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.


  • Anil Kala
    Posted at 13:11h, 31 August Reply

    I am just curious! What exactly is banned in France?

    Also please understand that we are not impacted by ‘real religion’ but what is practiced therefore it is futile to dive into scriptures and fish out beautiful quotes.

    • SouthAsian
      Posted at 22:58h, 31 August

      Anil: Luckily the perfect article appeared for you in the New York Times today. It makes all the aspects of the issue absolutely clear. There is also a photograph of the niqab so you can see what is being talked about. Personally, I found the garment quite stylish – I think it would pass Arun’s test of acceptability!

      Note this sentence that started the entire controversy: “The burqa is the tip of the iceberg, Islamism really threatens us.”

    • Anil Kala
      Posted at 07:12h, 01 September

      Seems there is no ban yet only a commission going into various aspects of it. In conclusion the article says a ban is unlikely and if legislated not enforceable.

      So a storm in a tea cup!

    • SouthAsian
      Posted at 10:15h, 01 September

      Anil: If you look at it narrowly – whether a ban is likely in France or not – it can seem like a storm in a teacup. But the issues raised – human rights, civil rights, rights of minorities, freedom of choice, feminism, political protest – are profound and will keep arising in one context or another. We need to take a position on them based on a good understanding of the underlying principles – that is what we have been doing in the discussion. Whether the ban will occur in France is now a minor sideline. Why the issue has arisen in France has more relevance. If you are following the news you would have read of the spate of Islamophobic books coming out of Europe. Here is one review that will convey the intellectual climate.

    • Anil Kala
      Posted at 12:23h, 01 September

      I suppose you are right. Without the vehement protests the ban probably would have been imposed.

      Not in long past Islam was just another religion, not any more. There was not even lumping of Islamic countries; Pakistan was distinctly different from Arab countries while many were not even aware that Malaysia and Indonesia were largely Islamic countries. Politics with these countries was not religion centric. Suddenly the world has split into seemingly us vs them factions. There is hypersensitivity on Islamic side and frivolous condescending attitude towards Islam on the other side. Why? Is it because of Israel alone?

    • Vinod
      Posted at 02:40h, 01 September

      I think it looks like someone is dressed for a costume party!!

    • SouthAsian
      Posted at 02:46h, 01 September

      Vinod: That is just a reflection of what we think of as normal. An African woman in her native dress or a Scotsman in his kilt would also appear to us as being dressed for a costume party.

  • Arun Pillai
    Posted at 11:21h, 03 September Reply

    Instead of trying to say what is wrong with Russell’s principle, I will try to articulate a better principle by building on Russell’s idea (“wherever divergent action by different groups is possible without anarchy, it ought to be permitted”):

    An action ought to be permitted if and only if:

    1. It does not cause anarchy (i.e. it does not harm others or harm society)
    2. It is freely chosen
    3. It does not harm the person who performs the action.

    #2 and #3 are in my view what Russell presupposed (i.e. took for granted). I have tried to spell them out explicitly. #3 is necessary because even when a person chooses freely, they may not realize an action is harmful to them. (However, a libertarian would typically reject #3.)

    By this new principle, sati would be forbidden even if a woman freely chooses it (as many did) because it violates #3. The burqa is more difficult to judge because one needs a more subtle argument to decide whether it harms the woman wearing it. In some cases, the burqa may not be freely chosen in which case it violates #2. The difficulty arises if it is freely chosen but harms the woman because it is part of a patriarchal system that does not allow the full flowering of every member’s talents and personality. In my view, this is largely true except in those relatively few cases where it is being worn by young women as a political gesture against the West. Even in these latter cases, the burqa is at best ambiguous – there are surely more effective ways to register one’s protest than to promote a garment that is so compromised.

  • Arun Pillai
    Posted at 13:48h, 03 September Reply

    As stated, the principle is too strong as it would rule out a person eating five successive scoops of ice-cream because it satisfies #1 and #2 but fails #3. So some modification of #3 is required. Perhaps it could be restated thus:

    An action ought to be permitted if and only if:

    1. It does not cause anarchy (i.e. it does not harm others or harm society)
    2. It is freely chosen
    3. It does not cause serious harm to the person who performs the action.

    Of course, one needs to spell out what “serious harm” is.

    • SouthAsian
      Posted at 16:23h, 03 September

      Arun: Thanks. This is a major advance that allows us to proceed forward systematically. We are looking for a set of principles against which we can objectively evaluate any action thereby cutting out the emotion.

      The test of any set of principles lies in their application and I see a problem when this set is applied to smoking. Smoking harms others and it also causes serious harm to the person who smokes. Society has tried to address this dilemma by taking recourse to another principle – you can do what you wish (even harm yourself, with the caveat of not violating ethical edicts) as long as you do it out of free choice, are fully informed, and do not harm others.

      Thus because smoking harms others, it is not permitted in public places. But private spaces are provided where the smoker is free to harm himself or herself as long as he/she is not coerced into smoking and is fully informed. This last is taken care of by the warnings printed on cigarette packs and beneath cigarette advertisements. The ethical edict is needed to rule out something like suicide that society does not permit.

      In the light of the above could we reformulate the principles as follows:

      An action ought to be proscribed if and only if:

      1. It causes anarchy (i.e., it harms others or society)
      2. It is not freely chosen
      3. It is not based on full information
      4. It violates a pre-existing law (which may be challenged through the legal process)

      #4 (mentioned here to rule out suicide, which is a hotly debated issue today) is a problem because pre-existing laws can be patently unfair, e.g., laws pertaining to slavery or apartheid, and going beyond the law has been required to get them off the books.

      Leaving aside issues like suicide, the crucial determination we need to make is what evidence would we require for ascertaining that a choice is free. If an adult states (on oath, if necessary) that the choice is free would that suffice? Otherwise, we leave the loophole for the mainstream being able to assert that something like the burqa is so grotesque a garment that it can never represent a free choice no matter what the wearer might say and using its majority to force the issue. This is a backdoor for our prejudices to creep right back into the analysis.

  • mazhur
    Posted at 16:24h, 03 September Reply

    @ SouthAsian :

    <<<<<<<<<2. I am not sure that one can say that religion was added to cultures to improve their quality in every case. In a lot of places alien religions were added by force in native cultures – It would be difficult to argue that this was always good. And, if good, from whose point of view?<<<<<<<<

    May I draw your kind attention to the Pre-Islamic culture and how Islam changed it? Glance into history scattered all over….


    Notwithstanding the commands of religion, any religion, Culture does seem to have its strong roots in several societies…
    Religion and culture do co-exist but often culture is led to dominate religion regardless of its rules and spirit. This is also happening in societies where women are forced to wear burqa..


    The answer to your question lies in that the advanced societies

    1. Are based on law, equity and justice
    2. people there work leaving least room for unemployment
    3. systems are well-organized
    4. state takes cares of its people
    5. education
    6 feeling of honor and nationhood

    <<<5. If we use our own mind then we don’t have to worry about schools of thought. But if we follow blindly, we have to adhere to one school of thought or the other because they differ in their interpretations of the shariah. Usually people just follow the school of thought of their parents and believe that is the best in the world. I think that is pretty dumb.<<<

    Nobody follows anything blindly. People have fixed notions or suffer from superstitions. For example, if someone thinks he's good at philosophy he would not switch over to physics easily and so on.

    Parents do influence the minds of their children but not for long. As the children grow up into adults they are free to think and make a decision. But usually they won't do it as it appears to them that there is no religion better than what they are already following!

    <<<<<6. Could you describe what an Islamic welfare state would be like?<<<

    Islamic Welfare state is more or less same as the Western society but not based on the type of 'value-less' democracy the West propagates. Islamic state is based on Worth and Value of Humans and Proportionate Electoral system based on conditions and guarantees all amenities of life and security to Muslims as well as non-Muslims. A glimpse of model Islamic welfare state may be seen in the reign of Hazrat Umar and other 3 Califs of his time.

    • SouthAsian
      Posted at 02:37h, 04 September

      Mazhur: I was careful to say that religion need not improve culture in every case. You have given an example where you think it did. There are other examples where people think it did not. Every case has to be examined individually. No generalization can be made.

      You seem to be saying that religion should necessarily dominate culture. Usually culture has more weight – that is why people of the same religion but raised in different places differ from each other. Many Arab Muslims look down upon South Asian Muslims because they think their culture is superior. In real life few really care much about the commands of religion – if they did there would not be so much corruption and dishonesty.

      About the advanced societies, the puzzle is how they became so advanced by rejecting religion and not having any values?

      About following blindly, I was reacting to an earlier comment you made that believers should be like soldiers and do as they are told. Even thinking has to be learnt. People may be free to think but they don’t because they never learnt to think. That is why it never occurs to them that there could be some other belief systems that are just as good as the one they are following. They don’t really understand their own belief but are ready to argue that it is better than anything else. I think that is pretty dumb.

      Could you explain what you mean by ‘value-less’ democracy. Many Western states have a proportional electoral systems and value their citizens guaranteeing their lives and security.

      There are many non-Muslims on this board so could you elaborate on the reign of Hazrat Umar and the other Caliphs. What was special about it?

  • Arun Pillai
    Posted at 16:39h, 03 September Reply

    South Asian: Thanks. This seems like a major improvement. The full information condition is what I was looking for but did not quite succeed in formulating it. It takes care of the issue of harming oneself.

  • Arun Pillai
    Posted at 17:19h, 03 September Reply

    South Asian: A slight wrinkle that arises in the full information condition is that one seldom has full information about anything because science is continuously evolving and so almost all actions would be proscribed. So I would propose the following slight modification:

    An action ought to be proscribed if and only if:

    1. It causes anarchy (i.e., it harms others or society)
    2. It is not freely chosen
    3. It is not based on all relevant information available through contemporary science
    4. It violates a pre-existing law (which may be challenged through the legal process)

    #3 is still problematic.

  • mazhur
    Posted at 15:54h, 04 September Reply

    @ SouthAsian :


    Ethnically it may be so but culturally you will find many similarities among them. You cannot say this about members of a differing religion in different places.

