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.


  • Arun Pillai
    Posted at 20:11h, 16 January Reply


    I love your phrase, “bodily adornments.” Perhaps you are right: when I see an attractive woman, I certainly wish I could see her bodily adornments as fully as possible, and I’m sure many other men are like me in this regard. Perhaps you are too. Should women mind if they do? That is for women to answer.

    • Vinod
      Posted at 01:21h, 17 January

      Arun, if you read the literature of orthodox Islam translated into English ‘bodily adornments’ is a very common phrase.

  • Arun Pillai
    Posted at 04:43h, 17 January Reply


    Thanks for letting me know. I meant no offense: it has an old-fashioned ring to it, that is all.

    Seeing is very important to humanity but I think the Islamic tradition gives it more power than it has. All traditions try to protect women from the eyes of strangers – the sari is also a difficult type of dress to manage in professional situations and most women have abandoned it – but I think with the increasing emancipation of women in modern times, they have come to take that power into their own hands. No corporate CEO like Indra Nooyi is afraid of the male gaze. It is generally because women are not allowed to be fully educated and participate fully in professional life and are kept confined in homes that they have been slow to acquire this power.

    • Vinod
      Posted at 11:05h, 17 January

      Arun, a very insightful take on the islamic approach. Thanks for that.

  • Arun Pillai
    Posted at 04:51h, 17 January Reply


    In theory, you are right, everything should be constantly reexamined in the light of changed circumstances. And, in a sense, that is what we have been doing in this discussion. But I think I have pointed out enough reasons why I think the burqa is bad for young women anywhere. There is no point in revisiting this. Reexamination is fine; what Roy seems to be recommending is a *redefinition*. I see absolutely no reason for a redefinition of secularism. At worst, if eighty women have to suffer, then so be it. No theoretical principle can accommodate every human being.

    • Anjum Altaf
      Posted at 16:01h, 17 January

      Arun: This discussion has moved on. Let me reiterate the road we have travelled.

      The discussion is not or no longer about prejudices or preferences:

      1. It is not a poll on the popularity of the burka.
      2. It is not to ascertain the personal likes and dislikes of the participants. These have been stated often enough and, as you say, don’t need to be revisited.

      This discussion was about looking for a principle that could help provide an answer to the controversy over the burka in France. We thought we had found one based on free and voluntary choice that did not harm others. But as we delved further we discovered that in France laicite has a higher priority than liberte which is difficult for outsiders to reconcile with. Roy notes in his book: “Outside France, this very offensive and militant laicite is perceived as excessive, and even undemocratic, since it violates individual freedom. It is regularly denounced in the annual report of the State Department on religious freedom in the world (not only because of the prohibition of the Muslim veil but also because of the restrictions placed on the activities of sects such as Jevohah’s Witnesses and the Scientologists). So, our principle cuts no ice in France.

      So the issue is no longer about 80 burka preferring women and it is not even about Islam. Roy captures this in a rhetorical comment: “Is Islam such a threat, or has the French identity reached such a crisis point that a few hundred veiled girls and bearded preachers can overwhelm it?”

      It is the broader issue of how the state in France wanting to adhere to laicite adjusts to the revival of religion in society. To some extent this is also the issue with the Christian Right in the US, the Taliban in Pakistan, and Hindutva in India. As Roy concludes, Islam and the veil only serve as the mirror to highlight this larger issue of our times. And if this is the issue then a “so be it” answer doesn’t help. So be what?

      And no, Roy does not advocate a redefinition of secularism. The failure to explain his position adequately is mine. You will have to read his book to see what he is saying.

  • Arun Pillai
    Posted at 17:04h, 17 January Reply


    From Wikipedia:

    “The word has been used, from the end of the 19th century on, to mean the freedom of public institutions, especially primary schools, from the influence of the Catholic Church in countries where it had retained its influence, in the context of a secularization process. Today, the concept covers other religious movements.

    Proponents assert laïcité is based on respect for freedom of thought and freedom of religion. Thus the absence of a state religion, and the subsequent separation of the state and Church, is considered a prerequisite for such freedom of thought. Proponents maintain that laïcité is thus distinct from anti-clericalism, which actively opposes the influence of religion and the clergy.

    Laïcité relies on the division between private life, where adherents believe religion belongs, and the public sphere, in which each individual, adherents believe, should appear as a simple citizen equal to all other citizens, devoid of ethnic, religious or other particularities. According to this conception, the government must refrain from taking positions on religious doctrine and only consider religious subjects for their practical consequences on inhabitants’ lives.

    Supporters argue that Laïcité by itself does not necessarily imply any hostility of the government with respect to religion. It is best described as a belief that government and political issues should be kept separate from religious organizations and religious issues (as long as the latter do not have notable social consequences). This is meant to protect both the government from any possible interference from religious organizations, and to protect the religious organization from political quarrels and controversies.

    Critics of laïcité argue that it is a disguised form of anti-clericalism and individual right to religious expression, and that, instead of promoting freedom of thought and freedom of religion, it prevents the believer from observing his or her religion.

    In Europe today, the controversy often centers around banning of wearing hijab, taxpayers’ rights to religious choice in education services and restrictions placed on the construction of new mosques. In the United States, it centers around school prayer, creationism and related issues.”

    Roy’s interpretation that laïcité violates freedom is precisely where the conflict lies since the supporters of laïcité claim that it promotes freedom. It is not that French identity is overwhelmed by a few veiled girls and a few bearded clerics. Far from it. The same thing would have happened if French Catholics were to suddenly insist on teaching Creationism in school.

    I think it is right to restrict the freedom of citizens in certain ways for the benefit of the whole society. In my view, laïcité does promote freedom in more important ways because it keeps the public sphere open for non-distorted communication of the type Habermas has so forcefully argued for.

    • Anjum Altaf
      Posted at 13:47h, 18 January

      Arun: But what is to be done if the institution of laïcité is under stress and unable to handle the strain of new developments? A vote of confidence does not help to resolve that question.

      I regret if I conveyed the impression that Roy believes laïcité violates freedom. In this case, he was reporting the US State Department’s perspective on laïcité. I will refrain from further attempts to summarize Roy to prevent misunderstandings. If you are interested you should read the book which I recommend strongly.

  • SouthAsian
    Posted at 17:32h, 18 January Reply

    By coincidence I came across this dialogue today on the failure of multicultuarlism in Europe. Because of its format, it enables the reader to follow the arguments better and infer one’s own conclusions for further discussion:

    Multiculturalism at its limits? Managing diversity in the new Europe

    “The very thing that diversity is good for is the very thing that multiculturalism as a political process undermines.” Continuing the Eurozine debate series “Europe talks to Europe”, critic of multiculturalism and free speech advocate Kenan Malik met Slovak Civic Conservative politician Fero Sebej to discuss where multiculturalism went wrong and what the alternatives are for Europe. Moderated by Samual Abrahám, editor of the journal Kritika & Kontext.


  • SouthAsian
    Posted at 20:59h, 05 February Reply

    This speech by Prime Minister Cameron signals the end of the experiment in multiculturalism that was the principal mechanism adopted in the UK for the integration of immigrants. Recall that multiculturalism has already been declared a failure by other analysts cited earlier in this discussion. What is the alternative given that the French model, seemingly the only alternative, is also in trouble:


    • Vinod
      Posted at 03:38h, 06 February

      Singapore’s former prime minister who made Singapore what it is today and who currently holds the position of Minister Mentor, Lee Kuan Yew, created a political controversy when he said that muslims in Singapore no longer integrated well enough as they used to during the 60s. He pointed to their demand and creation of separate halal food spaces and their practice of not drinking alcohol along with the non-muslims during gatherings.

      Singapore has since the time of its independence adopted a policy where the state is entirely secular and devoid of religion. That is closer to France, I think. It allowed the different ethnicities to pursue their cultural aspirations on their own initiative without the help of the state in anyway as long as the state had an overlordship over any such institutions. The chinese set up Mandatin schools, the malays setup Malay cultural and religious (muslim) schools. The indians their own.

