that in the future there is overwhelming scientific evidence that circumcision has no benefits whatsoever. Do we pass a law that Jewish people cant perform circumcisions on their young? It is after all a needless tramatic experience. These are not identicle arguements I realize, but onme can always make a rational arguement why people should not be allowed to do something. the question should always be: Does the arguement hold more weight than the first amendment? because once its done, people can accept an exchenge of liberty for some other good. Our founders warned of this in countless ways.
    I know people here are not big with the Libertarian view, but I feel unless the burqa somehow infringes on someone elses freedom, what are we worried about? We are not supposed to protect people from themselves. I know part of the the logic is we are somehow protecting them from their husbands, but in a free society, I am not sure how that is logical.

    BTW Massimo, I agree with you about the Muslim cultural center. I am quite agitated when I hear concervatives say they should not be allowed to build it. We are a nation of individual rights. The authenticity of our Liberty comes most into play in these situations where we are faced with protecting the Liberty of those most unpopular with the masses. What better way to take the high road then show the Muslim world how true freedom works.
    No, I dont want them to build it there, I am worried that it is a moral victory for the actual terrorists (I am not saying these people are terrorists, I dont know if they are connected or not), there is no better way to challenge the authenticity of our Liberties. These are my personal thoughts and worries and should not be allowed to infringe on anothers Liberty.

  24. Christopher,

    calm down my friend, and read what I wrote more carefully. The "delicious heels" phrase was Nassbaum's not mine, I simply used it to make fun of the feminist philosopher.

    As for the difference between western and Muslim societies in treating women, I stand by what I wrote. I never said that even western societies have achieved equality between men and women. But we have steadily been improving since the beginning of the modern era and we are way ahead of the Muslim world. Fear to acknowledge such is silly political correctness that doesn't really help women anywhere, here or in the Middle East.

  25. That was not the point of my post. I wrote:

    "What you just did, was silence the fact that women only recently have begun to fight for their rights as human beings in the US and try to absolve yourself (white, male, intellectual) by writing that women's oppression was something of the past and does not occur today. Silencing is a serious, strategic form of oppression."

    So I ask, what are your views on patriarchy in the US? That is the conversation that needs to be had if you want to have and discussion of women's rights elsewhere. You can address it here, or write a blog on gender inequality soon. I just want to hear your opinion :)


  26. "but that's precisely the issue: are these women being forced in less subtle ways than western women who wear high heels? Contra Sheldon, I think we have good reasons to believe that they are, and not just in Muslim societies."

    But we also have the testimony of Muslim women living in Western secular democracies that they choose the burqa. So it is not so simple to assume that all are forced (although I actually believe some and maybe most probably are).

    Something to consider in contrast. I know some women who feel oppressed by the ever persistent oggling over their bodies from men. I know some women probably enjoy it and go out of their way to provoke it. Somehow both these reactions are different sides to the sexist coin.

  27. Christopher,

    one more time: I don't think that we have equality in the west. I do think the situation is much worse in the Middle East. How can I possibly be more clear than that? We *can* have this discussion not because things here are a perfect, but because they are much better.


    yes, there are those testimonies. But there are also plenty of testimonies to the contrary. Again, I don't think a ban is justified, but that doesn't mean that there is no oppression. And no, I don't think it is at all in the same ballpark as western women who feel bad about their bodies because of male cultural pressure, as I explained before.

  28. It is indeed disappointing, especially from the Nussbaum of Sex and Social Justice. I too think bans are probably a bad idea, because they're overall illiberal, but I don't think that justifies using really frivolous arguments like "Hey I wear a warm scarf over my nose during the Chicago winters."

  29. "I simply used it to make fun of the feminist philosopher."

    This is the first time I've read this blog, though I know you're quite respected in the secular community. Do you have a beef with feminists in general, or just this one?

  30. I don't have a beef with either feminism in general or with Nussbaum in particular. I do have a beef with this particular essay that she wrote, which I think is badly argued and does a disservice to the cause she sets up to defend.