    <<<<<<Many Arab Muslims look down upon South Asian Muslims because they think their culture is superior. <<<<<

    It's not only with the Arabs – Japanese, for example, also think so. Even our local elite thinks so about the commonace. This is a mental dilemma between have and have-nots and not directly related to religion, especially Islam which stands for universal brotherhood of Muslims.

    <<<<<<In real life few really care much about the commands of religion – if they did there would not be so much corruption and dishonesty.<<<<<<

    how many of us fully observe the man made laws in our part of the world??
    To err is human and therefore the concept of legal infractions and sin. The disparity you mentioned could be eliminated if there is total rule of law and justice is indiscriminately imparted to all, big or small, strong or weak, which unfortunately is not being done.


    I didn’t say the West has no values..it does in matters of morality and ethics. Perhaps this is more due to their culture, administrative strength, effective legal system or ingrained psyche and not necessarily wholly due to religious influence. The basic point is how you implement the laws, religious or otherwise.


    this is a very wide ball ! Who says people don’t think? They think therefor they are, as the saying goes. You must not expect all Ph.d’s in matters of religion or any other subject. As a simple Muslim I think and don’t find any better religion than mine…you as a Hindu or Christian may be doing the same. At least my parents are not there to stop me from thinking …nor anyone else can. At least I am free to think and choose. looking at the various religions around I cannot find any religion ”just as good as the one I am following”, if there is one please let me know.


    sorry I couldn’t be clear on this point. I meant to say that in the Western society every human has a count not value. This poses all the problem in democracy. A bunch of loafers gets ganged up and ‘captures’ the helm of the affairs. I saw this mostly in business associations where a majority of non-operational businessmen who were once members (and always members) would always win the election and not allow genuine people to handle their industries! What a pity to be misrepresented on forums by fake and idle people!


    It will take time as I will also have to google for information ….
    those who may be interested may kindly google for Umar Farooq, the Caliph , or allow me time to search and post the link..

    (am afraid of sudden power cutoffs!)

    • SouthAsian
      Posted at 15:35h, 05 September

      Mazhur: Even within the same country, the haves and the have-nots have different cultures – the former will not have the latter sitting at the same table with them. Universal brotherhood is all right in theory but in real life culture seems to have the upper hand.

      If we observe where rule of law and justice exist, they do not seem to have arrived via religion. So yes, the former are very important but the route to them does not seem to pass through religion.

      Thinking does not require a PhD. How one thinks is shaped by early childhood and school education. If these are in the nature of indoctrination, discouraging enquiry, the ability to think can be impaired. Of course, everyone believes they are thinking. In my view all religions are fine in theory; it’s the practices we should be comparing.

      What is the evidence that in Western society individuals do not have a value beyond a number? The kind of unsavory people you describe who capture the helm of affairs seems more the case in Pakistan than in the West.

      On Hazrat Umar, Googling may not be a good idea – an equal number of positive and negative articles will turn up. We will take your word on this. The more interesting question for readers would be why this golden age lasted for only a few decades and why it has never since be reproduced?

  • mazhur
    Posted at 11:33h, 05 September Reply

    Some excerpts from another discussion board on the burqa issue


    Sheherzade: The non-Muslim women who go to Muslim countries are expected to cover their heads even if just for the sake of appearance. Why cannot non-muslim countries ask Muslim women not to cover their heads when they are in the West?


    by mazHur:

    A very intelligent question put by Scheherzade which I sincerely appreciate.

    In most of the Muslim countries including Pakistan ( excluding monarchies which have their own rules) I never saw a foreign woman clad in a burqa or anything of that sort. I also remember Western women moving around the city and busy market places in their usual western dresses. I also remember my fellow Muslim and western female classmates attending school in school uniform which consisted of shirt and skirt. But this was until mid 80’s only . thereafter the situation changed critically so much so that now no Western woman , even if she is a Muslim, can expect to roam about the city without hiding behind a veil or a burqa. This does not seem to have a purely cultural or religious reason; infact this change has much to do with international politics and mainly due to unpopular foreign policies of the West, especially the Americans, towards the Muslim countries. People ask where are the WMD’s?? Where is Osama, the terrorist? Why is US bent on invading other Muslim countries? What is war on terror? The US is waging war against an abstract enemy on the pretext of ‘war on terror’! Given all this the Muslim world is wary of the West and it thinks the West, including America, is trying to exploit, bully and harm them. This sentiment has been embedded so strongly in the hearts of Muslims in Muslim countries such as Pakistan that a Western/ American woman (and even a man) would be playing with death going out in the city without some sort of security or ‘disguise’ . So, you can see how a change in minds of the Muslims as well as the West has provided reason for all this chaos and turmoil.

    Comment 2

    ”You all know as well as I do that covering up your women in public settings in any form is just a way of keeping other men from hitting on them, and as such is a expession of Machissmo, which is itself a manifestation of insecurity. It robs women of one their pleasures in life which is comparing theirselves in fashion, taste, and beauty to other women. Men of this sort feel they must rule women, ’cause they can’t trust them, (they’re just so inferior you know) ”

    response by me:

    As regards remarks by Hunley I may say that even a woman clad in a burqa is a woman and she enjoys the pleasures of life like all other women. It’s only bad when a woman is forced to wear it.

  • mazhur
    Posted at 16:06h, 05 September Reply

    @ SouthAsian


    True but a rich man would also go begging for votes from beggars.

    As far as Islam is concerned, it teaches universal brotherhood which can b e witnessed from their prayers in Arabic common all over the world or in the manner of their greeting each other. Apart from oddities ,you will generally not find any idol worship in a Muslims house…no wine, no swine, etc etc. These are ‘practices’ which are observed by the Muslim religion and which form a part of their culture. Similarly, you can find similarities of culture in different places among the HIndus and Christians as well.

    thus religion shapes an existing culture. People violating the laws of their religion or misinterpreting them for their own convenience to stick to their culture which their religion condemns is not a religious problem but deviation from Truth.


    Laws may exist anywhere but not justice which is a divine trait. Justice is connected to human conscience and honest conviction. Man made Laws have developed over time from religion as well as precedences. But all man made laws do not guarantee justice but rather contain an element of force and coercion. Remember any Black laws? Have a look at the Roman and Greek laws and you will note how laws were shaped from scriptures and Imperial imperatives and h ow they have undergone modifications from place to place and time to time.


    This is a mistaken belief. Childhood education ceases as a person enter adolescence; indoctrination may continue a long time but still a person has time to think. But how could you expect illiterate and ignorant masses to think other than how to eke out some bread for their survival?
    You can only think with a ‘full stomach’ and liberal time and opportunity. We should take for granted that all people should think alike..no Why should they?


    I can’t agree with you on this point. Some religions are animistic, some ritualistic and some agnostic. Here you expressed your own lack of judgment and thought….by trying to herd all religions with the same stick!


    In that case you should blame ‘democracy’. Why then democracy of the West doesn’t bring us the same results as it does there? there is certainly something wrong with the ‘democracy’ or the people on whom it is enforced.


    ok will google out some link by some authentic Muslim scholar

    • SouthAsian
      Posted at 18:44h, 06 September

      Mazhur: I am less interested in religion and more interested in practice. Even in case of the latter, I have a social science interest – how did the practice get to be what it is, what were the influences that shaped it, and what it implies for the future?

      Some are excited by the exercise of ranking religions but I don’t share that excitement. What religion anyone subscribes to is not of interest to me – you can term it lack of judgement or thought. But this kind of ranking may be of some interest to other readers. Why don’t you give your ranking of the ten best religions with the best being ranked number one. I don’t know where you would rank Islam but where ever you do, it would be of interest to see your sub-ranking within it, i.e., how do you rank the various sects within Islam (Sunni, Twelvers Shiah, Seveners Shiah, Bohri, Khojah, Zikris, Qadiani Ahmadis, Lahori Ahmadis, etc.)? If in both cases the religion and the sect you belong to comes out on top, I will be skeptical of the objectivity of such a ranking and would like to understand the methodology you used to arrive at them.

      You are making a very radical claim that childhood education ceases as a person enters adolescence. This can be so in a very mechanical sense – otherwise, the child is the father of the man. I hope there are some child psychologists among the readers who can shed light on this.

      Nothing is wrong either with democracy or the people. The belief that the same system should work equally well across time and place is misplaced.

      The authenticity of the Muslim scholar should be acknowledged by all sects within Islam.

  • mazhur
    Posted at 14:13h, 06 September Reply

    here’s a nice article on veiling

    Saturday, Sept. 5, 2009 03:30 PDT
    Feminists face off over the veil

    Pull up a chair and grab some popcorn, because there’s another battle royal raging over the veil. In one corner, we have Naomi Wolf, third-wave feminist heavyweight and author of “The Beauty Myth,” defending Muslim garb. In the other, we have Phyllis Chesler, second-waver and author of “The Death of Feminism,” attacking both the veil and Wolf for daring to defend it.

    “I do not mean to dismiss the many women leaders in the Muslim world who regard veiling as a means of controlling women. Choice is everything”

    The first shot was fired with the Sydney Morning Herald’s publication of an article by Wolf headlined “Behind the veil lives a thriving Muslim sexuality.” She recounts her travels in Morocco, Jordan and Egypt, and the time she spent with women in “typical Muslim households.” She observes, “It is not that Islam suppresses sexuality, but that it embodies a strongly developed sense of its appropriate channelling — toward marriage, the bonds that sustain family life, and the attachment that secures a home.” There was “demureness and propriety” outside of the home, “but inside, women were as interested in allure, seduction and pleasure as women anywhere in the world.”

    Then, Wolf turns to the inevitable comparison with Western styles of dress. Many of the Muslim women she spoke with said that revealing get-ups cause men to stare at and objectify them. Wearing a headscarf or chador, however, leads people to “relate to me as an individual, not an object,” they told her. When Wolf went to the local bazaar wearing a shalwar kameez and a headscarf, which hid her womanly curves and wild hair, she “felt a novel sense of calm and serenity” and even, “in certain ways, free.”

