The proposal of a burqa ban by a[n Australian] Federal Liberal Senator has created an unlikely coalition of support from both the conservative and progressive ends of the political spectrum. United by a common desired outcome, the underlying rationale for support varies widely. Among neo-conservatives, the burqa is a potential weapon of mass destruction, or at least is likely to conceal one. To the conservative cultural warriors, banning the burqa is the first step in the long war to de-liberalise modern society. The secularist support for a ban comes from the underlying fear that the religiosity of Islam will undo the advances in secularisation that occurred in Christian society. Finally, the progressive support for a ban comes from extreme distaste for the subjugation of women that the burqa represents.
Before we can deal with the arguments for and against a burqa ban, we need to first be clear exactly what the proposed laws would implement. Under the Belgian law, women who are wearing a burqa in any public space would be subject to arrest, with a punishment of up to seven days in jail. The French proposal does not yet have fine detail, but is roughly in line with the Belgian proposal – with calls to both weaken (fines only) or strengthen (include the Islamic headscarf in the ban) the final legislation.
How does the conservative and progressive rationale for a burqa ban hold up? Firstly, the conservative positions, by which I mean the underlying conservative rationale and not the window-dressing they use to get progressive support.
The neo-conservative argument is the weakest, arguing that the burqa is a security threat. Clearly, violent crimes have been committed by individuals wearing a burqa. Just as clearly, however, these crimes in no way depended upon a burqa to succeed, and indeed most violent crimes are performed by individuals not wearing a burqa. A burqa may be capable of hiding a bomb, but, as the Columbine massacre so tragically illustrated, so can any trench-coat. Security identification checkpoints, such as at airports, already require direct facial recognition, for which burqa wearers are not exempt. Unless the neo-conservatives are advocating a policy of universal lycra bodysuits there is clearly no security value to outlawing one particular form of concealing clothing.
The cultural warrior, if you were to catch them in a rare moment of honesty, has a very different rationale to the neo-conservative. To the conservative cultural warrior the threat is the liberalisation of society, whether it manifests in the tolerance of non-Christian religions or in the growing secularisation of society. The cultural warrior battle against the burqa is just one front against multi-culturalism. The cultural warrior will object to any woman wearing clothing that does not fit their idea of the role a woman should take in society. The burqa is one case where the cultural warrior’s crusade has popular support, but it manifests just as strongly against women who dare to dress in masculine clothing. Unlike the neo-conservative argument, the cultural warrior’s argument is not illogical. It is, however, profoundly unethical. The cultural warrior is dedicated to rewriting the past, to create a mythology where all true citizens once willingly supported their narrow religious and cultural position. This is a lie, with no foundation in reality, but even if it were a truth the cultural warrior proposes that all present and future citizens be bound to the cultural and religious choices of citizens past.
The secularist has, perhaps, the strongest evidence in favour of their argument. Those secularists who support a ban on the burqa are worried about the reversal in secularisation that has occurred across Europe over the past 50 years. They compare the nominally Christian populations in Western Europe to the strident application of religion in theocracies in the Middle East. The secularist support for a burqa ban is often accompanied by general fear of Islamic immigration and comparative population growth. But are these worries founded? Is the Islamic population of Europe bringing back religious extremism? Here the answer is a qualified “no”. Obviously there are high profile examples of Islamic extremism, but to use the Islamic population of France as an example, French Muslims are essentially equivalent to American Christians on questions such as homosexuality, having affairs, abortion, pre-marital sex and suicide. This makes French Muslims more conservative than the general French public, but makes them far less conservative than the Muslim populations in Islamic majority countries. In fact, most French Muslims think that life for women is better in the West than in Islamic countries, link here. Second and third generation French Muslims are even less religious and more progressive, approaching the consensus view in the general public of the country they are integrated in. The issues that French Muslims are most concerned about is not the decline in religion or the encroachment of Western lifestyles, but rather more practical concerns such as unemployment and housing. This explains why there are less than 2000 French women wearing a burqa, out of a Muslim population of 6 million – French Muslims are far less conservative than the non-Muslim population appreciates. How about Belgium? In Belgium the secularist has even less to worry about. Out of a population of 500,000 Muslims living in Belgium less than 30 wear a burqa. In fact, Belgian Muslims are already less religious than Belgian Catholics!. The strength of the secularist case has always been made best through demonstration – an open secular society is one in which more people have more individual rights and freedoms, and the self-evidence of this case becomes obvious to those who live in it, whether they are from Christian or Muslim backgrounds. The secularisation of European Muslims is growing every generation, using blunt-force legislation is an unnecessary risk in a project that just requires time.
