Might the government of a free society ever be justified in banning the veil? I’m on the fence on the issue. In some cases, I’d say — very tentatively — that such a ban might be justified as a means of protecting rights. How so?
First, I don’t think that the veil could be banned on the grounds that it represents some kind of threat, implicit or otherwise. The veil signals the subjugation of women, not jihad. In contrast, the mere wearing of KKK garb is clearly an unspoken threat in certain circumstances, such as when a parade of clansmen march up and down the street of a new black family in the neighborhood. Such would be cause for vigorous investiation, if not arrests.
The case of the veil is far more similar to the following scenario:
Imagine that people from a certain far-away country keep chattel slaves. This slavery is not merely permitted by law, but encouraged by most of the culture as just and proper. Those slaves are marked not by their skin color, but rather by certain kinds of jewelry — loose manacles that limited movement and a mouthguard that prevents most speech. If seen without the manacles and mouthguard in public, a slave would be severely beaten, if not killed.
Some people from the slave country immigrate to a free nation. In free nation, chattel slavery is absolutely forbidden and regarded with abhorrence. Nonetheless, some of those immigrants bring their slaves with them — and keep them as slaves, out of the sight of the law. These slaves are so ignorant of their proper freedoms that they don’t know that they have rights, nor how to seek assistance from the law. Also, some slaves think that slavery is their proper condition in life, due to being raised with that ideology beaten into them, literally and figuratively. Of those who want to live free, they fear that any attempt at escape would mean death: they know that their owners, aided by other immigrants from the slave country, would seek them and likely kill them.
Law enforcement in the free nation works diligently to identify and free any chattel slaves imported into the country, as well as prosecute the slaveowners. However, because the immigrant community from the slave country is so insular, that government is unable to do so effectively. Slaves — in their manacles and mouthguards — can be seen walking the streets. If these slaves are questioned about their condition by law enforcement or others, they’ll deny that they’re slaves. They’ll say that they’re wearing the jewelry of their own free choice. Some will have a look of fear in their eyes. Others will warmly defend the jewelry as a positive good because they don’t want to move or speak much.
At its wits end and unwilling to tolerate slavery within its borders, the government of the free country bans the manacles and mouthguards as tools and symbols of slavery. They hope that the slaves — freed from the restrictions of their jewelry — will be able to interact with other people in society in normal ways and thereby escape their bondage. Of course, howls of protest are heard from the immigrant community, including from some slaves, about this violation of their rights to wear what jewelry they please.
However, the government argues that to wear the jewelry is to be a slave — symbolically and in fact. The clear symbolic meaning of the jewelry — as well as its isolating effect on a person — cannot be ignored. The manacles and mouthguard are not just some wacky jewelry: they’re part and parcel of a massive violation of rights. In addition, the government cannot know that those who claim to want to wear the jewelry actually want to do so of their own free choice, precisely because the jewelry marks a slave. The word of a person wearing the jewelry might actually be coerced by his or her master. Hence, the government bans the wearing of that particular kind of jewelry.
Is that just and proper? Perhaps so.
A proper government must doggedly protect the rights of all people within its jurisdiction. Apart from murder, slavery is the worst possible violation of those rights. Slavery cannot be tolerated, nor can slavery be voluntary. To speak of the derivative rights of the slave — like the right to wear certain jewelry — is sheer nonsense. Given the violation of his fundamental rights, that can only mean the “right” of his master to force him to wear the jewelry, if the master pleases. Only once the slaves are free people — free from the domination of and violence by another — can the question of their right to wear jewelry be sensibly discussed, because only then can they do so or not of their own choice, rather than by force or permission.
Hence, I doubt that to ban the jewelry would be a violation of rights — or perhaps, it’s a minor and temporary violation of a trivial right for the sake of securing the fundamental liberty. A person must be free of slavery — free of forcible domination by the will of another — before he can be free to choose anything else, including what to wear.
Similarly, millions of women living in Muslim countries and enclaves elsewhere exist in virtual slavery to their fathers, brothers, and husbands at present. Some women embrace that subjugation, yet it’s still indefensible. The veil is part of parcel of that slavery: the veil is a symbol of subjugation, as well as a means of isolating women from the broader culture in which they live. Many women are forced to veil themselves, under threat of violence.
So to speak of the “right to veil” ignores the fact that these women are not yet free to refuse to veil. They must be freed from their subjugation before they can exercise a free choice to veil or not. That might require banning the veil for a time, to allow them to become full-fledged members of the society.
Notably, I don’t think that banning the veil could be justified in the United States at present: most Muslim women are free to veil or not, as they see fit. I’m more sympathetic to bans on the veil in Europe, as the subjugation of Muslim women within Muslim enclaves is a serious problem. Even there, however, other measures might be far more effective — better policing, shelters from women fleeing their homes, posters informing women of their rights, and so on. I’m more inclined to support banning the veil in Muslim countries seeking to westernize — and hence, liberate their women from bondage. It’s a minor measure, and instantly liberating for many women. Alas, such might force women from devout families into complete seclusion, which would be worse. Hence, even in such circumstances, different measures might be more effective.
As I said, I’m up in the air. What do you think?