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Was France right to ban the burqa?

This week France’s ban on people covering their faces in public comes into force, prohibiting people from wearing, among other things, burqas, niqabs and masks. This has been greeted with horror by many in the UK. But is France showing more sense than we are on this issue?

As a liberal society, we aim to avoid prohibiting actions unless those actions are harmful in some way. Covering one’s face does not seem harmful. However, in some cases, people covering their faces does cause harm – usually criminals who want the police to be unable to recognise them. In this sense, covering your face is a bit like refusing to go through the metal detector at an airport. You, as an individual, refusing to walk through the metal detector would not seem to be harmful, because you know that you are not carrying concealed weapons. But since we don’t know who is carrying concealed weapons, the only way to keep everyone safe is to make everyone go through metal detectors. You, as an individual, know that you are not going to a rob a bank when you don a balaclava. But in order to protect society as a whole, we have a norm against wearing balaclavas.

The danger of people hiding their faces is obviously not as great as that of them taking weapons onto a plane. However, there are many mechanisms for which we rely on being able to see people’s faces when they are in public. CCTV is used to limit crime on the assumption that those performing wrongful actions will be caught in the act, and will be identifiable, generally by their facial features. Likewise, many speed cameras take photos of the front of a car, in order to be able to identify the driver of the vehicle, and make sure that the right person is charged. In many protests, outrage is caused by both sides concealing more than they ought to: by police officers taking off their ID badges, and by protestors covering their faces. The reason is that they are withholding information we usually agree should be available to others, and which could be used to hold them accountable for their actions. This principle has now been incorporated into French law. But does religion provide an adequate argument against such a law?

One reason for allowing people perform actions demanded by their religion even if they would otherwise be prohibited is that people typically feel far more strongly about following religious doctrine than they do about other actions. People who feel strongly about doing a certain action will be more harmed than others by being prevented from doing it. However, we do not usually allow people to do actions considered potentially harmful even if they have strong feelings about the issue. In airport security, people who are very private and particularly dislike human contact are not able to opt-out of pat-downs.

Refusal to make exceptions is important in cases where it is difficult to tell if a person is a genuine candidate for an exception. If airport security allowed peculiarly introverted people to get through security with less checks, people wanting to smuggle banned items onto planes would pretend to be such. Likewise, there is a danger that people wanting to commit crimes without being recognised will adopt a burka or niqab, such as reported here and here.

Some might think that religious people should be granted exceptions when others aren’t because they have greater justification for their views. Theirs is not just an irrational dislike of physical contact, but a worry that they might inspire the wrath of an omnipotent God. However, because God is just, if the government prevents followers of a religion from covering their face, presumably it will be those in government who will suffer God’s wrath, rather than the followers themselves. Therefore, lawmakers would not be harming these individuals by refusing to make an exception for them.

Freedom to practice one’s religion is important. But it is not absolute, and cases should be weighed against the harm they could cause.

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36 Comment on this post

  1. <em>Covering one’s face does not seem harmful. However, in some cases, people covering their faces does cause harm – usually criminals who want the police to be unable to recognise them.</em>

    Covering one's face while doing something criminal might well make detection more difficult, and this difficulty of detection is bad. To say that even the criminal is doing something harmful in wearing a face-covering is a bit of a stretch. The harmful thing is the criminal act.

    <em>…we have a norm against wearing balaclavas</em>

    This is contestable. If I wear one in the park if it's snowing, I'm doing nothing wrong.

    Your argument seems to be that because, in a great minority of cases, a practice can result in bad things happening (criminals going unidentified; perhaps a few more crimes committed – though show me the evidence), then that practice should be banned. Should I ban people from buying steak knives for the same reason? Or should I ban people studying martial arts?

    In some circumstances, holding a steak knife in my hand is rightly banned, and the lawfulness of my doing so might be questioned. For instance, my holding one in a martial arts contest might not be a good idea. In just the same way, in some circumstances it might be considered good to be able to identify people by their faces. As you're pointed out, truistically, in your final paragraph, not everything claimed to be done in the name of religion ought to be allowed.

    The most debatable point, surely, is not whether there are some circumstances in which people should be required to remove face-coverings (though which circumstances those are will require a lot of thought). It's whether an outright ban of e.g. the niqab in all public contexts is justified. I don't see that you have provided any argument for this, though you do consider the possibility that France is showing "good sense".

    The claim that the motivations behind the banning of the niqab in France are mostly those of "good sense" seems to me absurd. Even were there good reasons to ban it outright (which I dispute), it's not these that are, with "good sense", being shown.

    By the way – is it just "strong feelings" that could permit special consideration being taken of someone's religion? Or is this badly reductive and a bit simplistic?

