To Ban or Not to Ban? The Burqa, Religious Identity, and Politics
A great deal of confusion surrounds the burqa and the issue of its being worn in Western countries. A traditional religious garment, the burqa covers a woman’s face and body so completely that only a small slit for the eyes remains to allow the sight of the person behind it. Earlier in the year French legislators passed a vote deploring the apparel, and the lower house recently passed a bill 335-1 which would see it made illegal to wear in public, a vote quickly condemned by Amnesty International as threatening to freedom of expression and religion. While the bill will move to the Senate later in the year, should France actually enact a ban it would not stand out as all that remarkable. Turkey, notable in this context for the fact that it is a predominantly Muslim country, has long had legislation in place preventing public sector employees and university students from wearing even just the hijab (the Muslim headscarf, which in contrast to the Burqa only covers the hair and not the face of a woman) in their place of work or on campus.
Many who oppose the burqa do so because they see it as an oppressive item of clothing which symbolises and reinforces the inferior social status of women. For them it represents an assault on the dignity and equality of women, a regard for them as property, and a concern for them that they be sexually controlled and limited. Despite such negative views an inner twinge of apprehension can rise up at the thought of legislatively outlawing its being worn. Self-consciously we may ask ourselves: to where will this road lead us? Is it not a mark of intolerance to impose the values of the majority over a minority, and in this case a culturally insensitive form of intolerance as well? We don’t want to begin telling people what they can and can’t wear, do we? The fact is though that this is already quite commonly done, but in the inverse: many western countries have laws against public nudity in areas outside of those which are specially set aside for it; you can’t just walk around naked in public wherever and whenever you would like to, though you are entitled to be as naked as you please in the privacy of your own home.
As a judgment about the meaning of the burqa the outlined view certainly does not go without a challenge. One line of defence proceeds by arguing that as a mere symbol it has many possible meanings, and not simply the negative ones assigned to it by westerners. A second claim often attached to this is that if we want to ask what the face veil really means then we need to ask those who actually wear it – that is, Muslim women. Reza Aslan is one who appears to take this view. In his book No God but God (Arrow Books, 2006) Aslan argues that the veil is symbolic, that any non-Muslim non-female approach to specifying its meaning is flawed by that very fact, and that questions of its meaning must accordingly be answered by Muslim women.
There are I think two different ways of trying to understand these claims. On the first we are to understand that by the fact of their actually wearing (or potentially wearing) the burqa, Muslim women are simply more capable of achieving insight into its meaning than men or non-Muslim women. A second way to understand them is as founded upon an assumption that because Muslim women deal so much more personally with the burqa than others do, that what meanings they attach to it have a natural right-of-way over the interpretations of others. After all, they are the ones which actually live beneath it, so shouldn’t their thoughts count for more on the matter?
If the first approach is the best way of understanding what is being said here then it should be noted that the position is simply incoherent. If we take seriously the claim that the burqa is no more than a symbol then it literally cannot have any intrinsic or innate meaning that one could potentially get closer to by the fact of being a Muslim woman. If we are better to understand things in the second way, it is not clear to me exactly why Muslim women should be privileged in that way. When it comes to matters of symbolism surely anyone’s interpretation is as legitimate as anyone else’s – why would actually wearing a symbol entitle a person to the kind of privilege of interpretation being readily assumed as proper?
Of course it is quite true that for many of its wearers the burqa isn’t anything like a symbol of subservience to men. For many Muslim women the burqa and the headscarf are symbols of femininity, of personal religious commitment, and potentially even a rejection of the hypersexualisation of women in the West. But is the burqa just a symbol? It is not. The burqa is an object in the world alongside all others; it has mass, density, and opaqueness. If I beat you to death with an iron swastika it will do me little good in going before the judge to exclaim ‘but your honour, it was only a symbol!’ It was indeed a symbol – over that there can be little doubt – but it wasn’t just a symbol. It is dangerously misguided to point to the symbolic nature of the Islamic burqa, a dimension it surely does possess, and argue therefore that it does no harm outside of the symbolic meanings we supply to it.
The fact is that we are all creatures of a particular cognitive stripe, and we get a mass of social information by being able to see and read other people’s faces. We retrieve from them clues about emotional and intentional states, and from that, their likely conduct in interactions with us. This is part of the reason why someone could feel unsettled or apprehensive in passing a hooded or masked figure in a dark alley way at night. Whether intended to provide that function or not, a hood which hides the face prohibits us from gauging the mental state and intent of the wearer, and that is a matter highly relevant to assessments of our own personal safety and security in the social world.
Psychologists, for their part, make good use of identity-concealing hoods in order to tease out the effect that anonymity has on behaviour. The results of such experiments are not particularly uplifting: being hooded tends to make people deliver more powerful electric shocks to others than if their faces were openly visible. It seems in such circumstances that being physically anonymous erodes the sense of ourselves as morally responsible and accountable agents, and accordingly less concerned to treat others in morally appreciable ways. Being in a large crowd can induce that same sense of loss of moral identity, a fact which helps explains phenomenon like soccer-hooliganism. Executioners too know well about the effectiveness of the hood. If you need to kill someone it is simply easier to psychologically manage if you first depersonalise them by placing a hood over their head. If we can’t see the object before us as a person, or them as fully as a person, then it simply becomes easier to treat them like any other object. By hiding from their sight the time-worn wrinkles or the desperation and fear in the eyes of the condemned, executioners allow themselves to more easily put their personal status out of mind.
