Banning the Veil?

 Posted by on 19 December 2012 at 10:00 am  Free Society, Islam, Law, Politics, Religion, Rights
Dec 192012

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?

  • Paul

    I think you’ve made as good an argument as can be made for banning the veil. However, I think as long as some women freely choose to wear it, banning it would be wrong. Until, or unless one could make a distinction between those who are choosing freely and those who are compelled, I don’t think it would be a good idea to ban it.

  • Tjitze de Boer

    This has been the best reasoning for doing so that I’ve read so far, other ones depended more on it being a facial obstruction. Never liked that argument because I think it may actually benefit some people (and be kind of cool) if it were more socially acceptable to wear a mask in public.

    Personally I think it may be best if it were clamped down on in the same way that sexual harassment has been. Which may be most easily done by creating a new front for the feminist movement, what’s left sometimes seems to be concerned more with egalitarianism then equality before the law. The big block in the road is a rather peculiar lump of moral relativism that’s akin to how environmentalism is handled.

  • Jack

    Islam itself should be banned. It is at root a military movement whose aim is global conquest. Islam is the threat of initiatory force and ALL Muslims are its foot soldiers even if they are “moderate”. Those just serve as cover. All mosques should be closes as the enemy beach heads that they are and Muslims should be deported after being paid fair market value for their property.

    All of the above is IMO in keeping with Objectivism and individual rights. Of course, I’ll probably be called a “collectivist”. Most Objectivsts’ approach to individual rights is a suicide pact. Veils are insignificant. The real problem are Muslims and Islam.

    I can only imagine the response I will get from the NoodleFood crowd. Let’s see.

  • Thaddeus J. Fields

    This is an interesting question. What struck me most about your post was the statement, “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.”

    That statement raises several questions. What is the definition of a trivial right? Can anything properly defined as a right be trivial? What is the definition of a minor violation? Who determines what is and what is not a trivial right and what is and what is not a minor violation?

    If, to be a free nation, it is necessary for that nation to recognize that an individual is free to pursue his or her own values and live life in whatever manner he or she chooses, which includes wearing jewelry, having tattoos, worshiping golden calves etc., without interference as long as he or she does not violate the rights of anyone else, I do not see how a nation could ban jewelry and still be free.

    If it becomes justifiable to take away an individual’s rights, any right, when that individual has not violated the rights of anyone else, then the individual does not have rights, only privileges granted to them by the government. Once the justification for a violation of rights is accepted, even a minor and temporary violation, the philosophical and moral foundation of individual rights is destroyed. Even if the practical violation of a right or rights is not immediate, without the philosophical and moral foundation the concept of individual rights erodes and is replaced by tyranny.

    In the scenario you present, I agree with you that the government should work diligently to free any chattel slaves imported into the country, as well as prosecute the slaveowners. Slavery is wrong and should be eradicated. However, attempting to right a wrong (slavery) with another wrong (violating individual rights) will only result in even greater wrong.

  • mtnrunner2

    The problem as I see it is that a veil is not by its nature an instrument of slavery (not literally, anyway), whereas manacles are. It is symbolic of submission, but not a literal means to physically restrain someone.

    Even if the veil were worn ONLY to indicate enslavement, it is still merely a symbol, and would not meet the test. It would simply be the tipoff to send in the police and/or SWAT team.

    I look forward to a hypothetical question on the subject of fatwahs involving calls for death; my views on that are not so permissive ;)

  • Sajid Anjum

    Banning the veil would be a little bit like putting the cart before the horse. Most people have very deep emotional connections to religion and it takes an issue equally emotional and consequential to make them leave their religious worldview for a different one. I live in the Emirates where, in practice, there is pretty much a freedom of religion. Almost no Arab women in Dubai wear a veil (many do wear a head covering, a different issue) even though all of them can. This is in contrast to neighboring Saudi Arabia where it is illegal NOT to wear a veil. Instead of creating a law that bans the veil it is far more beneficial to repeal laws in Muslim countries that make the veil compulsory for all women. Once that is done, women would have the freedom to choose for themselves whether they would like to continue wearing the veil.