  31. Massimo

    I was being ironic and that was not at all my point. I was simply carrying the argument to its (absurd) logical conclusion. To be clear i dont know where i stand on the issue. My point is that the kind of reasoning being used here to justify the ban is simply wrong as you wouldnt ever apply it to other circumstances. "if women are coerced into wearing burqas then the ban is justified" is simply an unreasonable thing to say. The reason why people say things like that is because its opposed to their ideology (feminism or anti-religiosity)

  32. Massimo,
    I don't necessarily disagree with you that the burqa is oppressive. In fact I think it is. And I agree some of Nussbaum's arguments are indeed clumsy, or disingenous as you point out.

    But this raises a question I have. Is anything relative? Now I am not arguing for relativism in general, but is it not valid to argue that subjective experiences are relative?

    It may be the case that a Muslim woman is under strong family, religious, cultural, and patriarchal pressure to conform to Islamic norms. Her choice to wear the burqa is not a completely free choice as she is immersed in her given cultural mileau. Yet it also seems possible that a Muslim woman may embrace that cultural mileau. Isn't it possible that she may also feel the burqa gives her some space from the cultually alien western society? Space from the prying eyes of strange men who are not of her immediate family?

    I guess what I am trying to argue is that SOME of these Muslim women may have a different point of view that we may not fully appreciate from our own cultural assumptions. If we claim to be for their liberation, ought we at least acknowledge that they have their own point of view that may differ from ours? Can't our western paternalism also be oppressive?

    I guess I am saying that these things also ought to be considered. On a practical level, we completely agree. There should be no law dictating that they can't wear the covering.

  33. Sheldon,

    I honestly don't think I could disagree with much you say here...

  34. I apologize for coming into this discussion so late. I have been very interested in this topic because I am trying to understand why I object to the facial veil (be it a burka or niqab), but not a scarf or most other ethnic or religious garments.

    I think my objection is that the veil isolates someone from an important interaction. I would equally object to a mask if it were to become a custom among some men for whatever reason, religious or otherwise.

    I don't want to tolerate it for a person in the mall or on the street, but object to it when worn by a worker or a professional. It is fine for a surgeon to wear a mask in the operating room, but not when he or she comes out to tell the family that their loved one has cancer or inform them the person has died. Should persons who wear a veil be precluded from common jobs or professions? Should we envision a society where people freely wear veils?

    I don't mind Sikhs wearing turbans, Jews wearing head coverings, Hindus with a bindi red dot and sari, Muslims dressed in robes with their hair covered. However, a face veil or a mask is not something I want to tolerate. I feel this way regardless of security issues, problems that I have with fundamentalist beliefs, or concerns about women's rights - even though I think those points have some validity. I feel this way whether the individual wearing a veil (or a mask) does so freely or not. Someone may feel personally closer to God by wearing a veil, but I object to their putting up a barrier to people.

    Lip rings (etc.) aren't something I approve of, but I would object if wearing a veil for girls or males wearing a mask became a teen fad. Why? Is it because of security, peer pressure, opposition to whatever it did or did not represent. No. Should it be outlawed, that teens can't wear masks or veils, even though we tolerate all these other fads? I'd say yes. Why?

  35. addendum:

    I hope my post did not come across as being facetious. Also, I appreciate that wearing a niqab or burka has a central religious and cultural importance for some traditions. But Massimo points out that tolerance for religious and cultural practices is not without limits in our society, and I an trying to understand why I find the practice of only having one's eyes visible to others cross that line.

  36. Now that is a very difficult issue. I was already leaning towards opposing bans, but the contributions here have really made me aware of arguments why precisely it is a bad idea.