    1. Michelle Hutchinson

      Thanks for your comments RAC! I entirely agree that there were various reasons given for the ban in France, some much better than others. But I am not interested here in the motivations behind the actions of particular politicians or supporters of the bill, but in considering one particular reason which might be able to justify it.
      “Your argument seems to be that because, in a great minority of cases, a practice can result in bad things happening…then that practice should be banned.” I was not meaning to make a claim as strong as this, but rather that the fact that a practice results in harm is a prima facie reason in favour of banning it. That is why I went on to consider arguments the other way, which might over-ride that prima facie reason.
      “The most debatable point, surely, is not whether there are some circumstances in which people should be required to remove face-coverings…It’s whether an outright ban of e.g. the niqab in all public contexts is justified.” I agree that the most contentious point is not whether there are some circumstances in which we ought to identify ourselves, but which particular circumstances those are. I am arguing that those circumstances might include being in a public place. There are many other things we would not dream of outright banning, but do ban people from doing when in a public place.
      A criminal covering their face might not be harmful in the sense in which we often use the word, just as we might not generally talk about destroying evidence of a crime is harmful. However, to the extent that both of these prevent a criminal from being convicted and hence allows them to harm more people, or prevents justice from being done, both of these are clear causes of harm.

    2. If a full face ban were to be imposed here in the UK, just how many women would resort back to what they were, and practiced prior to wearing the offensive, trendy garb of defiance?

  2. Not much to add about the specific argument addressed here, but I'd be interested to participate in a discussion about the other motivations for this ban. I haven't been following this specific case, but it seems to me that there are much better arguments for a total ban than security. To my mind this practice symbolizes a culture, or at least an aspect of that culture, that is simply obnoxious, not least in its attitude towards women's rights. The liberal counter-arguments are formidable, but not necessarily sufficient to justify tolerance. I don't see why we should ban nudity but tolerate people covering their faces in public (except when it's cold of course). Another good argument is that we communicate with our faces, and it is reasonable to expect strangers on the street to show theirs.

  3. Dear Peter,

    Are you seriously willing to say this on a public forum?

    "To my mind this practice symbolizes a culture, or at least an aspect of that culture, that is simply obnoxious."

    What do you actually know about the burqa?
    When did you last wear one?
    Do you know anyone who wears one and their motivations for doing so?

    This is the kind of foolish statement made by people who have never known or understood a woman who wears one. (generally to protect herself from obnoxious men who treat women like so much meat).

    A less ignorant statement would carry a little more nuance.

  4. Dear Shahid,

    If nothing else, I think that being "seriously willing to say this on a public forum" at least shows a degree of courage that is often lacking in this debate, and most crucially it expresses what a very large number of people think, but do not dare to say.

    Actually I would love to learn more about the real motivations of women who to choose to wear a burqa, so if you have any references for me to follow on that subject I'd be very happy to do so. I think it's really crucial to have an open, honest debate about this.the fact is that this controversy is not primarily about security concerns of the type addressed by Michelle. I'm not saying that we should go around making "foolish" (or do you mean offensive?) statements willy-nilly, but neither should we hide what we reallybelieve for fear of causing offense. If we do, then problems just fester.

    1. Michelle Hutchinson

      I fully agree that these are very interesting issues, and that it is important to debate them openly and honestly. However, I don't think that necessarily means that the question I discuss above (whether we have a duty to show our faces when in public in order to allow CCTV and speed cameras to fulfil the function they were intended to) is irrelevant. Even if you think that there are stronger reasons for banning niqabs than security, it might be important to determine whether you think that security would provide a strong enough reason for doing so. In public debates people need to come to a certain conclusion on policy, but it is not necessary that they come to it for the same reasons.

      1. "In public debates people need to come to a certain conclusion on policy, but it is not necessary that they come to it for the same reasons."

        Depends on the public debate. If the issue is indeed what to do ("Should the UK follow other countries in banning the burqa?") then I agree. If the purpose is rather to refine our thinking on practical ethics, then the reasons are rather more important than the policy conclusion, and it seems to me to be unhelplfully limiting to restrict the discussion to one such "reason", which seems to have little to do with the underlying motivations for the ban.

        It seems to me that the symbolic significance of the burqa for many Europeans is much greater than any CCTV-type security concerns. (In fact, for many Europeans concerned about privacy and government intrusion, the latter may be considered as an argument for allowing it!) From my utilitarian perspective, if we really want to clarify our thinking on whether France was "right to ban the burqa") then we need to consider the real motivations, understand the fears, desires and frustrations that underlie them, and try to map out the pros and cons in terms of consequences. It is not in my opinion at all unreasonable in this context to consider France's decision as a symbolic defence of secularism in the face of a serious threat to our freedoms. We underestimate the importance of symbolism at our peril.

