You Talkin’ to Me?

On Banning the Burka

I’ve been meaning for some days to touch on a subject Norm Geras raised recently at Normblog – the wearing of the burka by Muslim women and the appropriateness, in all due consideration of civil and religious liberties, of a nation banning the practice in public, as the French are debating. I have called attention before to different French conceptions of religious liberty, given France’s particular notion, arising from its history, of the primacy of the civil and secular sphere.  The 2004 French law banning the wearing in public schools of conspicuous religious symbols – as I understand it, no one is checking to see if a child is wearing a crucifix or a Star of David, let’s say, under the shirt – is an example. This is an approach very different from American conceptions of personal freedom, to which, not surprisingly, I’m partial, but I think it a good thing for all people to consider that there is more than a single possible regime of presiding conceptions, policies, and laws that may enact civil liberty. This is particularly true of Americans, I think, too many of whom react to the idea of doing anything the way others do it – even other Western democracies – as if it offered the prospect of regressing to a state of border-lurking barbarity.

I find the burka objectionable in every way I consider it. On the most general level, I think it an obnoxious public imposition on the sensibilities and the environment of others, not less, visually, than is, aurally, the power car of your choice offering its musical library to the non-assenting world around it. That the wearer simultaneously withdraws, declines to present her identity, though in public, to the others that present themselves to her, leaves her no more elevated in my regard than the, no doubt, shaded musicologist invisible behind the tinted windows. Much more significantly, I object to the burka’s literal effacement of female personality and its overall representation of female servility and oppression. I could go on, but I think that should be sufficient for now.

Norm responds here and here to notions of how important it is to reveal one’s face in human interaction. While finding the wearing of the burka objectionable, in each case he protests against excess in the argument against, in one case that the burka is a denial of “our shared humanity,” in another that face-to-face communication is “crucial to human interaction.” I think he well finds the flaws in these arguments. What Norm does nonetheless observe, while disagreeing with Christopher Hitchens and Oliver Kamm that the burka should be banned, is that it violates – in most societies, I imagine – cultural norms regarding mutual openness and trust.

I think Norm has gotten very much to the point, though the notion of “cultural norms” is by now such a soft one, easily deprived of force by its inherent relativity, that it requires some back up. At that soft level, well, you know, I lived most of my life in New York City. I am so accustomed to being accosted by beggars for change and seers in their own minds, proffered flyers for pizza and puntang patronage, and retailed stories of lost-Greyhound-ticket woe, that I am ready to opine at the drop of a Buenos Aires morning on human interactions that begin in the absence of mutual openness and trust. Anyone wishing to communicate with me wearing a mask and a cape, or any simulacrum thereof, might, on my sunnier days, get the day, but surely not the time. Certainly, my temperamental response is Ban the Burka!

Adjusting, however, for the temperamental nature of my temperament, I confess that I can be of such mood that

When in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes,
I all alone beweep my outcast state,
And trouble deaf Heaven with my bootless cries,
And look upon myself, and curse my fate.

I might well wish, feeling so out of fortune and sorts, to venture into the world and affirm myself by nullifying myself, and dis-appear before the world as a nearly featureless blob. Who are you to say to me I cannot? Or, of course, I to you. If my essential, self-evident human rights begin anywhere, it is in the right to be, or not to be – to be present in my absence, as in writing I am now , or absent in my presence, as a mask makes me – as I will.

Everyone else, however, is free to respond to and reject this behavior as they will. And in most cases, as I see it, should.

Norm, with Alice Thompson, is “not in favour of banning [the burka], only of making it clear that we regard it as ‘socially unacceptable’. I think that’s the right approach for anyone who does so regard it, leaving people free both to wear what they want and to express their views on the subject.”

I think regarding the burka as socially unacceptable permits, might even encourage, not simply expressing one’s view on the subject. No bank will serve a masked patron. Why should any business, or government office, for which assurance of identity and both trustful and trusted intercourse is the foundation for the exchange, accept such a condition? Why should individuals reveal and offer themselves in personal welcome to others who disguise and withdraw from them in a manner that fails to acknowledge that they, too, have a right – the right to be approached on equal terms or not permit it? We should feel free to accept such an approach, unobstructed by law, but we should be free to feel discomfort, too, or disapproval, or an inclination to disqualification, and decline to accept the encounter.

Freedom is not just the freedom to affirm, assert, or even, to a degree, impose upon. It is also the freedom to reject.

AJA

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