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Posted by on Feb 1, 2013 in Atheism, Philosophy, Secularism | 7 comments

Inconsistency and intolerance

As you no doubt know, in April 2011 France introduced legislation barring women from wearing the niqab. There’s some immediate irony in that, in the sense of telling women what they aren’t allowed to wear, in an ostensible effort to liberate them.

I’m conflicted about that particular ban, because as much as the niqab seems such a powerful symbol of subjugation, it’s impossible to rule out the possibility that some women wear it out of genuine choice, rather than because it’s the only choice they have, or the obvious choice thanks to years of programming. And if these women exist, a ban certainly violates their freedom, even if you might disagree with the ways in which that freedom is used.

As much as I – and all of us, I imagine – want to find ways in which we can maximise the freedom of others, it challenges preconceptions about the oppressive nature of the niqab to see headlines talking about French Muslim women effectively being “under house arrest” as a result of this bans. It also doesn’t seem to be winning any public relations points – not only is this sort of thing fuel to extremists, it’s also fuel to those who want to cast secularism as intolerance.

But the niqab is an extreme example, because of the way it seems to eliminate the person wearing it. You, as a Muslim women, are represented entirely by the item of faith, with only your eyes visible to the external world. You could be anyone, at least to those of us on the outside, who might not be able to pick up the subtler clues of identity that no doubt exist.

So I can at least have the conversation around whether this should be permitted or banned, because it is at least plausible that something so extreme can’t be a matter of free choice. But when it comes to other, less extreme statements of faith like the fez, kuffiya or hijab, it seems immediately false to me that we should prohibit Muslims from wearing them.

These thoughts are prompted by a South African example from a couple of weeks ago, where two children were sent home from high school for wearing a hijab and a fez, and told that they could not come back wearing their respective headgear. They were allowed back a week later, but only after intervention from the provincial school board. Meanwhile, talk radio had a field day, with one person making the absurd suggestion that religious clothing is good, because then we’d know who all the atheists are (they wear black, you see).

And then, there were some callers and letter-writers who we can be quite confident in thinking would be happy for children to wear a crucifix to school, because it’s Islam that’s the problem, not religion. One even spoke of the Muslim “infiltration and indoctrination”!

A confounder in this case is of course that the children in question are 13 and 16. As Dawkins often points out, it’s an error to refer to Muslim children, Christian children, or [insert any other religion] children. Until a child is old enough to choose for itself, it is the parents who are religious rather than the children. Indeed, this particular case is notable for the fact that it’s the mother who is quoted as saying “I can’t allow them to take it off because it is against our Islamic beliefs.”

She’s then quoted as saying “It is very sad. It is very disturbing” – and while she clearly means the actions of the school, those words could easily apply to some cases of children who are given no option but to believe what their parents do – and thus also easily apply to her previous quoted sentence.

As I wrote in a recent column on this case,

a 13 and a 16 year-old could also be Muslim by choice, even if we think the choice flawed. Unfortunately, we often only get to know how much volition is possible when people try to change their minds (through observing how their families and community react), but it’s certainly possible that these two children are contented in this particular faith, and proud of being identified as members of it.

We can’t guarantee that these sorts of choices are made freely. But we can help to create a climate that encourages free and rational choice, and also taking responsibility for choices. Forbidding the hijab while permitting the cross encourages inconsistency and bigotry. Permitting them both – as well as any other outward signs of religious affiliation – can be done alongside restrictions that encourage civic virtues such as understanding and compassion.

I mean two things: first, that allowing the hijab, but insisting that it be in the colours of the school uniform, reminds the scholar that a plurality of values are competing, and that none should be assumed to have priority until the relevant debate has been held. And second, allowing religious headgear avoids sending a signal of prejudice, which will hopefully result in an increased chance for people like me to argue against the choice to ever want to wear the headgear or the crucifix.

The system of thought – or sometimes lack of thought, to be more honest about some forms of religious indoctrination – that forces some women to cover themselves near-completely does merit opposition, as does a tradition that won’t allow women to be priests, or to have abortions, or whatever the case might be.

But expressions of those ideologies are not equally thoughtless, and treating them all as if they are – or not allowing them at all – runs the risk of acting no differently to that which you’re protesting. If you don’t think children should wear a hijab or a fez, persuade them and their parents that they shouldn’t. As David Mitchell puts it, “It bears restating that it’s not bigoted to disagree vociferously with people’s choices, as long as you’re even more vociferous in defending their right to make them”.

A final thought takes me back to inconsistency, though – can such neat distinctions be made between the niqab and the hijab? If I’m happy to allow the latter, am I inconsistent to think the former permissible? And if this inconsistency needs resolution, should it be through banning both or permitting both?

