Notes on various aspects of the debate, recently reignited by the Birmingham City College case and the recent ruling by Judge Peter Murphy at Blackfriars crown court.
1. "The State Should Not Tell Women How To Dress"
The verbatim roboticism with which this argument is repeated speaks to its effectiveness as a talking point. It relies for that effectiveness, however, on a rhetorical trick designed to make a ban sound like the very thing it is intended to combat.
The substantive point being made - that the State has no business interfering in such decisions in any way - is a perfectly legitimate one. Its formulation is misleading. "Telling women how to dress" is prescriptive. In other words, the State demands, as it does in theocracies like Iran and Saudi Arabia, that "you must wear this". A ban on the niqab in public places, however, is proscriptive, and makes only one requirement: that people do not cover their faces.
A niqab ban would not permit the State any comment on how they dress otherwise. Needless to say, those opposed to totalitarian codes of prescriptive dress have a far greater quarrel with Islamist authority than with a State law intended to circumscribe that authority.
2. On Cultural Marxism and Speaking For Others
During a characteristically unproductive twitter exchange on the subject, I was bluntly informed by someone describing themselves as an "avowed Cultural Marxist" that white males have no place in the veiling debate. "I don't" he announced, "do the whole faux 'white man to the rescue' kind of solidarity". The same argument is made to deride the stated humanitarian goals of the United States' invasion of Afghanistan, in spite of the fact it has led to concrete improvements in the lives and liberties of Afghan women. (Whether or not these advances are likely to survive the withdrawal of the coalition troops presently defending them is, however, highly dubious.)
The demand that we suspend our own moral judgement and defer to that of "Muslim women" is of no use since Muslim women hold a variety of opinions, some traditionalist and conservative, some enlightened and progressive. Alas, when pressed to choose between the two, the Cultural Marxist becomes quite the reactionary, invariably citing the former as the more 'authentic'. Secular Muslim women who eschew and/or condemn Islamic dress codes are deemed to have become 'Westernised', and their opinions tainted. Particular venom is reserved for those Muslim women who have had the nerve to shed their faith entirely; an act, apparently, of unpardonable tribal betrayal that invalidates her opinion entirely and can sometimes result in murder at the hands of her co-religionists.
So what then is the Cultural Marxist to do with the case of the Guinean couple in France charged with the genital mutilation of their four daughters, not one of whom would co-operate with the State's investigation into the crime? One of the mutilated girls told the jury that she couldn't understand why her parents were being prosecuted.
Or take the reasoning of the women in this video, subjected to genital mutilation as children and determined, in an act of grotesque self-validation, to inflict the same on their own:
Just as an anorexic whose self-perception is deformed by body dysmorphia may insist that his wasted frame is healthy, so a woman hijabed since the age of three may internalise a sense of inferiority and oppression to the point where she avers that prescriptive Islamic dress codes are a "liberation". Declaring that up is down does not make it so, no matter how 'authentic' the speaker.
3. The Freedom To Do As You Are Told
But over at the ever-indulgent Independent, space was cleared for Sahar al Faifi to do just that, as she upended the English language by claiming that Islam is a "liberation from worshipping anything but the one God". She went on:
I am a proud Welsh and British citizen, a molecular geneticist by profession and an activist in my spare time . . . I wear the niqab as a personal act of worship, and I deeply believe that it brings me closer to God, the Creator. I find the niqab liberating and dignifying; it gives me a sense of strength.Coercion does not necessitate physical imprisonment, and religious authority exerts a particularly pernicious hold over those taught from birth to accept it without question. Al Faifi adopted the niqab at the age of 14, against the advice of her parents. So then where, one is entitled to ask, did she learn that such a self-denying act was even required of her by her God? There is certainly no mention of it in the Qur'an. A few paragraphs later she says this:
Islam is not a monolithic religion and therefore Islamic scholars may differ in their jurisprudence but most agree that in particular cases, Muslim women are allowed to take off their veils – though each case should be dealt with individually. Muslim women like myself do not find this a problem.So accustomed is al Faifi to obeying the dictates of men in robes, and so completely has she accepted this as a necessary and inevitable fact of life, she doesn't realise that her use of the word "allowed" here holes her claim to free choice below the waterline.