      Lee Kuan Yew warned recently that the greatest threat to Singapore is to make language and religion political issues. He warned that the state should stay out of these matters.

      Grassroot leaders in Singapore organize visits to the places of worship of each commuity. They ensure that all festivals, whether they be of the Buddshists, Hindus, Taoists, Christians or the Muslims, get celebrated pubclicly with the participation of one and all. I don’t know how effect this is. But it has prevented the corruption of the political process through parochial demands.

    • SouthAsian
      Posted at 18:33h, 06 February

      Vinod: I can believe that Muslims in Singapore do not integrate as well as they did in the 1960s but LKY must be referring to something more than what you have stated. There seems nothing amiss in asking for halal food spaces and not choosing to drink. Everywhere in the world vegetarians ask for separate meal counters and are accommodated and teetotalers choose to not drink in gatherings where others are drinking. It seems to me that the first generation of immigrants were too scared to ask for their rights and the new generations are not. As long as people are not breaking the law they can articulate their rights as they see them.

      The Singapore policy towards religion, as you describe it, seems unobjectionable as is the attempt to prevent language and religion from becoming political issues. But does this mean that the government’s positions on language and religion are not open for discussion? If so, that is an authoritarian position in which stability is given precedence over democratic rights.

    • Vinod
      Posted at 07:04h, 07 February


      (i) Here’s what LKY said –

      Mr Lee, when asked to assess the progress of multiracialism in Singapore, said: “I have to speak candidly to be of value, but I do not wish to offend the Muslim community.

      “I think we were progressing very nicely until the surge of Islam came, and if you asked me for my observations, the other communities have easier integration – friends, intermarriages and so on, Indians with Chinese, Chinese with Indians – than Muslims. That’s the result of the surge from the Arab states.”

      He added: “I would say today, we can integrate all religions and races except Islam.”

      He also said: “I think the Muslims socially do not cause any trouble, but they are distinct and separate.”

      Mr lee then went on to speak of how his own generation of politicians who worked with him had integrated well, including sitting down and eating together. He said: “But now, you go to schools with Malay and Chinese, there’s a halal and non-halal segment and so too, the universities. And they tend to sit separately so as not to be contaminated. All that becomes a social divide.”

      He added that the result was a “veil” across peoples. Asked what Muslims in Singapore needed to do to integrate, he replied: “Be less strict on Islamic observances and say ‘Okay, I’ll eat with you.’”

      (ii) You are very accurate in saying that Singapore prefers orderliness to democratic rights. LKY’s experience of racial riots of the 60s shaped him irreversibly.

    • SouthAsian
      Posted at 15:52h, 07 February

      Vinod: Thanks, this helps clarify the situation. LKY’s observations seem to reflect the reality but I would interpret them as follows. The real issue is not Islam but the the recent surge from the Arab states. For reasons we need not go into here, this is a period of fundamentalist upsurge in Islam which is reflected in the assertion of identity, the practice of rituals, the demonstration of purity, etc. But such a surge is possible in every religion. It is quite possible that if the ongoing popular changes in the Arab world are consolidated, the particular surge that LKY mentions would fade away and Muslims would become as relaxed as they were prior to the surge.

  • mazhur
    Posted at 22:23h, 06 February Reply

    Prime Minister David Cameron is not totally incorrect in his observations. But it’s not the ‘policy’ as stated by him but democracy itself which gives leeway to ethnic groups to ask for more and more as their number increases. For them the democratic principles self-imposed by the advanced democratic governments serves as a ‘tool’ to raise their voice and assert their identity. Multiculturism is a merely wishful thinking of the democratic elements in a society. It fizzles out when minorities succeed in getting a foothold in a place by virtue of their increased number. However, this is not the case in Imperial democracies such as found in Saudia or UAE where freedom is not allowed to cross a certain line fixed by the govt. depite increasing number of expats there. But the situation in developed countries like the UAE and USA is just on the contrary.
    As far as ethnic and linguistic bias is concerned a not very old example of its effect can be found in the creation of Bangla Desh. Ethnic and liguistic bias is strongly embedded in the hearts and minds of people and they would mutiny for a separated homeland no sooner they get stronger in number. As regards religion, it comes second.
    Another example of ethnic and linguistic prejudices can be found in defferent provinces of Pakistan…..so much so that its largest city Karachi is predominantly held by an Urdu-speaking geneeration whose elders had migrated from India into Pakistan in or soon after 1947. Similarly, the Seraiki speaking people of Punjab are asking for a separate province for themselves based on linguistic and cultural differences. The North Frontier Province of Pakistan has recently changed its name to PakhtunKhwah to establish its ethnic and liguistic identity…Same goes on in other provinces —but nothing appears to do with religion which is the same in all cases.

    • SouthAsian
      Posted at 00:43h, 07 February

      Mazhur: You are stating in different words that point that I had made earlier – human beings find it difficult to co-exist with those whom they consider different from themselves. The differences can arise from race, ethnicity, religion, caste or color. Having said that, I feel your generalization is too sweeping when you state that people mutiny for a separate homeland simply based on numbers. In the US, African-Americans did not mutiny for a separate homeland but fought to be integrated. Nor do the various ethnic groups (italians, Poles, Greeks, Chinese, Latinos, etc.) assert their identities in ways that would destabilize a democratic society.

      There were specific problems in the multiculturalism as practiced in the UK because it ended up in the ghettoization of immigrant communities and, contrary to expectations, furthered racist prejudice on both sides. This has been mentioned by the retrospective analyses of the policy referred to earlier in this discussion.

      Your examples of Bangladesh and Pakistan fail to mention that most of the conflicts were deliberately engineered by political forces for opportunistic ends. India, with far greater diversity, has managed the situation much better – the one case that sticks out and proves that conflicts are politically engineered was the encouragement of militancy amongst the Sikhs by Indira Gandhi, a parallel to the encouragement of the MQM by Zia ul Haq. Malaysia too has managed large non-Malay populations with a lot more success. There is nothing automatic that triggers assertion of identity or secessionist intentions simply based on numbers.

  • mazhur
    Posted at 01:21h, 07 February Reply

    @ SouthAsian

    I agree with you but I feel it pertinent to mention that those ethnic you have mentioned have almost the same culture…in particular, outlook about sex and living whereas Muslim or Sikhs don’t. The failure of the Sikhs to secede from India failed mainly due to their weak numerical strength and lack of leadership.

    I do not think any Muslim would ever assimilate himself in the Western culture because he’s held back to do so by his faith and unless he denounces his faith he can never never adopt the Western culture, especially in matters of sexual liberties. The same problem may be with Sikhs as well because certain things are forbidden by their faith, such as abstinent from tobacco, remaining loyal to their language (Punjabi) , turban, hair, etc…

    Their is strong sentiment among ethnic and linguistic elements in Pakistan who want to have their provinces raised accordingly.Religion to them is secondary matter in the case. But, there is one interesting example of a peaceful hetero-linguistic culture in Switzerland where many languages are spoken in their ‘cantons’ but I think this is due to socio-political and population balance of some sort I am not sure about.

    But I am sure about one thing: that is when a certain ethnic or linguistic group in a place multiplies to good population strength it sooner or later begins to come up with ‘demands’ taking advantage of the ‘lacunas’ found in that place’s laws or constitution. Thus law tends to serve as a shelter for these people to further raise their voice and, if suppressed, makes them unhappy but if let go they become more aggressive in their demands.

    India is a different story. the two main religions, viz Hinduism and Islam are co-existing side by side for hundreds of years…and they ARE the same people with different faiths only. Yet there is a lot of difference between the cultures of them too…I don’t think Hindu-Muslim marriages have come common in India even after passage of centuries!

    You can also find examples of states created on ethnic basis in Central Asia… the Chechans are still fighting though.

