Banning the burqa in Belgium and beyond

The Belgian parliament is considering a widespread ban on the wearing of burqas that cover the entire body and/or niqabs that cover the entire face in public spaces, preparing to be the first European country to enact such a ban. This follows a similar debate in France that has not yet led to a widespread law, although a woman was recently arrested for driving while fully veiled. In France, it is estimated that perhaps 700 women actually cover their faces in public, at least half of them European converts, while in Belgium the number is estimated at about 300-400 out of about 300,000 Belgian Muslims. In other words, the Europeans are busy banning something that virtually nobody does, and if I were a Belgian I’d appalled that my parliament was wasting time with such a socially irrelevant triviality. However, the growth of large, permanent Muslim minorities in Western societies in recent decades and the trend towards greater social conservatism among Muslims generally mean that this question is probably worth considering in theory.

Frankly, I find myself torn.

One instinctive reaction is to rally to the defense of a small, beleaguered minority in the name of freedom of religion and expression. There are a number of very valid points here. If people really believe, as a minority of the world’s Muslims do, that it is religiously mandated for women to wear a full face covering when in public, then impeding this could well be seen as a restriction of religious freedom. It could also be seen as a restriction of freedom of speech, since this is obviously as much of a cultural as a religious phenomenon (actually, it’s more cultural than religious, because very few Islamic authorities mandate the practice as required, unlike covering hair). And, it’s perfectly reasonable to argue, because of this element of expression and the gesture of defiance against an oppressive majority that would be begged by any such ban, it might actually prompt more women to start covering their faces rather than less. Finally, there is the clear element of cultural chauvinism at work. One could argue that what is going on here is that tiny handful of religious minority women are behaving in what in Europe is perhaps an eccentric but almost certainly socially harmless practice, but that it is so unfamiliar and challenging to European sensibilities that it is being suppressed in an irrational manner. One could further argue that in this sense, the burqa serves as a synecdoche for intolerance of Muslim immigrants generally and a dogmatic demand that they change their cultural practices to adapt to Western expectations rather than being allowed space to practice even their most personal choices such as standards of modesty.

There is, however, a second instinctive reaction, which is to recoil at the idea that women are in a sense walling themselves off from others in societies that do not expect women to spend most of their time behind closed doors, with male relatives or with other women. All the pseudo-feminist arguments about agency aside, it’s impossible for me not to see the burqa and niqab as expressions of a cultural sensibility that is fundamentally oppressive towards women and that cannot but restrict and impede their social engagement. Such reservations do not at all apply to the hijab which merely covers hair, and is pretty well the equivalent in terms of modesty to the choices made by women who wear shorts or miniskirts and those that prefer something at least knee-length, if not ankle-length. But in reality the face is so central to interpersonal communication that a faceless figure, especially if one does not have a history with that individual, can all too easily become a cipher or a blank screen upon which all kinds of ideas can be projected in a manner that is not helpful to either party. There is a reason why Freud insisted his patients lie on a couch in front of and facing away from his chair — the analyst ultimately had to become fully disembodied, detached from his image and persona, in order to become a perfect mirror for the analysand’s own self-analysis. That’s great for psychoanalytic therapy (for what it’s worth), but not for interpersonal communication in a modern society.

Moreover, this standard of “modesty” is associated with social practices that are repressive generally, especially towards women, and have at their core the idea that women really shouldn’t be seen, insofar as possible, except by male relatives or other women for completely irrational fear of all kinds of social and sexual mischief, and other symptoms of male hysteria. In other words, women who fully cover their faces yet seek fully engaged, normal lives in most modern societies are asking to be accommodated in social roles that their own choice of dress strongly implies are inappropriate. And, regarding what I’m calling the male hysteria behind this function of a rather extreme form of patriarchy, one can only speculate that the ultimate anxiety at work is the fear that instead of the presumed uncontrollable abundance of hyper-sexuality behind the veil, there really lies a disturbing and unmanageable lacuna. It’s tempting to think of the burqa as a kind of gigantic adult, yet infantile, fort-da game of peekaboo, regressively mediating male anxieties of social and sexual presence and absence. More prosaically one might simply observe that whatever is conjured up by the imagination will almost certainly be more exciting than almost any version of mundane reality, and, since people know this, the veil inevitably both provokes and manages male jouissance and anxiety. Be that as it may, there’s a strong element of cognitive dissonance in a fully veiled woman whose dress conveys the cultural sensibilities of purdah seeking full engagement with a society that operates in an extremely different and in many ways contradictory manner, whether in the Islamic world or the West.

The question then becomes whether or not one wants government to intervene in such a dysfunctional situation by imposing fines or some such discouragement. Here obviously is the great problem. Manner of dress ought, in so far as possible, to be determined by the individual, since social pluralism by definition means providing the greatest possible range of choices for people, within rational, necessary limits. If a woman wants to create barriers to effective interpersonal communication and social engagement for herself, assuming there isn’t any familial or social coercion at work, shouldn’t that be up to her? And who else is to judge what is and is not coercive? As I noted above, when you’re talking about a few hundred people in a country of many millions of people, it’s ridiculous for a government to waste its time on such question as a practical matter. But in theory, there are, I think, potential arguments for certain limits on dress at its most extreme stages.