        1. Michelle Hutchinson

          Like I said, I agree that those are interesting and important issues. I'm not in any way trying to limit discussion of the French law in general to only this reason, just to limit this particular discussion to that reason. From my utilitarian perspective, concentrating on one argument at a time will allow us to be as clear as possible about what factors bear on an issue, and hence what we ought to do.

          1. Fair response – and I'm glad you share my utilitarian perspective 🙂

            My own view on the specific issue is that it *doesn't* provide a strong enough reason, although I agree with you that there is a prima facie case, and that the freedom to practice one's religion needs to be weighed against other considerations. But to be honest, I'm not sure how much we really learn from that. It's basically a gut reaction: I agree that wearing a burqa in a public place can constitute "harm" for the reason you give, but banning it for that reason alone seems disproportionate. And because it's difficult to derive a mathematical formula to prove (or disprove) this, so gut reactions inevitably play a role, even in the context of considering one reason at a time it's important to be aware of other considerations that may be influencing them.

            By the way you haven't told us what *your* gut reaction is: does the security concern alone justify a ban or not?

  5. From AlJazeera English:

    "Thousands of women have protested in Sanaa, the Yemeni capital, and other cities against remarks by Ali Abdullah Saleh, the president, that it is un-Islamic for women to join men in the demonstrations against his rule.

    The women, many clad in black dress with full face veils, said their role in protests was religiously sound and called on the president to step down in line with nearly three months of demonstrations demanding his resignation."

    What does it say about a culture if women feel obliged to justify their right to protest on the grounds that it is "religiously sound"? The fact is that many Europeans, including women in my social circle, are genuinely afraid that this kind of thing lies in our own future, here in Europe. That fear needs to be addressed, not brushed under the carpet.

  6. Anthony Drinkwater

    There are, as all seem to accept, many reasons – good and bad – for the ban on covering one's face over here in France. One often-cited bad one is the principle of secularity – other ostentatious signs of religious faith such as wimpoles and kippahs are still permitted in public places. A bad ad hominem argument is that the current unpopular government hopes to regain ground from the National Front, by a side-swipe at muslims’ non-conformity to French customs.
    The security argument has more plausibility, but is open to the points that RAC makes above – we do not, and should not, ban all actions that might conceivably be used by a criminal to facilitate his acts or prevent retribution.
    Another plausible but, finally, weak group of arguments is that women wearing the Niqab are not choosing their dress in complete liberty, but are somehow the slaves of a male-dominated ideology from which they must be protected.
    I suspect that for many French people, of all shades of political opinion, the fundamental reason for supporting the ban is linked to the notion of the "republican spirit" which though hard to define briefly, contains a certain view of citizens and citizenship, of equality, of liberty and of brotherhood. (Of course these values are not always respected, but they nevertheless have a deep hold on the French psyche.)
    Together they imply that a person with no face is not really being treated as a person – either because they choose not to show their face, in which case they are dissimulating, or else because they are not allowed to, in which case they are being deprived of their liberty and identity.
    There is therefore something offensive to many of us in seeing a woman hidden behind a burqa or niqqab – similar in effect to the reaction most of us would have in seeing a woman being led on a dog-lead by a man in a public place. It is not the fact that the face is hidden that is really important – it is the denial of autonomous identity that makes the burqa offensive (and the fact that it is worn only by women gives an additional layer to this denial).

    The philosophical point behind all this is that I believe that it is impossible to justify this reasoning by any variety of utilitarianism – there is simply a value, or set of values, that is part of the essence of being a human moral agent.

    1. "The philosophical point behind all this is that I believe that it is impossible to justify this reasoning by any variety of utilitarianism – there is simply a value, or set of values, that is part of the essence of being a human moral agent."

      I find this unsatisfactory. It's not that I'm wedded to utilitarianism, but the idea that there is "simply a value, or set of values, that is part of the essence of being a human moral agent" seems too much like a way of closing off the discussion. This is of course related to my meta-ethical perspective that values are something that we *choose*, as opposed to something that "are".

      I also disagree that it's impossible to justify this type of reasoning using utilitarian principles. Surely the implication that "a person with no face is not really being treated as a person" is, or at least can be, at some level linked to a belief that a person that is not treated as a person is likely, over the long run, to be unhappy (like office employees who are treated as "human resources" and suffocated with all sorts of dehumanising behaviours and instructions). This belief seems entirely plausible to me, and if it's true then surely there are then utilitarian grounds for defending the values – which I also regard as Western, and not only French, values – that you mention.

      I also think this is important because attempting to justify our adherence to such values in this way helps to move the debate from "These are my values" vs "I don't care, I have different ones" to "this is what seems most likely to make us happy, and here's why". It's difficult to see where one can really go in the former case, where as in the latter case we are motivated to define more clearly what we mean by "happy" and to study in greater depth what kind of values, attitudes and behaviours are most conducive to making it happen. Fundamentally, NO-ONE wants to be unhappy, and recognising that seems likely to be the most promising way to find some common ground.

