Burqa: Principle, Prejudice and Preference

By Anjum Altaf

What is the difference between the yarmulke and the burqa besides the fact that one is minimally small and the other is maximally large?

By now the controversy over the burqa is well known. In France, President Sarkozy has said: “The burqa is not a religious sign. It is a sign of subservience, a sign of debasement… It will not be welcome on the territory of the French Republic…. In our country we cannot accept that women be prisoners behind a screen, cut off from all social life, deprived of all identity.”

In Cairo, President Obama has said: “I reject the view of some in the West that a woman who chooses to cover her hair is somehow less equal…. and I respect those women who choose to live their lives in traditional roles. But it should be their choice.”

I am going to set these remarks against the backdrop of Bertrand Russell’s observations on the tyranny of the majority (from Political Ideals, 1917) where he discusses “matters of passionate interest to certain sections of the community, but of very little interest to the great majority. If they are decided according to the wishes of the numerical majority, the intense desires of a minority will be overborne by the very slight and uninformed whims of the indifferent remainder…. The tyranny of the majority is a very real danger. It is a mistake to suppose that the majority is necessarily right…. there are a great many questions in which there is no need of a uniform decision…. Wherever divergent action by different groups is possible without anarchy, it ought to be permitted…. it is of the utmost importance that the majority should refrain from imposing its will as regards matters in which uniformity is not absolutely necessary.”

Now I wish to extract the principles contained in these three statements. In Russell’s case, the principle is unambiguous – wherever divergent action by different groups is possible without anarchy, it ought to be permitted. In Obama’s case, the principle is seemingly clear but possibly problematic as I shall argue later – individuals can do what they wish (within the law) as long as they do it out of free choice. In Sarkozy’s case, there is no principle; there is a statement of prejudice (the burqa is a sign of subservience, of debasement) and a statement of preference (in our country we cannot accept that women be prisoners behind a screen).

I do not have a problem with Sarkozy’s personal prejudices. Nor do I have a problem with the passage of a law in France dictating what kind of outerwear is acceptable in the country – that is a prerogative of the French parliament. But note that such a law violates Russell’s reasonable principle provided we assume that the wearing of the burqa is not going to be the cause of anarchy in French society.

My concern about actions based not on defensible principles but upon prejudices and preferences is that they can be quite arbitrary and dangerous. What if Sarkozy next gets it into his head that the bindiya too is a sign of subservience? Or worse, what if some new Fuhrer coming to power decides that the yarmulke is an absurd pre-historic head covering stuck to the hair of men with pins and that it cannot be accepted in modern European society?

How does Sarkozy know that the burqa is a sign of subservience? It may be in some cases and not in others. Even when it is, how will disallowing it prevent other less visible forms of subservience continuing inside the home? And how does he know the yarmulke is not a sign of coercion in some cases?

It is here that I sense a weakness in the principle of free choice as enunciated by Obama. It is not generally the case that individuals attain the age of majority and are presented for the first time with the choice of wearing or not wearing a certain piece of outerwear. In most cases, they are socialized into wearing that piece of clothing from very early childhood growing up with the feeling that being without it as almost akin to being naked (in the case of the burqa) or in a state of deep sin (in the case of the yarmulke). This is quite different, for example, from the case of consensual homosexual relationships, which can be seen as an act of free choice – no one is socialized into such behavior from early childhood as a requirement of social or religious duty. So Obama has the wrong analogy in mind on which he has based his principle. What Obama calls free choice, Sarkozy will term subservience.

At the same time, there are indeed European women who are not socialized into traditional behavior but who now prefer to wear a burqini. This is indeed an expression of free choice in Obama’s terms and not a sign of subservience in Sarkozy’s terms. French authorities have to contort themselves to find a public health rationale to keep the burqini out of swimming pools when Western women were wearing similar costumes not more than half a century ago as will be obvious from this pictorial history of the bikini.

Based on the above both Sarkozy and Obama need to reconsider their positions. I personally wouldn’t want to be inside a burqa and I find the yarmulke quaintly odd but as long as there are people who wish to indulge their desires to wear them without causing anarchy in society, I would have to learn to keep my prejudices and my preferences to myself and not goad an otherwise indifferent majority into imposing its will on a minority. At the same time I quite like the bindiya (as long as it is not green) but have to refrain myself from ordering its universal usage. I also consider the move from the burqa to the burqini a giant leap for humanity and would hate to step in the way of this promising evolution.

Not for nothing was Bertrand Russell a philosopher of the highest rank.


  • Arun Pillai
    Posted at 13:33h, 22 July Reply

    South Asian,

    I had forgotten the original context for the discussion. Now that you have laid it out again, perhaps some credible international organization should be given the task of determining the status of the burqa taking all relevant factors into account.

