Won’t SOMEBODY think of the ninjas?

The day before Bastille Day, French symbol of justice and freedom, the French lower house overwhelmingly approved a law that is unjust and takes away freedom, banning face coverings in public places. And they have the gall to dress it up as a blow for women’s rights, despite saying “this practice, even if it is voluntary, cannot be tolerated in any public place”.

See that? Even if it is voluntary! We will make you free from freely making a choice.

OK, so some women are wearing burqas or niqabs against their will, or because of social pressure. On a raw utilitarian level, if we could determine with a reasonable degree of confidence that substantially more women are wearing face coverings unwillingly than otherwise, then an argument could be made to ban them. Imposing on the few would be outweighed by liberating the many. Is legislation an option, then? I don’t think so, since it’s impossible to tell who is in that category, and who is not.

What to do for those that (presumably) are being forced to wear clothes that, literally, efface their identity? Our options are limited, but the origin of the problem suggests a solution. Because face covering is a cultural practice*, the best method for ensuring it is only done willingly is to promote a cultural context that is open, non-prescriptive, and tolerant. Most importantly, however, a society where individual choice is respected. In that way we can induce change in minority cultures towards a more liberal perspective, by applying gentle social pressure of our own. A slow but steady approach, if you will. And who knows, perhaps the emphasis on modesty will percolate outwards and counteract some of the sexualisation of Western dress codes.

France’s burqa ban is the opposite of such a strategy, attempting direct social engineering as a quick fix for a symptom, rather than addressing the underlying problem. Even if you reject my proposed solution, the ban could be counter-productive on the French government’s own terms, by causing some women to be confined to home if they cannot leave it covered. It certainly won’t do much to help integrate Muslims into wider French society – passing laws against minorities only serves to make them feel more isolated, and more defensive, than before. I suspect the popular support in France for the ban isn’t in spite of such considerations, but because they are (sadly) trending away from that famous aphorism, vive la différence!

* Many make the mistake of thinking it is a religious practice. Islamic scholars have argued for centuries about what is halal and what is haram with regards to clothing. As with any religion based on a holy book, many interpretations are possible, and the book itself can be contradictory or unclear. This is why Muslims do not dress uniformly, and why the concept of hijab, in its many forms, is more correctly defined as a cultural practice. If you’re thinking, “But it’s still just a Muslim thing”, then I suggest you look up the use of veils in myriad faiths and cultures for the past several thousand years.

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9 Responses to Won’t SOMEBODY think of the ninjas?

  1. random_llama says:

    Redirecting comment to Blog as requested.

    Hear, hear!
    I am astounded at the intolerant and potentially prescriptive nature of such a law.

    I watched a documentary about the banning of headscarves in french schools. It was horrible, girls who had made their own decisions to follow a cultural practice were getting turned away from the school gates in tears.
    Denied access to education because they wear something on their head – it boggles the mind!

    This law and others like it will only serve to ghettoise muslim communities and persecute the women within them.

  2. This article is absolute trash. Not a religious practise? If such a suggestion can be accepted, language has lost all meaning.

    The logic in the second paragraph is woeful as it completely ignores what any utilitarian worthy of the name should be concerned with, namely, the amount of sufferring and wellbeing being experienced. Hence, a mere headcount of the voluntary and involuntary burqa wearers will not cut it.

    In my opinion, even if the involuntary wearers were a minority, there will be much more weight found in their sufferring (and that of wider society’s) than there will be in the benefit accrued by those who wear it voluntarily.

    Also, what does voluntary mean in a context where not wearing the burqa is bound to result in a range of negative consequences (everything from being labled a disgrace to their family to being murdered by their father’s hand). The ban provides a swathe of muslim women with a significant social support to be extricated from a cicumstance that would otherwise insoluble for them.

    The law is not a ban, it is the lifting of a ban.

  3. Jarrah says:

    Head coverings are common to a multitude of cultures throughout history. That it was incorporated into Islam is more to do with social mores of the time than anything Mohammad wrote down.