    She ends the essay, however, with a colossal caveat:

    I do not mean to dismiss the many women leaders in the Muslim world who regard veiling as a means of controlling women. Choice is everything. But Westerners should recognise that when a woman in France or Britain chooses a veil, it is not necessarily a sign of her repression. And, more importantly, when you choose your own miniskirt and halter top — in a Western culture in which women are not so free to age, to be respected as mothers, workers or spiritual beings, and to disregard Madison Avenue — it’s worth thinking in a more nuanced way about what female freedom really means.

    Wolf isn’t defending forced veiling or even the veil itself. She’s arguing in defense of women’s individual experiences of veiling. Much like any decent anthropology 101 professor, Wolf is trying to force a shift in the perspective of her Western readers so that we might seriously consider the possibility that some Muslim women truly and legitimately see dressing scantily in public as repressive and experience covering up outside of their home as freeing. Let’s not forget whom we’re talking about here: Wolf penned “The Beauty Myth,” a book that indicts all of the culturally specific ways that women’s bodies are controlled and manipulated in the West.

    Chesler is horrified by Wolf’s argument and doesn’t pull any punches in a blog response titled “The Burqa: Ultimate Feminist Choice?” It bears the taunting subhead: “Naomi Wolf Discovers That Shrouds Are Sexy.” Chesler hyperbolizes Wolf’s argument, suggesting that she sees women in chadors as “feminist ninja warriors” and “believes that the marital sex is hotter when women ‘cover’ and reveal their faces and bodies only to their husbands.”

    She goes on to contend that “most Muslim girls and women are not given a choice about wearing the chador, burqa, abaya, niqab, jilbab, or hijab (headscarf), and those who resist are beaten, threatened with death, arrested, caned or lashed, jailed, or honor murdered by their own families” and asks whether Wolf is so “thoroughly unfamiliar with the news coming out of Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Sudan on these very subjects.” (Never mind that Wolf is talking specifically about the experiences of women she encountered in Morocco, Jordan and Egypt, as well as those of women in France and Britain, where there is great political resistance to Muslim dress.) This caused Wolf to e-mail Chesler to ask that she correct “terrible inaccuracies” in the post. Chesler hit back, posting Wolf’s e-mail along with a hostile response; yesterday, she posted a related item with the subhead, “The Hundred Year War Begins.”

    It’s hardly the beginning, though. This feminist debate is long under way. The cultural relativists are firmly rooted on one side; the absolutists are on the other. We can agree on some common ground: It’s appropriate, as Chesler suggests, to talk about, and fight against, the ways that the veil is used to control women. But fighting for the acknowledgment of the nuances of Muslim women’s individual experiences of covering up is still something of a suicide mission. Now, David Horowitz is absurdly proclaiming on NewsReal that “if Naomi Wolf and her radical friends had their way, America would be disarmed and radical Islam would be triumphant and women would be back in the Middle Ages, and the rest of us along with them.” On the same site, Jamie Glazov declares that Wolf “loves the burqa,” despite the fact that the burqa isn’t mentioned once in her article. (He might want to brush up on the different types of veiling before entering such a debate.) Even Ann Coulter has linked to the one-sided online debate.

    You might notice that as this conflagration spreads, more and more conservatives — many of whom do not identify as feminists — are rushing in to stoke the fire. As they do, the discussion becomes less about defending women’s rights and more about supporting their ongoing culture war. That reminds me of a line from Wolf’s essay: “Ideological battles are often waged with women’s bodies as their emblems, and Western Islamophobia is no exception.”
    ― Tracy Clark-Flory

    Other links on the topic

    1. http://www.smh.com.au/news/opinion/behind-the-veil-lives-a-thriving-muslim-sexuality/2008/08/29/1219516734637.html?page=fullpage#contentSwap1

    2. http://pajamasmedia.com/phyllischesler/2009/08/31/the-burqa-the-ultimate-feminist-choice/2/

  • mazhur
    Posted at 17:13h, 06 September Reply

    I just received these comment from an American lady Psychologist the contents of which are self-exlanatory and serve a good ‘food for thought’

    “……perhaps the major reasons the West hates the veils (any type) so much is that:

    1. It prevents women’s bodies from being displayed like pieces of meat to the public.
    (The US has an incredibly high incidence of sexual assault — one in four women)

    2. Westerners think that veiled women might not spend so much money on cosmetics, clothes, fashion accessories, etc.
    (In the US, more money is spent on cosmetics alone than on public education. Big, big business.)”

  • mazhur
    Posted at 17:30h, 06 September Reply

    One more notion that just hit my head is that “burqa also serves as a ‘uniform’–an overall— for a community such as the Muslim women the same way as a ‘sari’ is generally understood to be a Hindu dress though some Indian Muslim women also wear it.

  • mazhur
    Posted at 19:31h, 06 September Reply

    @ SouthAsian :

    First of all let me make clear that I do not belong to any sect of Muslims. (Remember Islam has no sect, Muslims have just as other religions do.) I am a simple Muslim and no more no less…
    Earlier I said one must use his commonsense to judge good from bad. Good and Evil, as you find them in the Pilgrim’s Progress, is universally accepted and acknowledged by all religions to be the same and having a common base.

    i am not interested in ranking religions. The only thing I can do is to classify them as the ‘revealed’ and un-revealed’ religions and when I refer to ‘religions’ I refer to all the great living religions of the world. Sects do not matter as those are deviations from the basic or constructions of human mind.


    For this you will have to peek into the social history of people in different places. For example, can you tell why the bitter enemies of Muslims, the Mongol dynasty later embraced Islam and spread it to the Far East and South Asia without raising their swords? There certainly must be a very strong influencing ‘factor’ which made those wild conquerors switch over to Islam.


    Which sects?? Which scholar? you are communicating with a Muslim, ain’t that enough?

    • SouthAsian
      Posted at 19:41h, 06 September

      Mazhur: According to some people even religions are a construction of the human mind. Even God is a construction of the human mind. How do we refute these claims?

  • mazhur
    Posted at 20:06h, 06 September Reply

    @ SouthAsian

    <<<<<<<Mazhur: According to some people even religions are a construction of the human mind. Even God is a construction of the human mind. How do we refute these claims?<<<<<<

    No way. The world of heart and mind is much wider than the world of science. The only way to prove it is to come up with miracles (or perhaps a 'demonstrative god!)….but according to my belief Miracles won't happen!

    So, let us all take our own course instead of arguing and pursuing the impossible!

    paoqaI pD, pD, jaga mauAa, pMiDt Bayaao na kaoe
    Za[ AaKr p`oma ko, jaao pD,o saao pMiDt haoe

    Reading books everyone died, none became any wise
    One who reads the word of Love, only becomes wise.

    Dunya aisee bawari pathar poojan jaaye
    ghar kee chakki koi na poojay ja ka peesa khaaye!

    • SouthAsian
      Posted at 20:29h, 06 September

      Mazhur: A fair conclusion – to each his own.

    • Anil Kala
      Posted at 09:32h, 07 September

      akbar ilaahabaadi: some contradiction

      har zarra chamaktaa hai anwaar e ilaahi se
      har saans ye kahti hai ham hain to khuda bhi hai

    • SouthAsian
      Posted at 11:58h, 07 September

      Gentlemen: It is my task to direct this discussion back to the subject of the burqa and what it means in terms of freedom of choice, civil and minority rights, and public policy. I feel we have concluded with a useful set of principles and need to focus on those now to test their validity. We need to subject them to the rigor of logic and test them with real examples to find contradictions, if any.

      There are many posts on the blog about religion and God and we can direct our interest in the topic to those discussion boards. Also, we have an entire series on Ghalib in which much is said about these topics. For this reason, I am not posting on this board some comments that have repeated verses from Ghalib. I regret this is necessary to keep each discussion focussed on its topic.

    • murthy
      Posted at 11:21h, 11 February

      At some level the society needs to take responsibility for what goes on in the name of religion. India is a easy target for rich Wahabis , it is painful to see in an open society like India small girls of age 5or 6 to be put hizb and sent to madrasas. Every one knows what would be the fate of that 6 year girl once she grows up all along accepting the wahabi rules. Sarkozy makes sense at that level, he may be fool but he is right when he says there is no place for a burqa in France and definitely no place for hizb on a small 5 year old in India

    • SouthAsian
      Posted at 22:06h, 11 February

      Murthy: I agree that society should take responsibility for what goes on in the name of religion. For that reason, I share your feelings about the 5 year-old in India. But what if an agnostic Frenchwoman in Paris wishes to wear a burqa for some perverse reason or a burqini to the pool? French designers have come up with some bizarre costumes over the years. Should she be barred from this non-religious expression of free choice?

    • murthy
      Posted at 05:36h, 19 February

      I think we are still missing the point, what muslim women feel about burqa, with an emphasis to south asian women India,Pakistan,Bangladesh etc. visit this page: http://www.dawn.com/wps/wcm/connect/dawn-content-library/dawn/the-newspaper/editorial/12-burka-the-other-view-620–bi-10

      French ban is a minor diversion to argue about.

    • SouthAsian
      Posted at 16:13h, 19 February

      Murthy: The French ban is a minor diversion in itself but it has raised the issue for debate. The article you have linked makes the point that the voice of Muslim women who do not wish to wear the burka is being ignored. The solution to that is for those women to raise their voice and join the debate not to ask for the burka to be banned. That is tantamount to a request for censorship. The issue needs to be separated from religion and evaluated as one of choice. What should the attitude of the State if a French Catholic woman wishes to wear a burka on the street or a burqini at the pool?

  • SouthAsian
    Posted at 15:47h, 07 September Reply

    Ladies and Gentlemen: We have the ideal parallel case to apply the principles we have derived in the discussion on the burqa.

    In Sudan there is an existing law (Article 152 of Sudan’s penal code) that calls for women to dress modestly: up to 40 lashes and a fine can be assessed anyone “who commits an indecent act which violates public morality or wears indecent clothing.”

    Lubna Hussein, a journalist, has been convicted under this law for wearing trousers in public. She has appealed the sentence and insists she has a right to wear pants in public.

    In Sudan, some women wear veils and loose-fitting dresses; others do not. Northern Sudanese, who are mostly Muslim, are supposed to obey Islamic law, while southern Sudanese, who are mostly Christian, are not. Mrs. Hussein has argued that Article 152 is intentionally vague, in part to punish women.