With the hijab, it’s an easy matter: obviously it’s got to be a matter of choice because ultimately no one has a legitimate stake in whether or not somebody else covers their hair. It’s an arbitrary standard of modesty that falls well within almost any social construct and isn’t a barrier to any reasonable social function, interaction, right or responsibility unless people wish to be bigoted about it in either direction, holding the presence or absence of a scarf for or against an individual woman in an unjustifiable and irrational manner. But I think in the case of a burqa that covers the entire body except the eyes and, possibly, the hands, we find ourselves at an extreme, in some ways analogous to somebody who is completely uncovered, that is to say naked. All societies prohibit widespread public nudity, because there are things, minimally, that almost everyone feels we really don’t want to see to in public. By the same token, it might well be possible to argue that there are things, minimally, that we can legitimately insist on seeing in many public spaces, to whit the face, which is the primary means by which we identify and interact with each other in person.

The reasons for insisting on seeing the face are, in the end, the same as and the inverse of the reasons for covering the face: we do not want people to be anonymous, we want to know who they are. This is not only for reasons of cultural bias or effective interpersonal communications. It is, I think, a natural, instinctive human desire, beyond cultural norms, to want to react to a face that is reacting to our own, not a piece of cloth with a disembodied voice behind it. Covering it as a rule and a matter of social convention seems too close to obliterating the other’s social identity — and of course that was the whole point of the veil in the first place: for women not to have much of a social identity beyond what was permissible, in the guise of being spared the indignity and immodesty of the unwarranted male gaze.

There is, of course, also a potential security argument to be made, and that is being made, regarding public safety, and it’s not ridiculous. At this point it’s largely hypothetical in the West, as I don’t know of any cases of criminals of whatever variety using the burqa to evade the authorities, but it has certainly happened in Pakistan and elsewhere in those parts of the Muslim world where such dress is widely practiced. For a great and somewhat disturbing satirical take on this issue see the Texas Chainsaw Massacre-genre Pakistani horror film “Hell’s Ground” (2007, AKA “Zibahkhana,” which you can buy or watch on demand at made by my dear friend Omar Ali Khan, which features a crazed killer in a bloodsoaked burqa as its “leatherface” super-villain. No surprise that it is Pakistan that produced this hyper-dystopian take on the burqa as a social text, and made it the centerpiece of what is far and away the country’s most gruesome horror film. But I think the thus-far fanciful public safety arguments, in the West at least, are ultimately subordinate to arguments about the proper role of government and its relations to fringe cultural and religious minorities (I mean the burqa-wearing fringe of the European Muslim minority).

So, how to balance these twin sets of legitimate concerns, protecting the rights of minorities, promoting the equal status of women, and fostering healthy social interactions among the citizenry without completely giving in to a nanny state mentality? First, as I keep saying, I don’t think it makes any sense for European states in which a tiny handful of people dress like this with no clear public harm to be actually enacting laws prohibiting it. As long as this is a fringe and marginal practice, and there aren’t any demonstrable ill effects (it’s use by criminals to evade detection, etc.) there probably isn’t any real reason for governments to bother wrestling with the question of whether to impose fines because of it. On the other hand, if the practice became very widespread there might begin to be a more compelling argument based on broader social concerns, the rights and status of women and other serious issues. However, those would have to be balanced against protection of the freedoms of religion and expression.

If the issue is ever widely forced across the West, and I certainly hope it won’t be, and especially if this happens in the context of legitimate security concerns, it might be necessary to parse between different forms of public space in which this kind of dress is deemed improper (most obviously, behind the wheel) and others in which it would be permitted. Ideally, this practice will remain marginal and therefore symbolic in both directions (i.e., both the practice and its prohibition) and, indeed, fade over time as Muslim immigrants assimilate into Western cultures creating their own versions of Islam as a social text, that then also informs converts in a manner not derivative of the social mores of parts of Quetta or whatnot.

And in the end, I think that this is the issue and the concern: it’s got to be up to Western Muslim communities, and not Western governments, to really ensure that the burqa and the niqab remain, as they are, highly unusual if not virtually unknown in Western societies. Insofar as parts of Muslim communities feel it is absolutely essential and religiously required, any bans will simply compound the problem by forcing women to stay home rather than go outdoors without covering their faces. The conversation has to be within Western Muslim communities, and indeed increasingly Muslim communities around the world, to interrogate why and how this region-specific, and sometimes class-specific, cultural practice became identified as a religious imperative, to untangle that process and demystify the concept, liberating everyone from what is plainly a grotesque and unacceptable misreading of Islamic doctrine.

The argument about the hijab is interesting, but ultimately academic because its use doesn’t or at least shouldn’t restrict the ability of Western Muslim communities, and especially women, to thrive in their own societies. The burqa and niqab do, or at least they would if they were not so rare. The consensus among Western Muslims against wearing them is very strong, and needs to be strengthened. It’s already virtually unanimous in most places, and that needs to be maintained and, indeed, expanded. More suggestively, it represents a potential important starting place for Western Muslims, who have thus far generally, on religious matters at least, been subsumed in a derivative discourse shaped in the traditional Islamic world, to begin a critical dialogue that challenges some received wisdom from some of their homelands, and shape their own sensibilities that can reverse the influence and start affecting the way “Islamic modesty” is perceived in some parts of the Muslim world that desperately need to rethink the concept. But such a salutary process is more likely to be successful if it doesn’t seem to be mandated by the government of Belgium.