    • SouthAsian
      Posted at 15:43h, 07 February

      Mazhur: I am not able to follow the point you wish to make. From what I have understood I have the following responses and comments:

      1. I disagree with you about the Sikhs. I think it was good leadership that kept them a part of India.
      2. I also disagree that the ethnic groups I mentioned have almost the same culture. It appears so from a distance but to the groups themselves the differences are very important.
      3. Integration does not mean becoming exactly like someone else in every way. It means becoming part of society as a citizen. There is great diversity in the beliefs and behaviors even of those whom you would call “Westerners.” Just see the fierce debates and conflicts surrounding abortion, same-sex marriage, feminism, etc. All these groups disagree but are integrated in the sense that they do not wish to set up their separate states.
      4. We need to examine political demands for separation and the reasons for which they arise. They don’t arise automatically because of a size factor. If different groups don’t gain from living together or are kept together against their wishes or are instigated by outsiders such political demands will arise.
      5. A democratic polity has to keep its constituent units satisfied. The solution is to let democracy work, not to prevent the units from articulating their demands. If power had been transferred to the Awami League in 1971, as faithfulness to democracy demanded, there might have been no Bangladesh today.

  • mazhur
    Posted at 11:40h, 07 February Reply


    What I gather from the quotes by LKY that you have posted is that Muslims wouldn’t mix up with people of other cultures because they feel they would be ‘contamination’. Not exactly. It’s the Muslim faith, ie Islam, which forbids them eating pork , drinking wine and to maintain gender separation. Since he doesn’t find these elements in the Western or Chinese Societies his Muslim identity shows up when he confronts these. Otherwise Muslims have no problem or prejudice against anyone. However, they are also at loggerheads among themselves for different sectarian beliefs….

  • mazhur
    Posted at 17:24h, 07 February Reply


    As regards Sikhs, I am reproducing a comment from http://www.pixelsandpolicy.com/pixels_and_policy/2010/02/khalistan-virtual-country.html the contents of which are quite self-explanatory.

    ”’The Khalistan movement was declared defeated in 1993 /1994. The internet did not come into mass usage until about roughly 2000. For nearly 6 to 7 years the ideology was able to survive without the virtual world. Within those years of no internet and no movement, anyone who associated themselves with the movement was is great danger, yet people still held onto the belief, why?

    Recently the state of Punjab has requested 5 additional battalions be created for security reasons within Punjab. Last month, Sikhs protesting the killing of a fellow Sikh started yelling slogans of Khalistan in front of Punjab Police, an act unthinkable 10 years ago (Youtube video available). And as the days go by, the Indian government adds more and more Western Sikhs to their Black List (those Sikhs not allowed into India), and continuously complaints to Western governments about Sikh activities. Within the past few months, anti-Khalistan videos have started to appear on Youtube. These videos are done in a very professional manner, with narration and interviews. It is clear that this “virtual threat” is indeed being perceived as a real threat by the nation of India and rightfully so.

    To understand the true nature, strength and justification for Khalistan, one must first understand the root causes for and the methods used to end the last Khalistan movement. It is clear that no mainstream paper will be able to address these issues as it will simply add more fuel to fire. How can well respected author write that the Indian government used horrific methods to subdue a movement that was rooted in justifiable arguments? It is because of these facts that the movement is now reviving across the world.

    Revolutions are not easy to categorize and label. To attempt to do so will only limit the writers and readers understanding of that movement. Soviet Russia may never have come into existence had it not been for WW1 and the help of German government, yet a global war and the assistance of foreign governments is not a mandatory requirements for revolution. Cuba embraced its revolution, yet Bolivia failed.

    A revolution is like a virus to the host nation. Each virus has its own methods of infecting the host and spreading. Some may show extreme sign while others may lay dormant. To say one can analyze and conclude the end result of a host infected with Ebola with the knowledge and expectations of HIV is indeed shortsighted.”

    As regards the Western culture,

    European culture is largely rooted in what is often referred to as its “common cultural heritage”.[47] Due to the great number of perspectives which can be taken on the subject, it is impossible to form a single, all-embracing conception of European culture.[48] Nonetheless, there are core elements which are generally agreed upon as forming the cultural foundation of modern Europe.

    As regards Bangla Desh, yes, you are right. A country which has stayed more than half of its life under martial rule and is still indirectly ruled by the martial clout cannot be said to qualify for democracy at any time, neither now nor in 1971. This fact was well known to the Bengali’s then……and they realized it at the first opportune time!
    Had they been given the charge the situation would have been just the opposite as, within even the same religion, ethnic and linguistic factors are too difficult to hold on for an indefinite time ….

    Political demands raise their heads with awareness. As soon as people gain awareness and strength they are bound to create a row for establishing their own identity. MQM of Karachi is such a glaring example.

    • SouthAsian
      Posted at 02:02h, 08 February


      1. We disagree on the situation regarding the Sikhs. Let someone else provide another perspective. The Internet is a dangerous medium because anyone can post a video and pretend there is a revolution going on. I see no evidence on the ground in Punjab.
      2. We disagree on Western culture. Let someone else provide another perspective. You counterpose a uniform Western culture to an incredibly fractured Eastern culture. In my view this is just because you know the latter in much more detail than the former.
      3. It is not clear to me what solution you are proposing for situations where groups differing by ethnicity or language find themselves living within the same borders. Should people be kept in ignorance because as soon as the gain awareness they are bound to create a row?

  • mazhur
    Posted at 22:14h, 08 February Reply


    1. Despite all the privileges the Sikhs are enjoying in India, it is quite a reality that they still aspire for a homeland of their own. Apparently they are not ”’active” but they do live in their Khalistan, though virtually, in their dreams. Who knows about future…? Once a spark subsists within the ashes there is always risk of fire sooner or later.

    2. Look at the formation of EU?? What does it denote?? At least European outlook towards gender association is the same or similar and is very unlike the East. I don’t think this is the case even in a secular state like India….which may be a bit liberal but not as scot free in sexual norms as the West. Since America is greatly a hotch potch of people from different parts of Europe, I have to reason to believe that American culture is predominantly like that of Europe in many respect. Muslims, in the other hand, may have different cultures but ALL Muslims believe in the Quran and their conduct in any culture is predominantly governed by its tenets. This may not be totally true in practice but in theory it is. Consequently I doubt if Muslims can ever get assimilated into other cultures. Indian Muslims are yet another glaring example of how religion has prevented them from adopting the Hindu culture for most of its parts that conflict with Islam.

    3. In my opinion, I think that the solution to this problem is to have smaller countries or redefining their territories into several provinces or ”cantons’ on the basis of ethnicity and language and allow them the freedom for self-rule. This can also be achieved without ‘splitting” a country such as the US…or even Swiss model could serve as a model.

    • SouthAsian
      Posted at 15:32h, 09 February

      Mazhur: Let us set aside the minor issue and focus on those of greater significance (I have switched the order to keep the most important issue for the end):

      1. Let us leave the issue of the Sikhs for the future to reveal since we are now interpreting dreams which is a very imprecise venture.

      3. How would you apply your prescription to a place like Karachi? It has a population of 16 million, bigger than many countries, and comprises a mix of many ethnicities and languages. How would you propose it be reorganized to conform to your proposed solution?

      2. In my view the issue of culture is the central one. We will not make progress on this till we agree on a definition of culture. It seems to me that you are reducing culture almost entirely to sexual norms – there is one culture in which sex is ‘scot free’ and another in which it is governed by strict tenets. Not only is this extremely simplistic, in my view, it also makes the mistake of comparing the practice of the former with the theory of the latter. So, let us begin with a definition of culture and then resume this discussion.

    • Vinod
      Posted at 01:23h, 10 February

      mazhur, an additional point to bolster SA is that the EU is not as secure among Europeans as you think. In fact it is far more openly being challenged in UK in the political arena than the Khalistan movement, which as you have said is only an unexpressed aspiration till now.

  • mazhur
    Posted at 16:20h, 09 February Reply


    1. Right…the Sikh issue is yet a distant cry! I don’t think the dream of a Greater Punjab will ever see the light of the day.