    The Sudanese government claims the law is meant to protect the people: “We have an act controlling the behavior of women and men so the behavior doesn’t harm others, whether it’s speech or dress or et cetera.”

    Many Sudanese women are protesting and say the law is vague and discriminates against women. They are asking for a more defensible definition of “indecent clothing.” Dozens of women — many wearing pants — gathered in front of the courthouse to express their solidarity with Ms. Hussein.

    Based on the principles we have derived, how to we analyze this case and where do we come out on the happenings in Sudan?

    The complete report on Ms. Hussein’s case is here.

  • mazhur
    Posted at 20:10h, 07 September Reply

    “indecent clothing” for women may mean any clothing which exposes the contours of their feminine parts, and is alluring to men, in a particular environment , could be one definition. It’s just like an Eastern man walking through the streets of Manhattan dressed in dhoti banyaan or shalwar qameez!

    • SouthAsian
      Posted at 21:04h, 07 September

      Mazhur: We can accept that as your definition. It is within the right of women in Sudan to challenge the definition that is in force there. At this time, we should focus this discussion on how we are going to apply to the Sudan case the principle (Russell’s extended principle) that we arrived at following the earler discussion.

  • SouthAsian
    Posted at 02:00h, 10 September Reply

    Let me attempt to apply the principles we had derived to the situation in Sudan and see if we find the conclusions valid:

    1. There is an existing rule on the books against ‘indecent’ clothing. The state claims that trousers worn by women fall into this category.
    2. Some Sudanese women disagree with this determination and consider the prohibition a violation of their freedom of choice.
    3. The ruling is being challenged within the legal system of the country.
    4. As far as I can make out the rule is not being imposed on non-Muslim women.

    Given the above, the process should be allowed to take its course. This is not a case where a new restriction is being arbitrarily imposed by a majority on a minority based on personal dislikes.

    Proponents on both sides should be encouraged to come out in support of their positions. This is how the law has evolved in most cases.

  • Vinod
    Posted at 03:32h, 10 September Reply

    This makes interesting reading – it gives a context to what’s going on in France. Few neo-con racist intellectuals seem to be rabble rousing.


    • SouthAsian
      Posted at 00:07h, 11 September

      Vinod: This article was referenced earlier in the discussion on Kashmir in connection with the somewhat less known facts about the how the minority problems were resolved in European nation states. The question that came to mind was whether the minority problem in India was going to be resolved in the same way? If not, how else? This is an important discussion and those interested can rejoin that discussion. The link is here.

      This the excerpt from Pankaj Mishra’s op-ed that is relevant:

      Genocide during the second world war followed by ethnic cleansing were what finally resolved Europe’s longstanding minority “problem”, blasting flat, Judt writes, “the demographic heath upon which the foundations of a new and less complicated continent were then laid”. In Europe’s largest migrations of refugees, some 13 million ethnic Germans fled Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary and Romania after the war. The eviction of other ethnic groups (Poles, Czechs, Slovaks) brought many countries closer to fulfilling the Versailles ideal of national homogeneity.

    • Anil Kala
      Posted at 16:15h, 11 September

      The article at the link is as alarmist as the individuals it talks about.

  • Arun Pillai
    Posted at 21:07h, 13 September Reply

    South Asian,

    You suggested reading an article of Balagangadhara’s earlier. I have just gotten to it. I do not know if it is still relevant to comment but here is a brief remark.

    I find his style engaging but unscientific and I find his argument flawed. It is not easy to offer a rebuttal here but there appear to be three basic flaws: he seems to deny people ordinary commonsense thinking whether they are of Indian or Western origin; he seems to deny the global impact of science and attributes everything to Western missionaries and to colonialism; lastly, he seems philosophically to give experience greater weight than reality, which makes him an idealist, a position that I find unconvincing.

    Having said this, the argument is still worth reading because it makes one reflect on certain aspects of one’s experience more closely.

  • SouthAsian
    Posted at 03:45h, 16 September Reply

    In this discussion there have been several references to the difficulties faced by women in patriarchal societies and what can be done to eliminate the unwanted advances of men. In that context, the introduction of women-only commuter trains in India is both an indicator of the problem and a sensible idea towards a solution. Any thoughts?

  • mazhur
    Posted at 15:39h, 11 February Reply

    Currently a bus-hostess attracted some young men who were travelling in her bus. They went crazy after her , kidnapped and gang raped her.
    This shows our culture is yet not mature enough to allow women the sort of ‘freedom’ they are aspiring for. In other words they do need the company or supervision of their men to save them for the ugly enticements and atrocities of other men who jump at the first opportunity they get to exploit women!!

    In one another instance 2 girls went to a snack bar and drove off a young waiter to their place where they tied him up to a charpoy, fed him with Viagras and then had sex with him until he was half-dead.

    In both cases, if women were escorted by ‘their menfolk’ such things wouldn’t have happened. This points out to the ‘necessity of women being held in purdah or in ‘their men’s escort’ unless they wanted to be safe or act decently in this world which evidently (as scriptures tell us) God made for Adam (and not Eve).

    • SouthAsian
      Posted at 16:15h, 11 February

      Mazhur: The logic of this escapes me. What you are saying is that ‘their menfolk’ are somehow different from ‘other menfolk’. If some menfolk are different from other menfolk then the misbehaving menfolk should be apprehended and tried for breaking both religious and secular laws. If menfolk are menfolk then your solution would not work. While escorting ‘their womenfolk’ the menfolk would get unnaturally excited by ‘other womenfolk’ and run after them leaving their own womenfolk to be exploited by other menfolk who have abandoned their own womenfolk. Either all these berserk menfolk should be locked up or the commonsense solution proposed by Siddharth Singh should be employed. Clearly religion has failed completely to drum any ethics into the menfolk. What do they learn at all those endless Friday sermons?

  • mazhur
    Posted at 20:13h, 11 February Reply

    @ SouthAsian

    It seems you are ignoring the ethos noticed at several public places where ‘only families are allowed”. You will notice all there behaving-both men and women. What does this suggest??

    Culture is NOT the same as religion. Religion prohibits Muslims not to drink yet they do against it; parents teach their children not to lie, not to cheat, not be cruel to animals, be punctual, be honest, be hardworking, be honorable, etc etc but how much of this ‘teaching’ work is open to all??? Similarly, all those who listen tot he Friday sermon,Sunday mass or Temple ashloks compulsorily don’t do as they are preached. That is pretty human psyche….to revolt, to commit infractions whenever possible. Even so called ‘free women’ in the West are not Free in the right sense of the word….
    They are still being beaten up, raped and exploited by men there. Providing women ‘social freedom’ doesn’t amount to ”complete freedom’ which normally men ‘enjoy’. This is a socio-politico-psychological problem and has to be tackled from that angle….

    • SouthAsian
      Posted at 17:27h, 12 February

      Mazhur: This could suggest the following to me if I extend the logic of the argument to its natural conclusion:

      1. Men only behave themselves when they are with their families. Therefore men should not be allowed to go anywhere without their families. They should even take their families to work with them. If they go alone they might see a woman on the way and go berserk.

      2. That men are like lambs when they are with their families and the same men turn into wolves when they are alone. This is quite contrary to reality.

      3. Religion is a component of culture. The traditional rationale for religion is that it is introduced in soceity to improve behavior. In the kind of depraved culture you are describing, it seems that religion has completely failed in this objective. Therefore religion should be discarded and some more effective means employed.

      4. The problem I have is with the kind of culture you describe. You are generalizing from a few dramatic incidents to the entire society. How many men behave the way you are describing – one tenth of one percent, one percent, ten percent, fifty percent, or ninetynine percent? Once we have a sense of the magnitude of the problem we can figure out how best to address it.

      5. In the culture you are describing the problem is not confined to men. You mentioned the two women who abducted the waiter. So, if there is no difference in the depravity of men and women, all of them should be locked up. The scenario you describe is equivalent to the arrival of a rogue elephant in a village; your prescription is that everyone should stay locked inside their houses for protection. This is hardly a sustainable solution. Ultimately someone will have to venture out and shoot the elephant else everyone will starve to death.

      6. As long as we keep making excuses for the bad behavior of some men and make all women suffer for it, this problem will not go away.

  • mazhur
    Posted at 19:33h, 12 February Reply

    Mazhur: This could suggest the following to me if I extend the logic of the argument to its natural conclusion:

    1. Men only behave themselves when they are with their families. Therefore men should not be allowed to go anywhere without their families. They should even take their families to work with them. If they go alone they might see a woman on the way and go berserk.

    Conversely, the same problem lies with women. When they move around they do tend to entice men and both men and women tend to go astray. This is against the norms of a ‘familial system’ we, the Indo-Pakistanese live in. Western mode cannot be applied in our countries because of socio-economic differences and lack of respect for law. Religion bounds a person to some law which if properly and fully implemented does serve to curb unnatural and socially ignoble gender association( at least in our part of the world where hunger and poverty is rampant and where there is no official social security provided).

    2. That men are like lambs when they are with their families and the same men turn into wolves when they are alone. This is quite contrary to reality.

    Generally, men go wild and manic at finding the first opportunity to put a hand on a female in our part of the country—Given sociio-economic conditions prevailing here that is NOT unnatural. Here religion plays its role to let men keep their brains level in the company of women in certain ‘seclusive or inviting avenues’.

    3. Religion is a component of culture. The traditional rationale for religion is that it is introduced in soceity to improve behavior. In the kind of depraved culture you are describing, it seems that religion has completely failed in this objective. Therefore religion should be discarded and some more effective means employed.

    In the absence of religion being enforced in letter and spirit how can you say Religion has failed??? No, it hasn’t yet.-Only humans have failed, cultures have failed,
    systems have failed!

    4. The problem I have is with the kind of culture you describe. You are generalizing from a few dramatic incidents to the entire society. How many men behave the way you are describing – one tenth of one percent, one percent, ten percent, fifty percent, or ninetynine percent? Once we have a sense of the magnitude of the problem we can figure out how best to address it.

