Banning the burqa
Liberalism vs. freedom of religion
On Monday I noted that the French President Nicolas Sarkozy had come out in support of a parliamentary commission to consider a proposed ban on burqas in public. I suggested that both the case for and the case against the burqa ban are grounded in the liberal philosophical tradition. Today I want to consider how this conflict might be possible.
The case against the burqa ban is based, of course, on freedom of religion – that individuals should be free to practice whatever religion they so choose. That a Muslim woman whose interpretation of her faith requires the wearing of a burqa has a right to do so, just as a Christian has a right to wear a cross in public and say grace before eating at a public restaurant.
Of course, freedom of religion, like any freedom, is not unlimited. For without restraint, one’s freedom can easily violate the rights and freedoms of others. Freedom of religion does not give me the right to kill Jews or to prevent Hindus from practicing their own religion, even if my religion tells me this is a duty. Nor can I use religion as a basis for oppression, even toward those who share my faith – though my religion may tell me that women should be restricted to certain domestic roles, I do not have the right to enforce this belief. So freedom of religion is limited by the constraint that the exercise of one’s freedom not infringe on the rights of others.
How, then, might the burqa violate the rights of others? French supporters of the ban argue that the interpretation of Islam under which the burqa is required has many components that together create a culture of oppression (particularly for women). Obviously we, as social beings, are heavily influenced by the society around us. But while society may help guide the choices we make, it rarely makes the choices for us. For those who grow up in a highly oppressive culture, society severely constrains their choices if choice exists at all. A woman may be given the “choice” to marry a man her father has picked out for her or to leave her community and never speak to her family again. This is a choice between terrible option A and even worse option B; this is not a free choice. And regardless of which option she picks, we cannot fairly say that she had the opportunity to choose the kind of life she wanted to lead. The burqa is symbolic of this culture of oppression toward women. Banning it is a step toward ending the culture; that is, toward ending the oppression of women.
The argument for the burqa ban, then, is similar to the argument for banning prostitution – that prostitution is rarely a free choice and that its existence creates a culture in which the subjugation and materialization of women is acceptable. But while this may be true, in banning the practice, we limit the freedom of those women who may freely choose to engage in prostitution, an act which in itself may not be morally problematic. Similarly, a burqa ban may be based on the idea that the wearing of the burqa is rarely a free choice and that it is symbolic of helps perpetuate a culture in which the oppression of women is acceptable. But a ban will inevitably infringe on the freedom of those women who make a free choice to wear the burqa.
For some, the state should not be in the practice of banning activities that are not in themselves morally problematic (even if their likely consequences are). For others, the threat to freedom of a culture of oppression may be so great that this is a trade off they are willing to make.