    2. Culture is a relative phenomenon. Many factors such as geography, climate, economics, resources, environment,religion, sociological factors, etc govern the ‘culture’ of a place and its people. Sex is all important in every society but every society doesn’t seem to have the same or similar outlook towards it as for example, it has towards food or perhaps clothing. People living near oceans are accustomed to a maritime living..ie they would be ‘fish-minded’ whereas those living in the plains or mountains would avoid water or relishing fish regularly. Some African tribes will do well with whatever little clothing and periphernalia available to them whereas others living in places where better amenities are available would go for better things.Customs and habits tend to form an essential ingredient of a culture and a value which is termed as good in one culture doesn’t seem to fit well in the other. Compare the American or Western culture with Japan….despite that both are developed nations yet you will note various differences in them both.

    3. The problem of Karachi is very complex and I don’t see any solution to it in the near future. When an ethnic majority takes hold of a town overwhelmingly it becomes very difficult for the central govt to suppress their voice or rights. Such an ethnic majority forcefully tends to become the ”owner” of the town and can paralyze it by waging a strike.

    On the other hand, some people are threatened by the settlement of other ethnic races on their land. This is evident in the mutinous tendency prevalent in the thinly populated but the biggest land-held province of Baluchistan.

    Both these situations are dangerous for the existence of a country and I think democracy is NOT a suitable way to run a country befacing such hostile and high-handed conduct of its citizens. You need something better than the Western democracy to overcome these kinds of situations…where the use of force by the Federation becomes necessary. Don’t you think a similar situation prevails in the Indian-Occupied Kashmir???

  • SouthAsian
    Posted at 03:09h, 10 February Reply


    3. Your comment on Karachi should suggest that the solution you proposed was too theoretical and cannot be implemented in practice. Every situation, when you examine it carefully, would be fraught with similar complexities. Within 50 years South Asian countries would be more than three-fourths urban and if a the solution is not possible in cities, it is not possible in countries.

    The solution is not to divide places into smaller and smaller units in the hope of finding some mythical homogeneity or to coerce people to live together by means of force. Rather, it is to find ways to learn to live with diversity. Bombay had similar issues with the Shiv Sena as Karachi but things have been getting better there which suggests that compromises are possible and the democratic process is one way of facilitating them.

    2. Perhaps a more accurate way to characterize culture is to say that it is very concrete but that it can change. Culture is the way of living and thinking of a people that is shaped by all the factors you have mentioned – geography, climate, etc. Therefore the culture of the rural Italian south is very different from that of the urban Scandinavian north. Speaking of a composite ‘Western’ culture does not help in this framework.

    Religion is not the same as culture – the same religion can be embedded in many different cultures and get interpreted in ways that are peculiar to that culture. Thus the fact that Islam is common amongst African-Americans, Bosnians and Afghans does not make them culturally alike nor does it make the attitude towards women same in all three cases.

    It is easier to get a grasp of culture if we keep the emotive aspect of religion out of the picture. For example, it is part of Pakistani culture for people to turn up hours late for events, to relieve themselves in the street if rushed, and to invite individuals they meet for the first time to their homes to share a meal. There is no difference in the behavior of Muslims and Christians – Pakistani culture overrides differences in religious beliefs.

    When a Pakistani migrates to the US, he/she does none of these things because they are not a part of the host culture. People adapt to the new culture and after a couple of generations it is hard to believe how different the culture was from which the immigrants had come to the US.

    Many different cultures exist in the world and within countries and there needs to be a non-judgmental appreciation of the diversity of the cultures and of the need for dialogue amongst them if we are to live together in the kinds of cities and countries where it is not possible to quarantine people into culturally homogeneous Bantustans and where the use of force can only lead to tragedy.

    Both the points I am trying to make are articulated much better in a short essay on cultural pluralism. The central message of the essay is the following:

    “At the social and political level, cultural pluralism implies that public discourse cannot be conducted in a single conceptual or moral language and must allow for a diversity of idioms and languages. This puts into question the dominant and dubious view that a society cannot be stable unless all its members share a substantive vision of the good life.”


  • mazhur
    Posted at 04:09h, 10 February Reply


    Multi-culturism sounds like the failed Deen-e-Elaahi of the Mogul Emperor, Akbar the Great….He succeeded in ruling India for about 50 years on the basis of his ‘liberal’ views about his own religion, Islam, and respect (political though) for other local religions, particularly the Hindu’s. Akbar’s views were not appreciated by his own son, King Jehangir, who finally revolted against him and reverted to his own culture again!
    At the same time, the Hindu’s or Sikhs, for example, could never accept Muslim culture despite living for hundreds of years together. However, many cultural Hindu elements do seem to have been adopted by the Muslims but those are merely limited to Islamacized rituals.A Muslim won’t eat pig nor a Hindu slaughter a cow! Not only this but there are many superimposing factors governed by each others religions which are not acceptable to both the parties.
    Given this, how can one expect to reach a ”multi-culturistic’ society without sacrificing most of his aspirations and liberties allowed him by democracy or any secular governance??? The ban on burqa is just one example how ”multi-culturism’ is frustrated and victimized in the West for any reason, whatsoever.
    Similarly, every country or nation has its culture of its own and they, rightly or wrongly, think it’s the best. They are not inclined to accept any change in it or allow others to act otherwise without awe or even bias. For example, Muslims and Mormons are allowed to take 4 wives at a time but polygamy is not permitted in many cultures for their own reasons. Likewise, premarital or extra-marital sex is common practice in the Western countries and some Eastern blocks and bastards born are patronized by their states. Doesn’t all this reflect serious bias against the essence of multi-pluralism?? Though the fundamental truths may be the same in every culture but outlook towards them completely depends on the conditions prevailing in those societies. In countries where populations ,resources and incomes are not even properly documented, economy is bad and where corruption is rampant I think it would be a far cry to even think of a pluralistic society which may seem to exist there but only on the surface…like snow covering the peak of a volcano!

    You will note that culture has superimposed religion more than it has in the East, especially India and Pakistan. MEast is mostly Islamic sticking to its own culture…except some deviation in Turkey. Iran is overwhelmed with Shiite version of Islamic culture with strains of Zoroastrian culture…

    Talibans, for example, have a culture of their own and the topi-style burqa their women wear is a part of their culture…

    I have observed that when an Indian or Pakistani goes abroad he atonce adjusts himself to the culture of the host country. Why?? because if he doesn’t he wouldn’t be able to live there without being hit by their laws. Then there are two types of culture 1) general culture 2) personal culture. Those who live in host countries are obliged by ”cultural forces” of the host country to ‘behave’ and only have a limited access to their cultural edicts in the privacy of their homes only..while still remaining under the umbrella of the general culture.

    Culture is changeable with time….but still religious beliefs will always act as a clog in the attainment of a ”multi-culture” as a whole.

    As regards dividing large provinces or countries into smaller units I meant creating more and more smaller administrative units (like the Swiss cantons) within a federation or confedration to manage their affairs effectively and harmoniously without letting the rights of one to be suppressed/oppressed by the others.

  • SouthAsian
    Posted at 15:32h, 10 February Reply


    1. You missed the point in the essay on cultural pluralism. The end objective is not to arrive at some kind of monoculture in which everyone becomes similar to everyone else. The goal is for people who differ from each other to find ways to exist together.

    2. What was Jahangir’s culture?

    3. Switzerland was not one country that was subsequently divided into smaller cantons to ensure homogeneity. Each canton was a fully sovereign state – they joined together in 1848 to form the Swiss Federation.

  • mazhur
    Posted at 19:09h, 10 February Reply


    1. Anything can co-exist but for a price. That’s the law of Nature.
    Diversity is mainly for the purpose of Identification….

    2. Emperor Jehangir was also liberal towards people of other religions and perhaps it was he who allowed concessions to East India Company to establish and operate their business freely at Surat in India. You can read more about him in his autobiography, Tuzk-e-Jehangir….where, inter alia, he states how he used to go and meet a Hindu Sadhu in his small cave for hours on…regardless that the sadhu, be it summers or winters, wore nothing except an underwear (loongi)….unfortunately the Emperor did not write what he used to discuss with him during his meetings spread over hours but he certainly held the sadhu in greatest esteem, obviously for the sadhu’s learning and wisdom.
    Jehangir was also for multi-culturism but at heart he was finally a Muslim. As you might know the Moguls would marry women of any faith but they forbade men of other religions to marry Muslim women…and that was a royal decree!!
    Jehangir was an opiate and a drunkard….his wife Noorjehan looked after the affairs of the state. But Jehangir is famous for his great sense of Justice..

