In a market society, we're told that everyone makes choices according to their own preferences. Capitalism celebrates individuals as independent creators of self-identity through the way we choose to conduct ourselves, the things we choose to buy, and particularly in the way we choose to dress. Nowhere has this discourse of individualism been more prevalent recently than the issue of the burqa and the niqab - which I'll collectively refer to as the 'veil'.
So enamoured are we with this general philosophy of individualism, that we can't help but interpret the issue through its lens. Commentators across the spectrum – including progressives and feminists - insist that wearing this garment 'is a matter of individual choice'. Consequently, any attempt to prohibit the veil is thought to be an infringement on the rights of the wearer to self-identity and self-determination. Banning it would be an affront to individualism itself.
However 'choices', construed as such, aren't made in a vacuum. Social norms and cultural expectations are far more accurate predictors of the way people dress and conduct themselves. It's the reason that ties are thought to be appropriate for men, and dresses thought to be appropriate for women – even though we perceive ourselves as 'choosing' to wear them. Sociologists and marketers have understood this for some time, yet the debate around the veil seems particularly tone-deaf this rather obvious point.
But, to adopt the language of individualism for a moment, let's examine why a woman might choose to wear the veil. Many religious cultures, both Muslim and non-Muslim, advocate headwear that promotes a degree of modesty, by covering the hair and neck. By leaving the face – the most communicative and identifiable part of the body – uncovered, women are still able to participate in the public sphere as men do. It's for this reason, that no one of note has even remotely advocated restrictions on the wearing of the hijab or chador, both garments that leave the face unobscured.
As veiling garments, the burqa and niqab are reflective of particularly conservative Muslim subcultures that place much stricter codes of dress and conduct on women. The term 'subcultures' is deliberate, because we should be under no illusions that all, or even a majority of Muslims, advocate the wearing of the veil. These garments reflect an interpretation of modesty that requires complete bodily and facial coverage. Women who wear the veil overwhelmingly do so in order to preserve their purity and piety, by shielding themselves from the corrupting influence of the male gaze.
In wearing the veil, they are denied the most crucial basis for human interaction – that of recognition. The veil strips away the prospect of their taking part in society's activities in any meaningful way. The ability to empathize with a wearer of the veil is almost completely lost. It's unsurprising then, that countries where the veil is most prevalent - such as Saudi Arabia and Afghanistan - are also those where women are most marginalized. In effect, women become the walking disappeared. They are silhouettes; in the social world but not of it.
Rationalizing the veil as merely an 'individual choice' reveals our general inability to discuss the nuances of social conformity. While it's true to say that not all veil-wearing women are forced to do so, the nature of subcultures with strict standards of conduct means that conformity is often achieved in the absence of explicit coercion. In communities that interpret the virtues of femininity through the complete concealment of women's faces and bodies, it's to be expected that some women will willingly submit to that practice. This is the difference between being told that one must wear veil, and simply knowing that one should wear the veil.
Western progressives and feminists have become well attuned to the most subtle and insidious signs of a gendered system of inequality in the West. And yet, in describing the wearing of the veil solely in terms of 'a women's right to choose', they are staring directly past a patriarchal system far more conservative than their own.
It's a testament to the capacity for conceptual contortion that the utter effacement of veil-wearing women in public could be framed as just another form of individualised expression. This, by the very people in the political sphere who should be able to recognize systematic marginalization when they encounter it.
Once these social norms that govern the wearing of the veil are understood, the notion of it being an 'individual choice' starts to look both simplistic, and misleading.
However, there is still the matter of the overwhelming support for the wearing of the veil by progressives and feminists. This can be interpreted in several ways. Firstly, some may truly believe that there are many roads to the empowerment and equal participation of women in society - and that the veil is as valid a means to achieving that goal as any other form of dress. Such a vision of gender equity is difficult to take seriously, particularly as it is only women who are incentivised to render themselves anonymous in the public sphere.
Another possibility is that progressives and feminists are happy for women to 'Destroy The Joint' on our own cultural turf, but simply lack the conviction to argue their case against practices that originate from outside the West. Concerns about cultural imperialism are perhaps understandable. But this is not about Australian values being 'imposed' on Muslims. It's about universal human rights being extended to all women, even to those whose immediate religious and cultural milieu smothers them in front of our eyes. If progressives and feminists won't support the erosion of such an obvious subculture of gendered inequality here, then where will they support it?