Nussbaum on Veil/Burka Bans

A very good article, with some valuable arguments, like this one:

A third argument, very prominent today, is that the burqa is a symbol of male domination that symbolizes the objectification of women (that they are being seen as mere objects). A Catalonian legislator recently called the burqa a “degrading prison.” The first thing we should say about this argument is that the people who make it typically don’t know much about Islam and would have a hard time saying what symbolizes what in that religion. But the more glaring flaw in the argument is that 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.

67 thoughts on “Nussbaum on Veil/Burka Bans

  1. Very few women are forced to wear tight jeans or undergo liposuction, under the threat of not being allowed to leave the house (or worse) unless they comply. I’m not saying it doesn’t happen, as abusers enforce all kinds of things upon their victims, but I strongly doubt that it’s as common as enforcement of conservative Islamic dress codes within communities in the West where they are common.

    I can see why some people think it’s a good idea to ban the full face veil (which is properly called a niqab) or the burka (which only leaves a small lace window over the eyes); they’re thinking that if they ban the garment in public, women can’t be forced to wear them. Unfortunately, they aren’t thinking clearly, or they’d realize that the response by the men in the affected community would more likely be to not let the women go outside any more.

    (I am not talking about women who choose to dress that way in liberal cities and then write articles emphasizing that they’re making a personal choice: great, we get it, but that’s not really the kind of situation that’s provoking concern about the dress.)

  2. Finally. I was growing tired of being one of the few people I knew who is against these bans.

    The problem isn’t the burqa or the niqab, it’s people forcing women to wear them. While I can understand the desire to legislate against that, it’s pretty clear that this is not the way. What’s even more ludicrous is the new ban in Québec (my home province), given that at most two dozen women are affected, and that almost none of them have any problem with showing their faces for identification purposes, or when circumstances dictate.

    The process of assimilation and acclimatisation to a new culture is a difficult one, and can’t be forced all at once. These women have worn the burqa or niqab their whole lives–the change, therefore, is a radical one, and it involves their personal identities and comfort zones. Forcing them to choose between that and an education, hospital stay, etc. (as with Québec’s new law) is not just a mistake, but a serious affront to their rights and a huge obstacle to their integration.

    What we need to make it clear to everyone involved that dress is a personal choice involving levels of personal comfort, and that the imposition of a dress code (especially on an adult) is not acceptable. The problem is one that, I think, is best addressed by developing a supportive community and an effective social network, and putting our efforts into ensuring that Muslim (and other) women are aware of these resources, and are comfortable using them and taking charge of their dress if necessary. Hell, place this sort of intervention under the purview of social workers–if dress is causing a problem at home, train them to reach out or intervene to these households.

    But banning any form of garment is ludicrous. In Québec’s case, the law is contradictory since it builds in exemptions for Christian symbols. Not to mention that I don’t think it can survive a Supreme Court challenge on Charter grounds. Aand yet it amazes me that polling finds that roughly 90% of Canadians (and a higher proportion of Québeckers) agree with the ban. Sigh.

  3. J-Bro:

    I just wanted to add that, as Québec’s case makes clear, just as few women are forced to wear a burqa or niqab in public as are forced to undergo other appearance-altering abuse. With an estimated two dozen women at most affected (and, of course, not all two dozen are forced to do it, as they’ll emphatically tell you) in a province of 8 million (and a major Canadian immigrant destination), I think it’s clear that the concern is largely unwarranted.

  4. Regarding “not knowing what it is to be a muslim”, why not ask a muslim feminist about it?
    Broadsheet did that: they asked Mona Elthahawy (on twitter as @MonaElthahawy).
    She is very eloquent about why she supports a burqa ban, see here and I agree.
    I think she makes a very interesting point in xenophobe rightwing parties hijacking the cause though, too.

  5. @Michel X.: I accept your numbers for Quebec, but the situation may be different in France, where the level of education and integration into Western society vary drastically among immigrants from Muslim societies, and the concern for the safety of women in those enclaves is very real.

  6. J-Bro, she’s responding in the quoted passage to a very specific argument: that we should ban burqas because they symbolise objectification of women. One who makes that argument should then be committed to banning other things that symbolise the objectification of women. And, as she notes, they won’t endorse that. And she’s right to point out this inconsistency. It shows that their concern really isn’t where they say it is– with the symbolic objectification of women.

    But I do agree with you that the biggest problem with such bans is their potential to further restrict women.

    Hippocampa, I’ll go read those. Thanks!