On the too-large pile of unread books, which probably looks similar to your too-large pile, my SkepticInk colleague Russell Blackford’s Freedom of Religion and the Secular State awaits. Perhaps it will contain a clue or two.

  • Edward Gemmer

    It’s an interesting thought. An intersection of all the things we care about – oppression of women, free expression, freedom to and from religion. If time was no issue, it would be worthwhile to monitor France and see what happens with Muslim women over generations – does this law promote more freedom for women in the long haul, even if in the short term the oppression is worsened?

  • DrewHardies

    With apologies for length, I agree that banning a choice to ‘liberate’ people seems counter-intuitive at first glance. But I think there’s a fairly consistent moral rule at work, and it’s one that we use regularly in other contexts.

    The morally relevant facts seem to be something like: $CHOICE has a high potential to be coerced. The harm from coercing someone into $CHOICE is large. It is very difficult for an outside investigator to determine if an individual’s acceptance of $CHOICE is coerced or not.

    An example of this setup that springs to mind is a prohibition on professors having romantic relationships with their students. The potential for coercion is obvious, as are the harms from a coerced relationship. However, it could be very difficult to prove that a professor unduly used his or her influence (for instance, by passing a student who should have failed on the merits of their work).

    Rules can only be as granular as an institution’s information. So, the rule has to be either, “These relationships are acceptable” or “These relationships are banned.” This decision is made with the knowledge that it will infringe on the freedom of some pairs of adults who were entirely sincere in their desire to have a relationship with one another.

    Applying this to the situation you outlined, and I think we get a neat division between hijabs and niquabs.

    In both cases, there’s a potential for coercion; parents can put massive amounts of pressure on their children to conform. And, it’s going to be extraordinary difficult for a third party observer to identify coercion in all the cases where it’s present.

    The difference (as I see it) is the potential for harm when the choice is pushed onto a person who wouldn’t accept it freely.

    A hijab is basically a hat with some religious signaling. Having to wear one wouldn’t be that much worse than any other clothing decision a child disliked. A niquab would be much more isolating because of the way it obscures body language.

    • That’s useful, thanks – the potential harms are certainly a useful way to differentiate the cases.

    • This sounds to me very much like the arguments I hear against decriminalized prostitution, and sound very paternalistic to me. A situation has the potential for abuse, therefore, it must be prohibited. Where do we draw the line on that principal? It seems like unless one draws a high bar, reserving state or institutional intervention for situations where the power differential is such that the likelihood of abuse is very high, then the law or rule falls too far on the side of paternalism and simply fails to respect individual autonomy. If we want to allow the state to protect us from brainwashing by sometimes powerful institutions, why have freedom of religion at all? Why not give the government carte blanche to censor advertizing? I think the answer is obvious – if freedom means anything, it means the freedom to make bad choices, or ones that may seem to others to be wrong or the result of false consciousness.

      • DrewHardies

        I think the difference comes down to the third question, “can an investigator identify coercion where it’s present?” If so, we can just ban coercive behavior.

        If we legalized prostitution we’d be able to protect prostitutes the same way that we protect the employees of any other industry. It’s the ban that makes coercion hard to identify in that case.

  • I think the law should err on the side of individual autonomy in this regard, though the issue gets sticky when it comes to children, at least younger ones. Then again, most preteen children dress pretty much the way their parents tell them too – adolescence is a different story. In fact, in the latter case, I’d say if a teenager is dressing more the way their parents want them to than their peers do, they’re probably not only making a choice, they’re probably resisting a lot of pressure.

    In the case of niquab, that has to be balanced against basic rules everybody has to follow. Nobody can go around masked all the time, for example, one needs to show one’s face to get a drivers license (though I suppose the kind of women who would wear niquab wouldn’t be driving) or otherwise be identifiable. Where such rules are truly necessary, there shouldn’t be a religious opt-out.

    Also, I’m not sure if you’ve heard of World Hijab Day. This just strikes me as straight-up wrongheaded in the other direction – not just allowing for hijab as an individual right, but celebrating it as something downright positive and encouraging non-muslim women to start donning it.

    • Hadn’t heard of Hijab Day, no – but it certainly strikes me as wrongheaded. I agree with you on the need to sometimes show your face, but do worry that we can over-emphasize how often that is truly necessary, and that we can use the putative need for that as a shield behind which to disguise and enforce a simple prejudice against the religious garb.

      But yes, in general I certainly agree that the law should try to err on the side of autonomy. There’s no getting around the fact that in doing so, we’re creating opportunities for it to be undermined – but on balance, liberty is surely being maximized by allowing and encouraging choice.