      1. Anthony Drinkwater

        Hello Peter (or Mr or Dr Wicks – excuse me if I get the protocol wrong – I have learnt something from Dr Shackel !),
        I don't think that you should assume that only utilitarians value happiness. Unfashionable though it might be, virtue ethics values happiness, but not exclusively , as excellence or virtue and practical or moral wisdom count too….

        My intention, far from being to close off discussion, is to expand it from the "unambitious optimism of the anglo-saxon tradition" (phrase coined I believe by Iris Murdoch, not me, I hasten to add). It would take longer than a blog comment to justify, but I have a deep-seated intuition that there are certain basic rights, that need to exist if we wish to consider ourselves human. And that a certain conception of "personhood" is unamenable to change, regardless of a mathematical balance in universal happiness.
        You might look at JP Griffin's "On Human Rights" to see how an ex-utilitarian covers this. It goes, refreshingly, further than trolleyology and the conception of moral philosophy as being exclusively about choices as if we were rats in a virtual-morality laboratory experiment.

        1. Thanks Anthony. I'll check out "On Human Rights". I wasn't intending to claim that "only utilitarians value happiness", my point was rather that the values you did mention can be justified on utilitarian grounds. So the difference is indeed whether one considers other values as contingent on the "mathematical balance of universal happiness", or whether they are fundamental. I guess another way of putting it is to ask whether we would be willing to pursue excellence, virtue, wisdom even if this made us miserable (and I mean over the long run), and if so why. Also words like excellence, virtue and wisdom seem even less well-defined and measurable than happiness unless accompanied by explcit goals (excellent at what? virtuous in what sense?).

  7. I agree with the arguments up there in the post. This is, however, a polemic discussion, and I’d like to contextualize it a little.

    France is proud of being a secular state. It stays there on the 1st article of its constitution, even before the declaration of its national colours and its anthem. By decree, the government does not recognize religions, but only religious organizations and, even then, only in some specific cases. Therefore, things are not discussed in terms of “muslim” or “christian” (“officially”, because, of course, as Drinkwater mentioned above, there may be religious reasons for this).

    Secondly, we must remember that christian public symbols are forbidden as well. Crucifixes were removed from schools and, I believe, were also recently forbidden in hospitals. This is no small thing and not lighter than the burqa-law. My point is: I do not see it as a direct attack to the muslim community.

    Thirdly, according to the post, the women caught would be investigated. This is crucial, because many of them are only obeying their fathers or husbands. I would like an insider opinion on this. Some years ago I did a quick research concerning one's motivation for using a burqa, but found nothing palpable, not even in the quran. The closest I got was: 1) islamism states that women are inferior to men and 2) they must hide their honour/beauty like an oyster hides a pearl. This is a problem, for also in the French constitution (article 2, 3 or 4), it says that men and women are in all matters equal.

    I’d also like to know the official reasons behind this law. Only “security” does not seem strong enough, but we can never know.

    Lastly, an example: if the community of praticants of sexual submission started becoming too big, to the point that we see often see someone dragging someone else with a dog collar in the street, I suppose a similar law would be passed against this practice, because at that point it would have become a social disturbance, an offense to "common sense" and a demonstration against the principles of the State. Such thing does happen today, but not much, and thus does not raises concern.

    Personally, I believe that not wearing a burqa in France is a matter of cultural respect, for the same reason why one should wear one in Iran. For me, foreigner integration is a process in which both sides must make concessions, not only the State.

    1. "if the community of praticants of sexual submission started becoming too big, to the point that we see often see someone dragging someone else with a dog collar in the street, I suppose a similar law would be passed against this practice, because at that point it would have become a social disturbance, an offense to "common sense" and a demonstration against the principles of the State."

      I think you're correct to say a law *would* be passed in this case, but why *should* it? Is sexual submission wrong/immoral per se?

      1. I don't think it's immoral at all (such a funny word), and not even "wrong".
        It was just an example of a common political practice: if the State sees a threat to its principles, it passes laws against it. I am sure no one would ever think about doing something the burqa if the practice wasn't so widespread in France. I suppose the same would happen if too many people started going to work dressed as ninjas.

        1. Just stating that it's common political practice is a bit missing the point though, isn't it? This is an ethics blog after all, so "should" is what we're talking about, not "would". And in your previous comment you even went as far as to say both sides "must" make concessions. How is that not a statement about morality?