  7. I have done a little research on the justification in Islam for the varying types of covering. As far as I can tell, it boils down to the fact that men cannot control themselves sexually if they see a women not covered. If this is accurate, then I have long proposed that men be forced to wear blinders whenever they leave their homes. How is it that men are both the most rational and worthy of being in charge and, at the vary same time, unable to control themselves sexually so, as in this case, women are required to cover some, most or all of themselves. I like the young woman who shaved her head so she would not be violating either France’s law or Islam’s…no hair covering and no hair.

  8. There’s oppression and there’s oppression. Comparing the oppression of Muslim, symbolized by the burka, with the oppression of Western women, symbolized by high heels, is a bit like those comparisons between dictatorship in Cuba and the dictatorship of the media in the United States. I don’t mean to justify the objectivization of women in the west, but it isn’t in the same league of injustice as the treatment of women in the Muslim world.

  9. I agree with Michel on this one. It’s about comfort levels. One person’s oppression is another’s expression. To some muslim women, being forced to UNCOVER their faces is akin to forcing a western woman to work topless.

    The only argument that carries a grain of plausibility, and I’m not satisfied with it either, is the identification for security purposes argument. It’s still sexist when you consider that men are allowed to sport facial hair and toupees at work. If they’re going to enforce a ban on face veils, they should ban beards and toupees at work too.

  10. “Veiling” is a choice. There are several students at my college who choose to cover their heads while their families disagree with the student’s choice. I find it odd that people jump to the conclusion that women are being forced to cover their heads. (Granted, in some places, this is the case, but not in every Muslim country.) While in Bahrain, I did some research to find out exactly what Islamic feminists were saying about this subject. They said that covering their head gave them access to education and workplaces. In fact, the covering allowed them to move freely and participate in culture. We should all take heed. If women say they are choosing to cover their heads, we should take their word.

  11. @Xena: the security argument actually is plausible, and banning beards on men is not equivalent. Beards don’t cover the entire face; you can easily compare a non-bearded photo to a bearded person and look at the shape of the eyes, the nose, the mouth, and the ears. You can’t compare a veiled woman, much less a woman in a burqa, to her ID picture with any hope of being able to verify that she is who she claims to be. Anyone of similar height and build could be inside that thing.

    @Jender: fair point. My comments departed from that.

  12. The main problem with the ban, as far as I can see, is the context in which it is happening: one in which Muslims are being subjected to intense scrutiny and criticism, and being cast as The Enemy. There may or may not be good reasons for objecting to the burka and the niqab, which may or may not justify legislation, but it’s impossible to address those issues fairly and sensibly at present, because of the way that Muslims are being portrayed and treated. There are some good examples on this site, including the recent tabloid swimming pool debacle. Given the general anti-Muslim sentiment around at the moment, I see bans like this as worrying.

  13. Seema – do you see that what is _allowed_ women because of veiling, could be available to them just because they are persons, and that the veiling is a compensatory move in response to control of social institutions by men? Shouldn’t a woman have access to education, work places and public institutions, that is, be allowed to move freely just because she is a human person? So, if one “chooses” to veil in these conditions, is it really a free choice or a forced one, a response to patriarchal controls and rules?

  14. Michel X, the security issues with ID photo matching are simply a matter of asking the woman to PRIVATELY remove the veil for a few seconds. I was commenting about beards to demonstrate the straw-grasping inherent in the security claims. These claims look more like an unspoken and paranoid accusation directed at Muslim women. The implication is that they could use their clothing to hide weapons of terror or mass destruction, or whatever other stereotypes westerners put on them.

    And on the issue of “choice” check out this fashion statement: A BEAUTIFUL Muslim girl walking on campus a few months ago, wearing skinnies and thigh high SCREAMING purple boots with a 4″ stiletto heel. Her jacket was close-cropped, waist-length, bolero style with insane shoulder pads and puffed sleeves, in a b&w check pattern that was somewhere between an exaggerated houndstooth and something vaguely Al Queda-ish. Her headscarf was the exact shade of purple as her boots. I LOVED IT!!
    Good luck convincing me that anybody forced her to wear that outfit.

  15. Uh… Xena, I said nothing in response to you. I think you were responding to J-Bro. You and I actually seem to agree (although perhaps it’s worth pointing out that headscarves are a different story entirely).

  16. Also, in support of the point you just made about IDs: that’s the way it works here already, and none of the Québec women interviewed had a problem with it. I imagine the situation is the same elsewhere, perhaps with a few dissidents. It only serves to point to the ridiculousness of such measures, as you quite rightly point out.

  17. It’s important to note that the examples given of how young Muslim women dress on campus may be quite different from how they dress at home with their parents. I had a TA who dressed in low riders with an exposed thong but at home, in a different city, she had to cover. I recognize that this is not very different from many years ago when I rolled up my skirts and put on make up in the girls’ bathroom at school and had to undo it all when I headed for home.

