Lifting the veil on some issues in the ‘Burka debate’

30 Mar

For the unfamiliar, the BBC guide to Muslim veils.

The somewhat polemical:
Assuming that God has recommended that women wear the burka, assuming that burka has no impact on a woman’s ability to communicate or quality of life, as has been suggested by its supporters, then here’s a suggestion—to all men, who haven’t been ordered by God to wear burka, and who don’t see a downside to wearing it—why not voluntarily commit to wearing the burka, since no law opposes such a voluntary act, to show solidarity with the women. My sense is that even the French would come to support the burka if Muslim men en masse chose to wear it.

More considered:
‘The interior ministry says only 1,900 women wear full veils in France, home to Europe’s biggest Muslim minority’ (BBC). If the problem is interpreted solely in terms of women wearing the veil, then it is much smaller than the dust in its wake.

There are three competing concerns at the heart of the debate: Protecting rights of women who voluntarily want to wear it, protecting rights of women who are forced to wear it, and protecting (French) ‘culture.’ Setting aside cultural concerns for the moment, let’s focus on the first two claims.

People are incredulous of the claim that women will voluntarily choose to wear something so straightforwardly unpleasant. Even when confronted with a woman who claims to comply voluntarily, they fear coercion, or something akin to brainwashing at play. There is merit to the thought. However, there is much evidence that women subject themselves to many unpleasant things voluntarily, such as wearing high heels (which I understand are uncomfortable to wear). So it is very likely indeed that there is ‘voluntary compliance’ by some women.

Assuming there exist both, voluntary compliers, and those forced to wear the niqab, wouldn’t it be pleasant if we could ensure the rights of both? In fact, doesn’t the extant legal framework provide for such a privilege already? Yes and no, mostly no. While it is true that women forced to wear the niqab can petition the police, it is unlikely to happen for a variety of reasons. Going to the police would mean going against the family, which may mean doing something painful, and risking financial and physical well-being. Additionally, the laws governing such ‘coercion’ are likely to carry modest penalties, and unlikely to redress the numerous correlated issues including inadequate financial, and educational opportunities. Many of the issues raised here would seem familiar to people working with domestic abuse, and they are, and the modern state hasn’t (tried to) found a good solution.

Perhaps both camps will agree that wearing a niqab does dramatically limit the career opportunities for women. Of course people in one of the camps may be happy that there are limits to such opportunities but let’s assume that they would be happy if the women had the same opportunities. Part of the problem here then is the norms of dressing in business environments in the West. Entrepreneurs in Saudi Arabia recently brought to air a television talk show in which both of the hosts wore the niqab. The entire effect was disturbing. However, that isn’t the point. The point is that there may be ways to not reduce career opportunities for women based on the dress code, which after all seems ‘coercive.’

Time considerations mean a fuller consideration on the issue will have to wait. One last point – One of the problems cited about the burka is that it poses a security threat, which has some merit, given its long history in being used a method of escape, including by militant clerics.