4. Complicity in the Oppression of Others
There is a world of difference, however, between this kind of psychological coercion in which the victim may be complicit, and the forcible kind that oppresses those who have managed to unshackle their minds from religious authority. In a riveting post over at Rationalhub.com, a young ex-Muslim woman blogging under the name 'Esha Athena' began with the following:
My mother and father are both active participants and activists in and for the Islamic community. Me – oh me? I am a godless secular humanist atheist. Unfortunately, I am still in the closet for the sake of my life. I am so sick and tired of pretending to care about & follow Islam. I am so sick of wearing that stupid hijab on my head. (I asked if I could substitute it for a shawl, only to be called a whore in return.)So what do fundamentalists like al Faifi have to say on Esha's behalf? Well, nothing much, as it happens. Not only does al Faifi fail to condemn forcible coercion, she doesn't seem to believe it exists. Instead, she scolds those who denounce the veil in the name of gender equality and human rights:
The common impression that many people have about those that wear the niqab is that we are oppressed, uneducated, passive, kept behind closed doors and not integrated within British society . . . Jeremy Browne MP is a case in point with his call for a national debate about whether the state should step in to “protect” young women from having the veil “imposed” on them.Because al Faifi doesn't feel coerced, she refuses to believe that anyone does. At which point she becomes complicit in the silencing and oppression of those who are. As do those liberals and libertarians who nod along to pieties like "slavery is liberation" and "freedom is obedience" and uncritically accept this nonsensical double-speak as representative of The Muslim View.
Never mind that these same fundamentalists espouse a misanthropic view of individual liberty and human sexuality, and invariably justify their own regressive choices with reference to the contrary decadence of free and open societies and the sluttishness of Western women. And never mind that the voices to which we should be listening belong to those who yearn for the same liberties that we take for granted.
The fundamentalist's defiant affirmation of choice excuses the liberal from having to pass judgement and excuses the libertarian of the need to countenance State intervention. So, whilst zealots are welcomed onto the BBC and into the pages of the Independent to defend their freely adopted signifier of purity, secular Muslims, apostates and free-thinkers like Esha are forced to blog about their experiences anonymously from behind a second veil, fearful of the consequences of exposure. Esha closes her post with a scornful denunciation of those Muslim women who collude in the denial of Islamic misogyny:
#MuslimahPride [a twitter hashtag beneath which proud Muslims defended Islamic dress codes] is an insult to women like me who are oppressed by Islam itself. Their ‘activism’ is alarmingly similar to Jewish Nazi apologia or that of the Anti-suffragists women of the 1910s who had a belief that women had the right to complete freedom within the home and would say, ‘its our choice not to vote.’ This is pure Stockholm Syndrome and sheer ignorance on their part. Sure, you might have had the ‘freedom’ to choose to don the hijab, like I did, but I do not have the very same freedom to choose to take it off without being slut-shamed or threatened. Are my experiences unwarranted? Why the hypocrisy and double standards?5. The Paradox of Liberalism
The belief that the State has no business interfering in the cultural affairs of individuals and groups is untenable in the face of the challenges to equality and liberty presented by regressive religious and cultural practices. The collision of Islamic and Western values is sometimes presented as a one-way street. Islam - inert, passive, abstract, victimised - is dominated by the arrogance of an equally abstract Occidental modernity. But inegalitarian values are not a bit passive or abstract when put into practice - they have real ongoing consequences and victims. State-sponsored multiculturalism ensures that these values are not just defended but given the space to be vigorously asserted.
As I argued in my previous essay on the subject, veiling of all kinds in the hands of the Islamist is a political cudgel; an instrument of gender apartheid in a systematic campaign to segregate public space and keep women in subordination, just as blacks were subordinated by racial apartheid. I'm bemused by those who oppose the voluntary segregation of gender by seating, and then oppose - with equal vehemence - a ban on the segregation of public space by veiling.