    Regarding the abstract issue of a minority choosing something that the majority dislikes, I think it has to be determined what the extent of the externality is. This determination has to be carried out by a neutral body made up of members of the minority and the majority. If it is felt that the externality is substantial, then the practice has to prohibited, otherwise not.

    • Vinod
      Posted at 16:26h, 22 July

      This determination has to be carried out by a neutral body made up of members of the minority and the majority.

      If this group can include members from outside the political entity within which the issue is in focus, then I think we have a healthy, albeit rudimentary, body of persons engaging in what Sen would endorse as Public Reason.

    • SouthAsian
      Posted at 16:50h, 22 July

      Arun: I agree this would be an acceptable way to proceed although I feel it should be a non-governmental body with credibility. A inter-governmental organization would be subject to intense politicking and my guess would be that Saudi Arabia with the backing of the US would manage to derail any pressure. Also, at this time the US is not inclined to rock the boat in Afghanistan despite all the rhetoric about ending discrimination against women.

      I presume you know of the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination. It recommended an end to all “descent-based” discrimination in 2002 but the Indian government has used its leverage to get around the proposed legislation. Recently the UK House of Lords has passed the Equality Bill empowering the British government to include “caste” within the definition of “race”. This is a direct parallel to the bill on the veil in the French National Assembly. It would be interesting to see how this evolves and how the various sides line up with their arguments.


  • Arun Pillai
    Posted at 01:37h, 23 July Reply

    South Asian,

    I was unaware of some of this legislation. I feel there are a number of institutions and practices that are completely outmoded and have no place in modern society. Race is one, caste is another, the burqa is a third. It is very unfortunate that politically aware young women are using this way of fighting discrimination because the burqa is not something semantically neutral that can be invested with new meaning.

    • SouthAsian
      Posted at 10:32h, 23 July

      Arun: I don’t think that politically aware young women are using the veil to fight discrimination. I think this is more a gesture of political defiance. Your comment has intrigued me about the difference between rebellion and defiance and I hope to explore the distinction and its implications in a post.

      Meanwhile, the Parliament in Spain is taking the path suggested by you (here) – allowing the veil in public places but disallowing it in government buildings.

      And just so we are clear on what we are talking about, here is a pictorial description of the burqa, the niqab, and the hijab.

  • SouthAsian
    Posted at 02:57h, 28 July Reply

    It is interesting that the issues we have been discussing with regards to the burqa in Europe (i.e., is there any place where the burqa should be prohibited? If so, where and why?) have found a complete parallel in the case of breastfeeding.

    This report from Italy actually ends with the following question: “Is there anyplace where breastfeeding should be prohibited? If so, where and why?”

    The underlying phenomenon is the same – a minority claiming a right to practice an act that the majority is not comfortable with. What are the principles that should govern the decision?

    This is an interesting parallel because it takes out the emotive issues of Islam, barbaric traditions, hideous appearances, public security, and oppression of women.

    How do we look upon the basic issues in this relatively clean context that should help us focus on principles rather than religions?


  • Arun Pillai
    Posted at 04:04h, 28 July Reply

    South Asian,

    This is a red herring. Breastfeeding and its related problems have nothing to do with the problem of the burqa. How can you ignore the issue of women’s oppression in the context of any discussion of the burqa?

    • SouthAsian
      Posted at 04:53h, 28 July

      Arun: I am afraid you missed my point. Stanley Fish has a very nice column (Is Religion Special?) in which he describes how “the law is more often than not in the business of avoiding substantive issues by recasting them as issues of procedure. Rather than directly confronting the moral questions apparently animating a case, courts will replace them with the questions demanded by the tests, models and magic phrases that make up the machinery of legal inquiry in a particular area. The process of applying those tests and models and of invoking those phrases has the effect of distancing one from the urgencies felt by the opposing parties as the professional urgency to find the right (or most persuasive) rubric becomes paramount.”

      Applying this to a recent case he shows how “C.L.S. v. Martinez ceases to be a case about Christians who want to express their beliefs and a university that wants to hold itself aloof from discriminatory practices, and becomes instead a case about expressive association, limited forums, viewpoint neutrality, compelling interests, and the distinction between belief and conduct, all of which receive explication in narrowly legal terms.”

      In this spirit I am trying to reformulate a substantive issue into a procedural one. In both cases under consideration, the underlying issue is exactly the same: Is there any place where the activity should be prohibited? If so, where and why? We can take the case of the classroom or a public place that we have used previously.

      In this reformulation, it is the oppression of women that is the distraction. Let us agree that the burqa is oppressive if you are unable to wrench yourself away from that aspect but then focus on the case of the women in Europe who have adopted it by free choice. Restricting ourselves to this subset makes the two situations completely alike and we can proceed with finding the arguments that would lead to a legally defensible resolution.