          To answer Matt's question: no sexual submission is not wrong/immoral per se from my (utilitarian) perspective, but beyond a certain point it becomes counterproductive with regard to maximising happiness. The widespread flaunting of such practice would therefore be socially unhealthy if it were to happen, so it would probably be correct to pass such a law.

    2. I'm sure there are statistics available, and i personally would like to see the ratio of cases where western men have not only been accused of, but convicted of raping a muslim woman, and those of the cases of muslim men that have not only raped western women, but participated in drugging and gang raping young western girls, that, if published would certainly put this debate to bed on the side of a total world wide ban.

  8. Michelle, to address your specific point, if I reduce your argument to a competition between 2 principles:
    1. A principle of universal identifiability.
    2. A principle of nonintervention when your actions do not harm others.

    Your principle 1 is then justified on the basis that being identifiable facilitates criminal investigations of wrongdoings alone (though other people may have other justifications for that principle).
    It is further assumed that such identification is important in order to enforce (punish/deter infractions of) principle 2.

    As such I think the reasoning is sound – in arguing, with certain assumptions, that principle 1 ends up protecting rather than competing with principle 2.

    It will obviously not persuade people who do not shared some of the assumptions – such as that the State and its agents are essentially benign and likely to remain so, or that significant harm is not done to people by forcing them to be uncovered in public (some may ask what if women feel the alternative for them is never to leave their homes instead, others may assume that those women now uncovered will suffer greater sexual harassment), or that the symbolic impact of banning the clothing will create alienation and discontent which (through further chains of reasoning) results in greater harm including infractions of principle 2.

    So if we take your assumptions and other people's assumptions as being equally valid unless shown otherwise, the balance becomes unclear again. Avoiding difficulties in identifying criminals versus avoiding other potential harms. Hard to measure the more important impact empirically, but easier to vote on – based on gut feelings of what are more credible assumptions for the majority who have a voice in the debate. And this raises the other question for liberals and democrats about protecting minority rights against majority prejudices.

    And for feminists and others it raises the further question of how to protect the rights of minorities within minorities too (ad infinitum).

    Abstract reasoning appears to me useful to clarify our assumptions, but doesn't seem to me to get us off the hook of needing to question our own and each others' prejudices in a way that is more constructive than destructive, and perceived as such by those who feel vulnerable.

  9. Lightly touched upon in the comments above was the idea that there are an unspecified number of women who wear the burqa because they are forced to by their fathers, husbands or other men in their lives. Given that many of these women are literally imported as child brides and have never been properly educated, even in the language of their new country, how can these women make an informed choice about, well, anything of importance? The law against the burqa, to the extent that it begins to address this situation, might be acceptable, even if it does target a specific religious belief. In the United States, there are laws on the books that specifically target Mormon polygamy cults to protect the rights of women who might be trafficked without any sense of informed consent into polygamous marriage. We pass laws to protect the rights of people all the time, even when they encroach on the rights of others to discriminate. The disappearance of "white only" water coolers in the American South certainly cut against the rights of segregationists to drink from water fountains untouched by blacks.

    The only reason this law is being questioned is because it smacks of xenophobia, and is strongly positioned against multiculturalism. Also, there is the religious component, which buts up against questions of conscience and our presumed duty to the God of our choice. Obviously there are limits on freedom of religion. Can anyone imagine a modern Abraham dragging his kid to an altar to sacrifice him at the behest of Jehovah and not being arrested in a civilized country?

  10. Michelle Hutchinson

    Anthony: Thanks, it’s great to have a view from someone who is actually there!
    “The security argument has more plausibility, but is open to the points that RAC makes above – we do not, and should not, ban all actions that might conceivably be used by a criminal to facilitate his acts or prevent retribution.”
    This fails to engage adequately with my argument. We don’t and shouldn’t ban all actions which could be used to facilitate criminal acts, but that is because there are reasons opposing the ban of those actions. For example, the fact that people using knives could facilitate criminal acts is a reason in favour of banning them. But if we banned all knives we would have great trouble cooking, eating and so forth. Therefore we only ban certain knives. Therefore, in order to refute my point about people covering their faces, it is not enough to say that we don’t ban all activities which could lead to harm. I have provided a reason in favour of banning this activity, the burden of proof now rests on the person who thinks we should not, to explain their reasons against doing so.
    If we think that those wearing niqabs are suffering repression and need to be protected, surely a law banning niqabs is not the way to do so? This would make sense if we thought that a person’s face being covered is in itself a great harm to the person. That might be true. But it seems more likely that what is objectionable is a certain mentality of which this is a symptom. Is it not more important to try to get to the root of the repression, rather than banning the symptom?