    Apart from that, I guess the long term solution would be the same as it was with the religiosity in Europe: simply provide a decent welfare system. The moment people know that they have this emergency net that allows them to survive even if all else fails and they have completely antagonized their family by not following its cultural rules, the more attractive option of not being forced to wear this and not being forced to marry that person will always win out. Having to rely on your family network to get a job or a husband is probably one of the strongest forces keeping traditional religious values alive in many parts of the world.

    Selectively banning a religious / cultural garment is a naked (pardon the pun) attempt at making a particular minority feel discriminated against.

    Certainly, but the major problem in liberal societies these days seems to be that religions get a free pass not to follow bans or rules that were never meant to discriminate against them specifically. Such as, for example, the law that you should not kill a vertebrate without good reason. Food seems to be a good reason to me*, but placating an imaginary being is not rationally defensible.

    *) Yes, vegetarianism is not supposed to be the topic here, but my university's first year course in zoology was a real eye-opener for me. I learned that herbivores have really long intestines, and many of them lack a gall bladder. Now we are nowhere as specialized carnivores as a cat, but a short glance at the human digestive system tells you all you need to know about our dietary adaptations. Herbivory it isn't.

  37. "Yikes, I didnt realize how much intellectuals disliked Libertarians"

    Libertarians have ideological commitments that interfere with thinking, and intellectuals like to think. (this is true of any ideology) I am slightly more sympathetic to libertarianism when it comes to social issues, but at the extremes leads to absurd conclusions.

    I don't agree with the banning of certain attire, unless that attire is directly harmful to others. What other clothing do we ban for similar reasons? For me, it is not about accommodating a particular religion, but people should be able to wear what they want in their private lives- within reason (and certainly at least some people want to wear these). If people are being forced to do something against their will, then coersion is the problem not the clothing. It is a distraction to focus on the clothing in this case. If coersion, physical or emotional abuse is the real problem lets deal with those. As we address those problems (I'm not suggesting that is easy) the question of whether or not wearing the clothing is voluntary will sort itself out.

    From a practical perspective, banning things rarely works anyways. There is usually a backlash, and the result often works against what we are trying to accomplish. We should watch what happens in France and other areas of Europe that are doing this. Its best to learn from others mistakes (or successes).

  38. All the reasons for banning are conjectured by outsiders/non-Muslims?!

    We have several outstanding Ph.D female students who are from Middle Eastern and wear veils to cover their hair in public. They are independent and smart, and are in no way more (or less) submissive to their spouses than American women. We just assume so.

    High heels are very much uncomfortable and unhealthy to me, so are those spaghetti strap tank tops (that can lead to sun burn). But I wouldn’t impose my own views on others and force other people not to wear them.

  39. I agree with Sheldon (and hence Massimo). When I read the stone article, I was inclined to side with Nussbaum.

    Going further, I don't think it's easy to say that they are being coerced to wear the burqa. It's a complicated web of religion, ideology, culture, coercion, and probably other things I can't think of. They are certainly not made to wear these burqas in the sense that it is not a state law that must be followed. So I feel it's disingenuous to say they are "forced" to wear them. They are forced in Muslim countries, sure, but here if they are forced with violence, we have laws to protect them from that violence (and I'm sure Europe has such laws as well). Laws that do their very best to protect their freedom of expression from being infringed upon by others like their religious cohorts.

    If there still is a problem with them feeling culturally oppressed by their insulated Muslim community inside a Western country, then I believe that a law is the incorrect way of attacking it. I think, Massimo, you briefly hit on this, but such a law could make the community more insular (and foster that "us vs. them" you spoke of). Leave laws out of it, and fight culture with culture. Ours is, of course, the (sarcasm) ONLY correct culture, ever (/sarcasm).

    And just to rock the boat (this just popped in my head, didn't think it through): Is it a double standard to defend the burqa yet be against polygamy as practiced by some Mormons?

  40. Yes, it is hypocritical. I'm in favor of polygamy, or more to the point, polyamory. The problem, of course, is that too often the former is practiced by forcing young underage girls to comply. That ought to be illegal.