    3.Switzerland is just one example ofcourse. Any student of political science could tell us better.
    Some people are in favor of a Confedration for Pakistan as western democracy is almost a sham in this country where tribal and feudal lords and a few ‘elites’ always win at the polls through their ”dreadful” clout! In case of MQM it’s ethnic bias at work.

    Enjoy reading this interesting article… Social Scientist Sees Bias Within

  • SouthAsian
    Posted at 12:25h, 11 February Reply


    1. Not co-existing also has a price. The rational approach is to make a comparison.

    2. What you have described is Mughal culture. You wish to call it Islamic because somehow you know that at heart Jahangir was finally a Muslim. In an earlier comment you had said that “ALL Muslims believe in the Quran and their conduct in any culture is predominantly governed by its tenets.”

    It is not possible to argue with unverifiable and unobservable claims like the dreams of Sikhs or the inner urgings of Jahangir. If these claims are contrary to the available evidence one has to leap from reason to faith in order to continue holding on to them.

    3. Switzerland was an inapplicable example. Let someone tell us better – in particular how the proposed remedy would be applied to Karachi.

  • mazhur
    Posted at 15:17h, 11 February Reply

    1. Since man is a gregarious animal, the policy of ‘co-existence’ seems necessary but the ”struggle for survival” sometimes makes things difficult, physically as well as psychologically.

    2. Mughal culture was Islamic the same way Pakistani or Saudi culture is. Beliefs also play a great role in the formation of a culture. For example, the so-called Moghul culture was not the same in case of Aurangzeb Alamgir who did away many practices of his ancestors.

    3. Good idea. Let’s wait to hear further thoughts from others. I am not for the Western type of democracy in Pakistan. That is mere exploitation of the ignorant majority by the minority. Only 2 percent of the elite are ruling over 180M Pakistani’s with no mind to leave their seat but to pass it on to their sons and relatives. Something or anything that ensures the rule of law is the basic need of a country like Pakistan.

    Enjoy these thoughts about Multi-culturism in rebuttal to Cameron’s recent speech in the subject

    and this

    // [Cindy] Henderson acknowledged that some parents were upset that their children were learning about the Middle East.

    “We don’t want to discriminate against the entire Middle East,” she said, “but [9/11] is hard to forget. They said they aren’t going to teach religion, but I don’t see ‘how you can teach that culture without going into their beliefs’.”//


    (He defines Western civilization as “a cultural compound of Christian, classical, and the folk traditions of Europe.”)

    Fighting multiculturalism on campus
    Checking in with the youth wing of the anti-immigration wing of the conservative movement at CPAC Video


  • SouthAsian
    Posted at 02:55h, 12 February Reply

    Mazhur: We have to exercise some care here. Culture is not individual specific. Rather, within a given culture there can be great variety of temperaments. Saints and sinners, sages and fools can all be part of the same culture. What you are describing are temperaments and the preference of one temperament over another is not at issue here. Some one else can point out with equal credibility that the Mughal empire attained its zenith with Akbar and commenced its decline with Aurangzeb.

  • mazhur
    Posted at 13:05h, 12 February Reply

    It is true that the Moghul Empire saw its zenith during the reign of Akber and followed decline after the death of Aurengzeb. Both have their own reasons but this is a fact that Aurangzeb held a larger empire than Akber and ruled for more time than him. Often the ”zenith” or ”fall’ of an empire also depends on the ability of its successors. Unfortunately, Aurangzeb had none. In fact he had put all his sons ( who were over 50 years of age) behind bars and who got too long time to live trusting no one.

    Sorry I don’t get your ‘temperament’ issue…though I take your point in that both good and evil persists in a culture but it’s the general tendency of a people that goes in the making of a culture. A sufi or rogue doesn’t represent a ‘culture’, that can at best be called an exception or an oddity. Culture is what is generally believed to be true in a place….in the presence of certain circumstances there, good or bad.

    • SouthAsian
      Posted at 16:26h, 12 February

      Mazhur: The point was that individuals can have very different personalities (or temperaments) within the same culture. Each personality is not a distinct culture. I was commenting on your statement that “the so-called Moghul culture was not the same in case of Aurangzeb Alamgir who did away many practices of his ancestors.” Dara Shikoh and Aurangzeb were part of the same culture culture but with very different personalities and ideas.

  • mazhur
    Posted at 20:44h, 12 February Reply

    Right, all of them had different approaches and beliefs but they were not common men, they were kings and could and they did dictate some additions or changes to customs, practices and culture. For example, by setting up Begum Bazaars for their army folks they contributed several new things to the Indian culture which haven’t changed since then. It would also be interesting to note that culture also undergoes changes with the changing situations such as a poor country eventually becoming affluent, such as Arab oil-producing countries, or in case of some places, perhaps in Africa, going further poor or less industrious. It’s also worth noting that King Zahir Shah had changed the ”culture” of Afghanistan during his reign by forbidding Afghan women from wearing burqa’s or Shalwars.
    Consequently, I could find all Afghan women in Kabul moving about in skirt and blouse during my visit there in 1969! Doesn’t this show that regal or statutory laws and decrees can change the culture of a place, temporarily if not permanently??

  • SouthAsian
    Posted at 16:23h, 15 February Reply

    Mazhur: Cultures are rarely static – there has been a discussion on this subject elsewhere on the blog. The vast majority swims along in the culture that exists adapting to it as it evolves; a tiny minority rebels against what it feels are cultural constraints; another, on the other side, wishes to prevent changes; and yet another wishes to go back to some culture that existed in the past. It is the tension amongst all these, often in the form of cultural wars, that yield a given cultural milieu at any given time.

    At the same time, it is rarely one single individual, even a king, who can radically alter the trajectory of a culture, simply because the evolution of values is very gradual. You are right, Aurangzeb did try but note how the Mughal culture reasserted itself with a vengeance with Mohammad Shah Rangeelay and Bahadur Shah Zafar. The Mughal culture was a court culture – it was not the culture of all of India – and it only died out with the demise of the Mughal Empire. As a court culture it was the culture of the aristocracy which was not exclusively Muslim. In fact, if you read Dalrymple’s White Mughals you will see that even the English became part of the Mughal culture.

    In that context, the Mughal culture was not entirely the culture of the people who came with Babar from Fergana – which is also why it was not entirely an Islamic culture. It was an amalgam of Turkish, Persian and Indian cultures – what Dara Shikoh very aptly termed Majma-ul-Bahrain (The Confluence of the Two Seas) – that later filtered down to the people as the Ganga-Jamni culture. Hindostani or Urdu was part of this culture. The earlier term for Urdu was Rekhta, a word that meant ‘mixture’ – an apt description of the culture of India.

    Of course, there are purists who are allergic to the thought of mixing which brings us back to where we started from – conflict or co-existence?

  • mazhur
    Posted at 02:39h, 16 February Reply

    Culture is as complex as the human mind or body! But one thing about it is clear that it is influenced by beliefs. For example, a Hindu or a Muslim would feel at home here as he would in any other place on earth. Reason: they have the same culture!! (religion being a constant between their respective beliefs)

    Moghul had almost given up their culture after Aurangzeb and it was for this reason that Ahmad Shah Durrani remarked at the frailty of his Moghul captive harem sarcastically for their entirely changed ”culture’ and ‘values’ after he over threw the Moghuls.

    It’s true that culture changes with time….or perhaps with the development and progress of technology, economy and many other governing factors!

    I think we have adopted more of the culture of our colonial masters than they did. And they did mostly to make best of their ‘sojourn’ to India otherwise a glimpse of it could also be seen in their own culture…but it is not.

    Dara Shikoh had difference of belief with Aurangzeb….Dara was a kinda pan-religious Sufi prince while Aurangzeb was a staunch Sunni.