    Once when there was an electricity outage in USA people there immediately began looting and destroying private property. I believe they will do it again unless curbed by force and law. What can religion do with ”hungry humans’ who are wont to forget all principles and lessons ”when hungry upto nose”?? Recent example is Hait. Check out how people began looting and plundering at the first opportunity. You have no reasons to attribute their behaviours to religion. as I believe no religion of the world teaches evil.

    5. In the culture you are describing the problem is not confined to men. You mentioned the two women who abducted the waiter. So, if there is no difference in the depravity of men and women, all of them should be locked up. The scenario you describe is equivalent to the arrival of a rogue elephant in a village; your prescription is that everyone should stay locked inside their houses for protection. This is hardly a sustainable solution. Ultimately someone will have to venture out and shoot the elephant else everyone will starve to death.

    No need to shoot out the wild elephant. Enforce religion rigidly on both men and women equally or forget your faith. Sane Elephants are usually employed to round up wild and drunken elephants….in Indian language we call it HAANKA! For this you need stringent enforcement of law or rule of law…and system to ensure social welfare of citizens.

    6. As long as we keep making excuses for the bad behavior of some men and make all women suffer for it, this problem will not go away.

    If most men are bad the most women are bad tooo. It would be equitable to treat the both gender equally and not subject the females to male sympathy or pity unreasonably. They don’t need pity from men…..they just want men to behave!!

  • mazhur
    Posted at 20:49h, 12 February Reply

    It just occurred to me that the main objection of women (and proponents of women rights) usually target the ‘patriarchal system’ for the all the evils. May I invite their attention to the tale of Gligamesh which suffered the brunt under ‘matriarchal system.
    A pros and cons of both patriarchal and matriarchal system seems to be the need of the day. If neither of the systems are viable then what’s the solution??

    • SouthAsian
      Posted at 15:31h, 13 February

      Mazhur: I don’t think women want to replace a patriarchal system with a matriarchal one – this is not a question of who is going to be on top. The quest is for equal rights. The history of slavery can provide a parallel – slaves did not aim to become slave masters; they wanted equal treatment as human beings. As far as civil rights are concerned society should be blind to color, race, religion, and gender.

  • mazhur
    Posted at 15:57h, 13 February Reply

    @ SouthAsian

    I don’t think women are being ‘denied’ civil rights as such. On the whole, they are freely doing what men do…but to a limited extent ofcourse which fact is directly related to socio-economic and religious conditions.

    A law in the West which lays stricture or permits some act to men or women is not applicable in the East, at least in Indo-Pakistan to which land I belong to. There is left hand driving and right hand driving in various countries of the world but you cannot call none of them bad.

    Is it possible for a woman in Chota Nagpur or Rajhastan, for example, to walk on the path men do?? No. First of all ensure civil amenities to all then expect to enforce the so-called ‘civil rights’. Slavery is condemned by all civil, social and religious doctrines…….women cannot be read in the light of movement against slavery as they are not slaves but partners of men!

    Civil rights does not exclude one’s duties towards home and family in our part of the world where civil privileges are minimal and even men are denied civil rights!!

    In Pakistan the so-called civil rights have been completely denied to its citizens by the military dictatorships for more than half the age of that country. What reason then we, the men, have to fight over women rights who always needed protection of their men!!

    There is an old proverb which reflects on the status of women (and even men)

    When two ride a horse one has to ride behind!!
    That’s pretty civil, ain’t it not??

    • SouthAsian
      Posted at 02:40h, 14 February

      Mazhur: You have made a very strong claim:

      “Slavery is condemned by all civil, social and religious doctrines”

      It might be worth looking up on the Internet what the holy books of the major religions have to say about slaves. We could then have a discussion about the implications.

    • Murthy
      Posted at 11:30h, 29 April

      I think it is wrong to say burqa is a socio religious practice, it is more related to the outlook of how men want to treat their women.

      Read this excellent article by Anees Jillani at http://expressbuzz.com/biography/Sania-Mirza’s-new-role/169131.html,

      To quote :”The solution to this menace is not withdrawal from public life which many in Pakistan opt for. The women should learn to fight it back. One of the first things that is noticeable upon crossing the Wagah-Attari border into India is the large presence of women. It is a pleasant change to see women driving tractors and scooters in Amritsar. It unfortunately remains a front-page news in Pakistan even in this day and age if a girl rides a bicycle. It is still considered provocative in Pakistan for women to sit on a bicycle or a motorbike like men — they are expected to sit on a bicycle or bike with both their legs on the same side, even when it remains dangerous and uncomfortable.”

      Burqa only enables men to strengthen their view that they can do what they like with women, and law is too weak to punish them.

  • mazhur
    Posted at 23:29h, 13 February Reply

    @ SouthAsian

    From my past travels to the West including the USA I take this opportunity to state that I had seen least courtesy shown by men there toward women. for example, while traveling on a bus or train I noticed that men wouldn’t offer their seats to women. Against this, men in our part of the world would atonce volunteer to leave their seats for the women as a matter of courtesy and respect for the female gender. Of course, all this does not have any connection with religion. Those are Oriental VALUES ……I wonder how the West still boasts about male attitude towards women (whom they generally feel proud to address as ‘bitches’ !) and what do they mean by ”civil rights”. Civil rights, as I understand, are greatly related to governmental systems and governance rather than religion.

  • mazbut
    Posted at 12:13h, 29 April Reply

    @ Murthy :

    In cultures where there is lack of rule of law women need some shelter to save themselves and their families from socio-cultural troubles which may lead even to killing and that shelter they find in being less exposing and less exhibiting and inviting by taking the support of a veil you call Burqa!!

    However, despite strict enforcement of law in places like Saudi Arabia women are required to wear burqa which proves that burqa is a socio-cultural factor rather than a religious one

    • Murthy
      Posted at 06:16h, 17 June

      Gentleman you contradict your self.

  • SouthAsian
    Posted at 13:11h, 18 June Reply

    Murthy: It would be good if you spell out the contradiction. That would avoid a misunderstanding of what you have in mind and move the discussion along better.

    I re-read Mazbut’s comment and agree with you that there is a contradiction in it. Saudi Arabia is a place where the law is enforced with draconian powers; yet the burqa exists there. This is not due to socio-cultural factors; it is enforced in SA explicitly to abide by religious edicts as interpreted by them. The burqa or niqab are also emerging in Europe and North America where there is no problem with lack of law.

    The difference bewteen the two cases is that women have no choice in SA; so, if one believes in freedom of choice regarding dress, the SA situation is problematic. However, in Europe and North America, freedom of choice is a cardinal tenet; so if some women prefer to exercise that choice they cannot be condemned no matter how much anyone may dislike the garment. Of course, with the caveat we have discussed earlier that the exercise of the choice poses no threat to society.

    There is an interesting recent article (Behind the Veil) in the NYT about free choice in the US. It is based on interviews. The women exercising the choice claim it makes them feel closer to God. This would seem bizarre to many. But is that enough reason to disallow it?

  • mazbut
    Posted at 15:34h, 18 June Reply

    @ Murthy

    If you think I contradicted myself how will you justify the ban on women to wearing shalwar Qameez during the reign of King Zahir Shah in Afghanistan? it was not a religious edict to force Afghan women to wear Skirts leaving legs bare ! Also, you may refer to similar past oppressive laws regarding Turkish women.

    New Lords make new rules, goes the saying. Burqa is just a taboo and it’s popularity may fade out with time as it did in Pakistan several years ago. The more the repression the greater the Burqa gets popularity!!

    • SouthAsian
      Posted at 01:18h, 19 June

      Mazbut: The focus of the discussion in this post is on the issue of free choice. We are trying to understand what the conditions might be under which free choice by some may not be allowed by the majority in a society. I suppose we agree that arbitrary or coercive restrictions on free choice are not a good idea. Personal likes and dislikes, no matter how strong, can also not be sufficient reason to curb freedom of choice. We are seeking a set of principles that are coherent and unbiased that can be recommended for such situations.

  • mazbut
    Posted at 01:34h, 19 June Reply

    As evident from the examples given above the answer to your question on ‘free choice” can be deduced very simply! It’s the form of government that makes ‘free choice’ for both the man and women! Change the type of government and it will change the laws and enforce them as well to over-whelm people’s aspiration for ‘free choice’, and I think this is all that is relative to and dependent upon to larger and provisional extent on man-made laws.

    • SouthAsian
      Posted at 11:53h, 19 June

      Mazbut: I agree. The human struggle over time has been to change governments so that the range of freedoms – economic, political, civil – can continue to expand. With occasional reverses at the local level (e.g., Afghanistan), this is a broad trend that is likely to endure.

  • SouthAsian
    Posted at 05:42h, 12 July Reply

    I recommend this precisely argued philosophical intervention on the justifications being offered for the ban on the burqa. The argument is grounded in philosophical traditions that are themselves worth being aware of.

    Veiled Threats? by Martha Nussbaum, Professor of Law, Philosophy and Divinity, University of Chicago.

    • Vinod
      Posted at 08:41h, 12 July

      Thanks for the recommendation, SA. It was a very enlightening article.

  • SouthAsian
    Posted at 01:46h, 15 July Reply

    This time an interesting application of the law to the issue of the burqa:

    Veiled Arguments by Ronald P. Sokol, a French lawyer.

  • Anil Kala
    Posted at 08:49h, 15 July Reply

    I am glad France is on course to ban burqa. The ban it appears is only for covering up face. Rest of the obnoxious attire is not covered under the up coming law.

    • SouthAsian
      Posted at 15:00h, 15 July

      Anil: Which box should your verdict go into: principle, preference or prejudice?

  • Anil Kala
    Posted at 16:32h, 15 July Reply

    You can’t have always ‘yes or ‘no’ answer to these things SA. On most other issues I may opt for principle, personal freedom.

    Apart form all other reasons, this attire is not only distasteful but aesthetically unacceptable as well. I disagree on prejudice point. I am told in France wearing ‘Cross’ is also not allowed in classrooms. I whole heartedly agree with that also.