  41. It seems to me Mill's harm principle, which ought to be our guide in questions such as these, is very applicable here. The burqa in most cases probably reflects a nasty attitude towards women by men (and by women themselves), but that is not a matter for the law to ameliorate. Anyone can wear anything they like that is degrading to themselves without it being illegal. A woman could wear a T-shirt that says "I am my husband's chattel" and it wouldn't (and shouldn't) be illegal. Social pressure is probably the best we can do.

    If many women are coerced into wearing burqas, that is a very real concern, but one which does not appear to require extra legislation.

    In re: polygamy, there is the same problem. Fundamentalist mormon polygamy does indeed often victimize young women, but the solution there is to legislate against victimization of young women, not against mormon polygamy.

  42. Massimo and Twisted Twilight,

    I was thinking about polygamy in light of Burka bans when Twisted Twilight brought it up - something like the following. What concerns me in each case is that the proposed legislation is a prohibition against a condition of a crime rather than the crime itself. In each case - unless anyone is unsure - the crime is coercion, but the bans are against contracts and clothing that are merely associated with coersion.

    I think there might be a test that can be applied when considering prohibitions against conditions: does the crime depend on the condition in a material way? Even if we assume that legislating against conditions of crimes rather than crimes is fair game (which many do), I'm not sure burkas or polygamy pass the test.

    Consider gun laws as legislation against conditions. Firearms are frequently a condition to a large variety of crimes, and though not essential to most of them (you don't NEED a gun to kill someone), I think its fair to say that a gun contributes substantially to the possibility of committing a great number of crimes. It makes a material contribution to the crime.

    I don't think I can say the same about polygamy and burkas. So, by what criteria can either be considered criminal? Or do they each contribute materially to coersion, and I'm just not seeing it?

    I can press this a bit farther with a hyperbolic thought experiment - because I know you love them so much. Imagine a fellow is rescued after enduring months and months of torture, where he was threaten daily with death and dismemberment if he cut off his mullet. What if there were a rash of these incidents. An epidemic. At what point would it make sense to ban mullets?

  43. I'm uneasy with your assumption that Muslim women are forced to wear Burqas. I would suggest reading this post by an anthropologist who studies Muslim communities in Europe, and argues that most Muslim women wear the Burqa voluntarily http://marranci.wordpress.com/2010/05/18/burquing-freedom/
    I'm curious to know where you're getting your info that they are coerced - it seems to be assumed in much of the conversation about the Burqa bans, but generally attributed to general knowledge rather than any actual research.
    Also, I would recommend reading Saba Mahmood's excellent ethnography of Muslim women in Egypt who join an Islamic revival movement. It calls a lot of the assumptions that pit Islam against female agency into question.

    Also, "Muslim societies are male dominated to a degree that the West left behind (though not entirely abandoned) centuries ago."

    1) Not all Muslim societies are Saudi Arabia.

    2) Pakistan, Indonesia, Bangladesh and Turkey have all had woman Prime Ministers - something that wasn't happening in the West centuries ago and has yet to happen in the US.

  44. Justaguy,

    Bookstores are now beginning to fill up with memoirs from Muslim women who tell a pretty ugly story of repression in Muslim societies. It also depends of course on what one means by "voluntary," since there are many forms of coercion.

    Sure, not all Muslim countries are as bad as Saudi Arabia, and yes, in some of them a woman has gotten as high as being Prime Minister. But even Turkey, arguably one of the most advanced Muslim countries, still is characterized by a number of social indicators that have precluded it from entering the European Union, so it seems to me they still have a long way to go. Of course, so do we, in many other respects.

  45. @Ophelia, I was surprised too, to find Nussbaum arguing as she did, because, as you point out, her arguments in "Sex and Social Justice" are so cogent. That book, to me, is the single most important tome feminist philosophical reflection yet published.