  11. Michelle Hutchinson

    Peter: yes, it’s nice to know we’re starting from the same point 
    I’m not convinced it just comes down to a gut reaction – I think there is a lot more evidence available, and even more which could be, which would give a better indication on the question than I am able to give now. For example: how often do criminals evade conviction due to covering their faces, is it on the up or on the down, what percentage of speed cameras take photos of the person, since those speed cameras have been introduced into areas has speeding decreased (purely anecdotal evidence – I have heard people say they claim as the driver of the car whichever person has no points, leading to one member of a family speeding frequently, when the others don’t – if that member always had to take the points, they would be forced to slow down, as the law intends). In short, I feel entirely unqualified to give an opinion on whether such a law would increase or decrease in the long run if people were prohibited from hiding their faces in public. My gut feeling would be that it would decrease happiness overall – I think covering their face is an option people want to have, even if they almost never use it. But even if that were so, and the security argument did not justify a ban on it’s own, it might mean that if secularism (for example), provided a reason in favour of banning the burqa, it would only have to provide a fairly weak reason. Utility being cumulative means that if one law will raise utility by little in several different ways, that may add up to the law being worth it.
    Also, I think it is at times relevant to discuss on this blog what the law would do, because one principle we surely think the law ought to follow is consistency. Therefore, if the law would ban one thing, and we think a second thing is morally equivalent to that, there is at least some reason to think the law should ban the second. (Although this can’t be applied directly in this case, since I assume no-one was arguing that burqas were morally equivalent to dog collars.)

    1. Many thanks for this Michelle – was offline over Easter so only just saw it. Of course I agree that gut reaction alone is not enough: we also need evidence. An interesting general question of course is just how much information one should gather before going with one's (suitably informed) gut reaction. This is a crucial question with regard to the science-policy interface in general, and one that has not really been answered satisfactorily to my knowledge.

      Back to the specific topic (!): my gut reaction is basically the same as yours: the security concern alone is not enough, but could weigh in favour when combined with other considerations. Re consistency, I basically agree but with some caution. I might rather put it thus: whether there appears to be a flagrant inconsistency, this should be examined and removed of there doesn't appear to be a good reason for it. What we don't want to do is to assume that every apparent "inconsistency" is necessarily problematic. If I always tried to be 100% "consistent" in my personal dealings my life would be poorer as a result, and I have the feeling that something similar can be said with regard to policy.

  12. Michelle Hutchinson

    Theo: Despite, as you say, Christian symbols also being banned in schools etc, I think it seems justifiable to see this particular law as an attack on Islam since it bans a certain symbol of Islam from all public places, while allowing crosses, kippas and turbans etc to continue to be worn. Your point does, however, seem to hold true of the law passed in schools, at which time people tried to claim that the banning of head-scarves was an attack on Islam, despite the fact that symbols of all religions were being banned.
    I don’t follow your third point. Women having a moral obligation to hide their beauty / virtue ‘like a pearl’ does not seem to be dependent on their being inferior to men, and hence does not appear to conflict with the French constitution. (Ie, it might be true that a certain tenet of Islam conflicts with the constitution, but that does not mean that the tenet which requires women to wear burqas does).
    “Only “security” does not seem strong enough” – this doesn’t really engage with my argument, just assumes its falsity.
    “not wearing a burqa in France is a matter of cultural respect, for the same reason why one should wear one in Iran” Given that it seems to be your belief that wearing a burqa is a sign you believe women to be inferior to men, you seem to be implying moral relativism – that when in a culture, you should (tacitly) agree with the moral norms of that culture. If I believed wearing a burqa to be an act of ‘sexual submission’, implying women to be inferior to men, I would most assuredly never wear a burqa merely as a sign of ‘cultural respect’. That would seem to imply that in order to respect those around me I was obliged to accept that I was myself something less than a human being worthy of full moral status.

  13. Michelle Hutchinson

    Arif – I agree that it is as important to question our assumptions as it is to question how we should reason based on those assumptions. I think you’ve been a little uncharitable in implying that I have made a great number of assumptions founded on prejudice. I have, as you say, assumed that the state and its agents are essentially benign. Without that assumption, it seems somewhat futile to even ask the question of what laws the government should impose – if it is not benign it won’t do what it ought anyway. As for the other things you mention, I did not mean in my post to assume all of those, so I am sorry if I gave the wrong impression. I was showing one (seemingly strong) reason in favour of banning the covering of faces, testing whether religion on its own provided a stronger reason on the other side, and concluding it did not. That does not rule out other reasons against such a ban. I entirely agree that there may be other, stronger reasons against such a ban, such as that the government cannot be trusted to stay on the straight and narrow in the long run and hence needs to err on the side of caution. As I mentioned in my comment to Peter, I think that it could well be the case that the government forcing people to have their faces uncovered in public created a great deal of discontent. However, I don’t think that these questions are ones which should be left to gut feeling. Philosophy is essential for clarifying our assumptions and reasoning processes, but empirical data is also vital for determining which assumptions are valid. For a start, as France has now brought such a ban in, it would be great to have a study in a couple of years time, on how much discontent people feel at having to have their faces uncovered, whether they feel there has been more sexual harassment, and so on.