    • SouthAsian
      Posted at 17:31h, 15 July

      Anil: I don’t see the logic of these arguments. There are many things I might find distasteful and aesthetically unacceptable, say long beards, but I can’t expect a ban on them. This is a stance that violates a basic right to freedom of expression. The other point is even less convincing. By this argument, countries where the Cross is allowed in classrooms should also allow the burqa. Your agreement or disagreement is not really relevant to the argument in this situation. You are expressing a personal preference to which you are certainly entitled.

    • Anil Kala
      Posted at 03:36h, 16 July

      You are reading too much on personal dislike. It is not put forward as a reason for banning burqa but expressed merely as a satisfying thought for me.

      The other point is also taken out of context. Ban of ‘Cross’ is symbolic of French government’s uniform policy in these matters. If other governments too have similar uniform policies then I wish to endorse that policy as well. I don’t see how one can draw the conclusion that if ‘Cross’ is allowed in a classroom then burqa should also be allowed.

      Quite obviously I am expressing my personal view but I wouldn’t want it interpreted in a manner it is not intended.

    • SouthAsian
      Posted at 06:04h, 16 July

      Anil: Yes, it is quite obvious that you are expressing a personal view. I have no quarrel with your personal likes and dislikes; what I find problematic is the desire to impose personal likes and dislikes on society.

      The Cross entered the discussion because you drew the comparison with the burqa, i.e., since the Cross was not allowed in classrooms in France so should the burqa not be. This prompted me question the logic by posing the counterfactual: If the Cross were allowed in classrooms should the burqa also be allowed? If the answer is in the negative, then clearly the Cross has nothing to do with the argument or the reasoning. It is simply the expression of a personal dislike for the burqa to which you are fully entitled.

      Just for clarification of other readers, in France religious symbols are not allowed in government-funded elementary and primary schools to conform to the separation of Church and State. The proposed ban on the burqa is not confined to such schools – it extends to all public places. The controversy is focused on this extension and the question being asked (see the contributions by Nussbaum and Sokol) is whether there is any principle that can be adduced to support this extension and whether it would be upheld by law.

    • Anil Kala
      Posted at 06:40h, 16 July

      I think you are again wrongly interpreting my views. Expressing happiness at something which is to your liking is not the same thing as imposing your will on others. I very well know that the world is not fair. There are many things which I despise but accept as common choice. This is one rare occasion for me to rejoice!

      Again you are ignoring the point of uniformity of French law, instead harping on the word ‘Cross’. Use of ‘Cross’ was incidental to point out neutrality of French law. If burqa is banned in public place as well then this shows that the wise law makers of France think of it as transcending religious boundaries and causing discomfort to general public. Why should it be considered prejudiced especially knowing France has been stubbornly neutral in religious matters.

    • SouthAsian
      Posted at 07:04h, 16 July

      Anil: My response to your first comment asked whether it ought to be filed under principle, preference or prejudice? After all the subsequent discussion it is clear that it belongs to the category of preference. As I have said, you are entitled to it and can rejoice at a decision that conforms to your personal preference. There the matter can rest.

      There is a larger question as to whether French law is uniform and neutral. The National Assembly has passed the bill on the burqa and the Senate is expected to pass it in September. After that France’s highest court and the European Commission on Human Rights will weigh in on whether the bill can be upheld under existing law. The point of contention, as I have mentioned before, is that while the ban on religious applies only to government-funded elementary and primary schools, the ban on the burqa extends to all public places. It will be this extension that would be the subject of the challenge. We will know at that time what principles are adduced for endorsing or rejecting the ban.

  • mazbut
    Posted at 18:07h, 15 July Reply

    @ Anil Kala


    If human being or things are judged by their aesthetic and acceptability, I believe most men and things would go off the list of many persons.
    To cut short, Answers to these discriminative approaches can be seen in Apartheid, racism and bigotry.

    • Anil Kala
      Posted at 03:54h, 16 July


      I am glad you pointed out.

      Burqa is exactly symbol of apartheid, racism and bigotry.

  • mazbut
    Posted at 09:29h, 16 July Reply

    @ Anil Kala

    If the burqa was a symbol of apartheid then no woman in India would have tried to veil herself with the Palloo of Sari , Ghoonghat, Chunri etc etc
    It’s the thinking which goes in the making of Apartheid…ie dislikes over likes…etc

    Why was Gandhi not compelled to wear a proper dress when he visited England and met Queen Victoria?? Nobody then objected to his semi-nude costume of Dhoti-chadar just because he was a man?

    The problem with burqa in the Western society has more to do with their culture and the difficulty with the people there to identify faces…
    In Pakistan there was no need for a woman’s picture of National Identity card or passport some years ago..just thumb impression used to be enough.
    But now posting a woman’s picture is compulsory because the burqa is liable to be misused by men for ulterior motives. It is the threat of terrorism which seems to have compelled EU to be extra-precarious on issue of Purdah otherwise it is a patent trespass on women rights..

    • Anil Kala
      Posted at 12:36h, 16 July

      I don’t find any of your argument relevant.

      I can’t see any other purpose of veil than to hide one’s women folks from other men’s view to avoid a clash. The monstrous philosophy simply ignores existence of women as thinking individuals who have similar need for freedom as men. If Hindus do the same with palloo, ghoongat they are guilty of the same crime against women.

      By this argument we shouldn’t have banks because frauds are committed there, not airlines because they are hijacked etc. But we have banks and airlines and we don’t shut them up, instead we put in place systems to avoid these things.

      France is doing the same thing. It is shutting down an archaic philosophy.

      Let us punish those men who view women as a commodity. Both, who make them wear burqa and those who are the cause of this insecurity. If some women find it comforting to go around in burqa, it simply reflects that society’s inability to provide them a sense of security. Quite obviously the choice of these women is not voluntary.

  • mazbut
    Posted at 13:21h, 16 July Reply

    @ Anil Kala

    I regret to note that your dislike for burqa has overwhelmed you and you see the whole thing with a jaundiced eye.

    There are two conditions when burqa is worn by women

    1. as a cultural necessity….for example wearing a burqa is a cultural issue with Pathans and more orthodox Muslim families. The same could be said of some Hindu communities.

    2. Volunteer acceptance of burqa …ie what the women in France or in other advanced countries are doing.

    In none of the above case you have reason to deny women their choices. What’s the harm if some cultures necessitate wearing of a burqa to hide their adornment from public eye and keep the men in a ‘culture’ peaceful??
    Read history and you will find many cases of duels between men for the sake of women. Jackson wouldn’t have been the President of USA had he lost the duel he fought to win a woman. Edward VIII wouldn’t have abdicated if if weren’t for a woman’s sake.

    You cannot compare women to banks or chattels of sorts…that would be cruel ,,,,women deserve the same dignity as men do and have all the right to hide or reveal themselves at their own will….
    Just because the West apprehends some men hiding behind the burqa and committing violence is no excuse for strippin women off their human right….
    good governance can overcome such apprehension of the West….in the same way you cannot close all banks or traffic on the pretext of insecurity or accidents.

  • SouthAsian
    Posted at 13:29h, 16 July Reply

    A follow up comment from Professor Martha Nussbaum should clarify a lot of the recent questions in our discussion:


    And a report based on interviews in the US on whether wearing the burqa can be a voluntary choice:


    • Anil Kala
      Posted at 04:39h, 17 July

      I tried to read the kilometer long article by Ms Nussbaum, lost patience midway. Then I realized that in these matters there are always enough arguments on either side and the matter nearly always reaches a dead end and eventually decided by majority choice.

      The very basis of the principle of protecting conscience seemed flawed to me because conscience is rarely formed freely. The paradox is that there is no other way for conscience to form; therefore principle of protecting conscience by default seems fair.

      The second point which no one seems to have addressed is whether the burqa as a cultural legacy is genuine? It is transparently clear to me that it was deliberately created to serve a male need, therefore treating it as a genuine cultural legacy is bad idea.

    • SouthAsian
      Posted at 11:27h, 17 July

      Anil: Bills are passed by majorities in assemblies but their constitutionality is ratified by courts. And in the courts it is philosophical and legal arguments of the sort made by Nussbaum and Sokol that count. There are indeed always enough arguments on either side of any issue but, in a fair court, it is the side whose arguments are more robust that wins the case. This is the way the system works. For example, there was once a move to ban obscenity in literature. Communities passed resolutions by majorities and assemblies passed bills by majority but ultimately it was the court that decided on the constitutionality of the proposed legislation and it rejected the majority opinions. That is why there are paid professionals dealing with such issues whose job requires that they not lose patience midway.

      I don’t see how the point about the burqa being a genuine cultural legacy or not is relevant. Suppose it is indeed determined that it is not; is that sufficient grounds to ban it? Cricket was also deliberately created to serve a male need. Should it not be considered a genuine cultural legacy by the English and, if not, should it be outlawed? A more extreme example would be of Playboy bunnies. They too were deliberately created to serve a male need. Are they not a genuine cultural legacy of the Americans and, if not, should they be banned? Does it matter that I might despise Playboy bunnies and consider them derogatory to women and exploitative of them and that I would rejoice if they were banned? The only thing that is relevant to a decision with regard to a ban is whether it would conform to or violate any of the rights granted under the American (or European) Constitution.

    • Anil Kala
      Posted at 12:56h, 17 July

      It is true that eventually courts decide whether a law passed by the legislature meets basic tenets of the constitution of that country, but courts too are known to have overturned their own verdicts.

      As already said there are enough arguments on either side and no clear winners. Even in courts often the verdicts are split, it may just be possible that a court verdict goes one way or the other because the constitution of bench was such. (I have faint memory of Bush-El Gore election in USA and case of recount of votes going to Supreme Court and verdict splitting on political affiliation of the judges.)

      I would trust my own instinct in these matters.

      If you think it is immaterial to know if a legacy is farcical then there is nothing to argue here. I feel very strongly that if a legacy is known to be prejudiced against a section of society then due weightage must be accorded to it while making a decision regarding free choice etc. If a cultural tradition is applied uniformly through a society then there is little likelihood that it is discriminatory but tradition applicable to only a section of society has high chance that it is a result of selfish motives. There is no case for equating cricket and burqa.