    If memory serves, one of the points she makes in it, against cultural relativists, (or was it in "Professor of Parody" critiquing Judith Butler?) - anyway, one point she has made in the past is that when we (misguidedly) stick up for the "rights" of a culture, most of which are patriarchal, we end up merely supporting the status quo which makes women second-class citizens. That idea seems contradicted by her arguments in this latest column about the burka. Even if we don't want to go so far as to legally ban the burka, I think, as does Massimo, that it ought to be opposed, and as much cultural force brought to bear against it as possible. Perhaps it's just me, but Nussbaum seems to virtually support the burka in this latest column, which seems to go against her earlier work.

  46. As per earlier comments about ensuring that those women wearing burqas are doing so of their own volition, I assume the idea is to use the burqa as a warning sign. This is like someone walking around town clad in a T-shirt containing suspicious slogans or references to hate-mongering URLs. What does the public enforcer do? Well maybe on a tranquil street - nothing, but in a security environment such as a border crossing or in the face of a live threat, those outward appearances call out for profiling.

    So I think the burqas should have no formal ban, and not be written up in any law, but am resigned to them as profiling factors as long as an Islamist threat remains in the minds of most.

    Anything stronger is crass anti-Islamicism.

    The other thread in this post positions the burqa as a particularly virulent symbol of male domination of females. I think this a much more trickier fight, whereby one wishes to create an environment where a woman can remove her burqa in public places of her choosing (exactly the opposite of its purpose) without fear of physical retribution.

    The social costs of losing a familial safety net are unavoidable. But the laws safeguarding against physical retribution can be amplified loud and clear in Western society, to the point where aspects of male domination in these subcultures are threatened. For example, think of a social worker paying weekly visits to homes where physical abuse is suspected. Granted, the rate of violent acts provoked by religious infidelity will not decline dramatically. But tougher enforcement and attention paid will pay off.

  47. I did a search of all the comments here before making my offering, following the word "face" down the thread to see what people were saying.

    No one is looking at this from the viewpoint of biology--and that's a mistake.

    The face is the medium of emotional expression between human beings. We look at and into people's faces to see whether and how much to trust them. We need eye contact and also sight of the scores of expressions possible through the musculature of the face...to know whether someone is friend or foe. To belong to a society is to show your face there. To refuse to show your face is therefore to refuse to belong in a society.

    Society has every right to say "We as a society reject the membership of people who reject face to-face participation."

    The Constitution is not a suicide pact. Let's keep that in mind.Accepting the wearing of the burka ignores what keeps a society alive: face to face contact and trust.

    Anyone who doubts the importance of the face should do some reading. You can start with Darwin's biggest work after the "Origin" : "Evolution of Emotional Expression in Animals and Man." (Title approximate.) Then you can look at the way Facebook--which transmits faces electronically--has become the killer app for the Internet.

    We cannot permit burka wearing, even if the reasons given are “religious,” any more than we could permit a religion whose sacrament was the assassination of Congressmen.

    That's my basic argument. I invite argument with it.

    If we focused on sexual equality, I think society must say this: "We do not accept behavior that one group of men uses to express its idea that their women are not members of society."

  48. Let me guess .... you don't know anything about the Muslims trying to build the mosque at the WTC.

    Gosh. I'm right and you're wrong.

    By the way, if you don't think this is about us against the Muslims, ask the Muslims.

  49. Paul, I don't see what the WTC issue has got to do with this. And apparently you are the one who knows little about it, since it's not a mosque, it's a cultural center (and yes, there is a huge difference). And which "the Muslims" should we be asking?

  50. Bah.

    1) No one should be allowed to wear anything that obscures vision while operating a vehicle or power equipment. Burkha, niqab, 95% dark shades, it doesn't matter.

    2) Identification photos must be of the bare face and head, with minor exceptions for coverings that do not substantially interfere with recognition of the specific individuals.

    3) In cases where identification is important, such as interaction(s) with law enforcement, the face and head must be revealed.