  18. My apologies, Michel. My Marty Feldman eyes are messing with my perceptions again. Let me redirect that response to J-Bro’s kick ass legalese. We’re doing Kymlicka on Rawls&Mill this week, and this site is SO helpful. Enlighten me, please.

    Monkey, that was a great article. Muslims shouldn’t be allowed to tell non-muslims how to dress either. If they can’t walk past a public pool without getting all irate, then they should learn how to direct their gaze elsewhere. Giving back to what we take is what democracy’s all about.

  19. Dingit! Forgot my but in that last comment.

    BUT slanted coverage like this is several levels of unfair. It’s medieval Bram Stoker-esque xenophobic propaganda. Way to incite a skinhead riot or several.

  20. I’m not getting Nussbaum’s argument; part of it involves something about liberty that is eluding me.

    I think I’ve said or written several times here that my Muslim friends/colleagues think a lot of Western criticism of things like the veil are really offensive, given how women are treated in the west. I’m very impressed by that concern, so the problem here is about Nussbaum’s argument.

    I take it the argument is something like this:

    A. Consider “The burqa should be banned because it is the product of male oppression.
    B. “… the more glaring flaw in the argument is that society is suffused with symbols of male supremacy that treat women as objects.”

    Ba: people who make the argument participate in the other forms of male oppression.
    Bc: to take action against the other forms of oppression we’d have to restrict personal liberty drastically.

    C. “Once again, then, the opponents of the burqa are utterly inconsistent, betraying a fear of the different … The way to deal with sexism, in this case as in all, is by persuasion and example, not by removing liberty.”

    Isn’t this in large part an ad hominem? Think of a comparable argument about food safety:

    jj wants to ban hormones in milk, but there are questionable substances in all sorts of food and she probably even has some of her retirement funds in companies that use other noxious additives. Also, she’s hung up on hormones.

    That’s a terrible defense of not banning hormones.
    Then there’s the idea that we shouldn’t deal with sexism by interfering with liberty??? Does everyone here agree with that?

  21. JJ – You may be right about the ad hominem. Maybe part of Nussbaum’s argument is based on cultural relativism, that if you are not in the culture you have no standing to criticize its practices? And/or that there’s something disingenuous about only criticizing practices in cultures other than one’s own? One quite salient point is that all of these named practices find their homes in male dominance but this context continually drops out of the discussion. Why don’t we just ban male domination, I ask, tongue in cheek.

  22. I think that the burqa should be banned, in public places. It’s a symbol of the oppression of women. It might be a good idea to make certain types of cosmetic (and potentially dangerous) plastic surgery illegal. Perhaps heels so high that they endanger the health of the wearer should be banned too. Nussbaum argues from the U.S. Constitution, but that, as we all know, is a document which reflects a clear gender and class bias.

  23. Well, there are degrees of harmful food additives–sugar compared to melamine. Then there are degrees of harmful sexist behaviours–the silent eye-fuck compared to tissue ripping rape or FGM. Then there are degrees of interfering with liberty–telling one’s students to shut off their cell phones in the classroom compared to kicking down somebody’s door and shipping them off to a gulag.

    I don’t think anybody here suggested that we absolutely SHOULD NOT deal with sexism, for fear of treading on somebody’s rights to some of their more questionable religious practices. I think it’s a matter of comparing how much harm the practice itself is causing compared to what kind of infantilising/stereotyping we might directly or indirectly be dumping on free and well informed muslim women by telling them that our brand of paternalism (ie, telling them how they should dress) is “better” than theirs.

    Slippery slopes always involve trade-offs. In my view, most wardrobe choices can’t really be compared to ingesting harmful substances. Wardrobe choices happen inside the wearer’s physical space. Onlookers can choose to look away if they don’t like it. Unlike homophobic hate speech, for example, most wardrobe choices don’t carry the power to effect the onlooker’s self-concept. And, as Lani pointed out, muslim women can choose to remove their veils away from home, or not.
    Selling toxic food products involves deceit (removal of free choice for the consumer) and direct physical harm to one party for the financial gain of the seller. That kind of ban isn’t an arbitrary curtailing of liberty. It’s legitimate protection from poisoning.

    Nice point, though. Way to get me all cross-eyed over my logic chopping. Have I learned anything from 9 months of your sage advice, Dr. jj?

  24. Another but (not so big as to be worthy of a dingit this time) Nussbaum’s reasoning does get pretty slippery. I’m still struggling to grasp her position on morality in literature. I’m not sure if that’s just because I consider political philosophy to be more useful than arguments about art and aesthetics, which makes me better at analyzing the former, or if Nussbaum does really have a tendency to go in for the ad hominems.

    I’ll watch for those if she comes up in any more lectures.

