The Burqa is Bad (But Banning it is Worse)
I oppose the wearing of the burqa – particularly the niqab, or veil – and I believe women shouldn’t wear it, or be made to wear it. I also oppose banning of the burqa or the niqab, and believe the government should not prevent people from wearing it (excepting, of course, circumstances where people need to be identified).
Unfortunately, many people – particularly many on the Left – think they are contradictory, and in doing so they get themselves stuck between condemning a practice that is often oppressive to women and condemning those who call for a ban on the burqa as being racist.
However, it is quite possible to hold a clear stance against the burqa and the values it represents, and drawing a line that says the government has no right to dictate what we can and can’t wear (beyond very loose modesty requirements). Here’s how:
It starts with cultural functionalism: I don’t believe that cultures or cultural practices have intrinsic value beyond the value they provide for the individuals who employ that cultural practice. The notion of intrinsic value is not only metaphysically suspect, but it’s confounding when it comes to trying to understand what culture is, and what value it has.
So, what is culture? It can be defined in many ways, but the core functional definition is that it’s a collection of informational and cognitive tools, including knowledge, skills, practices and norms, that are passed on through social learning – directly through instruction, semi-directly through demonstration and imitation, and indirectly through altering the physical and cognitive environment.
Culture, from this perspective, is the greatest invention homo sapiens ever came up with. Culture enables us to adapt our behaviour to a wide range of environments and living circumstances. It enables individuals to benefit from the experience of others cumulatively, allowing them to reap the reward of many generations of effort by potentially millions of other individuals. It’s the ultimate extended mind.
So how to judge the value of a culture or cultural practice? The functional approach would answer this question by saying a particular cultural practice or norm is to be judged by how well it performs its particular function of serving the interests of the individuals and the group who adopt it. As a simplistic example, if a practice is to aid in gathering food, then it’s to be judged according to how well it allows the gathering of food, and how that benefits those who employ the practice. Clearly, that norm needs to be judged in its native environment; information about where to find the best berries in the forest aren’t much use when living in the city.
This is not to say that culture only has value in terms of its raw function. Cultural practices can also be valued because they bring pleasure to individuals, they bind social groups together, or they give them comfort and stability due to their perceived significance beyond their immediate functional purpose. That’s fine, and these need to be taken into account. But they’re secondary values to the primary functional value. And if the secondary values undermine the primary ones, then the practice ought to be considered suspect.
As such, by the functional interpretation, the burqa’s function is entirely redundant and out of place in the modern world – which is not to say it was a terribly effective cultural innovation in the first place.
I believe the cultural function of the burqa was to help men to control access to women, who were effectively considered a resource in a patriarchal society, where men have disproportionately more power than women, particularly in terms of securing a mate. It emerged because there was great competition over women, and a man who was able to control to whom his daughters were wed, and could help ensure his own wife (or wives) were less able to be seconded by other men, had a competitive advantage.
The burqa diminished a woman’s ability to be autonomous, particularly in choosing a mate, by robbing them of their individuality and identity in public. It also enabled men to cover their daughters, hampering the efforts of others in selecting women who would be considered good mates, handing more power of choosing to the men.
I should emphasise that I’m talking about the forces that influenced the innovation of the burqa in the environment and culture in which it emerged. It now has many additional cultural and religious meanings, although I’d suggest most of those are secondary (such as offering stability of tradition, in which the content tradition itself is less important than its continued use) or post-hoc rationalisations, such as religious explanations for the practice’s existence and importance.
However, in today’s world, not only are the problems that the burqa was innovated to solve not problems, but the burqa contravenes other cultural innovations that have proven far more effective at promoting the interests of the individuals and the society that adopt them – things like freedom of expression, freedom of choosing one’s mate, liberation of women from the control of men and many others.
As such, I think the burqa is a redundant cultural practice that is largely harmful in today’s world, and women (and men) would benefit if the practice was scrapped.
That said, another innovation I also strongly believe in is that the government shouldn’t have the power to dictate what we ought to wear. Certainly, it can maintain a basic level of modesty, but on the scale of anything-goes to full-government-control, it ought to be far to the anything-goes side unless there are very good reasons to ramp it up.
If we’re to ban any practice, it should be forcing women to wear the burqa. That contravenes everything I believe is appropriate in today’s world.
But banning the burqa itself is counter-productive to the broader message of convincing people to not wear it. That’s what liberal society is all about. It’s a dialogue where various views are able to be voiced and (with hope and qualification) the better ones rise to the surface.
Also, I’d suggest most attempts to ban it are probably not motivated on the grounds I’ve outlined above, but because of more misguided xenophobic or racist grounds. Needless to say, I reject those as reasons to ban the burqa wholeheartedly.
So, that’s why I’m opposed to the burqa, and I’m not afraid to state my case in public, but why I’m also vehemently opposed to any attempt to ban it. And why it’s an entirely consistent position to take.