    The analogy outlined by Diana comparing the veil to bondage jewelry is just not apt. Make no mistake, most Arabs consider the veil a *cultural* artifact, not a symbol of oppression. To clarify, they have a particular view of the proper way that relations between men and women are to be conducted and the veil is an indispensable part of that view. A better analogy would be western women and men choosing to dress a certain way around each other (say much more modestly in public in order to avoid the complications that sexual excitement could bring to daily life or in a unique way in order to represent their particular values). If most Muslim women really do find the veil oppressive, they would be willing to forego that particular article of clothing and adopt different ones that represent their personal values better. Freedom of speech and a modern media would get rid of the veil far more quickly than any law ever could.

    A very very small percentage of women choose to continue wearing the veil in western countries. It wouldn’t be legal in any work place and any government organization in which security is paramount. In the USA the veiling of women is pretty much a non-issue–no one does it. In Europe, there is a backlash against all overt Islamic Dress because the local European community sees it as a resistance to immigrants adopting traditional European customs and culture. An argument could perhaps be made against banning religious clothing in order to successfully integrate vastly different cultures to a more modern and accommodating one, but Diana does not address this issue.

  • William H. Stoddard

    A well presented discussion, and I find your concerns sympathetic even though I think I disagree with your suggested conclusion.

    During the debates over the Constitution, one of the participants—I think it might have been James Wilson—said that no matter what rights were listed, he could put forth an unlimited number of other rights that deserved protection. For example, he said, no one would include in a Bill of Rights the right to wear a hat or not—and yet Quakers had been sent to prison for keeping their hats on before the king, noblemen, or judges. Part of the point of this is that a seemingly trivial right is not necessarily trivial to the person who is exercising it. I would also note Ayn Rand’s point that once you cede a seemingly minor right, or one that is hard to defend . . . you have accepted the principle that rights are not inviolable.

    I see the problems you are pointing to in European societies. But isn’t this the same approach as is all too common in progressive arguments, of pointing to the harm that flows from a rights-denying policy, and advocating a further denial of rights to “correct” it?

    In majority Muslim societies, trying to force the population to give up a Muslim observence through state action is not likely to work well; indeed it’s likely to evoke massive resistance. I think it would require more than a minimum of coercion to achieve it, especially with the women who actually believe it’s desirable.

    A less repressive approach might be to protect fully the rights of any woman who chose not to veil. This would be akin to forbidding state governments to impose segregation on businesses by force of law, or requiring them to integrate tax-supported schools and parks, but not (as was done) forbidding private businesses to exclude black customers. And over time this would erode away the expectation that women had to veil, as women saw other women unveiled.

    This whole topic makes me think of Charles Napier’s famous comment to the Hindu priests who defended suttee: “You say that it is your custom to burn widows. Very well. We also have a custom: when men burn a woman alive, we tie a rope around their necks and we hang them. Build your funeral pyre; beside it, my carpenters will build a gallows. You may follow your custom. And then we will follow ours.”

  • Patrick Anderson

    The sole purpose of a just government is only to protect rights, not to ensure that people actually exercise their rights. Everything a government does, it does ultimately through force; if it is to remain just, it can no more force Muslim women to exercise their liberty than it can force anyone to vote, own firearms, drink alcohol, or exercise any of their other rights.

    All a just government can do is ensure that, if violence is threatened or actually perpetrated on a Muslim woman who refuses to wear the veil, those who violate her rights are brought to justice. Anything more than that, such as banning the burqa, perversely transforms government from rights protector to rights violator. Rights cannot be protected through violating rights.

  • JP

    I don’t disagree, Diana, but wouldn’t this mean that you acknowledge the value of stopgap measures against the violation of rights, even where those measures still constitute a violation of rights (though a lesser one than what they are instituted to fight)?

    This brings into question your argument against RTW laws.

  • john gold

    Instead of banning veils I think we should prohibit moslems from cominv to the usa.. we are at war with islam.

  • Rajesh Dhawan

    In India the veil has created a different type of problem. It has been used by gangs of women to rob jeweler stores. They simply distract the sales people and stuff it goods inside the veil and the CCTV is useless in such cases to detect their identity. The veiled women have been banned (unofficially) by most jewelry stores.

  • Richard D’Angelo

    To prevent slavery in a just society it is necessary to openly proclaim the virtues of freedom and when asked, to help defend those who are willing to accept those values.

    After the concept of rights is understood by an individual, the shackles of any form of slavery are self-imposed. While it is the responsibility of a just society to guaranty the rights of individuals, it can only happen if and when an individual declares their acceptance of the responsibilities due to themselves. This is how a child becomes an adult, accepting responsibility for their own life and then acting accordingly. The same is required for a slave to be free. There is no freedom without responsibility.

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