  25. jj –

    I read the argument as something like this:
    1. There are worse forms of patriarchal oppression than the burqa in French society today.
    2. Hence, proponents of banning the burqa because it is a form of patriarchal oppression should also be proponents of banning those other things.
    3. But proponents of banning the burqa are *not* also proponents of banning those other things.
    4. Hence, proponents of banning the burqa are inconsistent.

    In that form, it doesn’t look like an ad hominem to me. We might worry about the move from 1 to 2, but it’s valid enough for a blog post. Here’s a comparable food safety version:
    1. Feces in hamburger are more dangerous than hormones in milk.
    2. Hence, if jj wants to ban hormones in milk because they are dangerous then she should also want to ban feces in hamburger.
    3. But jj doesn’t want to ban feces in hamburger. (Just for the sake of argument!)
    4. Hence, jj’s positions on food safety are inconsistent.

    Lani –

    Quite a lot of Nussbaum’s work has been built on opposing that version of cultural relativism. In `Women and cultural universals’, in Sex and social justice, she critically responds to several versions of the argument, with respect to FGM.

  26. Building on Xena’s point in 24, not only are there degrees of sexism, but sexism being about actual attitudes and behaviors, the burqa issue arguably doesn’t fit neatly onto any particular part of the scale. My own view on this issue is heavily colored by an experience I had while a grad student in Toronto. I was waiting for the elevator one day when it opened to reveal a young man and a Pakistani woman I had had an Islamic philosophy class with; she was always completely covered, with nothing showing but her eyes and her glasses. Now, I hardly knew her; we had talked on occasion in class, but it was the only class we had had together, and we weren’t in the same program (she was Near Eastern Studies, I was Philosophy), and so we never saw each other. Neither of us actually remembered the other’s name, if I recall correctly. But when that door opened, her reaction to seeing me there was like I was an old, close friend. And the reason is that before the door had opened the young man in the elevator had been lecturing her aggressively about how she was wearing a symbol of oppression. When I stepped in, I was a buffer preventing him from continuing — or, if he did try to continue, she now had back-up. And one of the things that has occurred to me since is that the young man had the best of intentions, wanting to stamp out sexism; but that there’s something arguably very sexist about thinking that you can do so by telling women what to wear. Since that day, I’ve never been able to see banning the veil or burqa as such a straightforwardly anti-sexist move as it is sometimes thought to be.

  27. Hello Brandon: if there is, as you say, something very sexist about telling women what to wear (which may be true), then there is also something very sexist about telling women
    not to wear tight jeans (Nussbaum’s example), and therefore, Nussbaum’s whole argument about an equivalence between Muslim sexism and Western sexism collapses, since we no longer have any perspective from which to evaluate if any forms of objectivization of women’s appearances are licit and any are not.

  28. BLAH! That one WAS worthy of a dingit! The answer to my question in#24 is obviously NO!! I think Dr. jj’s sage advice at one point involved reading the article AND the comment more carefully before I respond. I think all this thinking about thinking is making me dummer <:-/

    So yes, jj's interpretation of Nussbaum's argument against banning the burka IS comparable to the food safety argument she presented, in this context. But I'll go with Dan Hicks on the ad hominem issue. And I'll hold to what I said about criticizing one type of paternalism as an excuse to push a similar type of paternalism. That's assuming that pointing out a blatantly paternalistic practise isn't a type of ad hominem attack in itself.

    Dan, thanks for the info on Nussbaum's position on cultural universals. I will DEFINITELY let my skeptic out when I'm reading her work now. That business about using FGM as a platform against cultural relativism has me tempted to start hollering "straw man" at the moral absolutist.

    But I'm going to do everyone (especially myself) a favour and go home and un-cross my eyes and get some sleep before I have another go at Nussbaum's work. And IF I decide to go looking for straw men in work that's not really relevant to class discussion, I will follow Dr. jj's sage advice and read carefully.

    Then again, my prof seems to be having WAY too much fun with my table-pounding. Sometimes I swear he follows this blog and looks for wild-eyed Xena-isms to spoof in class. You should have seen the way he inserted the pathetic creep archetype into the Gettier problem when he reviewed JTB theory. I laughed my ass off!

    Anyway, my pillow's calling. ttfn.

  29. Brandon – I’m open to your suggestion that telling women what to wear may be sexist, even when one’s intention is to oppose sexism; but I really don’t think that your anecdote provides much support for this contention. Surely it is not unusual for individuals raised in oppressive cultures to internalize the norms of their oppression (indeed, this is part of what makes oppression really insidious). I would not be at all surprised, then, to learn that such individuals might sometimes feel as though they are being harangued by those who argue forcefully against such norms. With this in mind, I’m not sure we should take the feelings of distress of your classmate (however understandable they may be) as evidence that the aggressive young man was in the wrong.