The effect of the burqa is not dissimilar, and no less real. By obscuring the face of a woman to the sight of others it depersonalises the wearer, limiting the social perception of personal depth. Accordingly, it really does strike a non-imagined blow against women’s rights and equality with men. It is not simply that the burqa is a symbol of female oppression, but that it is an instrument of it. The hijab, which leaves the face open to the view of others, would not seem to suffer this same fate equally.
Of course it is true that some of the personal information that the burqa hides will be of a specifically sexual and superficial nature. How physically attractive is that woman standing over there? How young? How beautiful? Does she look approachable? Questions of this kind can hardly be answered from behind a veil, and so for the purpose of stopping women being treated like sexual objects (by men other than the husband at least) the burqa really will achieve much of what it nominally sets out to do. You just can’t lust or long after a woman based on how she looks if you can’t actually see the way in which she looks in the first place. That though is clearly not the only neutralising effect that the burqa brings with it.
Interestingly enough, there is not a single verse to be found in the Quran which requires women to wear the burqa. The closest that Islamic revelation comes to this is demanding that women must dress modestly in public, that they not reveal any cleavage or stamp their feet (why not? They might accidentally reveal their ankles to surrounding male eyes), and save the sight of their bodies for their husbands (33:59, 24:31). We can rightfully think of this as quite terrible coming from god, but it does not – in any obvious way – require a woman to cocoon herself in cloth just to venture into public. Mohammed’s wives were a recognised special case however. The Quran records that god sent down a special revelation from heaven through Mohammed requiring them to talk to male strangers only from behind a curtain in their home (33:53), and it appears that they were required to wear some kind of a head covering.
While use of the hijab is widespread, only a tiny fraction of Muslim women in France actually do wear the burqa (according to one estimate, perhaps less than one half of one percent). So it can be argued, why ban something that so few women actually adorn themselves with? This is a very strange objection however. To see why we need only note that only a tiny fraction of any population may practice something like necrophilia, but that surely does not constitute any reason in itself to forgo laws which would make it illegal. If it should be illegal, the fact that very few people will actually be directly affected by it means little.
What drives this objection I suspect is a concern on the part of some that the motivation behind calls for a ban has more to do with politics than with a genuine concern for the welfare of women. This is not insensible, for as much as the burqa possesses a symbolic dimension, so too do the denouncements and ban proposals. That is, they serve just as much to reassert the incompatibility of certain mainstream Islamic values (like sexual chastity, modesty, and the secondary status of women) with mainstream Western values over the same territory, and the superiority of the Western values in that regard, as they do to safeguard the freedom of women from subordination.
But would a ban really be the most optimal way towards reaffirming the equal status and autonomous liberty of women, and protecting that against religious erosion? It is practically unquestionably true that Muslim women should not be forced to wear the burqa – whether that be in a public space or not is quite irrelevant – but is it equally true that Muslim women who choose to wear the burqa of their own free accord should be legally prohibited from doing so? I cannot see as easily as others apparently can that the answer here should be yes.
It is possible to lament a life spent in devotion to nothing but watching infomercials on TV, and at the expense of the cultivation of loving relationships and good friendships with others, without at the same time thinking that the best way towards combating such a life-choice is to legislate against it. Similarly, I can lament the fact that some people think god requires them to live their public life in sheath of cloth least any non-familial male eyes fall upon their naked skin, without at the same time thinking that the best method towards protecting them and others from that is to prohibit all women from wearing the burqa. It is simply possible to both loath and permit something; as an idea this lies at the heart of liberal democracy. Proponents of the ban need to ask themselves whether enacting restrictions – including on the freedom to make choices for one’s own life that others regard as very poor – is really worth it in order to protect women from the negative consequences of Islamic dress codes.
This is especially so given that there are other ways of going about tackling the burqa which can be explored. One way is simply to engage those who wear it, and those who support its being worn, with argumentative criticism. It can be pointed out that there is no explicit support in revelation for the requirement of the burqa, that it really does undermine the status of women (for reasons outlined), that the idea that a special revelation came to protect Mohammed’s wives from the sight of other men looks awfully convenient (and is probably not something worth following as a fashion), that there are less problematic symbols of femininity and religiosity available, and that it would be simply rather silly and costly to protest the objectification of women in the West by anonymising oneself in public life. Other than a blanket ban, legal options include limiting those who can wear it to over 18 years of age, just as occurs with the right to vote, have sex, or consume alcohol. It could also be required that women who wish to wear it to sign an affidavit indicating that they fully understand they are under no obligation to wear the burqa, and declaring that it is a free and uncoerced choice on their part. This would not be any solution to the residual issue that some women may have little option but to wear it due to pressure from their family and community, but it would do something to slake the conscience of the state on the general matter.
Legislation banning the wearing of the burqa in public is clearly not the only option on the table, and it may not be the best one either.
 The burqa is technically distinguishable from the niqab as face veils. While the niqab involves a slit for the eyes to see through, the burqa places a mesh of cloth over the eyes so that even their sight is obscured from outward view. I take it that the difference between them holds little relevance from a moral point of view, and use ‘burqa’ as a covering word for both (however strictly inaccurate that may be).
 Aslan (2006), p. 73.
About the Author
Timothy Rowe holds an MA in Philosophy.