Liberalism and the burqa
Why the burqa ban infringes on individual freedom
Last week, Marc took up the question of the discussion in France surrounding banning the wearing of the burqa in public. Marc demonstrated how the question reveals a tension in classic liberalism, as both the cases for and against the ban are rooted in liberalism. I will try to resolve the tension here and take the stand that the true liberal will oppose the ban.
The burqa ban fails for three reasons, the first two of which have been made strongly elsewhere and a third I want to build out.
The first is that the ban would eliminate both religious expression and, very simply, the right to choose one’s clothing for the women who choose the burqa freely.
Secondly, as Michelle Goldberg writes at TAP, “banning the public wearing of the burqa could have the reverse of the intended effect: Even worse, it could lead to those in the most fundamentalist of households being trapped inside their homes altogether.”
Thirdly, and getting to the root of the question of liberalism, the burqa ban is in effect making a difficult choice for individuals that the individuals are equipped to make themselves.
Burqa ban supporters argue that the burqa is both a symbol of the oppression of women and is in itself oppressive. What appears to be oppressive is that women are “forced” to wear the burqa. However, in the situations at hand, women can in fact physically refuse. That choice involves (one must assume) banishment from their ethnic communities, family, and friends. (Let’s make the assumption here that, at least in France, women that abandoned their fundamentalist communities and sought refuge from the state would be offered the assurance of physical well-being, an advantage not shared by millions of women in the Islamic world.) The choice is between two terrible choices, but choice does exist.
Women who could escape fundamentalist communities (despite high personal cost) and decide not to have made a choice. Burqa ban supporters are, therefore, in the unenviable argumentative position of trying to defend the oppressed when they do not believe themselves to be oppressed, or have accepted oppression as the bearable cost of their lifestyle choices.
This is not to say that women in fundamentalist communities deserve no sympathy. However, for the government to really improve these women’s situations, it would need to regulate not the symbol of oppression, but the attitudes that are the root of oppression itself; an action traditionally outside the boundaries of what would be appropriate in a liberal regime (not to mention that such regulation would be nearly impossible). The battle is one of hearts and minds, not laws and regulations; this is a battle that liberal government is not well-situated to fight.