  30. Andrew,

    On the other hand, what Brandon’s anecdote highlights is that this really is the wrong way to go, because it makes people deeply uncomfortable and sets them on the defensive, rather than allowing the initiative to come from them.

    Consider the discussions between atheists and theists (such as the Dawkins-type-people and their media appearances): picking and choosing Bible (or any other religious text) passages that are ludicrous or otherwise factually wrong never works to convince anyone, since it just tramples on people’s feelings. Sure, the atheists are right and have good intentions, but their methodology is the problem. All it serves to do is put the theists on the defensive, and from that position, they’re not receptive to any ideas, let alone uncomfortable ones.

    That’s exactly what happened to the woman in Brandon’s anecdote. Following the anecdote, codifying burqalessness/niqabless-ness in law raises the stakes to the point where women are forced to choose between public services like education and healthcare, and their religious and cultural norms. Remember, these are practices that are entrenched, and which of themselves cause no physical harm to anyone. Thus, it’s no easy thing for them to just let go, especially when they’re still reeling from a perceived hostile exchange (or society). Imagine you’re a theist and I’m bombarding you with Biblical nonsense: the environment is hostile, isn’t it? Does it seem like an instantaneous conversion will get me off your back? Probably not, since I’ve just spent the better part of an hour explaining why I’m superior to you.

    Thus, while the feelings of distress may not be indicative of error on the haranguer’s part, they are indicative of a felt oppression as a result of that harangue. Indeed, if the woman in question were to ask her haranguer to stop and he continued, that would still constitute harassment–no matter how right he might ultimately be.

    amos – Nussbaum’s example does not involve telling women not to wear tight jeans: she simply mentions tight jeans as a source of female oppression internalized by our society. In fact, she explicitly says that “The way to deal with sexism, in this case as in all, is by persuasion and example, not by removing liberty.” Thus, she is not advocating banning tight jeans in any way, shape, or form. Indeed, tight jeans are just a stand-in (or a metaphor) for ways of dressing/appearing that sexualize the wearer, rendering him or her as an object of sexual desire. As she says, the way to combat these practices isn’t to legislate their end, but rather to become aware of them and to disarm them, to lead by example, and to create safe spaces/environments for people. Her equivalence, therefore, stands.

  31. Michael X- that seems exactly right. And I would venture that in a cultural context in which anti-Muslim attitudes or even violence are present, much less cultural norms about policing women’s bodies in public, haranguing an observant Muslim woman as in Brandon’s example gets, well, much worse. Now I don’t know anything about Toronto, so perhaps that’s not the case. But I think that if it’s safe to claim that if it is not unusual for oppressed persons to internalise the norms of their oppressors, then it may be safe to claim that it is not unusual for any of us to have internalised said norms.

  32. Hi, Andrew,

    That women, or anyone, can internalize oppressive attitudes seems to me to be irrelevant to almost any case of this sort. The niqab my classmate wore was not itself an internalized attitude, and removing the one couldn’t possibly remove the other; and neither I nor anyone else besides her has any way of determining if her real reason for wearing it was the internalization of the norms of oppression or something else entirely. That sort of thing, where an actual problem, can only be remedied by the people themselves who have it, through consciousness-raising and the like; at the most someone else can be a midwife to the process, and that only if the person in question wants it to be that way.

    For my own part, I think it’s very clear that the young man in question was in the wrong (although, of course, having come into the situation as I did, I would); making her uncomfortable about the clothes she was wearing would do absolutely nothing for her, and shows that he was, however well-intentioned in goal, more interested in the niqab than in the woman who was wearing it. And, at the very minimum, in that direction there lies no possible remedy to sexism. Moreover, I think it was straightforwardly sexist; she could have all the internalized oppressive attitudes in the world, and it wouldn’t change the fact that she was caught in an elevator with some man she didn’t even know who was lecturing her, as if she was a child, about how she was wearing the wrong sorts of clothes. Before she got in the elevator she was just walking alone on campus as any student might; after I got in, we talked about a paper she had written on al-Arabi, just as any two students might; in between, however, she was forced to be not a student but a niqab.

  33. @Xena – sorry this is off topic, but as I mentioned the swimming pool debacle, forgetting that there were non-UK-ers on here, I think I should just clear things up. The swimming pool article I linked to is an example of the way Muslims are slurred in the UK press. The story behind the headlines is that the council have always covered the bottom windows on the swimming pool to protect swimmers’ modesty. The curtains were old and some of them were broken, so various people – of all different races and creeds – had complained because people could see in when they were swimming and they didn’t feel comfortable. So the council replaced them with translucent film. Somehow, this got turned into a front page story, run by various tabloids, about Muslims forcing everyone to swim in total blackness, which then generated an avalanche of anti-Muslim comments. This is just one of many anti-Muslim stories in our press every week. Given this sort of vilification, it seems impossible to have a sensible debate about Muslim clothing.