  • Arun Pillai
    Posted at 14:03h, 28 July Reply

    South Asian,

    I can imagine a baby being breastfed in a classroom or in a corporate meeting but I cannot imagine a burqa-clad teacher in a classroom or a burqa-clad executive in a meeting, even if the burqa is freely worn.

    • SouthAsian
      Posted at 14:54h, 28 July

      Arun: This is fair enough. It is an expression of an individual’s imagination which would have to contend with other imaginations. The issue is about the legal principle or principles that would be adduced to arrive at a ruling either way on these two cases. What would be the grounds that would make breastfeeding acceptable in a meeting but not a burqa? It cannot be the likes and dislikes of the other attendees at the meeting because that would run into violations of anti-discrimination laws. I am searching for the legal argument that can support the distinction between the two cases. Let me try and pose this question to Professor Fish.

  • Arun Pillai
    Posted at 15:00h, 28 July Reply

    South Asian,

    I didn’t literally mean to cite my imagination. Anyone can imagine all sorts of things. It was a way of saying that the burqa would interfere with teaching or participating in a meeting whereas breastfeeding would not. I think this distinction can carry legal force.

    • SouthAsian
      Posted at 16:56h, 28 July

      Arun: I am very, very skeptical. I hope we can get a lawyer or student of law to provide an input. I have circulated a request to a few friends. You might do the same if you know any.

      A baby can scream in a meeting and disturb the proceedings. A burqa can be no worse than an audio conference – these are quite the norm today.

  • SouthAsian
    Posted at 05:48h, 29 July Reply

    It is good to find an article that provides some history on the use of the veil. This is a particularly interesting one from Lima in Peru. I found it of interest that the attire (called Tapadas) was used by the elite and then appropriated by the middle class because, in the words of a sociologist, the clothes “provided more freedom to those who wore them than ordinary women.” In the context and social milieu of the times, it actually “loosened the stranglehold on women.”

    “In the end, changing fashions spelled the demise of the tapadas… As the 19th century drew to a close, social codes changed, and the tapadas disappeared amid a new desire to see clearly.”

    I particularly like the conclusion: “As with the debate over the Islamic veil, views and opinions for or against the tapadas came mainly from the outside, from the authorities or observers… The only voice we didn’t hear was from the wearer.”

    Whatever personal opinion we may have about the practice it is useful to know its history and to situate it in its social, economic, and political context.


    • SouthAsian
      Posted at 04:46h, 31 July

      Arun: There is little doubt about the facts in Afghanistan and they have been used in various ways to sell the intervention in Afghanistan to the US public – I am quite sure it would resonate well that Hillary Clinton is not going to desert Afghani women just as Laura Bush and Condoleeza Rice went in to liberate them. But this takes us off-topic. What we are exploring in this series are the legal and philosophical principles that can or will be used to prohibit the veil in Europe, not eliminate it from Afghanistan. I would be very surprised if the justification in Europe turns out to be the oppression in Afghanistan.

  • Arun Pillai
    Posted at 14:32h, 31 July Reply

    South Asian,

    My point in mentioning the link was to identify the larger context in which the burqa exists. One cannot separate Europe from Afghanistan or the wider world as such. The young women who are freely taking up the burqa in defiance also have this wider context in mind. What the NYT article points to is that the oppression of women in Afghanistan and many other parts of the world is a reality. The burqa is unambiguously one element of this subjugation of women. This is its primary effect and meaning. In a new context in Europe, it still retains some of this taint even if it is freely chosen.

    • SouthAsian
      Posted at 16:44h, 31 July

      Arun: I am not disputing the wider context or the fact that the burqa is being used to oppress women in Afghanistan in the sense that many are being forced to wear it against their wills. Where we are apart is that I hear you as saying that the ‘taint’ is sufficient to justify the ban in Europe whereas I am not so sure. I don’t follow the logic of this argument. Presumably the women who are choosing it freely in Europe are also aware of the wider context and the taint. Over-ruling this choice based on free will and complete information would be over-ruling the principle of free choice, wouldn’t it?

      Let us consider a couple of examples to clarify the argument. I would argue that the profession of prostitution has the primary effect and meaning of the exploitation of women and it also carries a taint. Yet, there are continuing moves to legalize prostitution rather than to ban it. Presumably this is because there are no constitutional or legal arguments to prevent an adult women from freely disposing off her services if she so wishes and is not causing harm to anyone else in society.

      Or consider the fact there is today a strong taint of pedophilia associated with the Roman Catholic Church going all the way up to the Pope himself. Yet there is no move to prohibit young men from joining the priesthood or young boys from joining church choirs if they do so in full knowledge of these facts and this taint.

      I am not defending the burqa. The point I am trying to make is that the wider context and the taint do not provide sufficient legal grounds to prohibit an expression of free choice in Europe.