    • Vinod
      Posted at 12:41h, 16 February

      Mazhur, the interaction between beliefs and behaviour is not one directional, from beliefs to behaviour. It is two directional. It is important to distinguish between beliefs that are articulated and beliefs that are actually at play, especially when, as you say it, a certain culture has been adopted.

      You are labouring under the assumption that as culture changes beliefs don’t change and I believe, if I may be permitted to harard a guess, that you place a lot of weight on articulated beliefs than lived beliefs.

      You are entitled to that premise. But I’m afraid you will find it hard to explain cogently and coherently the connection between behaviour and beliefs as an organic whole. You are going to break up a person’s being into disjunctive psychological compartments.

  • mazhur
    Posted at 13:35h, 16 February Reply


    ”How important are cultural roots for yourself?”

    ”There are many races in this earth some with more culture, morals, influence, and values than others. That still doesn’t change the fact that we all live in this earth together sharing what ever piece of land we live on. No matter what race we are — we are always influenced to believe in our roots. I am Hispanic, my roots are very strong because in my household I was thought that morals and values and the unity of family will always be part of your life when a family is born. It is important to me that the roots I was thought keep on for generations to come, maybe by influencing my future husband and children. The importance of unity in a household is very complex maybe because everyone has there ups and downs in life. One thing that is also very complex in the Hispanic culture is that most of the time the first language thought is Spanish and that can cause some controversy due to the fact that in the country I live in the main language is English. Many times the culture you have flowing in your bloodstream can create problems like racism and the way you are judged by the color of your skin but that does not change the fact of who we are. Yes I can say that culture is very important to me because that is who I am that is what will stay with me for the rest of my life. Several people have changed the culture they were raised with — one big example in the king of pop Michael Jackson who changed his appearance to become a white person when he was born black. To do that is just disrespecting who your parents are and where you came from but in this world money is more important than any culture, race or background you come from. Culture means everything to me because without culture then what can we say about ourselves. Maybe that we are all the same but we are not all the same culture separates us , ‘the way of thinking separates us and our expressions of what we believe in makes’…”


    • Vinod
      Posted at 02:27h, 17 February

      They are important enough to appreciate them for the lovely memories, strong values and stable upbringing given to me. But I have come to realize that the form can change while retaining the good from the kernel. The kernel is not so fragile that it cannot carry itself and needs the protection of the form.

  • SouthAsian
    Posted at 03:04h, 18 February Reply

    The question we need to consider is the following:

    Does it make sense, on the one hand, to collapse all of ‘Western culture’ into one category and, on the other, to claim that two brothers (Aurangzeb and Dara Shikoh) represent different cultures?

    What exactly are we trying to do and are we succeeding in our objective?

  • Arun Pillai
    Posted at 05:21h, 18 February Reply

    Here is a joke that indicates why you can’t collapse Western culture into a single category:

    “Hi. This is Sarah Palin. Is Senator Lieberman in?”
    “No, governor. It’s Yom Kippur.”

    “Well, hello, Yom. Can I leave a message?”

  • SouthAsian
    Posted at 15:41h, 15 April Reply

    Now that the ban on the niqab has gone into force in France, it is time to revisit the issue again. An opening is provided by an article in the NY Times on the proposed ban on nudity in Barcelona.

    In 2004 the Barcelona City Council affirmed categorically that the law “does not contain any article for sanctions against public nudity.” This is set to change now. One of the critics of the ban ‘compares the campaign against nudity to a parallel proposal to ban the wearing of the Muslim women’s veil, often called the burqa, in public places, as several nearby cities in the Catalonia region have done and as the Barcelona City Council is considering. Mr. Roca called both measures forms of segregation. “It’s like ‘No Negroes,’ ” he said. Just as politicians fear that a burqa-clad woman has something to hide, he said, “they imagine an undressed person has something to hide, too.”’

    ‘Joaquim Mestre, 50, a member of the liberal Green Party who is the city councilor for civil rights, said that backers of the new sanctions hoped that they would give the police and courts a legal tool to control abusive behavior by tourists. His party opposes the sanctions, as it does the proposed burqa ban. Just as Barcelona’s undressed are only a handful, the number of women who wore the burqa in neighboring Lleida, the first city in Catalonia to ban it, “are about three,” he said.’

    In both cases, it is the politics and fear (of immigrants in one case and tourists in the other) that seems to be driving the initiatives – there is otherwise little explanation for why something that was fine in 2004 could become unacceptable in 2011.

    ‘“The city’s afraid of the kind of tourists it’s attracting,” said Mr. Reifenberg, a native of Israel who has lived here for six years. These tourists, he said, go for “cheap alcohol, partying, hanging out in the street, and not spending money.” As a result, the city’s business community — hotels, restaurants, bars and retail outlets — has put pressure on the mayor, Jordi Hereu, a Socialist who faces an uphill battle for re-election in May.’


    • Vinod
      Posted at 12:14h, 16 April

      I prefer the pragmatic reasons of Joaquim than the ideological reasons of Roca, although both are standing on the same side of the issue.

      I actually find Roca’s uber-liberal ideology against my traditional instincts. I think nudity is a moral issue although I am not sure it is a legal issue. I’m not sure I can define where modesty ends and nudity starts. I prefer leaving that to each culture.

    • SouthAsian
      Posted at 17:22h, 16 April

      Vinod: The legality is simple to determine – In Barcelona, it was legal in 2004 and it may cease to be so in 2011. It is whatever the law says it is at a moment in time. The same is the situation with the niqab in France – it became against the law in 2011. The morality is the more difficult issue. I don’t think there is any alternative to leaving it to each culture, perhaps even each subculture – it may be considered moral in one part of a country and not so in another. I suppose the key is to see if this determination is reached via an open, fair and democratic process. The issue that never seems to go away is the one of minority rights. We have not yet found a way to balance the right of a minority and the sensibility of the majority.

    • Vinod
      Posted at 02:04h, 17 April

      By legal issue, I meant whether it makes sense to make it into law. My moral instincts want it to be law – that nudity be prohibited by law. But the uncertainty around defining modesty, which is the slippery slope on which the idea of nudity rests, and the imprecise moral justification for nudity makes me uncomfortable with the idea of turning it into law.
      The issue goes deep into the majority’s instincts and it will be painfully hard to have a civil and dispassionate public conversation about it.

    • SouthAsian
      Posted at 05:35h, 17 April

      Vinod: Morality precedes legality – whatever is considered immoral is likely to be encoded as illegal. So, the focus of the enquiry should be on morality. In my view morality is really a question of offense to sensibility – if something offends the sensibility of the majority it is likely to be deemed immoral. If we think of morality in this way, it would be clear that it is relative because sensibility is socially constructed, not something we are born with.

      There seems nothing innately immoral about nudity. There is no bar on nudity within the privacy of the home and its adoption depends only on whether all family members are comfortable with it. This is extended to nudist beaches and resorts which are legal because all members are comfortable with being nude. Nudity in unregulated public space is not accepted because it offends the sensibility of some.

      But sensibility is only a function of what one is used to. In the gymnasia of Greece, children used to be naked so boys and girls could get used to the sight of each others bodies. It was thus considered quite normal for the athletes to be naked in the Greek Olympics. In India, people were comfortable with some sadhus clad in very little. So, people can get accustomed to less or more clothing which is obvious from the spectrum of acceptability that ranges from Brazil at one end to Afghanistan at the other. In this context, one should recall that being unclothed was quite normal in many parts of Africa and the Pacific Islands before Christian missionaries covered them up because their sensibility (sense of morality) was offended by the sight of nakedness.

      Therefore, the verdict on the morality of nudity in a place should remain dependent of the social sensibility at that time of the majority of the residents of that place. This is not a problem of any kind. The problem arises only because in recent times groups with different sensibilities have come to live in the same space. This problem we have not figured out how to resolve.

  • Vinod
    Posted at 01:37h, 19 April Reply

    Morality does not translate very easily into legality. Adultery is an example of that.

