I Disapprove Of Your Dress

Banning the burqa is a bad idea. It took me some time to come to this conclusion for a number of reasons, one of the most important being that the burqa is perceived to be, and in some cases is, a tool of oppression directed at women. The burqa also serves as a visual representation of gender inequality in the Muslim world. Western countries like Belgium have moved to enforce a ban on burqa-wearing, and more recently, the French Parliament approved a resolution against full-face cover with legislation due soon. Though I presumed I would celebrate these progressive liberal milestones, there was still room for doubt, and so I continued reading.

This article by Christopher Hitchens is firmly pro-burqa ban.  He is a writer I respect and often agree with, but his arguments for the ban had the opposite effect on me -- they convinced me that banning the burqa is essentially anti-liberal. The following are some of Hitchen's arguments and my responses:

1. The burqa ban is not a ban, instead, it is an attempt to lift a ban "on the right of all citizens to look one another in the face. My right to see your face is the beginning of it, as is your right to see mine"

We have a right to look one another in the face? I think perhaps the proper consideration is whether a person has a right to wear whatever they want, how they want.  Some women want to wear the veil and some surely don't. In both cases, it's about free choice.

2. For safety reasons, a person can't wear a head covering in a bank. "A person barging through those doors with any sort of mask would incur the right and proper presumption of guilt."

I think we can agree that we should consider some protocols for safety's sake, but this is far from a good argument for banning burqas altogether. And wearing a head covering in a bank should never be presumptive evidence of guilt.

3. The presumption of guilt should operate in the rest of society. "I would indignantly refuse to have any dealings with a nurse or doctor or teacher who hid his or her face, let alone a tax inspector or customs official."

Alright, well then don't Mr. Hitchens, but that doesn't mean your disinclination should dictate how others may dress.

4. Comparison to the Klu Klux Klan. "Notorious for its hooded style and its reactionary history, this gang is and always was dedicated to upholding Protestant and Anglo-Saxon purity."

This one is out there. I don't understand the connection he's trying to make. You'd think the differences between the two groups would be enough to outweigh the fact that they both wear masks of sorts.

5. Negative effect on peripheral vision which could make driving difficult and make one wearing the burqa a danger to others.

I'd like to see some studies about how the burqa affects driving, and if it turns out to be dangerous, then the conversation should be about narrowly tailored legislation rather than banishment.

6. Ordinary civility. The burqa is "an offense to ordinary democratic civility that depends on phrases like nice to see you."

A defense of the status quo. I think civility regarding minority religions, especially Islam, turns on one's ability to accept a foreign way of life despite its differences, however uncomfortable they may be.

7. The burqa and the veil are "the most aggressive sign of a refusal to integrate or accommodate. Even in Iran there is only a requirement for the covering of hair, and I defy anybody to find any authority in the Quran for the concealment of the face."

I understand this point because traditional dress does isolate. Yet, any good liberal recognizes that  freedom of religion and expression trump fears of "otherness." There are plenty of less-intrusive methods for inviting integration. Furthermore, just because the Quran does not mandate concealment of the face does not mean concealment of the face is therefore not within religious free exercise.

I'm certainly not a multiculturalist, one who believes the state should promote minority religions for diversity's sake. Burqa wearing is often patriarchal in origin, and I would prefer that Muslim women who live in Western societies not wear it. But banning the burqa or any other kind of religious dress outright is a mistake. When I see a woman walking about in a burqa I wonder how she feels, if it's her choice to be swathed in black cloth, and if she'd dare take it off in defiance of the culture and religion that nearly mandates its use. Yet, one can't legislate on dislikes or curiosity alone. The Economist sums up the anti-burqa ban position well, "European governments are entitled to limit women’s rights to wear the burqa. In schools, for instance, pupils should be able to see teachers’ faces, as should judges and juries in court. But Europeans should accept that, however much they dislike the burqa, banning it altogether would be an infringement on the individual rights which their culture normally struggles to protect. The French, of all people, should know that. As Voltaire might have said, I disapprove of your dress, but I will defend to the death your right to wear it."