These observations are mainly the result of a living-room discussion with a European group of friends which took place on Saturday August 3 on the Dutch law passing a partial ban on face-covering clothing, better known as the ‘Burqa ban’. No Muslims or people from backgrounds where Islam is the main religion were present though there was a gender balance in the group. These observations do not lead to a conclusion in favour or against the ban; instead they are remarks which I thought add more depth to a discussion which has been reduced to Islamophobia and uncompromising anti-religious sentiment on the one hand and a myopic insistence on the right to self-determination on the other. I have also chosen not to repeat remarks which I have seen before even if I agree with them or find them interesting.
- There is a certain irony in this law – which has as purpose to ban certain types of veils – having been adopted by thinly veiling its real intention under the guise of a partial ban on face-covering clothing.
- The argument that the niqab and burqa should be banned because of the suspicion that women do not choose freely to wear it, but are forced to do so by their husbands brings up the question of why a woman is being punished for the wrongdoing of another person. If the real wrongdoing to be tackled is a threat to the personal autonomy of women, an indicator of which is said to be the wearing of the niqab or burqa, then shouldn’t there rather be a law to investigate those people in the social surroundings of a woman wearing this garment? Of course there would be legal complications for making such a law. However, it is telling that the solution to this supposed problem is not something which by analogy could lead to men coming under scrutiny for potential threats to women’s rights in other areas these seem under threat.
- Being against a ban does not mean being in favour of the niqab and burqa. One can be against a ban and voice a negative opinion about these garments. There seems, however, to be a striking absence of exactly this sort of negative evaluation of the niqab and the burqa among opponents of the ban. While there is no obligation to criticize them, it is difficult to avoid the impression that rather than not feeling a need to do so, the silence is intentional. A woman’s freedom to wear what she chooses at times seems to be thought of as meaning that if it concerns a free choice, criticism isn’t appropriate. While one shouldn’t be naive about the potential violence of speech, such critical abstinence would be a mistake. Being a free choice does not mean being a right choice. Assessing what is right and what is wrong is part of what public discussion should be about.
- Clothing is not ideologically neutral. Ideological neutrality is generally accepted on the Left as being a fiction meant to cover up power relations. The Right, on the other hand, usually attempt to preserve the perception of some matters as ideologically neutral. On this topic, however, there is a classic case of Left-Right argumentive reversal. Having decided on the desired position on a topic, an argumentation is construed around it, with the result being that Left and Right switch the form of argumentation they usually employ. While this lack of political character is interesting to point out in itself, the real importance in mentioning this is to get to the following: there seems to be a stubborn unwillingness on the Left to pick apart the ideological fabric of the niqab and the burqa. Once one reflects on their meaning it seems difficult to avoid the conclusion that these garments stand for the fundamental illegitimacy of a woman’s presence in the public sphere or even of her existence as such. The language of modesty employed to justify it is little more than a cloak for their misogynistic essence. Even if worn of women’s own volition, the niqab and the burqa seem to be incompatible with progressive values. This does not mean that when one is on the Left one should support the ban. It does bring up the question why this aspect of the discussion seems to be ignored on the Left, whereas the ideological charge of clothing is acknowledged as key in the struggle for gender neutrality.
- While it is noble to selflessly fight for other people’s rights, it is justified to ask whether it is in one’s own interest. Defending freedom of choice is a general good, but there is a political cost involved in defending the freedom of choice of women who wear the niqab or the burqa. The awareness of this cost should lead to keeping the following question in mind: would the women concerned and their surroundings ever make an effort to defend the freedom of choice of others, be it with regards to clothing or other matters such as sexuality? This does not mean one should stop opposing the ban, but it does mean being realistic about how good an ally those one is defending are.