  • Arun Pillai
    Posted at 17:27h, 31 July Reply

    South Asian,

    While it can potentially be degrading to women, prostitution serves a real need in society, so the dispute about banning it versus legalizing it remains moot. This is not the case with the burqa which serves no real need.

    With young boys joining the priesthood in the Roman Catholic Church, there are again pros and cons. For those who believe in its larger mission, there are real needs that can potentially be fulfilled. As has been discovered with all the revelations about pedophilia, there are real dangers involved. So what is required is radical reform – for example, allowing priests to marry and lead normal sexual lives – rather than outright prohibition.

    The thing about the burqa is that it serves no real need. It is designed precisely to maintain women as property and to keep their bodies from the “prying” eyes of other men (as judged by the male relatives of the women) and to keep women from interacting in natural and full ways with the world. The relation between women and men that is perpetuated is one of subservience rather than equality.

    If one finds that 95% of the women in Europe who wear the burqa do not wear it freely, then what is the point of focusing on the 5% who wear it for political purposes? The case of the burqa should be compared with other oppressive practices: sati, genital mutilation, foot binding (China), etc. Just because some women opt for it owing to the peculiarities of East-West political relations today, should not be a reason for allowing such a practice to continue when it can be nipped in the bud.

    • SouthAsian
      Posted at 19:06h, 31 July

      Arun: Let us pursue this argument. Who is going to define whether a need is real or not and what criteria are going to be used? You are taking a male perspective and justifying prostitution as a real need even though it comes at the expense of the exploitation of women. If we are comfortable with a male definition of needs what argument would we have against some men justifying burqa as a real need even though it also comes at the expense of exploitation of women? And why hedge prostitution as being potentially degrading to women while being categorical about the burqa? Wouldn’t it be better to ask the women in both cases instead of deciding on their behalf?

      I don’t think one can take a majoritarian perspective on such issues. Just because only 5 percent of a population might want to do something cannot be sufficient grounds for ruling against it as long as that something is chosen freely and does not harm anyone else in society. Let us suppose statistics show that 1 percent of men turn violent after drinking. In this case there is actual harm to society. Yet, even in this case there is no call to prohibit drinking or to nip the evil in the bud. Why not? The same argument would apply in the case of the ownership of firearms. Both these practices are much more dangerous to others than the burqa, aren’t they?

  • mazbut
    Posted at 17:31h, 31 July Reply

    @ SouthAsian

    1. Generalization that men force women in Afghanistan to wear burqa is not correct. It is the structure of their society which compels them to cover themselves up in that fashion because unless they did that their safety and security would be at stake and tend to create feuds among men.

    2. The structure of Western society is not like Afghanistan where women are free to make their own choices…and thus societal pressure does not force them to wear burqa. Consequently there is least logic in depriving those women the right to choose and wear a certain dress voluntarily.

    I remember women wearing mini-skirts and roaming in the streets freely without anybody objecting to that…infact everybody enjoyed the ‘inviting scene’. If burqa seems like an uninviting scene to others they better don’t look at burqa-clad women …

    In any case it is oppression of women rights by the majority in barring them of the costume they wanted to wear. You cannot ban women from driving cars from roads just because they are more likely to meet accidents …

  • mazbut
    Posted at 19:07h, 31 July Reply

    @ Arun Pillai

    >>>>>>>>>>This is not the case with the burqa which serves no real need.>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>

    this is quite a sweeping statement. Burqa helps ensuring peace in certain cultures such as found in Afghanistan and Pakistan where the rule of law tends to be lacking. This is not so in developed countries hence women who opt for burqa are free to have their choice without fear of cultural encumbrances which might elsewhere need decades or centuries to overcome.

    Burqa is just a dress code and comparing it to satti, jauhar or genital mutilation or foot binding is unreasonable because in the former case NO bodily hurt exists whereas in the latter corporal destruction or harm is intrinsically embedded.

    BTW Why can’t women enjoy the right to keep themselves safe from the dirty looks of stranger men??? Which code of law allows strangers at large to ‘prying’ at women??

  • Arun Pillai
    Posted at 20:07h, 31 July Reply


    I find it absurd that just because men might become uncontrollable, there should be such a harsh consequence for women. Why can’t society impose fines or a jail sentence if someone becomes unruly? Why penalize women for male lapses? Would men accept wearing a burqa if women became unruly in the presence of unclad men?

    Foot binding in China was something the upper classes practiced initially and it later spread to all of society. Many women opted for it freely because without it they could not get husbands. One could say foot binding was a result of the “structure of society.” Foot binding was banned a long time ago now but would you say it was curbing the rights of women because women freely wanted it?

    One can change the structure of society by passing appropriate laws. If men get used to seeing women dressed “normally” they would get used to it and in less than a generation they would cease being unruly. In fact, I personally doubt that today men would become unruly if they saw a woman without a burqa. There are too many images in the media of women without burqas and there is enough habituation already.