    1. Thank you for taking the time to reply, Michelle.

      Sorry I sounded uncharitable, I did not mean it as an attack on your opinion, more a reframing of it. And I can see that I was not clear in expressing my concept of "prejudice" in an even-handed and non-pejorative manner – as a label for our assumptions of the positive and negative consequences which cannot be tested until after the fact, and even then which we can only verify on dimensions which are measurable in a valid way. Can we test for alienation effects, for example? And even if you could do so reliably, can we agree on its weighting in comparison to other effects?

      I am not arguing that there is anything invalid in your argument. I accept that you also only present it as one argument you are testing against only one of the opposing arguments.

      I guess I am interested in the choice of argument you or I make, how they reflect further underlying values and assumptions, and whether or not those underlying values and assumptions are equally up for public discussion. I realise that in discussing this I have to be extremely cautious and sensitive and I apologise if I have been too off-hand in the way I expressed myself.

  14. How can symbols of faith like the burka and niquab have such positive connotations in the middle east, and such a negative reception in France?

    The French View: Ban the burka. On the streets of France today is there is a crisis of liberty vs liberalism. The French feel that they have already gone too far in accommodating Islamic ideology. To many French citizens the burka and niquab represent the most illiberal mode of dress conceivable. Being both offensive to women and men. To women, because it forces them to live their public lives under a black sack. To men, because it assumes them all to be potential rapists; unable to resist the temptation derived from so much as glimpsing a curvaceous hip or a bare ankle. They regard the attire as seventh century desert garments that have no place in twenty first century France. They are proud to have always been at the forefront of Western fashion. How you dress is an important mode of self-expression to the French, which they feel the Burka and niquab restrict. As passionate, exuberant communicators, the veil in particular, forms a barrier of communication to many French people, whose instinctive psychological reaction is one of distrust. Finally the French are very proud of their record on equality, many French feel any woman is relatively safe, free and equal there, and should assimilate to their culture not assert their own.

    However, if women in France are free and equal, why can’t they dress how they want? After all, isn’t religious freedom also protected in France?

    The Middle Eastern View: Every religion has a distinctive quality, and the distinctive quality of Islam is modesty. In most countries in the Middle East there is no strict separation of the church and state, as there is in France. The vast majority of citizens in those countries are practising Muslims. To Muslims, far from being a seventh century desert garment, the burka and niquab are the only garments that respect modesty in public. They don’t serve to conceal a woman’s identity. Being loose and thick they cover her shape and form. This removes any aspect of sexuality and in so doing allows that woman to be a person. To be judged on her ability and intelligence, rather than her appearance, which would be superficial and irrelevant. Citizens of the Middle East feel that this makes women more, rather than less free and equal. The Middle East does not have a tradition of painting portraits, strict interpretations of Islam forbid figurative artwork altogether. The face has a different currency in the Middle East, religious adherence naturally takes priority over self-expression. The spiritual focus, they feel safeguards them from the slippery moral slope represented by Western fashion. From an Islamic perspective, the padded bras and Playboy hot pants that are made in sizes for six year olds in the West are terrifying examples of that slippery slope, and how their religious choices protect them.

    However, if women can never express themselves as directly and forcefully as men in public, isn’t their concealment a slippery slope to their marginalisation? Could the Ayatollah Khomeini have expressed himself so forcefully and successfully, if he were addressing his audience from behind a veil?

    There is an interesting video on this issue

    1. I very much like this analysis from Kate. I really don't know how widespread the supposed "Middle Eastern View" actually is, but it looks plausible as a description of at least one segment of opinion. Clearly there is fear, and also anger, on both sides of this debate, and also genuine and legitimate concerns.

      What I'm not willing to do, though, is just to say "there are good arguments on both sides" and leave it there. A moral subjectivist I may be, but I have my values and my ideas about what is likely to constitute a better world.

      With this in mind some further comments.

      1. What's right in France may not be right elsewhere in Europe, let alone the Middle East. In the video Sarkozy is accused of "pandering to the far right", but personally I'm suspicious of that kind of argument. Part of the reason why the far right has been growing in France, as in several other European cointries, is that liberal elites have got out of touch with some of the concerns of the people. I prefer to have someone like Sarkozy "pandering" to them than for those concerns to be totally ignored.