    Although I am inclined to agree with the idea that nudity as a moral idea derives from sensibility, I wonder whether sensibilities can be changed through rational thinking. I don’t think that is what you are suggesting. Rational thinking can perhaps only go to the extent of coming to tolerate the other. ‘Tolerance’ in Latin means ‘suffering the other’. Many today call for more than mere tolerance; a need to celebrate ‘the other’. I wonder whether that is good in itself. Why can’t tolerance suffice? Why can’t preservation of who we are without attempting to annihilate the other be the best idea? After all what we’re trying to get at is the preservation of diversity. It is diversity that has to be celebrated. Diversity gives us a very real feel for the adaptability and creativity of the human spirit.

    • SouthAsian
      Posted at 06:31h, 19 April

      Vinod: I am not clear what point you wish to make with the example of adultery. Wherever adultery is considered immoral, it is also incorporated in the law in some form. For example, a spouse can file for divorce on grounds of adultery.

      No, I am definitely not suggesting that sensibility can be changed through rational thinking. Sensibility is a function of what one is used to or gets used to. For example, South Asians settling in the West get used to much reduced coverage of the human body and after a while don’t associate it with immorality. Clearly the Pacific Islanders did not consider nakedness as immoral simply because they were used to it from birth and not because they had thought rationally about it.

      The problem with tolerance is that it does not eliminate the notion of hierarchy. In effect it says you are not as good as us but we will accommodate you and this can unravel at the slightest sign of stress. We have to get to the point where this notion of ‘better than’ and ‘not as good as’ is replaced by one that just acknowledges that people are different. We don’t need to celebrate the other but we don’t have to engage in the exercise of ranking because that is the first step down the slippery slope of prejudice.

  • Vinod
    Posted at 09:22h, 19 April Reply

    Let’s leave adultery aside. What about prostitution and the places it has got legalized even when the immorality of it is felt widespread ?

    We have to get to the point where this notion of ‘better than’ and ‘not as good as’ is replaced by one that just acknowledges that people are different

    A humanistic set of laws? Interestingly if this exercise gets successful anywhere it would probably lead to a legal system that embodies a universal set of morals!

    The difficulty I have is that it leaves no reason to hold onto one’s identity. Isn’t it a part of holding onto one’s identity that one actually believes it to have some special status over others? You seem to be compelling people to abandon all their cultural identities and reduce the feeling for it. You have to make a case for why then should people hold onto their identities. Why have a unique identity at all, if identities are a mere matter of getting used to and have nothing more to them? Why not all of us just speak one common language, eat one common set of foods and wear one common set of clothes and celebrate common set of festivals?

    • SouthAsian
      Posted at 11:03h, 19 April

      Vinod: I can’t figure out how you derived the conclusion about sameness. One can’t acknowledge that people are different unless they are actually different. What I am saying is that If I am a South Asian and somebody else is an East Asian, is there a necessity for either one of us to think ourselves superior to the other? We have our own identities but we are at par as human beings.

      Regarding prostitution, perhaps a different logic applies in this case. This is a phenomenon which, unlike nudity, gets driven underground when it is declared illegal causing more problems (public health and human trafficking come to mind) then are resolved. So, from a public policy perspective, it is better to legalize it as a second-best alternative. The same logic applies to drugs.

  • Vinod
    Posted at 07:25h, 20 April Reply

    We have our own identities but we are at par as human beings.

    SA, there are many ideas within the concept of one’s identity that overlaps with the concept of a human being. Nudity may be an acceptable part of the identity for some and completely anethema not only to what the identity of another is but also to what a human being should be.
    There are some issues of identity, such as nudity, that cannot be limited to a cultural idea. I will extend this to say that this extended idea of identity arguably applies to all aspects of identity that has a moral nature to it. Categorising them under cultural relativism is as good as erasing this aspect of identity and is bound to evoke strong opposition.

    The mere existence and continuation of cultures where nudity was happily practiced is not indicative of the non-moral nature of nudity. Moral depravity does not have to lead to the extermination of a society.

    I hope I am making sense there.

    • SouthAsian
      Posted at 10:49h, 20 April

      Vinod: I am afraid I am not being able to follow the argument. In my view the problem is arising because you are using such a wide interpretation of identity that it is losing its power. It might help if we consider separately those characteristics of identity over which we have no control and those customs that can change over time or by choice.

      Suppose I am born a Tutsi and you are born a Hutu; there is nothing we can do about these attributes of our identity. But I would hope that I would not be persuaded by anyone that I as a Tutsi am somehow superior to you as a Hutu. And, in case I am, I hope there would be a law that would prevent me from inflicting harm upon you as a consequence of my belief.

      One the other side, both Tutsis and Hutus are born naked but that is not part of their identity in the same way even if, for the sake of argument, nakedness is the norm amongst Tutsis. Many societies that preferred nakedness as the norm no longer do so but it is not claimed that they have lost their identity – it is the custom that has changed.

      To extend this further, if a Tutsi migrates for economic reasons to a white country where no one has ever encountered public nudity, he/she would be entitled to expect that there would be no discrimination on the basis of color, religion or language. But it would be beyond a reasonable expectation to think that host society would also accommodate nakedness in public immediately especially if there is danger of public anarchy. Where there are aspects of choice involved, most migrants understand the tradeoffs – one would expect the Tutsi to learn the language of the host country and cover up in public. This common sense wisdom is captured in the aphorism “When in Rome do as Romans do.” If the tradeoff is not acceptable, the Tutsi might seek a more compatible place to migrate to.

      In real life the situations are never completely black and white but this illustrates what I am trying to argue. I am arguing for a world in which Hutus and Tutsis, despite all their differences, have equal rights and equal stature by virtue of being human. They may consider each other odd or peculiar but this should not translate into notions of superiority and inferiority. The sense of oddness and peculiarity is eroded over time if one escapes being biased at the outset.

    • Vinod
      Posted at 13:56h, 20 April

      I find no harm in considering norm A to be superior to norm B. But that does not mean that all As are superior to all Bs. I can think that nudity is an inferior norm and still think that nudists are my equal. Judging a community overall has a lot more to do than the judgment over one or two norms of that community.

    • SouthAsian
      Posted at 15:07h, 20 April

      Vinod: We are beginning to get some convergence now. What I am suggesting doesn’t at all eliminate personal preferences. I may prefer vanilla to your strawberry but, as you say, that does not make me superior to you. However, regarding the second point, it is very normal for people to form a judgment of a community based on their interaction with one person of that community.

    • Vinod
      Posted at 02:19h, 21 April

      And I will continue to take exception to you regarding my norm as a matter of taste 🙂

    • SouthAsian
      Posted at 04:57h, 21 April

      Vinod: That poses no problem. It is what people do based on their beliefs that matters. For example, a Roman Catholic is free to take exception to abortion but not thereby entitled to attack an individual who is pro-abortion. Problems only arise when sentiments of being better or holier or superior are allowed to be acted out. There are two solutions to this danger and both need to be strengthened simultaneously. The public space should be so sacrosanct that people cannot act out their private biases AND there should be dissemination of research on the social origins of private biases in order to contain them. Beyond that one is free to prefer his or her own ways to those of someone else – that is what diversity is all about.

    • Vinod
      Posted at 08:08h, 21 April

      From where I stand, even as I believe nudity in the public space to be immoral I am reluctant to compell nudists to cover up by coercion of the law unless there is a demonstrated harm emanating from the practice of nudity. It doesn’t have to be a pure and direct causation chain between the harm and the practice of nudity but a contributory cause will suffice.
      It is difficult to rationalize why I personally prefer a deontic moral system but prefer a consequentialist moral system working within the realm of the law. Many may think that the personal approach to morality then is of no consequence. I think that is incorrect. If I meet a nudist I will strenuously try to convince him to give up the practice without coercing him in anyway. To that extent it does have consequence.

