Thursday, October 17, 2013

An Unpopular Position: Ban the Burqa

I believe, contrary to what seems to be the customary liberal consensus, that such things as the veiling of women should be forbidden, not only because it expunges women from public space, but because it is inevitably coercive for some (if not most) women – and it is, I think, meant to be coercive. Even those women who don the burqa as an expression of religious piety, I suspect, mean it to be coercive to other women in the same community.

In this post I want to use as an example something that happened recently at the University of Leicester. A sold-out talk by Hamza Tzortzis* on the existence of god was strictly segregated: brothers (male) and sisters (female) directed to one side or the other:
According to an article in the Guardian:

A message on the group’s [the university's Islamic Society] website says: “In all our events, [the society] operate a strict policy of segregated seating between males and females.”

Nothing could be clearer than that.

What, you might ask, has this to do with banning the burqa? Simple, really. For a few paragraphs down from this notice are these words:

Rupert Sutton, from the campus watchdog Student Rights, has claimed there is “consistent use of segregation by student Islamic societies across the country”.

He wrote: “While this may be portrayed as voluntary by those who enforce it, the pressure put on female students to conform and obey these rules that encourage subjugation should not be underestimated.” [my emphasis]

My point is simply this. If, as Sutton says, “the pressure put on female students to conform and obey these rules that encourage subjugation should not be underestimated,” that is, if this is so on a university campus – and that is not hard to believe – try to imagine the weight of “the pressure … to conform”, viz., coercion, involved in the very close-knit ethnic communities that are growing up in some Western cities. In the discussion on the last post, Rahman, a Muslim who has expressed very forcefully his commendably liberal ideal of Islam, continues to say – and he has support from non-Muslims in the discussion – that it is contrary to liberal principles to impose restrictions on the dress people choose to wear. In other words, I acknowledge, that I am the odd man out in this discussion, but I still think, and so I will say, that banning the erasure of women from public space is necessary in societies that would be free, and that, in contexts where the full body covering is customarily used, the question of genuine choice no longer arises.

I emphasise the word ‘choose’ and ‘choice’, because I think it is undoubtedly true that many women in the communities concerned would and do not choose to be restricted by “Islamic” dress, which Maryam Namazie calls “mobile prisons” or “body bags,” and they would not so choose if they were free from religious and social compulsion. At the same time, as I have said before, the existence of this kind of erasure of women is not only threatening to those women, it is threatening to the women in the liberal cultures of France or Britain, Canada or the United States, who live in close proximity to communities in which this erasure is customary. It is threatening because, with the erasure of women by concealing forms of dress, the resulting social context is almost stultifyingly masculine, as a woman who has lived in close proximity to such a community has told me. In such a context, women are effectively being forced to wear dress that obliterates their social existence, or they are being forced to exclude themselves from public space, because they find it overtly masculine and threatening.

In a Telegraph article from 2009, the Muslim Council of Britain is reported to have condemned President Sarkozy of France for his remarks about the burqa:

The Muslim Council of Britain (MCB) said Mr Sarkozy’s claim that the head-to-toe garments worn by Islamic women signify subservience were “patronising and offensive”.

Its criticism comes after Mr Sarkozy used a policy speech on Monday to declare the burqa was “not welcome” in France.

In a move which threatens to reignite the debate over religious clothing in the country, Mr Sarkozy said: “The burqa is not a sign of religion, it is a sign of subservience.

“We cannot accept to have in our country women who are prisoners behind netting, cut off from all social life, deprived of identity.”

