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Is that a feminist under your burqa?

By Sascha Callaghan - posted Thursday, 23 June 2011

The recent decision by France's lower house to endorse a ban on the full-face veil worn by Muslim women, has ignited worldwide controversy. Britain, Spain and the Netherlands are considering similar bans – and all those who have entered the discussion invoke the rhetoric of freedom of choice, respect for human dignity and the right of all citizens to equal treatment both in vehement opposition to, and support of, such bans.

At this stage I might as well admit to feeling 'confronted' Tony Abbott style on the rare occasion I have seen a woman in a niqab and burqa in Australia. I will also admit to being terrified and outraged in equal measure, when as a 21 year old naïf, I was driven out of the Iranian city of Tehran under police escort after 3 days of trying and failing to cover myself adequately to meet the standards of the city and, in the process, enduring minor daily physical assaults and harassment – even by the manager of my hotel while I was in the shower- but that's another story. All these incidents and the civil unrest they caused were officially my fault, and notwithstanding my indignance that these fellows could grab my arse and then call the police on me for making them do it, I was lucky not to have been arrested and charged. Still, when I examine my reactions to the sight of covered women and to my brief unpleasant experience of being covered myself, I am not at all sure what they stand for, other than that a silly girl once failed to understand local custom to her detriment, and that a grown woman cannot seem to reconcile her own view of what equal treatment for women requires with her liberal belief that personal choices should be respected.

It seems that the public debate is locked in a similar intractable clinch to my own internal conflict, and that each side proffers the same principles of freedom and respect for persons, to support opposing positions. And in the midst of so much shrill clamouring for the moral highground, I find myself asking, what exactly is going on here? What are the terms of this argument? And why do so many of us seem unable to say one way or the other what we think about certain baffling choices made in a society we like to think of as 'free'?


It comes down to this: feminism and liberalism have never been easy bedfellows. It took quite a while before early liberals managed to accept that the principle that "all men are equal" might stretch to include women, and since making it across this conceptual Rubcicon, feminists have tended to be highly skeptical of liberal ideas, including freedom of choice, arguing that they can only be achieved in many instances, by 'persons' who don't happen to be women. Certainly, 'choices' made by women in cultural contexts where less primacy is given to values such as the right to autonomy and equality of all persons, raise difficult questions for liberal politics.

Nowhere is this tension more apparent than in the policy debate about the burqa. Liberals believe that choices made by adults on matters which affect only themselves should be no one else's business. This sits uncomfortably beside feminist concerns that veiling represents an unacceptable form of seclusion of women, and is a representation of disgust about the female body, which is unacceptable to a society which values equal treatment of all persons, both practically and symbolically.

So is it really possible to be liberal and feminist at the same time? And on the subject of cultural practices which might (dare we say it in this post-feminist age) 'opress' women, can liberalism ever say that a personal choice is simply not open to them? In other words, if no one else is directly affected, can a choice be illegitimate, or outside the scope of personal autonomy in liberal theory?

In terms of liberal theory, J.S Mill's classic statement on freedom dictates that where no one else is harmed, a person's right to self-determination is unconditional. As Mill had it "The only part of the conduct of any one, for which he is amenable to society is that which concerns others. In the part which merely concerns himself, his independence is, of right, absolute." In other words, if a person wants to do a thing which seems to be against his or her own interests, he or she should be free to do so as long as no-one else is harmed. However there may be grounds, even on a Millian analysis, to hold that autonomous choice does not extend to the point where a person chooses to damage her inalienable rights. Even Mill believed, for example, that even "freely" executed slavery contracts should be invalid. Though it's a stretch, it is possible that burqa wearing might be interpreted as a kind of imprisonment, or at least a breach of a right to being treated equally and so may be prohibited in a liberal society. Of course both these arguments could and would be countered by wearers of those garments who view it is as somehow empowering. But this simply begs the question whether we must accept all stated opinions as valid – and if we don't, who should decide whether a person's rights are affected where there is a difference of opinion?

On the subject of opinions, many preference utilitarians recognise that while social policy should support the preferences and desires of individuals, not all expressed preferences are equally valid. Utilitarians acknowledge that preferences may be distorted by various factors, including cultural expectations or poverty, in such a way that the choices a person expresses may not be 'true' or 'authentic'. The tendency of individuals in impoverished groups to feel their circumstances are fated and so to accept them, and even want them to continue, is well documented.

For utilitarians, social policy makers must work very hard to separate authentic choices from non-authentic ones, and to base policy exclusively on the former. This kind of approach chimes well with feminist intuitions about the invalidity of certain choices – for example, choices which are distorted by what Martha Nussbaum called, "adaptation to (and even eroticisation of) a state of affairs in which men's desire for control governs the course of life". This is confronting stuff. But we know what she means, even in Western-style supposedly choice-laden culture. And of course it is a description which seems tailor-made for circumstances in which women say they want to be covered, head to toe, or not to venture outside the house unaccompanied, while their men-folk face no such systematic constraints on their freedom of movement or freedom of choice in how they clothe and represent their bodies.


The obvious difficulty of course, if we try to limit what should count as legitimate rather than a 'distorted' choice, is determining who could possibly divine what a person 'really' thinks if not the person themselves. And frankly, so much skepticism about the choices people make does seem like a curiously illiberal direction for liberalism to head.

So now we come to the point at which I should venture some sort of opinion on how feminists and liberals might live happily ever after – or not – at least on the topic of banning – or not banning – the burqa. And it is not without hesitation that I offer my personal view that I wish women would not wear them, such arresting symbols of the lesser position of women, harking back to times when menstruating women were kept inside for fear they would curse the animals and crops, and where pregnant women were hidden to avoid the uncomfortable reminder that she had had sex and something horrifying was about to happen in the region of her privates-and all the shame about womanhood that those customs entailed. It couldn't have been a woman who started that kind of thinking. Equally I am depressed by similar manifestations of masculine views of women being wholly taken on by women in the West – only here it is in debasing norms around 'uncovering' and the hyper sexualisaton of women and children.

There will be some who doubt that liberalism has the tools to allow us to support women effectively, particularly women in communities that do not share liberal values. Those in this camp will push to ban oppressive practices, like burqa wearing because oppressive practices are wrong, no matter who wants to do them. I understand and have some sympathy for this view. However rights and wrongs aside, the question whether conduct should be prohibited is a very different matter.

Clearly not all wrong things need or should be banned. It is not illegal to be cruel to your mother, to have an abortion, to be a tyrannical parent, to willingly spend all your money on stupid wasteful things when you can't afford it or to grow rich by selling people things they don't need. That is because liberal society takes the view that we can do kind, sensible, stupid or cruel things, or make choices other people mightn't, and we should only be stopped if what we do materially effects another person. Sure we can try to change another person's mind, but we cannot coerce on matters which can reasonably be called private, even if it goes against what the majority in the community feel is 'right'. That this is the correct view needs no further proof than imagining waking up in a new Sydney where everyone considered it right that women should be veiled. In that Sydney I would like to be allowed to insist that veiling is wrong and to refuse to comply.

I am a liberal in the tradition of Mill, and in the case of burqa-wearing, I have to conclude that the best we can do is to encourage, vehemently if we must, a change of heart by those whom we genuinely believe are acting against their own, and even society's interests. I accept that we do not all think alike and, as long as I am not required to wear a burqa and am not discriminated against for not doing so, I have no right to demand that force of law be used against those who prefer to, no matter how much I rage against it.

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About the Author

Sascha Callaghan is a lawyer and research scholar with the Centre for Values Ethics and the Law in Medicine at the University of Sydney.

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