Can we at least talk about banning the burqa?

Maryam Namazie’s speech at QED was very powerful and left a lot of people needing a couple of days to think over their response to it. I urge you to read it in full, right now.

What I took away from it was a strong feeling that we (and by ‘we’ I mean secularist, leftie-types) should give religion no quarter. We should not waver or compromise on issues like equality, human rights, the banning of faith schools or the disestablishment of the Church of England. These things are not part of our culture, nor ideals to aspire to. They are basic requirements of secularism and, I increasingly feel, of civilisation. It is shocking that we are even having the discussion, and we should not allow ourselves to believe that something is not utterly disgusting simply because it is the status quo, in this or any other society.

I haven’t written those thoughts up properly, and don’t intend to do so now. Here, I’m addressing just one part of  the speech:

Secularism... requires the banning of burqas because they are straitjackets for women and mobile prisons. Of course you can’t ban the veil for adult women but you can still criticise it without attacking women who are veiled. The veil is a symbol like no other of what it means to be a woman under Islam – hidden from view, bound, and gagged. It is a tool for restricting and suppressing women. Of course there are some who choose to be veiled, but you cannot say it is a matter of choice because – socially speaking – the veil is anything but. There is no ‘choice’ for most women. ... Take away all the pressure and intimidation and threats and you will see how many remain veiled. When it comes to the veiling of girls in schools, though, child veiling must not only be banned in public institutions and schools but also in private schools and everywhere. Here the issue extends beyond the principle of secularism and goes straight to the heart of children’s rights. While adults may ‘choose’ veiling or a religion, children by their very nature cannot make such choices; what they do is really what their parents tell them to do. The state is duty bound to protect children and must level the playing field for children and ensure that nothing segregates them or restricts them from accessing information, advances in society and rights, playing, swimming and in general doing things children must do.

In the latest Pod Delusion, Steve Page argues that she is wrong on this point.

My fear is that if the government gets to rule on one item of clothing that a large enough number of people find offensive, then they will not stop at the burqa.

He described the burqa as “bizarre and nonsensical”, and then compared it to skydiving, saying that people should have autonomy to do bizarre and nonsensical things if they so choose. It is the sort of argument that is so simplistic it must be either unarguably true or facile, and I fear it is the latter.

He describes his approach as liberal, and if it was true that the ban is being advocated because “a large enough number of people find [the burqa] offensive” then it would be. In reality, though, his approach is libertarian. In fact, it’s precisely the argument used by the wholly illiberal Conservative party to oppose the EU Working Time Directive, a law which bans excessive hours. The Conservatives said it restricted workers’ rights – which of course is true – and therefore was a bad thing, but didn’t mention that if workers are allowed to work excessive hours then employers will take advantage of that. The truth is that workers have more freedom with the ban than without – at least, in theory. You can make the same case against the ban on working for less than £6.08/hour, or the ban on sixteen-year-olds becoming prostitutes, and in each case it’s nothing like sufficient to show that the ban is problematic. These are bans on things that nobody willingly does. They are bans on being exploited.

The burqa ban would be similar: yes, proponets say, we accept that banning an item of clothing is illiberal and would very much prefer not to, but most veiled women are such not by choice but by intimidation, and banning the burqa represents a very straightforward means of preventing that. Nobody is arguing that respecting people’s rights is unimportant – just about where the line is drawn. Repeatedly stating a premise everyone accepts helps nobody. Such arguments may convince, but convincing someone of your conclusion using false arguments accomplishes nothing but distorting polling data.

In fact, not only does he refuse to address the practical arguments for the ban, he almost argues that you shouldn’t:

The right to do things that other people consider stupid should be protected, simply because we should not appoint an intellectual arbiter to take such decisions out of our hands. Like free speech, you either allow everything, including things you dislike and consider potentially harmful, or you run the risk of letting the government choose what you can or cannot think or say. ... The decision to ban the burqa can only be justified if one decides that one religious symbol is less worthy of protection than another, and is willing to sacrifice one's so-called secularist principles for the greater good.

I don’t know Page’s position on every issue under the sun, obviously, but it seems likely he accepts that at least one of these should be illegal:

You can’t simply say “all speech must be free” as if it’s self-evidently true. Loads of people do, but I’ve never once heard any of them criticise skeptics for fighting against dangerous false medical claims, so apparently they are in favour of some restrictions. Why should secularism be immune to real-world compromises?

That’s not really the point, though: you don’t need to compromise your “so-called” secularist principles to ban full-body veiling. Secularism does not require you to pander to any and all religious whims. Accomodationism requires that. Secularism requires you to ignore any and all religious whims. Secularism requires you to pay absolutely no heed to the teachings or traditions of Islam when you decide whether or not banning a particular item of clothing would be a justified or unjustified limitation of your citizens’ liberties. The feelings of individual Muslims should obviously be considered, but one of Namazie’s points in her speech was that we should never assume what those feelings are simply because we have labelled the people.

Ultimately, I think the only question here is what the actual effects of a ban would be. Is there evidence that the ban would have a net positive effect? Page does discuss this, but only briefly and, I think, superficially. He suggests that banning the mobile prison would simply move oppressed women to static prisons – their houses – but offers no evidence of this, which makes me think it is merely a post-hoc rationalisation. But even granting him that assumption, it doesn’t entirely support his thesis. As far as I can tell, he is against bans in principle but this argument is against this particular ban in practice. It is less an argument against a burqa ban than it is an argument for a burqa ban and a system to detect, punish and prevent the kidnapping of women by their husbands and parents. That is a bigger intrusion into people’s lives and rights, and while you could argue that the larger intrusion required to actually solve the problem at hand is not justified, Page doesn’t.

In short, I think that most discussion of any potential burqa ban, particularly on the opposition side, fails to acknowledge or address the actual reasons for it, and that firing off clichéd truisms about bans being bad and freedom being good will only ever be part of the problem. Skeptics in particular are constantly having to make a subtle argument against an opponent with bombastic sledge-hammer of a case, so I would hope they would understand well how annoying it is for a brash interlocutor to confidently and repeatedly assert simplistic things like “I took this pill and I got better” or “loads of people use it”  while you’re trying to explain about regression to the mean and recall bias.

But in this case at least, it seems that people are happy to shout down a reasoned argument with a cliché.