    You missed the point of the second paragraph – even accepting utilitarian calculus (regardless of what formula you use), it is impossible to calculate because the same pressures that make women wear face coverings unwillingly will likely make them pretend (or rationalise, or convince themselves) that they do so willingly.

  4. Firstly, you contradict yourself. You say, right there, that it’s not a part of Islam, but it was incorporated into Islam. It’s a part of Islam.

    Secondly, you demonstrate your ignorance on the subject when you say it’s ‘more to do with social mores of the time than anything Mohammad wrote down.’ Mohammad never wrote anything down, he was an illiterate businessman who would have hallucinations of the angel Gabriel, and then get his family members to transcribe what he could recall onto leaves.

    In the second paragraph, you deducted that: ‘Imposing on the few would be outweighed by liberating the many.’ I claimed that that doesn’t apply by saying: ‘The suffering of the few would outweigh the supposed wellbeing of the many,’ which implies that it doesn’t matter that you can’t get precise statistics (we know it’s certainly not less than 2%). NB. This only considers the rights of those who wear burqas, it does not account for the rights of other citizens. Such as the right for them to identify each other through basic social interactions, like making eye contact and exchanging facial expressions.

    You’re a liberal, you see the word ‘ban’ and think ‘bad;’ ‘less freedom,’ but this particular issue is simply not that straightforward. Islam has not had a reformation.

  5. Jarrah says:

    There is only a contradiction if you draw a clear line between culture and religion, which is impossible. One’s religion is part of one’s culture, and vice versa. They have a co-evolutionary development.

    My aim in differentiating between religious and cultural practise was to highlight the fact that – given the big differences between various devout Muslims and Islamic sects in how they apply the concept of hijab – it is more useful to think of head coverings as ‘more’ cultural than religious as such.

    Regarding the second paragraph, I deducted nothing, nor did I deduce. I used the simplest utilitarian logic (and you were right to point out there are other, better formulas) to show that it can’t be used in this instance, due to the nature of the problem. I don’t know what you are referring to with your percentage.

    You assert there is some set of rights to do with identification by facial recognition, or making eye contact. I think you’ll have a hard time justifying such rights, but give it a go if you want. They certainly don’t exist in any conception of moral rights that I’m aware of.

    As a liberal, I do have a problem with banning voluntary behaviour (and yes, there is a lifetime’s worth of arguments to be had over ‘voluntary’), mostly because the history of such bans is not a pretty one. I believe they need very strong justifications to even be considered.

    Lastly, I agree that a big problem with Islam is the lack of a big structural break with outdated traditions (much as the Reformation did for Christianity). I note, however, that Islam is not monolithic, and it doesn’t make any sense to think of it that way.

  6. john walker says:

    Expect that the ban might prove – counter productive. ‘The best sort of fence is the one they cant see.’

  7. I thank you for taking the time to engage with me here, we seem to be keeping this constructive. Now for what I don’t thank you for…

    You are being a conversational weasel. Read: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Burqa. It is more useful for pseudo-liberal soft-multiculturalists to think of it as cultural. Frankly, it doesn’t matter whether it’s a religious or cultural practise, it only matters that it is doing harm to a significant enough extent.

    Fuck you: http://www.thefreedictionary.com/deduct. Paragraph two entails you stating that if we could do this thing (premise), then we could do this other thing (deduction). And, I repeat, your logic wasn’t even utilitarian for the reason I have already given.

    The percentage was a clumsy attempt at sarcasm, the intention of which was to illustrate contrast with the more reasonable estimation of 98%.

    On the point of the right to share eye contact and facial expressions. The reason it doesn’t appear in any conception of moral rights that you’re aware of, is because it has never needed to. One, people disguising themselves has never been enough of a problem, and two, we’ve been afraid off pissing off Muslims.

    Now Muslim migration is increasing, and because we don’t oppress our women as they do, this particular custom is necessarily clashing with our conventions. E.g. The presumption of guilt we place on people who conceal their identity, especially in settings such as banks and public transportation.