  • Arun Pillai
    Posted at 20:50h, 31 July Reply

    South Asian,

    I am not condoning prostitution outright, I am saying it is moot because it is a case of a real need vs. exploitation. In the case of the burqa, there is only exploitation so the case is much easier. It has absolutely no redeeming feature.

    If 95% of the women in Europe who wear it wear it because they are oppressed, it should be banned.

    • SouthAsian
      Posted at 23:54h, 31 July

      Arun: We are not making headway here. We still have no basis or criteria to define a ‘real’ need. The way you are characterizing it every perversity can be a real need because it caters to some drive in human beings. The redeeming features have to be determined by the free-choice users not outsiders. And we are still relying on a majoritarian argument. The question is not whether we feel an act should or should not be banned. The question is what legal principle can be used to do either. I feel I have already given examples where the majoritarian argument is rejected despite acts being harmful to society. To me the bottom line still seems to be that we don’t like it. That, I am afraid, is not enough because there are many things we don’t like.

  • Arun Pillai
    Posted at 03:39h, 01 August Reply

    South Asian,

    I believe right from the start – all the way up to the beginning of these responses – I have been trying to give arguments that might form the basis of a legal case against the burqa. For example, comparing it with foot binding is not a matter of my feelings or my dislike. It is an attempt at a valid comparison: in both cases, the wearer sometimes exercises free choice, in both cases, the wearer is harmed either physically or more subtly by stunting the full development of the person, etc. Foot binding was banned so why not the burqa? Many other arguments have been cited.

    I understand that many older women are habituated to wearing the burqa. I am not trying to target them. My target is the younger women who are 95% of the time forced to wear it. I would rather protect the rights of these 95% than care about the 5% who want to wear it for political reasons.

    • SouthAsian
      Posted at 11:11h, 01 August

      Arun: The problem here is that you are assuming the stance of a benevolent patriarch who wishes to protect the rights of people and is willing to over-rule their free choice if necessary. My argument is that this could have been done under authoritarian regimes but is doubtful under the laws, rights, and polities prevailing in present-day Europe. Nobody is binding his or her feet voluntarily today but if they were it would become a similar case of a test of free choice. I guess we have presented the two sides of the argument in sufficient detail and can now only wait to see how the courts actually handle the issue when it comes up for judgment.

  • mazbut
    Posted at 10:21h, 01 August Reply

    @ Arun Pillai

    your arguments miss several other factors which warrant adoption of burqa.

    I have previously stated example of Afghanistan during the reign of King Zahir Shah (I was in Kabul in 1969) who not only banned burqa but also banned the wearing of Shalwar Qameez and all women were ordered to wear Skirts and blouse. Because that was a monarchical order women were forced to comply (while men sat with fingers crossed!). Today it is the same Afghanistan where you can’t imagine any woman to go out without a burqa!!

    Enforcing draconian laws which are against the will of the people have temporary effect a they had in Zahir Shah’s days. There is cultural pressure as well as religions like Islam do not support mixing up of genders…and Purdah is compulsory. Purdah or veiling could be done in various ways and one of the choicest ways for women is to wear burqa. Burqa in itself is just a costume and not prescribed by Islam…

    Thus you can see to get rid of burqa, which may not be possible though, because it is not only a choice by men but also one by women, you will have to change the entire culture of a place as well as align your outlook with religious bindings which not only men but women too are inclined to observe voluntarily.

    Men cannot be asked to wear a burqa….it’s like asking men to serve as ‘surrogate mothers”!! 🙂

    • SouthAsian
      Posted at 11:03h, 01 August

      Mazbut: We are going very far off the topic. I want to now restrict the discussion to the test posed to the European system of laws and rights by the free choice of the veil by a minority no matter how small. The interest is in the legal and constitutional arguments that would be used when the proposed legislation goes to the courts for the legal ruling.
      I would like to exclude discussion of whether the burqa is oppressive of women, why it is still being used in Afghanistan, etc. We have gone over these issues and should move beyond them.

  • Arun Pillai
    Posted at 13:11h, 01 August Reply

    South Asian,

    I agree that probably all possible arguments pro and con have been made. So it is best to wait and see what happens.

    On a matter of principle, I do not agree that free choice is the only basis for making laws. Why has marijuana been banned in so many states in the US?

    • SouthAsian
      Posted at 15:02h, 01 August

      Arun: This is a useful angle to pursue since analogies are quite likely to figure in the legal arguments. My feeling is that bans are a legacy of more authoritarian times when prejudice and misinformation had more sway. Over time, the principle of free choice would increasingly exert its sway.

      During this discussion we have mentioned some analogies in passing but it would be good to focus more on them now. We can look at same-sex marriage where the ban due to prejudice has been eroded. First-cousin marriage had a lot of informational noise and as new evidence comes in, this too is likely to lose ground in the US. Marijuana has already been legalized in California. The growing sentiment seems to that legalizing presents the lesser of the two evils.

