By Martha Nussbaum
July 16th, 2010
In Spain earlier this month, the Catalonian Assembly narrowly rejected a proposed ban on the Muslim burqa in all public places; On Monday, France’s Lower House of Parliament overwhelmingly approved a ban on Islamic veils. Even the headscarf often causes trouble. In Germany (as in parts of Belgium and the Netherlands) some regions forbid public school teachers to wear it on the job, although nuns and priests are permitted to teach in full habit.
What does political philosophy have to say about these developments? What is it to treat people with equal respect in areas touching on religious belief and observance?
Let’s start with an assumption that is widely shared: that all human beings are equal bearers of human dignity. It is widely agreed that government must treat that dignity with equal respect. But what is it to treat people with equal respect in areas touching on religious belief and observance?
We now add a further premise: that the faculty with which people search for life’s ultimate meaning — frequently called “conscience” — is a very important part of people, closely related to their dignity. And we add one further premise, which we might call the vulnerability premise: this faculty can be seriously damaged by bad worldly conditions. It can be stopped from becoming active, and it can even be violated or damaged within. (The first sort of damage, which the 17th-century American philosopher Roger Williams compared to imprisonment, happens when people are prevented from outward observances required by their beliefs. The second sort, which Williams called “soul rape,” occurs when people are forced to affirm convictions that they may not hold, or to give assent to orthodoxies they don’t support.) The vulnerability premise shows us that giving equal respect to conscience requires tailoring worldly conditions so as to protect both freedom of belief and freedom of expression and practice.
Five arguments are commonly made in favour of proposed bans on burqas and headscarfs. First, it is argued that security requires people to show their faces when appearing in public places. A second, closely related, argument says that the kind of transparency and reciprocity proper to relations between citizens is impeded by covering part of the face.
What is wrong with both of these arguments is that they are applied inconsistently. It gets very cold in Chicago — as, indeed, in many parts of Europe. Along the streets we walk, hats pulled down over ears and brows, scarves wound tightly around noses and mouths. No problem of either transparency or security is thought to exist, nor are we forbidden to enter public buildings so insulated. Moreover, many beloved and trusted professionals cover their faces all year round: surgeons, dentists, (American) football players, skiers and skaters. What inspires fear and mistrust in Europe, clearly, is not covering per se, but Muslim covering.
A reasonable demand might be that a Muslim woman have a full face photo on her driver’s licence or passport. With suitable protections for modesty during the photographic session, such a photo might possibly be required. However, we know by now that the face is a very bad identifier. At immigration checkpoints, eye-recognition and fingerprinting technologies have already replaced the photo. When these superior technologies spread to police on patrol and airport security lines, we can do away with the photo, hence with what remains of the first and second arguments.
A third argument, very prominent today, is that the burqa is a symbol of male domination that symbolises the objectification of women. A Catalonian legislator recently called the burqa a “degrading prison”. Society is suffused with symbols of male supremacy that treat women as objects. Sex magazines, nude photos, tight jeans — all of these products, arguably, treat women as objects, as do so many aspects of our media culture. And what about the “degrading prison” of plastic surgery? Every time I undress in the locker room of my gym, I see women bearing the scars of liposuction, tummy tucks, breast implants. Isn’t much of this done in order to conform to a male norm of female beauty that casts women as sex objects? Proponents of the burqa ban do not propose to ban all these objectifying practices. Indeed, they often participate in them. And banning all such practices on a basis of equality would be an intolerable invasion of liberty. Once again, then, the opponents of the burqa are utterly inconsistent, betraying a fear of the different that is discriminatory and unworthy of a liberal democracy.
A fourth argument holds that women wear the burqa only because they are coerced. Do the arguers really believe that domestic violence is a peculiarly Muslim problem? But there is no evidence that Muslim families have a disproportionate amount of such violence. Indeed, 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.
College fraternities are very strongly associated with violence against women, and some universities have banned all or some fraternities as a result. But private institutions are entitled to make such regulations; a total governmental ban on the male drinking club (or on other places where men get drunk, such as soccer matches) would certainly be a bizarre restriction of associational liberty. Anyone proposing to ban the burqa must consider it together with these other cases.
Societies are certainly entitled to insist that all women have a decent education and employment opportunities that give them exit options from any home situation they may dislike. If people think that women only wear the burqa because of coercive pressure, let them create ample opportunities for them, at the same time enforce laws making primary and secondary education compulsory, and then see what women actually do.
Finally, I’ve heard the argument that the burqa is per se unhealthy, because it is hot and uncomfortable. (Not surprisingly, this argument is made in Spain.) This is perhaps the silliest of the arguments. Clothing that covers the body can be comfortable or uncomfortable, depending on the fabric. In India, I typically wear 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. It is surely far from clear that the amount of skin displayed in typical Spanish female dress would meet with a dermatologist’s approval. But more pointedly, would the arguer really seek to ban all uncomfortable and possibly unhealthy female clothing? Wouldn’t we have to begin with high heels, delicious as they are?
All five arguments are discriminatory. We don’t even need to reach the delicate issue of religiously grounded accommodation to see that they are utterly unacceptable in a society committed to equal liberty. Equal respect for conscience requires us to reject them.
Martha Nussbaum teaches law, philosophy, and divinity at the University of Chicago. She is the author of several books, including Liberty of Conscience: In Defense of America’s Tradition of Religious Equality.
Source: The Asian Age, New Delhi