13 Aug Burqa: Principle, Prejudice and Preference
By Anjum Altaf
What is the difference between the yarmulke and the burqa besides the fact that one is minimally small and the other is maximally large?
By now the controversy over the burqa is well known. In France, President Sarkozy has said: “The burqa is not a religious sign. It is a sign of subservience, a sign of debasement… It will not be welcome on the territory of the French Republic…. In our country we cannot accept that women be prisoners behind a screen, cut off from all social life, deprived of all identity.”
In Cairo, President Obama has said: “I reject the view of some in the West that a woman who chooses to cover her hair is somehow less equal…. and I respect those women who choose to live their lives in traditional roles. But it should be their choice.”
I am going to set these remarks against the backdrop of Bertrand Russell’s observations on the tyranny of the majority (from Political Ideals, 1917) where he discusses “matters of passionate interest to certain sections of the community, but of very little interest to the great majority. If they are decided according to the wishes of the numerical majority, the intense desires of a minority will be overborne by the very slight and uninformed whims of the indifferent remainder…. The tyranny of the majority is a very real danger. It is a mistake to suppose that the majority is necessarily right…. there are a great many questions in which there is no need of a uniform decision…. Wherever divergent action by different groups is possible without anarchy, it ought to be permitted…. it is of the utmost importance that the majority should refrain from imposing its will as regards matters in which uniformity is not absolutely necessary.”
Now I wish to extract the principles contained in these three statements. In Russell’s case, the principle is unambiguous – wherever divergent action by different groups is possible without anarchy, it ought to be permitted. In Obama’s case, the principle is seemingly clear but possibly problematic as I shall argue later – individuals can do what they wish (within the law) as long as they do it out of free choice. In Sarkozy’s case, there is no principle; there is a statement of prejudice (the burqa is a sign of subservience, of debasement) and a statement of preference (in our country we cannot accept that women be prisoners behind a screen).
I do not have a problem with Sarkozy’s personal prejudices. Nor do I have a problem with the passage of a law in France dictating what kind of outerwear is acceptable in the country – that is a prerogative of the French parliament. But note that such a law violates Russell’s reasonable principle provided we assume that the wearing of the burqa is not going to be the cause of anarchy in French society.
My concern about actions based not on defensible principles but upon prejudices and preferences is that they can be quite arbitrary and dangerous. What if Sarkozy next gets it into his head that the bindiya too is a sign of subservience? Or worse, what if some new Fuhrer coming to power decides that the yarmulke is an absurd pre-historic head covering stuck to the hair of men with pins and that it cannot be accepted in modern European society?
How does Sarkozy know that the burqa is a sign of subservience? It may be in some cases and not in others. Even when it is, how will disallowing it prevent other less visible forms of subservience continuing inside the home? And how does he know the yarmulke is not a sign of coercion in some cases?
It is here that I sense a weakness in the principle of free choice as enunciated by Obama. It is not generally the case that individuals attain the age of majority and are presented for the first time with the choice of wearing or not wearing a certain piece of outerwear. In most cases, they are socialized into wearing that piece of clothing from very early childhood growing up with the feeling that being without it as almost akin to being naked (in the case of the burqa) or in a state of deep sin (in the case of the yarmulke). This is quite different, for example, from the case of consensual homosexual relationships, which can be seen as an act of free choice – no one is socialized into such behavior from early childhood as a requirement of social or religious duty. So Obama has the wrong analogy in mind on which he has based his principle. What Obama calls free choice, Sarkozy will term subservience.
At the same time, there are indeed European women who are not socialized into traditional behavior but who now prefer to wear a burqini. This is indeed an expression of free choice in Obama’s terms and not a sign of subservience in Sarkozy’s terms. French authorities have to contort themselves to find a public health rationale to keep the burqini out of swimming pools when Western women were wearing similar costumes not more than half a century ago as will be obvious from this pictorial history of the bikini.
Based on the above both Sarkozy and Obama need to reconsider their positions. I personally wouldn’t want to be inside a burqa and I find the yarmulke quaintly odd but as long as there are people who wish to indulge their desires to wear them without causing anarchy in society, I would have to learn to keep my prejudices and my preferences to myself and not goad an otherwise indifferent majority into imposing its will on a minority. At the same time I quite like the bindiya (as long as it is not green) but have to refrain myself from ordering its universal usage. I also consider the move from the burqa to the burqini a giant leap for humanity and would hate to step in the way of this promising evolution.
Not for nothing was Bertrand Russell a philosopher of the highest rank.