    • SouthAsian
      Posted at 14:50h, 17 July

      Anil: I feel the central point is being missed. These issues are not determined by majorities but by legal decisions and this procedure is in place to avoid the misuse of majority power. It is true that court decisions can be split or biased or overturned later but the fact still remains that it is legal decisions based on arguments that matter in the end and one side would be the winner for such time as the verdict is overturned. Your or my instinct has no say in these issues. We can certainly trust our instincts but what public policy decision would follow from that given that there are others whose instinct tells them something contrary? Can this be turned into a contest of instincts?

      Who is going to determine if a legacy is farcical or not? Once again, your or my opinion can be an input into public policy but it is not the determining input. We are continuously trying to go beyond the expression of personal preferences. If there is something that is prejudicial to certain interests, it would be appealed in court and the court would decide.

      Yes, the cricket example is absurd but deliberately so to point out that the criteria you propose are flawed. It was invented by males to satisfy their needs and it is played disproportionately by men – so what are we to make of these facts? That is why I proposed the more relevant example of the Playboy bunny costume. As it is, this line of thinking about the genuineness of cultural legacies is fraught with problems. If some people wish to do farcical things, is there a legal principle that can be evoked to prevent them from doing so?

  • mazbut
    Posted at 15:28h, 17 July Reply

    The present judicial system works on the principle of precedent. But in the French case there is no precedence to follow and there is all probability that the decision of the French court banning burqa may get over turned sooner or later.

    Have you heard of the Saansi clan in India?? They were a small community and said to eat cats. Would that mean cat-eating should have been banned in India just because a small minority practiced that?? There are hundreds of such examples found among the minorities of India ….but never have they been banned or the minorities harrassed for their likes…and dislikes. (except a law was passed banning Satti)

    Democracy is rightly called oppression of the minority by the majority and the present ban on burqa is a glaring example of it…. I wonder if the French or the West as a whole would also ban Bengali, hindu dhoti and Punjabi Laacha, which is a cultural choice of men there, on flimsy grounds, I think dhoti is better than Bermuda shorts or nickers!

    • SouthAsian
      Posted at 18:18h, 17 July

      Mazbut: Both the French court and the European Commission on Human Rights have yet to rule on the ban. Only the National Assembly has passed the bill; the Senate is expected to pass it in September. I think we have exhausted the arguments based on personal preferences. These won’t hold up in a court of law. Whether some one likes the dhoti or shorts is neither here nor there.

  • mazbut
    Posted at 18:50h, 17 July Reply

    @ SouthAsian

    I know that the proposed ban has yet to be ratified but the condition of a precedence may have to be taken into account finally. In case there is no precedence available then dhoti and laacha and perhaps Kimono too may step in for assistance!

    • SouthAsian
      Posted at 07:14h, 18 July

      Mazbut: In my view precedence does not require a previous case with a one-to-one correspondence with the burqa. This is a case in which precedence would be sought in the wider context of human rights to freedom of expression in Europe but not in the context of universal cultural rights. Thus something like the Kimono is unlikely to have anything to do with the determination. Rather, the issue of not wearing any dress could well come up. Going undressed is not allowed in most public places in Europe but allowed in designated places like clothing-optional beaches. So the question could be how does being fully covered differ from being not covered at all as long as it is voluntary and not a threat to security?

      Vinod/Anil: There is an interesting op-ed by Maureen Dowd today (Rome Fiddles, We Burn) that illustrates quite a few of the issues we have been grappling with. It deals with the tradition of only allowing celibate males to be priests in the Roman Catholic Church.

      Note first that Dowd provides a material explanation for this tradition. But leaving that aside, what kind of existential angst does this tradition relieve in its adherents? What kind of comfort does it provide? Is it discriminatory since males invented it and it is restricted to males? Is it a genuine cultural legacy? Should it be banned or overturned? If so, what would be the process of doing so? Do you support it?

  • mazbut
    Posted at 08:01h, 18 July Reply

    @ SouthAsian

    I take your point in that the argument rests between two choices, veiling vs nudity and both these ‘rights’ have still to be further debated in their own perspectives to comply with women rights.

    Will check out with Maureen Dowd’s article….but needless to say some women would be most insecure in certain cultures without wearing the burqa…I think wearing a burqa gives a woman a feeling of ‘security’ against stranger men in certain cultures and is the only way to serve their cultural needs as well as curtail the feuds over women which normally go on for decades there. One such example is, inter alia, Afghanistan and North West Pakistan ,,, but it makes me wonder why women do have to wear burqa when they are out of their cultural territories such as France? Do they do it due to family pressure or on their own? Or, they just want to keep their cultural heritage wherever they went??

    • SouthAsian
      Posted at 09:36h, 18 July

      Mazbut: Read the article that I had linked earlier. In it women wearing the veil in the US explain why they do so. I don’t subscribe to some of the reasons but this is how they see it: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/06/13/fashion/13veil.html?

  • Arun Pillai
    Posted at 15:09h, 18 July Reply

    South Asian,

    I think the discussion is going around in circles a bit with many arguments being repeated from earlier posts. There are many reasons why women might wear a burqa. For the women in the NYT article you cite, it is voluntary. In my view, for a society like France, a burqa violates some essential notion of personhood and freedom. In such difficult cases, it has the right to impose this notion on all its members. Those wearing the burqa voluntarily will suffer but not everyone can be appeased in any difficult decision.

    It is also a little bit like smoking. A decision to smoke is not just a personal decision because it also affects the health of others around the smoker. In the same way, the presence of a woman wearing a burqa affects people around her as well, often in a negative way in Western society. So such a decision must be made by society taking everyone’s views into account, not just the wearer’s.

    • SouthAsian
      Posted at 19:57h, 18 July

      Arun: I agree, the discussion is marked by repetitions but sometimes repetitions are part of a spiralling forward movement. We often see that in discussions across a table. So I am open to some repetition as long as I sense we are not completely mired in one place.

      You have a valid general point. Sometimes the welfare of a society can be improved by restricting the actions of one segment of that society. I can accept that logic. I become wary if the argument is that we can advance the liberty of one segment of society by restricting the freedoms of that very segment.

  • Arun Pillai
    Posted at 16:50h, 19 July Reply

    South Asian,

    Regarding freedom and liberty, and restricting a group’s freedom to advance that very group’s freedom, I think the puzzle can be resolved if we identify two very different attributes of freedom, one that is typically protected by constitutions and another that is philosophical. The first is simply freedom of choice. The second is the kind of notion Amartya Sen and others have advanced where freedom is identified with increasing the capability of persons to do things in the world. It is arguable that because the burqa is so restrictive, it is possible to increase a person’s capability while restricting their choice by banning it. So freedom in the first sense is reduced while freedom in the second sense is increased.

    • Vinod
      Posted at 01:37h, 20 July

      Arun, how would you apply that to people who choose to be vegetarians? Is their philosophical freedom restricted and by banning vegetarianism (the details of how being disregarded) are capabilities increased?

    • SouthAsian
      Posted at 06:00h, 20 July

      Arun: Vinod has asked the right question which had also occurred to me. You have articulated an interpretation of Sen that I doubt Sen would endorse. Sen’s focus is on expanding the choice set which should, in general, lead to an increase in capabilities. Once one moves to restricting the choice set in order to increase capabilities, one enters much more contentious territory in which the burden of proof is considerably more onerous.

      Take the case of the women in the US who have adopted the veil out of free choice. They have clearly articulated that for them this sacrifice in mobility increases their capabilities in a number of ways. Now someone comes along saying that he/she knows better what is good for the women. This cannot be accepted unless one starts with what one needs to prove – that the veil is restrictive in all situations.

      I don’t wear the veil so this example is at one remove. But I can apply an analogy to myself to test how I would react to such a determination being made on my behalf. Suppose the Singapore authorities tell me that I cannot wear my hair long because that would decrease my capabilities in the Singapore job market. This is a tradeoff that I would wish to make for myself.

      Your response to Vinod’s example about vegetarianism has similar problems. First, you begin with what needs to be shown – that vegetarianism is good in all circumstances. Second, you label vegetarianism a free adult choice whereas it is just as much an acculturation from childhood in the majority of cases in India. Individuals who forsake it in adult life go through a period of severe psychic trauma before doing so.

      In such arguments one cannot presume the conclusion, i.e., the veil is restrictive or vegetarianism is healthy. If one does, there is nothing left to argue about.

  • Arun Pillai
    Posted at 03:24h, 20 July Reply


    That’s an excellent example. In the case of the burqa, capabilities are increased by banning it because it makes women free to interact with others in a fuller way. For example, facial expressions are a crucial aspect of human interaction. The only cost is that some men may become unruly if they are not used to the sight of women in ordinary clothes but this is primarily a matter of habituation. And this is certainly not a real cost if the majority of women in society do not wear a burqa.

    In the case of vegetarianism, it is arguable that people can enjoy a wider variety of foods but only by incurring the cost of sacrificing animal rights. There are also other reasons for vegetarianism e.g. it is a more efficient way of acquiring energy so that fewer people need to starve.

    In addition, it is much clearer in the case of vegetarianism that it is a matter of adult individual choice. In the case of the burqa, I would wager that the majority of women are not exercising a free choice. But this takes us back to matters already discussed above.

  • SouthAsian
    Posted at 07:51h, 20 July Reply

    I came across two articles that are inter-related in the context of the issues we have been discussing:

    The first (Seriously, What About Cousin Marriage?) raises the issue of choice and rights asking why people can be for same-sex marriage while at the same time opposing marriage between cousins.

    The second (The Minangkabau: Mixing Islam and Matriarchy) describes a society in Indonesia that is Muslim and matriarchal and where women still prefer to wear the veil. This seriously questions the exclusive attribution of veiling to patriarchy.

    I also like the term ‘projective disgust’ used in the first article (attributed to Martha Nussbaum) to characterize mainstream attitudes to phenomena like cousin-marriage and veiling.

  • Arun Pillai
    Posted at 15:12h, 20 July Reply

    Vinod and South Asian,

    I think there are some misunderstandings about what I am saying.

    It is a physical fact that women who do not wear a burqa are able to be freer in their interactions. There is nothing to prove here, it is just an empirical observation.