  34. Lani, I do see your point. I agree that women should be treated as persons. Do you see that it is not for us to stand in judgement of cultures that are different from the one in the United States? There are different sets of cultural values at play which may not be familiar to me or to you. As I said in my first statement, I believe what comes from the women who are living this experience. These women do not need western feminists to tell them what their experience is. As an Indian-American woman, I am all too familiar with the kind of compromises and adjustments that my friends and I make in this country in order to live in our families and live in American academic culture. When I speak of my experience, I expect for people to take my word for it, so I do the same for others.

  35. It is my view, given that all of the examples, all of them, exist due to patriarchy, that we do not live in different cultures ultimately, and that patriarchy is the _master_ culture within which we all live and, thus, I am not uninformed of the culture of which these are expressions and am therefore able to critique the practices. I see, when it comes to harmful women’s issues, that cultural relativism is more akin to a divide and conquer maneuver than a matter of respect. Why are woman in every culture, all over the world, harmed by some cultural norms and practices, whether it is covering, liposuction, high heels or eating disorders? It is the common culture of patriarchy. This does not mean that I do not enjoy cultural variations. My comments are specifically addressed to cultural practices that harm women and girls or that lead women and girls to harm one another, e.g., FGM. I am familiar with Nussbaum’s critiques of moral relativism however it is my view they do not go far enough.

  36. Lani- And what if women in another culture do not agree with you that patriarchy is the master culture, and so we therefore ought to ban hijab, or niqab, or whatever? I don’t think anyone is arguing with one’s right to critique. And I’m also not sure that the complexity of what is at stake here is so easily dismissable as cultural relativism. I think that Seema has a point when she says that we should appreciate that observant Muslim women are living their lives while negotiating various different patriarchal practices (and racist practices, and …), much as we are, and that we ought to listen to them and believe them.

    I’m not sure where to draw the line here, but I think we can work at striking a balance between a simplistic relativist attitude, and launching a war of liberation on behalf of the women of the world – I’m reminded that the war in Afghanistan was framed by Laura Bush as a war for women’s rights. How does one insist upon critique while respecting the limits to one’s knowledge? That, it seems to me, is the challenge.

  37. Thanks Monkey. I mentioned that in #20. When I said slanted I meant slanted AGAINST muslims. But I’m starting to see that Islamophobia in the UK is probably what? 5x worse than I’m imagining?

    Canadians are pretty tolerant, comparatively speaking. There’s racism here to different degrees in different regions of the country, but most Ontario racism is extremely covert. Whether that makes it more or less damaging is a debate for another post, I guess. But I was pretty horrified by some of the blatant hate speech I encountered on my visits down south.

    Is Islamophobia in the UK as bad as (or worse than) the legacy of slavery in the US?

  38. @Seema: “Do you see that it is not for us to stand in judgement of cultures that are different from the one in the United States? ”

    No, not really. First, “cultures” are established by the dominant group. So the “culture” of South Africa was, for many years, that Black people had to live in certain areas, didn’t have legal rights, etc. Similarly, the “culture” of Saudi Arabia is that women aren’t allowed to drive, can be murdered by their husbands without recourse, etc. Refusing to pass judgement on cultures like that means condoning the oppression, by acting as allies of the abusive ruling class. This argument comes up in the context of the use of sharia family law in the west — a legal system which greatly disadvantages women in the areas of inheritance and child custody.

    Um, no, Sorry. I’m quite happy to judge that, even though the US system is imperfect.

    Second, there are some cultural practices which are simply too vile for your cultural relativity: suttee, female genital mutilation, slavery, etc.

    Are veils as bad? No. But the position that we should respect other cultures isn’t absolute, shouldn’t be, and in some cases is an abrogation of moral responsibility.

  39. @Xena: true, but they’d need to be willing to do that immediately upon request, and I don’t think waiting for a female officer would be reasonable.

  40. (Basically because I don’t see that the majority culture should expend a lot of extra effort on a few people who have decided female faces are equivalent to genitals.)

  41. J-Bro: I can’t speak to what happens in France but, again, in Québec and Canada, there is no problem there, as these women are entirely willing to make exceptions for security and ID purposes.