      The factor of politics remains constant and the lack of a ban on possession of firearms is the outcome. There are some complicating factors that have to be kept in mind. There are some situations that are a clear cut case of adult choice with no proven harm to others – same-sex marriage is one. On the other hand, there is marijuana that is very hard to keep out of the hands of children who are not old enough to make informed choices. Marijuana is also mixed up with the use of other drugs and the criminal racketeering that goes along with that. So, we will have to take a nuanced view when considering appropriate analogies.

  • Arun Pillai
    Posted at 15:24h, 01 August Reply

    South Asian,

    In my view, free choice should be just one basis for forming laws relating to allowing or disallowing various practices. It is an extreme libertarian principle which I do not accept in isolation. This is because – as even recent approaches to economics have shown – people are not entirely rational and free choice depends on the assumption of people as rational beings. Firearms is a good example. It makes more accidents likely so it is better to ban them. Banning firearms would reduce free choice but it would be for the overall good of society. That would be a majoritarian decision made by the government.

    It is also important to make a distinction between legal philosophy and what courts actually do. As we know, recently the Supreme Court in the US allowed corporations to fund election campaigns. This is a disastrous decision according to most people and there were many articles criticizing the philosophical basis for this decision.

    • SouthAsian
      Posted at 08:14h, 02 August

      Arun: During the early part of the discussion on this topic we had arrived at what I felt was a useful set of principles that could govern such decisions. Free and informed choice was the core but not the only criterion. In particular, we stressed that the action should not cause demonstrable harm to others in society. It should also not violate any existing laws governing the society concerned.

      I am not convinced that free choice can be tied to complete rationality. We know for certain that complete rationality is only a theoretical construct; bounded rationality is much more the rule and people make judgmental mistakes all the time. This does not mean that we can do away with free choice. I think the ‘do no harm’ criterion is the most important one and can take care of the shortfalls in rationality. The exception on firearms is not due to limited rationality but very strong political lobbies that are quite rational in promoting their vested interests.

      I am also not sure how the government can make a majoritarian decision; it can only be made by the majority that would enable to government to act on that mandate. Or it could be made by the court. You are right that all decisions of the court are not in accordance with what seems sensible to us but that comes from the fact that the courts have the prerogative of interpreting the law. That is why court decisions are more often split than not.

  • Arun Pillai
    Posted at 14:52h, 02 August Reply

    South Asian,

    I have forgotten the earlier discussion. However, I would say that the emphasis on allowing all actions that enact so-called “victimless crimes”, that is, allowing all actions that are performed freely and do not cause harm to others, is precisely the libertarian credo. Of course, just because it is libertarian does not mean it is wrong. I am sure a legal expert would have plenty of examples where many such actions would be unacceptable in society. Speeding, firearms, drugs, sati, suicide, etc. would all be acceptable.

    Regarding rationality, my point is that there are many situations of coercion where it is not clear if a freely chosen action is because of social conditioning. For example, foot binding was freely chosen and caused harm to no one else. People do not always know what is best for themselves. In my view, that should be a starting point for laying out the principles for laws.

    What I meant by the government making a majoritarian decision is that it would be a decision that favored the majority and ignored the minority.

    • SouthAsian
      Posted at 04:28h, 03 August

      Arun: It is not clear to me why you equate the acts you list (speeding, firearms, drugs, sati, suicide, etc.) as “victimless crimes”? All of these have potential victims and in most cases the victims are others. It is also not clear to me why the category of “crime” has entered the discussion. Same-sex marriage or first-cousin marriage are not crimes. Nor, in fact, is the burqa to date although many would like to see it turned into one. If we stay with acts that are not crimes and do not have potential victims in society (like same-sex marriage, for example), then the twin principles of informed free choice and do-no-harm should prove adequate.

      We have already eliminated issues that involve social conditioning from the discussion. In order to elicit the underlying principles we are only concerned with the subset of practices that cannot be attributed to social conditioning. The choice made in adulthood by European women to wear the veil would fall in this category as would same-sex marriage. The line of argument that “people do not always know what is best for themselves” would start us down a very slippery slope. Who would know what is best for people? This is both a general/specific question and a global/local one. For example, who would know what is best for the people of Iraq? The neo-cons thought they did and they had the power to back up their convictions.

      Governments favoring the majority could also be very problematic. Governments are not political parties; they are supposed to represent all the citizens equally. This responsibility includes protecting the legitimate rights of minorities against the prejudices and biases of the majorities.