    By removing the burqa from the choice set, there are some costs and benefits. The cost is making unaccustomed men unruly. The benefit is freer interactions, that is, women become more capable of fuller interaction.

    By removing vegetarianism from the choice set, there are again some costs and benefits. The main cost is that one gives up animal rights. The main benefit is that one can enjoy a wider variety of food.

    In the majority of cases, it is true that both the burqa and vegetarianism are things people are born into. When they become adults, wearing or not wearing a burqa is more often a social-familial matter whereas being vegetarian or not is mostly an individual choice.

    I have tried to lay out an analysis of both. I am deliberately not drawing any conclusions.

    • Vinod
      Posted at 16:26h, 20 July

      When Sen talks about capabilities, he is talking about capabilities of individuals in a society. You are using his terminology but are following the utilitarian calculus which Sen disputes.

    • SouthAsian
      Posted at 16:48h, 20 July

      Arun: This comes across to me as a very fragile argument. Since when did ease of interaction become so important that it started taking precedence over freedom of choice? Isn’t this something that individuals should be able to trade off on their own? And where would the optimal stopping point be given that shorts enable freer interaction than skirts?

      In the 19th Century, aristocratic European women wore immensely restrictive clothing like corsets and hoops but these were not banned; they just faded away over time. Even today Amish women in the US wear dresses that make their interactions considerably less free than those of the average American woman. Yet, there is no move to restrict the choice of the Amish.

      What your argument seems to be implying is: When in Rome, do as Romans do. But this immediately runs into the problem of historical precedence. Europeans did not adhere to this dictum when they were in the colonies. So, what principled basis is there for arguing the contrary position now?

  • Arun Pillai
    Posted at 16:53h, 20 July Reply


    I agree I am mixing frameworks. Increasing capabilities is an absolute good for Sen, I believe, but the examples at hand make it clear that it is a relative matter. So I thought of introducing utilitarian considerations into Sen’s framework. He may disagree but I see nothing inconsistent about such a mixture.

    • SouthAsian
      Posted at 00:04h, 21 July

      Arun: The problem I see with this argument is the following:

      The legitimacy of expanding the choice set is driven from the acceptance of certain fundamental rights of human beings (e.g., right to education, health, security, etc.) or from acceptance of the notion of equality of opportunity. An expanded choice set is expected to lead to an increase in capabilities. But, and this is critical to the framework, how an individual trades off capabilities against choices or weights them in the utility function, remains an individual decision. Once a utilitarian dimension is introduced, we are talking about maximizing the welfare of society and we get into the problematic area of who is going to decide what is best for society. Here the door to coercion begins to open.

  • Arun Pillai
    Posted at 17:04h, 20 July Reply

    South Asian,

    I think the main problem with the burqa is that it covers the face almost completely, sometimes there is even a mesh over the eyes. No one seems to find a nun’s habit problematic. Besides, I think you are taking a few exceptions where women have themselves opted for the burqa. But the majority wear it out of a sense of tradition so it is a matter of judging a tradition. In terms of the exchange in a different post, this tradition is unduly restrictive and does not expand life’s possibilities. So I think the framework of individual choice is inappropriate for this problem in the large majority of cases.

    This brings in my earlier point about welfare as well. It is disconcerting for others to interact with a woman in a burqa, for example, if she is a teacher in a classroom.

    • SouthAsian
      Posted at 00:17h, 21 July

      Arun: My discussion is confined to Europe and North America in the context of the rights and freedoms that exist there. This excludes the tradition as it might exist, say, in Afghanistan. I feel we can leave the Afghans to deal with this tradition. In Europe and North America the number of women wearing the full veil is miniscule (the upper estimate for France is 2000) and most are young women choosing the attire out of choice or defiance. At the intellectual level, the true test of our arguments pertains to the case where a ‘bizarre’ choice is nevertheless a free choice. On what grounds can such a ‘bizarre’ free choice be prohibited across the board?

    • Arun Gupta
      Posted at 03:47h, 21 July

      Given the incidence of allegedly forced marriages of women of South Asian descent in England, for instance, one can hardly infer that wearing the full veil is by choice. That is, if there exist pressures for marriages that are not visible, then how much less visible will be those for the matter of lesser import – the full veil?

      “Currently some two hundred cases of forced marriage are reported to the Foreign & Commonwealth Office each year”.

    • SouthAsian
      Posted at 05:16h, 21 July

      Arun: Where there is coercion a violation of the right to choose exists, so the case is clear cut and societies have to find ways of dealing with the situation. The more interesting situation, and the one we are grappling with, is what, if anything, is to be done when there is no violation of free choice?

      There was an interesting op-ed by Gwynne Dyer (Hysteria and the Veil) a few days back in which he referred to a bill introduced in the British Parliament along the lines of the bill passed by the National Assembly in France. His opinion: “We can also assume that it will never become law, for British immigration minister Damian Green immediately replied that “telling people what they can and can’t wear, if they’re just walking down the street, is a rather un-British thing to do.””

      He also asks an interesting question: “Why did a ridiculous law banning the full veil pass through the French parliament without opposition, whereas a similar bill will never reach the floor of the British House of Commons?” The responses have less to do with the veil than with the nature of the stresses and fears in the host societies themselves.

    • Arun Gupta
      Posted at 11:40h, 21 July

      I’m asking – how do we know it is free choice?

    • SouthAsian
      Posted at 11:53h, 21 July

      Arun: Read the article based on interviews in the US. It was linked in one of the earlier comments. Read Gwynne Dyer’s op-ed. At least half the women adopting the veil are converts and so not socialized since birth. Notwithstanding that, one can still carry out a thought experiment. Suppose there was one, just one, woman who we were sure had chosen the veil without pressure. Is that possible? If so, how would we deal with that choice given that no existing law is being broken?

  • Arun Pillai
    Posted at 18:51h, 21 July Reply

    South Asian,

    I think the strongest argument is that wearing the burqa out of free choice is a little like smoking in that it reduces the welfare of others. This is especially so when the burqa-clad woman tries to occupy a social role – classroom teacher, office-goer, even activist – as opposed to merely walking down the street. In most social roles, the burqa creates discomfort in others. Try getting Damian Green to admit a burqa-clad woman to being a member of Parliament.

    Perhaps a compromise can be reached: the burqa should be banned wherever a social role in involved. If the woman works from home (e.g. as an author), she can wear a burqa but if she works with others in an organizational setting, she cannot. This would be like banning smoking in public places.

    The argument above implies that the burqa is not just physically restrictive but also socially restrictive.

    • SouthAsian
      Posted at 01:04h, 22 July

      Arun: I can also consider this a weak argument, one that almost reflects a desperation of sorts. There is incontrovertible evidence, despite the billions spent by the tobacco lobby, that passive smoke is injurious to the health of non-smokers. Where is the similar evidence in the case of the veil despite the fact that there is no veil lobby to speak of?

      This desperation leads you to propose a seemingly absurd compromise. What would be the point of wearing the burqa at home? It is intended exclusively for the outside.

      As for the burqa creating discomfort in social settings, say classrooms, I would guess that all unfamiliar things would have caused discomfort in the beginning. I can think of mini-skirts or teachers of color in the American South. People get used to the unfamiliar as long as their fears and prejudices are not stoked by others.

      And as for Damian Green admitting a burqa-clad woman to Parliament, that is not Damian Green’s prerogative. The democratic system works well in such situations. If a constituency elects a burqa-clad woman, it would be difficult for Damian Green to keep her out. It was over a hundred years ago that the first MP of South Asian origin was elected and admitted to Parliament. Nor has it been possible to keep a Black president out of the White House once the electorate has decided to send him there.

  • Arun Pillai
    Posted at 03:41h, 22 July Reply

    South Asian,

    1. I think we are obscuring the issue of the burqa by focusing exclusively on those women who opt to wear it freely. This is an extremely small minority. The primary reason most ordinary people feel the burqa is repugnant to them is that it is largely based on coercion and the subjugation of women. By focusing on the small minority who wear it for political reasons, we are actually condoning this rather archaic practice. I think it should first be determined clearly whether the burqa is largely an instrument of oppression or not.

    2. If it is admitted that this is indeed a barbaric practice for modern times, then it is possible to have a reasonable discussion about what to do in the case of the small minority that is exercising free choice. But we should be clear about the overall context in which the argument is taking place. I realize that it is an everyday thing for many many persons in the world (e.g. many older women who have just been socialized into wearing a burqa) so my real objection is directed towards those who are coercing young women into this practice.

    3. I do think there are many social roles – like being a school teacher – that cannot be performed fully by someone in a burqa. I do not think it is a matter of an unfamiliar thing that one has to get used to. Just as nudity would be inappropriate so would a burqa. I don’t think many school teachers wear miniskirts either.

    4. My comment about Damian Green was meant to point out that the burqa is inappropriate in many modern institutional and organizational contexts, not whether a burqa-clad woman could be elected to Parliament or not.

    5. I also meant to say that if a woman works from home, she can wear a burqa in ordinary public places – like walking down the street. But it should be banned in all organizational settings – like a classroom.

    • SouthAsian
      Posted at 05:59h, 22 July

      Arun: We are indeed on different wavelengths on this issue and have to arrive at a common understanding of the point we wish to debate.

      First, we are discussing this issue in the context of fundamental rights in Europe and North America having initiated this discussion with Russell, Sarkozy and Obama. Second, if we argue in favor of fundamental rights, we cannot be for coercion at the same time. So, coerced choices are outside the purview of this discussion. Third, till such time as some credible international organization declares the veil an unacceptable tradition (as has been done for slavery, apartheid, child trafficking, etc.) personal opinion has little weight in the argument. It is so for some, not so for others, and I do not know how one can reach a definitive conclusion.

      At the intellectual level, there is only one issue of interest, the one we started with in the name of Bertrand Russell. If, in the context of the acceptance of the fundamental right to choose, a minority exercises a free choice that does not violate an existing law or endanger public safety, but is one that the majority does not like, what is the acceptable recourse? That, in my view, is the focus, not the appropriateness of the burqa per se or a defense of coercion.

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