But veiling is also part of a web of apolitical, cultural and quasi-religious traditions such as honour murder and Female Genital Mutilation designed to entrap women in a position of abject servility. Given the multiplicity of challenges this presents to the defence of human rights, an absolutist opposition to state intervention leaves the State powerless to protect vulnerable women and children within minority communities. Effectively countering the problem of FGM, for example, may require invasive inspection of children who are profiled by country of origin, ethnicity and religion.
At some point the liberal has to make a choice between disfiguring surgery and an untreated tumour. The laissez-faire approach to liberty in these circumstances is an act, not of principle, but of moral cowardice. Like the pacifist whose only concern is keeping his own hands free of blood, the liberal only concerned with his own reputation for tolerance ends up complicit in the crimes he ignores.
6. The Responsibility to Protect
While the two situations are not directly analogous, there are, nonetheless, noteworthy similarities between the objections made to humanitarian military intervention in foreign countries and the objections made to state intervention in the matter of the niqab. Concomitant similarities can be observed in the arguments in favour, which speak to a common impulse.
Opposition to a niqab ban is frequently undergirded by a suspicion of State power as irrational and indiscriminate as anti-War hostility to American power - in neither case is it conceded that power can be harnessed for benign, progressive or utilitarian ends.
Some opponents of a ban are silent in the face of the ongoing oppression of Muslim women, even going so far as to accuse those who do write about the subject of 'Islamophobia'. Similarly, the Stop the War Coalition and its fellow travellers had nothing much to say on behalf of dying Syrians until the possibility of Western military action was announced. When the prospect of Western military intervention retreated, so did the interest in Syrian life. And once the calls for a niqab ban diminish (as they will), so will the professions of concern for the rights of Muslim women.
Some opponents of the niqab ban share with the anti-war movement a mistrust of the West and its espoused 'values' which they suspect are a front behind which to oppress, dominate and subordinate the 'other'. Abiding memories of colonialism have left a deep squeamishness about interfering in foreign nations and cultural affairs and the motives of those who seek to do so are immediately suspect. Supporters of a niqab ban are consequently accused of Orientalism and cultural imperialism. Supporters of humanitarian intervention, of enabling Western supremacism and war crimes. Both are accused of paternalism.
And those who support military intervention are asked to defend its costs, not as a byproduct of policy, but as if they were its intended consequence. The wisdom of intervention in either case may b disputed, but the motivating humanitarian impulse in both cases is the responsibility to protect and should be debated as such. Just as an interventionist accepts the loss of innocent life needed to prevent greater loss of innocent life, the niqab ban may be supported as an illiberal measure intended to counter a far greater illiberalism. Because, contrary to what you may have heard, Bombing For Peace is not remotely like Fucking For Virginity.
7. A Reasonable Alternative
In a principled and important article for the Sunday Times (reposted here), Maajid Nawaz, a former Islamist now Chairman of anti-extremist think-tank the Quilliam Foundation, offers an alternative solution: on identity- and security-sensitive issues, secular law must trump religious and cultural tradition wherever conflict arises.
This would be a big step in the right direction, at once attacking inegalitarian and divisive Islamic exceptionalism and immediately dispensing with specious arguments in its defence from religious freedom. I would hope - although I'm getting accustomed to disappointment - that this is a fair-minded position all progressives could support.
It would, however, fall short of delegitimising the garment itself in the eyes of the law and I contend that the specific issue of the niqab goes beyond the problems associated with religious exceptionalism.
I have no in-principle problem with the voluntary practice of self-denial, just as I have no in-principle problem with mutually consensual polyamory. The proviso in both cases being that they are egalitarian in application. Polygamy, unless practiced alongside polyandry, is objectively demeaning to women. Just as demeaning is the 'recommendation' or forcible imposition of all forms of gender-based veiling. And, not by accident, but by design.
I abhor all religious dress codes designed to restrict the freedom of their adherents and to mark them as separate and unequal human beings. But the idea that a woman's face is so shameful that she must be completely depersonalised is a vindictive and intolerable affront to human dignity. The niqab marks, segregates, depersonalises and degrades those who wear it. It is, objectively, a tool of abuse. And for this reason, its extirpation - not just from Western societies, but from all societies - constitutes a moral imperative.