    4) Private businesses and Government agencies may refuse to serve individuals with their identities obscured by facial coverings, especially in cases where identification is a requirement (such as writing a check and needing an ID to do so).

    5) Compelling behavior by threatening condign punishment is reserved for the State, and the State alone. Anyone threatened with violence, ostracism, or deprivation of support for not wearing a particular garment (be it burkha or thong-and-pasties) is suffering from extortion, and law enforcement should be on them like stink on (...).

    6) Exceptions are allowed under controlled conditions where the other considerations are not in force, as with the use of peyote in some religious ceremonies in defiance of the drug laws.

    General ban? A thousand times no.


  51. I agree we should not "ban the burkha" here in the U.S. However, allowing the infestation of our culture with Muslims who refuse to assimilate and are hostile to our values and precepts is intolerable.

    It would be much better to stop all immigration from hostile Muslim cultures, to revoke all visas of foreign nationals from Muslim countries, and to vigorously persuade all Muslim citizens to expatriate themselves back to the Muslim culture/polity that of their origin.

    That is unless we *want* to commit cultural suicide, like France and Britain are currently doing.

  52. While accepting most of your criticisms of Nussbaums particular arguments, the fact remains that the imposition of a Burqa ban would be anti-liberty. A much easier way of reaching the goals that most of us wish for, would be to have statutes which forbid the wearing of any clothing which obscures the face in particular circumstances- in court, while driving, when transacting a financial transaction, or when dealing with law enforcement in whatever capacity. There is no need to specify what exactly is obscuring the face- it is immaterial.
    Banning the Burqa is an attack on a cultural preference done mostly out of hostility to that culture. AS such, it has no place in a society which values freedom of religion and expression.

  53. Edmund, right, I never said I support a ban. I don't. I just don't think Nussbaum's reasons are particularly good.

  54. This philosophical but theoretical discussion seems to ignore a very practical aspect. Once a neighborhood becomes Burqa-friedly, whether in Europe or elsewhere, everyone else's liberty to dress as they please quickly disappears. If you don't believe me, try wearing normal female Western summer clothing to the Paris suburbs or London's East End today. Or better yet, a Muhammad cartoon t-shirt, or Star of David.

  55. Someone earlier said: "I feel unless the burqa somehow infringes on someone elses freedom, what are we worried about?"

    No one has yet addressed my earlier point--that face-to-face experience is necessary for basic human trust--and that a society that accepts masked citizenry in public is investing in public distrust: which is societal destruction.

    Wearing the burqa affects all of us. Burqa-wearing destroys our ability to interact with our fellow citizens on an equal basis. Burqa-waring also says, "This is Sharia-land, part of the middle ages, not a Western country subject to the rule of law."

    I think the wearing of the burqa in a western city is open warfare against the west, western civilization, and the rule of law.

  56. MP, generally I agree with you, but it is unwise to underestimate symbolism. Extreme religions are an accusation of immorality against the rest of us ("ethical terrorism," in Paul Ricoeur's phrase), the equation is sinner vs victim; you're a sinner if you're not a victim. That's why we have victim beauty contests in the MidEast and elsewhere: if you're a victim yu get to stone the winner/sinner. 9/11 is also ethical terrorism. Or if it was NOT a Muslim act, then they have no reason to build at Ground Zero, they can build anywhere else. Symbolically it's the same as building a convent next to Auschwitz or a cathedral on the ruins of an Aztec temple (Mexico City), or a mosque and church inside the Parthenon. It's stealth takeover when you didn't win fair & square. Ethical terrorism becomes real-time terror with female dress: Since Islam (even more than other religions) accuses all us women of sin - meaning we SHOULD BE KILLED not just by our quaint husbands but by anyone on principle - all women East & West could end up compelled to wear those body bags to repudiate our own existence. That's the real meaning. Symbolism is tribe, war, sport, art, animal signaling, social interaction - it's the meaning of our lives. Sorry if that offends anyone.


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.