    Let me assure you that we are of one mind when it comes to banning voluntary behaviour. I must confess, it took me a bit to think through my position on this issue. I am indeed asserting that the justifications are strong enough. For one thing, the emancipation of women has proven to be central to any real solution to poverty for any country, and so is something we in the West need to vehemently uphold in our own societies.

    Islam is monolithic in some very key ways. E.g. The all have the same books, which repeatedly articulate the importance of converting, subjugating, or killing infidels. We’ve also had a situation where in Islamic countries that do not normally allow protests, there were mass rallies that were punctuated by the burning of the embassies of a peaceful European democracy and the delivering a serious blow to their economy. NB. The complete absence of any such protests condemning the genocides in Darfur.

    More basically, just run some thought experiments: Imagine if everyone concealed their identity at all times they were in public. What would it mean for the application of law and the ability of strangers to collaborate peacefully (there’s two main foundations for a sustainable civilization)? What if all women wore them? What would it mean for the struggle for gender equality? The answers to these questions may not lead directly to the conclusion that it should be illegal, but they should at least reinforce how morally questionable the practice is.

    I refer you to the writings of Ayaan Hirsi Ali.

  8. Jarrah says:

    Someone should counsel you against posting at four in the morning – your arguments suffer.

    “Frankly, it doesn’t matter whether it’s a religious or cultural practise, it only matters that it is doing harm to a significant enough extent.”

    You have failed to demonstrate any harm, except to your prejudices.

    “Fuck you: http://www.thefreedictionary.com/deduct. ”

    I didn’t realise deduct had a second niche meaning, that’s new to me. People usually say ‘deduce’. I’m also used to thinking of deduction as moving from the general to the specific, not moving from premise to conclusion. See ‘deductive reasoning’. Also, you may quibble about utilitarian formulas, but I stand by my assertion that any such formula is inapplicable because no-one can establish the parameters with which to calculate. Unless you’ve got a new way to reliably find out who is wearing what unwillingly?

    “this particular custom is necessarily clashing with our conventions”

    I see we’re finally getting to the crux of your objections.

    “the emancipation of women”

    I refer you to random_llama’s final paragraph, and my post’s second-last one.

    “What would it mean for the application of law and the ability of strangers to collaborate peacefully (there’s two main foundations for a sustainable civilization)? What if all women wore them?”

    Several Muslim countries stand as counter-factuals. Despite your protestations, I really don’t think you’ve thought this through properly.

  9. It appears that someone should counsel you against reading at… eight in the morning – or is that thinking?

    Prejudiced? That’s a funny accusation for you to be throwing around, isn’t it? Is it not the case that your position reduces to: ‘There are some immigrant women being forced to wear cloth bags anytime they leave the house? Fuck ’em, they’re too brown and dumb to know what they’re missing out on. Plus, ninjas need freedom.’ I think it does.

    From ‘Taxing questions’ posted on January 9, 2009 by Jarrah: ‘God, I love language!’ Obviously not near enough. Speaking of language: http://www.thefreedictionary.com/utilitarianism. I apologize for the quibbling, it was petty of me, but, I just can’t help but feel that the meanings of important words matter, you know?

    Let’s see if we can find some parameters. Let’s see… how about… ‘suffering’ and… ‘wellbeing.’ Now we’ll ask, how much and what kinds of suffering is the imposition of the burqa likely to contribute to? Then we’ll ask, how much and what kinds of well bring is the voluntary wearing of it likely to bring about?

    I contend that in the face of a lack of data, our concern, in this situation, should lie chiefly with those who are being oppressed (even if by their own will.) One can see banning the burqa as being on a continuum with a ban on people selling themselves into slavery.

    I don’t give a shit what random_llama says. Besides, Muslim communities are already ghettoised, I wonder why that could be? I’ll give you a hint: it’s not because we’re mean to them.

    There are more Muslim countries that stand as affirmations of what I’ve claimed. Also, if you took the time to look at statistics for all Muslim countries, you would find that prosperity is inversely proportional to religiosity.

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