    • SouthAsian
      Posted at 10:35h, 22 April

      Vinod: Spain continues to test the boundaries. This news item brings the economic dimension into the picture – how money can drive attitudinal change. I wonder if you have any thoughts: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-13162118

  • Mariam
    Posted at 12:39h, 01 January Reply

    This discussion reminded me of Nussbaum’s “Adaptive preferences”; that is, women (or people in general), adapt their preferences according to what they can get. As it has been pointed out in the discussion here, this makes it difficult to figure out whether the person is being coerced due to societal etc pressures or it really is that person’s preference. But the question is, can this difficulty justify banning veil? I cannot know whether you’re being coerced into it and neither can a ruler know that; but that does not mean a ruler can ban something on the bases of the difficulty of knowing whether it was chosen or not. It would be interesting to consider the example of arranged marriages so common in this part of the World; such marriages could be forced or not. It is easy to imagine how often women can succumb to adaptive preference in this case. However, does this mean the ambiguity surrounding arranged marriages should lead to their ban? But more importantly, there is a grave danger with this line of reasoning-it leads to the denial of the other person’s freedom. Who decides what is my ‘real’ preference? For example, if I wear a veil or I am happy to go along with an arranged marriage, you are telling me hey, you think you are happy and it’s your choice? Actually, no, this is not your real preference; you’re being coerced via some underlying forces and consequently, you are not free. Basically, what is important is the principle behind my actions. If the principles are based on someone else’s command or even a posteriori principles attached to consequences of reward and punishment (in terms of societal unacceptance) then yes, I am not free. But if my principle is a priori, based on my own command, then I am free (something on the lines of Kant’s Categorical Imperative). Thus, if the principle behind my wearing a veil is based on my own reason, then I am free…However, then the question arises whether the command of wearing a veil can come from ‘my own’ law if it’s a religious command but this is a separate topic worthy of further philosophical analysis, beyond the scope of my response here.

    • Anjum Altaf
      Posted at 17:36h, 01 January

      Mariam: ‘Adaptive preference’ seems to me a new term for the very old-fashioned process of socialization. There is much written on early childhood socialization and its influence on our preferences and their legitimacy. It really makes it very hard to come to any sensible conclusion about “real” preferences in many cases. You have given a good example of arranged marriages – dress is quite clearly another. These can be contrasted with adult choices like smoking where no such early childhood socialization may be involved. I think the article or the comments do raise these issues.

    • Anjum Altaf
      Posted at 03:04h, 02 January

      Mariam: You will find the following article (East and West: The Reach of Reason) useful: https://www.mtholyoke.edu/acad/intrel/senreason.htm

      In particular, the following refers directly to ‘adaptive preferences’:

      “There are implications also for the “communitarian” position, which argues that one’s identity is a matter of “discovery,” not choice. As Michael Sandel presents this conception of community (one of several alternative conceptions he outlines): “Community describes not just what they have as fellow citizens but also what they are, riot a relationship they choose (as in a voluntary association) but an attachment they discover, not merely an attribute but a constituent of their identity.”28 This view-that a person’s identity is something he or she detects rather than determines-would have been resisted by Akbar on the ground that we do have a choice about our beliefs, associations, and attitudes, and must take responsibility for what we actually choose (if only implicitly).

      “The notion that we “discover” our identity is not only epistemologically limiting (we certainly can try to find out what choices-possibly extensive -we actually have), but it may also . have disastrous implications for how we act and behave well illustrated by Jonathan Glover’s account of the role of unquestioning loyalty and belief in precipitating atrocities and horrors). Many of us still have vivid memories of what happened in the pre-Partition riots in India just preceding independence in 1947, when the broadly tolerant subcontinentals of January rapidly and unquestioningly became the ruthless Hindus or the fierce Muslims of June 29 The carnage that followed had much to do with the alleged “discovery” of one’s “true” identity, unhampered by reasoned humanity.”

      And there is something about arranged marriage (at least in the case of children) as well (which we have now come to agree should not be permitted):

      “Akbar was, for example, opposed to child marriage, then a quite conventional custom. He argued that “the object that is intended” in marriage “is still remote, and there is immediate possibility of injury.” He went on to remark that “in a religion that forbids the remarriage of the widow (Hinduism), the hardship is much greater.””

  • Mariam
    Posted at 18:30h, 02 January Reply

    Thank you, Sir, for introducing me to the above mentioned article of Sen. It is enlightening for me; especially the part about Akbar.
    Regarding discovering identities…I was thinking of black enslavement in South America…that could be another example (As Sen points out the disastrous implication of merely discovering one’s identity). We should keep in mind that even if we grant that we merely discover our identities, nevertheless, we always have the choice to give importance to one identity or the other. For example, is it even significant that the color of my skin is dark or fair or what really is important is the fact that we all are human beings..

    • Anjum Altaf
      Posted at 14:56h, 03 January

      Mariam: It is important to read such essays because they connect us with aspects of our history and heritage of which we may be unaware and open our minds to questions that we might not have considered.

      Sen himself has written on multiple identities – his book is worth reading. A review and an article might suggest the flavor and provide the incentive to access the book itself.


      Recently Professor Harbans Mukhia was at LUMS and in a private conversation he framed the difference between community and communal values in a very simple and persuasive way. Each of us is born in a community and by virtue of that shares the multiple identities of that community – religion, sect, ethnicity, language, etc. All these help to bind members of the community to each other. At the same time, any one of these identities can become a communal identity that aims to divide members of the community from each other. But while we have limited choice over the specifics of our community identities, we have complete choice to reject a communal identity.

      Professor Mukhia’s example from the 1947 violence in the Punjab illustrates these choices very clearly. Thus the onus of choice is very much on ourselves and we have to frustrate those who aim to turn community identities that bind into communal identities that divide. We have the option to not play along, to refuse, and to resist – and we must exercise that option proactively.

      In case you are interested, there is an entire set of posts on the theme of identity on the blog. It would be great if you can contribute to the series: http://thesouthasianidea.wordpress.com/#Identity

  • sandeep
    Posted at 11:19h, 19 April Reply

    In India, strange things are going on. The corporates have taken over the media and they like to use the body of women to be consumer for their products.

    When some actress/model speaks about the right of her to wear anything, do anything, whole media praises her for her coming out in support of women empowerment blab blab… Indirectly through advertisement, serial, movies etc they subconsciously tell women to have western dresses, do office job etc. On the other hand, if somebody speaks about women to wear conservative dresses then whole media question the person of how can he say such thing ? Where is the freedom of speech gone here ? They effectively makes him to get silenced. Because of this many people have conservative world view but fail to speak openly due to fear of backlash by media.

    Have anybody thought of long term consequences of such acts? Europe, Japan, russia population is going down as their family system is destroyed. Couples don’t like to have kids as no one like to raise kids by leaving their career etc. When we speak of women empowerment in terms of women to do job, wear anything she like etc, we have to think of long term consequences. With everything, we have plus minuses. All the customs developed in old religions/culture was precisely to save the community survival and its growth. Those castes/religions/communities adopting the european values will loose in terms of demography.

    • Anjum Altaf
      Posted at 06:12h, 21 April

      Sandeep: I am not sure how a demographic argument for how women should dress is any better than a corporate argument. Shouldn’t women decide this for themselves?

    • sandeep
      Posted at 05:23h, 22 April

      Our custom and social behaviour should be in line with nature’s survival. Darwin theory is applicable here. That’s why we are striving to change attitudes of people to arrest climate change. We have also in India campaign to save Girl Child for the same reason.

    • Anjum Altaf
      Posted at 17:54h, 22 April

      Sandeep: I am afraid I have not understood the point you are trying to make. Which theory of Darwin are you referring to? If Darwin’s theory is applicable why do attitudes of people need to be changed?

      Our customs and social behaviour were much more in line with nature’s survival till the discovery of fossil fuels? What did Darwin’s theory have to do with the discovery of fossil fuels? What does the problem with the Girl Child have to do with Darwin’s theory?

      In any case, what does all this have to do with how women choose to dress? Whether they overdress or underdress has no bearing on climate change.

  • SouthAsian
    Posted at 06:35h, 07 April Reply

    Seema Mustafa from India has reopened this issue. Do read and comment on whether you agree with her argument or not.


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