    It strikes me that your “no waiting” scenario is unfair, however. Let me be clear: if necessary, the women in question are comfortable (for the most part–I can only speak for those who’ve spoken up themselves) unveiling for a man if it’s necessary. Nonetheless, I don’t think it’s a fair criterion, since it’s not being applied uniformly. Even at an airport, you have the right to ask for a patdown from someone of your own gender. In almost all cases, the time spent waiting will not matter. It only matters if there’s some sort of emergency and the first responders need access to your face–I can’t even think of any reasonable situation (e.g. a riot) for which female officers wouldn’t be present at hand, anyway. If you’re being arrested, you don’t have much choice in who pats you down–but then, being arrested would be a situation in which veiling is trumped anyway, since you have to ascertain that you’ve got the right person, take a photo at the station, etc. And if zombies attacked, the military might have to shoot first and unveil later, but they’re going to shoot based on behaviour rather than face. If there’s been a terrorist attack in the vicinity (another pretty fantastical scenario), then everyone needs to be held and questioned, not just the lone person wearing a veil: being a woman doesn’t (or at least shouldn’t) make you immune to that.

    I just don’t think that sort of immediacy criterion is reasonable, or based on realistic situations and expectations. It’s almost like legitimating torture in a ticking bomb scenario (the situation, that is; the actions obviously aren’t equivalent) because time is of the essence: it sounds almost reasonable, until one realizes all of the background processes necessary to make that possible, and just how fantastically impossible the scenario is.

  42. Sorry, I should have clarified that I was thinking about traffic stops, because in the US that’s the most common situation where your photo ID would be checked. I don’t feel that a second car should have to be called if the initial officer happens to be male, nor that the driver should have to be detained pending arrival of a female officer. I have some respect for the woman’s right to cover whatever she wants, but I don’t think the rest of society should have to expend a lot of extra effort to accommodate it.

    Of course, this raises the additional question of whether it should be legal to drive in a niqab or burqa in the first place. I’ve seen it done, and I don’t think it should be, as it restricts field of vision. Note that this would obviously not apply to hijab, as they don’t cover the face. Is it legal in Canada?

    (And I’m not a fan of the ticking bomb scenario either, by the way.)

  43. Here’s an image illustrating the different types of head coverings we’re talking about. This may be useful, as a lot of people (I am not accusing anyone here of this) get confused about it:

  44. Damn. Didn’t work.


  45. @J-Bro, women who wear the burka don’t usually drive anyway. They’re accompanied by male relatives at all times and walk 5ft behind them. I’m curious about how many of them are actually employed outside the home. There can’t be too many. I’m not sure about niquab. That may be problematic for driving.

    Also, in Canada, in any situation where women may have to get patted down and/or arrested there must be female officers present to do so. It’s our right to NOT get groped by men in the name of law&order. It shouldn’t be difficult to extend that same courtesy to muslims when asking them to bare their faces.

    And, if there are not enough female security guards present at airports to do ID checks, I’d say that’s a problem with the airport’s hiring practices. There were plenty of female LSA (law&security) grads coming out of my college. Like 1/3 of the overall number.

    Who knows? Maybe this ID check thing will actually be good for women who train for LSA careers and then get stuck working crappy call centre jobs.

  46. sk at 38, et al: I am relying here on my ability to make a sound critique and am not recommending sending in the United States Marines to force change in another’s religious or cultural practices. I agree with Mary Midgley when she says that moral judging is not only possible but a duty and simply means forming an opinion and expressing it if it is called for. That’s what I have done here.

  47. @Xena: women who wear niqab can and do drive; I’ve seen it. I don’t personally think it’s a great idea from a safety perspective but it does happen. I strongly doubt that every police car in Canada has a male-female pair in it (I know the OPP used one-cop cars the one time I’ve been pulled over in Ontario at least).

    In airports, obviously they’ve got male and female guards around and can easily accommodate. I wasn’t talking about that situation.

  48. Oh, you were talking about RIDE checks. I thought you meant border crossing, etc. I don’t know. Word of those gets out quickly with texting and all. I don’t drive, but I’ve been with friends, and I’ve been pulled over once and seen 4 near misses in 24 years. Drivers tend to avoid those if it’s at all possible.

    Our cops don’t like paperwork, either. Some woman screaming about section 2 of the charter? I may be assuming too much here, but it sounds like a really good reason for a cop to just wave somebody through a RIDE check (assuming it’s legal to drive in niqab). Besides, any woman devout enough to wear niqab wouldn’t be consuming alcoholic beverages anyway. And RIDE checks are the only situation I can think of where timing would matter to an extent that calling in a female officer would be inconvenient.

    Getting pulled over for speeding on a Canadian highway? Remember, this is the country where a person can drive all night and most of the next day and see nothing but trees and moose. A provincial police officer in the great Canadian beyond with a speedy brown lady has all the time in the world to stand around and wait for a female officer if she asks for one.