Finally, the progressive support for a burqa ban comes from a deep desire to help those women hidden beneath the burqa. In its pure form this is a plea from compassion without ulterior motive or personal gain. The premise of this position is simple: women wearing a burqa are doing so under coercion. The reality is far more complex, with a mixture of different reasons for wearing a burqa. Some of these reasons can involve coercion, either a direct form of spousal abuse or an indirect social coercion with the threat of social exclusion (not unlike that directed to all people who act outside social norms). Other reasons can be voluntary, a sense of pride in a symbol of leaving childhood and entering womanhood, a welcome cover against shyness, the liberation of anonymity, the embrace of a long religious and cultural heritage. Like many complex decisions, each individual will be wearing the burqa for a different mix of reasons. From the feminist perspective, the importance is not so much what a woman chooses to wear, each woman has the right to dress at any point along the conservative to liberal fashion spectrum. The importance, rather, is that a woman has the right to choose and that she chooses for herself rather than dressing to the expectations of men. It is the imposition onto women that is the crime, whether the coercion takes the form of forcing women to cover themselves or of forcing women to dress to a sexualised fantasy. A progressive feminist should respect the choice a woman makes freely, if it is of her own free will, even when that involves a clothing choice frowned upon by others. A progressive feminist can feel free to wear a conservative wedding dress complete with facial veil (a burqa in practise, but not colour) on one day, and then revealing clothes the next day – the importance is in self-determination.
The focus on self-determination is the central platform of progressive and feminist opposition to a ban on the burqa. This position is revolted by the idea that any woman is coerced into burqa. Likewise, this position is revolted that the solution proposed is to restrict a woman’s choice to wear a burqa. This position is that the subset of women who willingly chose to wear a burqa are free to do so – their body, their choice. The idea that a woman who willingly chooses to wear a burqa could be thrown into jail for that choice is a disgrace. Do the Belgian MPs who say “the full-face veil turns a woman into a walking prison” see the irony in taking women from this “walking prison” and putting them in an actual prison? How about the women who do have an element of coercion in their decision to wear a burqa? The progressive and feminist solution should be to remove the coercion and empower the woman, not to punish the victim or to fight coercion from one direction with coercion from another. The idea of helping to free women from the burqa by putting them in jail is exactly analogous to helping women out of domestic violence by putting women with black-eyes in jail. The assumption made by the pro-ban coalition is that women subjugated into wearing the burqa will now be allowed out without a burqa – equally some women may feel trapped within their own home if not given the freedom to wear a burqa. Equally, the assumption the pro-ban coalition makes is that the burqa is the be-all and end-all of subjugation, rather than the woman’s social position remaining unchanged, even if a single symbol of that position is removed. These are not logical or rational assumptions. Instead, the only solution acceptable to this progressive feminist viewpoint is one which empowers women. A program which focuses on empowerment is one which combines social education (counselling on relationships, development of social networks and understanding of legal rights) with institutional education (attainment of degrees). Time and time again we have found that giving women a degree and a pay-check does more to change the internal dynamics of a household than any external legislation. This is a viable solution to female subjugation, putting women in prison is not.
The unholy coalition between progressives and conservatives on the burqa ban is only skin-deep, united on a symbol for vastly different purposes. The neo-conservative argument is weak, the cultural warrior’s motivation is repugnant. The secularist concern appears to be unfounded anxiety while the progressive concern is a misguided focus on a symptom that threatens to obscure the underlying problem. The challenge for progressives is to see through to the true motivation of conservative support for a ban. The cultural warrior has never been concerned about women’s rights before, so the progressive should rightfully be suspicious when this excuse is mouthed. Instead the progressive needs define the problem and consider whether the proposed legislation will actually address this problem. Society needs to stop criminialising women who are victims and instead start to address the social conditions which place women in a position where they are susceptible to exploitation.