  • Arun Pillai
    Posted at 14:45h, 03 August Reply

    South Asian,

    These are admittedly difficult issues. On the one hand, free choice sounds like a very desirable principle. But it assumes that people are informed and free of social conditioning and reasonably rational. I don’t understand why you are confining yourself to the subset of practices that cannot be attributed to social conditioning. Many of the the objections to the burqa are based on social conditioning. If you assume that away, what is left that is realistic in the situation? You also want to restrict yourself to the very small minority of women who want to wear the burqa for political reasons when the large majority wear it because of their conditioning. So what you want is to protect the rights of the tiny minority who might be self-aware and want to wear the burqa freely. This to me is an absurd kind of case to be arguing for – it ignores the wider context completely.

    In general, people are not always informed, are socially conditioned, and are not as rational as required. For example, many women – even those who claim to want to wear the burqa freely – may not know the possible adverse effects of wearing a burqa both on themselves and their co-workers.

    The whole system of law is premised on some people who study the law having a better understanding of what is desirable for people generally. This should be constantly critiqued and revised based on new information. The whole population of a country does not write the constitution of a country. It is left to experts. Yes, many things should be left to free choice but in cases like the burqa where an oppressive male tradition plays an overwhelming role, it is right to reject it even if some women opt for it (just like foot binding).

    • SouthAsian
      Posted at 16:43h, 03 August

      Arun: This difficulty is arising because we are addressing two different issues. You are addressing the issue of the burqa in its wider context. I am interested in the issue of minority rights and am therefore divesting the issue of all confounding variables leaving just a pure case to be considered. This could be some other issue having nothing to do with the burqa. I wish to understand what argument could be used to prohibit a practice that is repugnant to a majority but is adopted by a minority, no matter how small, out of fully informed free choice and the practice is not harmful to anyone and does not violate any existing law.

      I am perplexed by your pre-condition for free choice. There is no doubt that people are not fully informed, are socially conditioned and not as rational as required (but by whom?). Wouldn’t this do away with all free choice? Wouldn’t this imply that experts would have to decide for everyone? Wouldn’t this consign us to the kind of Orwellian world where Big Brother would tell us everything we ought to do? I would think the better option would be to provide better information rather than to curtail choice unless there is demonstrable harm to society.

      I am also not convinced that laws in democracies ought to be made by those who know better what is desirable for people. Laws in such polities should be derived from a set of principles that are acceptable to a majority in society which is why all constitutional amendments need to be ratified by a majority of the representatives of the people. The laws can and should be challenged continuously and they are. This brings us back to the point where we started: What principle or principles can be used to deny the right of a minority to a fully informed choice that does not harm anybody else in society and is not in violation of any existing law? From here on we can drop the burqa from the discussion.

  • mazbut
    Posted at 16:37h, 03 August Reply

    >>>>>>>>>>>>For example, many women – even those who claim to want to wear the burqa freely – may not know the possible adverse effects of wearing a burqa both on themselves and their co-workers.>>>>>>>>>>>>

    burqa or covering of the sort is in vogue for the last 1400 years or so and there is not a single evidence of its posing ‘adverse effects wearing it on ‘themselves and their co-workers’!! Burqa is not like secondary smoke from smoking that would harm others!
    Foot binding and ‘head-binding’ are methods of restricting physical growth of a person and are physically hurtful whereas the burqa has no such implication.
    If people in the West dread it there is no solution for their ‘phobic syndromes’ but to make them accustomed to women with burqa around!!. In short time their phobia will mitigate and vanish!!

    <<<<<<<The whole population of a country does not write the constitution of a country. It is left to experts. <<<<<<<

    this is a fallacious statement. People through their elected representatives 'write' the constitution and even get it amended!! After all what is a Parliament for and what's the reason for passing constitutional amendments??

  • Arun Pillai
    Posted at 17:04h, 03 August Reply

    South Asian,

    I do not believe the case of the burqa is relevant to the abstraction you have created: “I wish to understand what argument could be used to prohibit a practice that is repugnant to a majority but is adopted by a minority, no matter how small, out of fully informed free choice and the practice is not harmful to anyone and does not violate any existing law.” In particular, the practice is not merely repugnant to a majority but is actually harmful to both wearers and non-wearers who interact with wearers. But you are unwilling to accept this point which has been made before. So if you abstract from this harm, then it leaves nothing to be discussed. Also, there are two majorities involved, one being the majority of the population and the other being the majority of the burqa-wearers. For this second majority, one cannot abstract out the factor of social conditioning. If you create such an abstract context, the only issue of conflict becomes the repugnance. This is clearly not enough to warrant a ban. Otherwise, all kinds of reasonably practices would have to be banned. But you have created a “straw man” that can easily be knocked down. I don’t know what purpose that serves when the real issues being debated by society and the courts lie elsewhere.

    Regarding the case of law-making, people may judge that 80 mph is a safe speed limit, but statistics may show that such a limit is too high and would result in too many accidents. So the law is usually set at a lower limit. If you take the majority of laws in society, they are of this type. That is why there are legislatures. Political representation does not mean averaging people’s opinions but using one’s best judgment keeping the interests of all parties in mind.