  49. And a big DOPE! to me the anthro student who forgets her lessons. J-Bro is a Brit living in the States. Northeast, I think. They cram people on top of roads on top of roads over tall skinny buildings without enough cops to direct traffic in those places. Of course he would be concerned about police resources and timing.

    It’s nothing like that here. With a few exceptions in parts of Toronto and other big cities, and maybe Winnipeg and Regina, we have more than enough space, time and good manners. Take a drive through the Canadian Rockies if you want to feel tiny enough to really understand why we scratch our heads over American Islamophobia and other paranoias.

  50. @Xena: I’m a US national living in the upper Midwest of the US, close to the Canadian border. I’ve spent a lot of time in Canada, but my experience there is geographically limited to the Greater Toronto Area and places along the 401 and 403 highways, where the traffic density is not low. My US experience is very broad. My travel outside the US is also extensive (especially for an American).

    I’m talking about police pulling drivers over for traffic offenses, not sobriety checkpoints. Having been pulled over on both sides of the border, the processes are pretty similar, at least for a white guy in a nice car. They ask to see your license and papers, they talk to you a bit, maybe they come back to you with a ticket. While I haven’t been pulled over in any other countries (fortunately) I’m guessing that “look at license, make sure it matches the driver” is always part of the process. Certainly they put a photo on my International Driver’s License.

    There are areas of both the US and Canada where traffic density is low enough that cops are bored. Those are also areas, by the way, where cop density is low enough that it could take a really long time to get a female officer out there. Most traffic stops, though, are in higher-density areas.

    For the record, I’m also not Islamophobic (I know you weren’t claiming I was, just wanted to get that out there since I’m an American).

  51. (And by the way, all of the missing cops in the rest of Canada are probably patrolling the 401. At least that’s what it seems like sometimes.)

  52. Naw, they’re busy telling people like my (female) friend (last night–she asked for help, they refused, and she was subsequently mugged and nearly worse) that they hope she gets raped.

    Or they’re busy playing with their tasers, driving drunk, and confiscating some LARPer’s nerf arrows as dangerous G20 goods. Whichever floats your boat.

  53. J-Bro, I think you’re probably right about those missing Canadian cops.

    Michel, thanks for the dirt on Quebec cops. I’ll consider myself lucky for never having to deal with them. And I’ll try to keep it that way.

    Maybe I’m just lucky, or charming or whatever, but my experience with Ontario, BC, Alberta, Ohio and Tennessee police has been a pleasant surprise–for somebody that hitchhikes and sleeps outside when finances dictate that there’s no other way. Or maybe it’s just another facet of that awkward privilege situation that we Blondes of Conscience try so hard to apologize for, without pissing off the rest of the world.

  54. I’m not clear on why a niqab would inhibit driving. At least, it seems like driving while wearing something like, say, glasses with thick frames, would be more so.

  55. Your glasses are, presumably, a medical necessity.

    I recognize that the term niqab refers to a range of veils. The one I’ve seen worn by a woman driving a car around here has very small slits that do in fact look like they could pose a risk to her vision while driving. Others have large eyeholes and would be less of a problem.

    “It’s a religious requirement” should not be an automatic pass to engage in behavior that may pose a risk to others. The fact that you use tobacco as a religious sacrament (ref some Native American groups) should not, for example, allow you to violate smoking bans in public areas. Similarly, I think it would be perfectly reasonable to ban people from wearing full-face masks while driving. Many locales ban drivers from hanging crap from the rear-view mirror too, even if it’s a St. Christopher medal.

    I’m not anti-Islamic. I just don’t want other drivers doing things that put me at risk. (And before you ask, yes, I support texting bans and the like.)

  56. I’m not necessarily disagreeing with you in principle, I’m just concerned that while it might be perfectly reasonable to ban people from wearing a niqab while driving if it interferes with their vision, there are other things that do so as well which we obviously aren’t thinking about banning (and so it seems either arbitrary or discriminatory).

    Vision correction is necessary for me to drive, but wearing the particular frames I have is not (or really, even wearing glasses, since I do have contacts as well). Flip-flops, or stilettos, could easily be problematic while driving, but we allow people to wear those as well.

  57. We (speaking very broadly) do already ban some activities which impair driving safety while allowing others. For example, some states have cell phone or texting bans, but none have bans against eating while driving.

  58. here is a story of american women taking up the niqab. Was thinking of making a post of that, but need to finish my thesis in about 48 hours.
    NY Times article
    My two cents on this article? So those women strive for a modest lifestyle, and yet all they do is attract attention. And are they happier for it? Considering that bursting into tears at the end, I guess not.

  59. Xena:

    Those cops were in Edmonton, not Québec. It was her second sour run-in with the police there in about four months. =(

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