Place in a liberal democracy. Religion is a private matter, and should be confined to private space. Effectively to erase the public existence of women by religious or cultural forms of public sexual or gender apartheid is not only illiberal, it is arguably an incitement to precisely the kinds of anti-Muslim prejudice that are rightly deprecated by all reasonable people. It must be remembered that Islamic violence is so widespread in the world today, despite some readings of Islam as opposed to violence – as Juan Cole argues in an extremely one-sided interpretation of the role of violence in Islam (“Top Ten Ways Islamic Law forbids Terrorism“) – that it is hard for many people to separate the unassimilated Muslims in Western societies from those who perpetrate such violence, especially when members of those communities are being attracted to such violent forms of Islam. This may seem to be, as Rahman says, blaming the victim; and perhaps in some sense it is, but it is also to doubly victimise those women who are the object of such acts. They are victimised by being obliterated by their clothing, and then, a second time, by those who find such public declarations of religious affiliation culturally inapposite for free and democratic societies, and who emotionally express their resentment.

Remember that in Nazi Germany, and in much of medieval Europe, Jews (and sometimes Muslims, particularly in Spain) were distinguished by being compelled to wear distinctive forms of dress, and by being confined to certain quarters of cities and towns (areas subsequently known as ghettoes). (The word ‘ghetto’ comes originally from an Italian or Venetian term used for slag or waste, thus expressing the value placed on those confined to the Jewish quarter.) In general, distinctive dress was introduced to make distinctions that would not otherwise have been obvious, so that social divisions would not only be clearly marked, but also so that prejudices could be rightly aimed. Anti-Semitism is harder to express and maintain if the line dividing Christians from Jews is not clear. Thus the distinctive hats compulsorily worn by Jews in the Middle Ages, or the yellow Star of David required by decree in Nazi Germany, Poland, and elsewhere. The same was true in Muslim societies, where Christians and Jews were distinguishable from Muslims, and were prohibited from bearing arms, riding horses, or overtaking Muslims in the street. Distinctions were deliberately illiberal and forced, to make distinctions between true believers and infidels plain. We may deprecate it as much as we like, but those who choose to distinguish themselves in this way, in a world in which women who are so attired elsewhere in the world are held in subjection, have acid thrown in their faces if they dare to go to school or speak to men who are not family members, effectively identify themselves with cultural values which are justly seen as incompatible with liberal democratic ideals of equality and freedom. And would we be entirely wrong is suggesting that that is what they are doing (or being made to do)?

As Maryam Namazie says:

Oh and before the post-modernist left and defenders of multi-culturalism and religion over women’s lives and rights start crying outrage and totalitarianism and the right to choose or what have you let me just say this: far from being liberating, the burqa is a strait-jacket for women; a mobile prison. And no more a real choice than the chastity belt or foot-binding (where women’s feet broken to keep them from wandering away from their male ‘guardians’) …

I don’t know why others do not see the sense of this, and while I know I will win no prizes for saying so, I think we should ban the burqa. To listen to Maryam Namazie on the burqa and other Islamist customs, watch this:

Because he debates well-known people like Lawrence Kraus, Simon Blackburn, and so on. Maryam Namazie calls him an Islamist, and so, it seems, he is, given some of the things written on his blog, where he touts the “miracle” of the Qur’an, and other myths of Islam. For a taster of this, consider the following:

The inability to produce anything like the Qur’an, due to its unique literary form, is the essence of the Qur’anic miracle. The argument posed by Muslim theologians and philosophers is that if, with the finite set of Arabic linguistic tools at humanity’s disposal, there is no effective challenge, then providing a naturalistic explanation for the Qur’an’s uniqueness is incoherent and doesn’t explain its inimitability. This is because a human author is only able to produce the known literary forms in the Arabic language. The development of an entirely new literary form is beyond the scope of the natural capacity of any human author, hence a Divine entity, Allah, is the only sufficient comprehensive explanation. The evidence for this is that for over a millennia, the speech and writings of the Arabs have always fallen within the known forms and expressions of the Arabic language. However, the Qur’an breaks this natural pattern due to its uniqueness.

This is traditional Islamic apologetics, I know, but it is surprising that anyone should expect nonsense such as this to be taken seriously: “The development of an entirely new literary form is beyond the scope of the natural capacity of any human author.” That is a bit like saying of the first epic, the first tragic drama, or the first comedy, that each is “beyond the scope of the natural capacity of any human author.” This is plainly ridiculous.


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