      2. On the elimination of sexuality n order to allow the woman to be a "person", this seems to me to be taking concerns about the objectivisation of women too far. The fact is that we all objectivise each other in all sorts of ways, and sexuality is only one of them. To remove sexuality as a means of securing personhood is really to throw out the baby with the bathwater. The first condition for a woman to be a person is that she respect herself. Life is full of annoying distractions and irritations, and the unwanted lustful gaze is only one of them. It certainly doesn't stop you being a person.

      3. Perhaps most importantly, this is not about Christianity vs Islam, or about Europe vs The Middle East. This is about secularism vs religion. The main problem with Islam, as witty all religions, is that it is a jumble of worthy values (modesty being one of them) and superstition. Christians and Muslims alike worship a "God" that is ultimately no more than a figment of our collective imagination. In Europe we have largely, though not totally, transcended this kind of thing, at least as a basis for making laws. Parts of the US are still in the thralls of fundamentalist religion, and it is a particularly serious problem in the Middle East and amongst immigrant communities here in Europe. Secularism is worth defending. I found it ironic that the opponent of the ban in the video implied that it would stifle debate on the subject, while participating in a heated debate precisely as a result of the French decision. Perhaps the latter's virtue lies precisely in having stimulated this kind of debate.

      1. In response to your comments, Peter Wicks, I have some further observations:

        1. On pandering to the far right: I'd like to unpack whose concerns you think should be pandered to and why. Is Sarkozy right to pander to far right racial supremacists than to pander to far right Islamic supremacists because of their greater number? Their greater legitimacy? Their greater level of honour or moral decency? Their greater ability to cause upset? The greater ability to persuade people to join them? Should far-right Islamists also be pandered to, as preferable to ignoring their concerns?

        I mean this as a serious question, not to be provocative, as I also think it is important to address people's concerns regardless of how much I share them personally. But I think the judgments I make may in reality be affected by how much I share them, which is then part of how I distinguish whether I think a claim of perceived victimisation is made in good faith or bad faith (along with exploring how consistent they are in the application of the principles under which they make their claims).

        2. I think that the conception of personhood and valuation of sexual objectivization you use, while I don't disagree with you, constitutes a restatement of one side of the argument with minor concessions. It does not deal with how to live with people with radically different views to your own and whether you can respect such a different view. Lisa's argument that the burkha has different positive and negative connotations for different people, suggests letting people make their own nonviolent choices – just as some can choose to be hippies, Miss World competitors, Catholic priests, skinheads, new age travellers, skinheads etc, however much they cause fear, anger and resentment to others. I accept that we do criminalise some choices, but what ethical principles should underpin that criminalisation? Do you think your ethical principles would allow Sarkozy to not just agree with but also enforce one side's interpretation of the wrongness of the values of the other side?

        3. You are presenting this as an argument between religion (explicitly identified with superstition and causing problems in the US and Middle East) and secularism (implicitly not identified with superstition and not causing problems). While I think this is more constructive than the other ways of presenting it that you mention, it could also be presented as positive liberty versus negative liberty, or majority rule versus minority rights, or even as security versus freedom, which is implicit in Michelle's original formulation. I think these formulations bring universal principles into the debate and help us discuss things without starting off by appearing to devalue other people's identities.

        1. Arif you make some excellent points there and ask some excellent questions! I'll try to answer some of them.

          Actually I think there is some pandering to Islamic supremacists going on, even amongst Western political leaders, in the form of excessive political correctness motivated by fear and post-colonial guilt. I don't say one is more "right" than the other, rather that it's important for political elites to remain in touch with the people. To the extent that far right Islamists form a significant segment of the population in a given country, that would also apply to them. "Pandering" is by definition a negative word, of course; what political leaders actually need (and generally try, however imperfectly) to do is to strike a balance between excessive "pandering" and rigid adherence to their own beliefs and values.

          I agree that this debate can also be usefully characterized as being between majority rule and minority rights, and I think the need to strike a balance between the two sheds light on the ethical principles that should underpin the criminalization of nonviolent behavioural choices. Once such a decision has been taken, then of course it should also be enforced (proportionately).

          On devaluing other people's identities: yes I agree that is a risk. On the other hand I really do tunic that secularism is worth defending. Historically speaking it's a relatively new phenomenon, and we should not take its persistence for granted.

    2. To KATE:

      "However, if women in France are free and equal, why can’t they dress how they want? After all, isn’t religious freedom also protected in France?" >>>>>>NICE QUESTION>>>>

      Your thoughts are only based on 1 side,and that is insufficient to conclude something………Now i OBJECT.>>>>>>>>>just answer my this question………





  15. Heads off!!!!!!!!! I totally agree with your point.YOUR views are simply a counter_attack to those who are fanatics,and think that their Morally correct values(which they think correct) and are prejudiced in ethical views…………………………………….Their strategy of "I DONT KNOW HOW<BUT I WANT IT NOW",is totally sick nd they need to improve their CONSCIENCE.



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