    Yes, of course, these laws must be based on principles that are widely acceptable. There is no disagreement there.

    • SouthAsian
      Posted at 17:26h, 03 August

      Arun: If it can be proven that the burqa is actually harmful to both wearers and non-wearers who interact with wearers then I would fall foul of my own argument. But where is the proof?

      What you are alleging is exactly the point I wish to make. That repugnance is not enough to warrant a ban. I don’t believe it would be legally possible to damn by association. By all means find remedies for social conditioning although I fear this would open up a whole new set of issues. Where is the individual who has not been socially conditioned? Taking children to church is social conditioning and it is not unambiguously positive.

      Could you elaborate what the straw man is? What in your view is the real issue being debated by society and the courts in Europe?

      You are mixing apples and oranges here. Speeding is clearly of potential danger to others in society. There is no argument where such danger can be clearly established.

  • Arun Pillai
    Posted at 19:19h, 03 August Reply

    South Asian,

    In matters that are psychological, it is difficult to prove harm. For example, is rape harmful when there is no physical injury? Is child abuse harmful when there is no physical injury? In the case of the burqa, my point is that common sense would dictate that something which so limits free and full interaction with others is harmful because it stunts the full growth of the person’s personality and enjoyment of life. Even those who wish to wear it for political reasons would not wear it if those political reasons did not exist because they are presumably more self-aware liberated young women.

    The straw man is that the burqa issue is about the repugnance of the majority. It has nothing to do with this. In my view, it has to do with two facts:

    1. It obstructs the full and smooth functioning of many institutions and organizations by limiting fuller interactions among its members when some of them are clad in a burqa.

    2. It adversely affects the lives of those who are socially conditioned to wearing it who happen to constitute the majority of the wearers.

    I fully sympathize with the fact that many people see many women including relatives who are habituated to wearing burqas. They may not be able to understand why one is saying that the burqa is oppressive. This would be similar to practices where people were socialized into believing that they were acceptable – like sati, foot binding, and so on. True, in those cases, there was physical harm which was easier to prove. That is why those practices have been wiped out earlier.

    I believe that women are no less capable than men in all spheres of life and should have the opportunity to pursue their dreams and ambitions in the fullest way possible the way many men are able to. I further believe that a garment like the burqa comes in the way of such fulfillment. And in so doing it also affects others with whom wearers interact adversely.

    To apply Sen’s ideas to this situation, people should be empowered and given capabilities to pursue fulfilling lives. The burqa restricts women rather than empowers them. Can you imagine women wearing burqas in public or corporate roles? Could someone like Shabana Azmi have achieved her acting career if she had had to wear a burqa? Can you imagine a female CEO of even a small business let alone a multinational corporation in a burqa?

    The sad fact of the matter is that the environment in which a person functions can either promote or hinder that person’s innermost ambitions and desires to grow. So while free choice sounds great on the surface, many complexities lurk beneath the surface that can inhibit choices that are best for the person concerned. Free choice should be allowed to operate in most circumstances but not when it is being used to support choices that keep women subjugated and incapable of realizing their possibilities.

    • SouthAsian
      Posted at 01:11h, 04 August

      Arun: If there is rape in society does that mean there ought to be a ban on consensual sex?

  • Arun Pillai
    Posted at 02:24h, 04 August Reply

    South Asian,

    There are many ways to respond to the analogy you are making. First, I am not equating the burqa with rape obviously. However, one could say if the burqa causes harm, that does not mean one should ban clothes.

    Anyway, I think I have said all I can say. As you have wisely said, let us see how the courts decide what they do. There is certainly no move to ban the burqa in the US and France may decide similarly.

    • SouthAsian
      Posted at 04:29h, 04 August

      Arun: I agree, we should drop the issue of the burqa per se till there are new developments in Europe. However, I do feel that thinking some more about these two analogies could help us see things afresh.

      Given the available choice of consensual sex no woman would choose to be raped. By analogy, given the choice of less restrictive clothing no woman should choose more restrictive clothing. But some do. Why does this difference arise? I think it is because rape is an either-or act while the restrictiveness of clothing is on a continuum. There is no optimal stopping point that can hold across time and place or be legislated. Even within communities there can be large variations. It is only the wearer who can decide what affords her or him the most comfort in a given situation. The responsibility of society should be to ensure that this decision is not a coerced one nor is otherwise damaging to the wearer or to others.

  • Arun Pillai
    Posted at 12:37h, 04 August Reply

    South Asian,

    The analogy is too formal for my taste. The only reason I mentioned rape is to point out that psychological harm is difficult to prove.

    I would like to re-emphasize that a person’s innermost desires and ambitions are partly socially constructed. That is why the son of a medical doctor who is exposed to talk about medicine at home will often opt to become a doctor himself. The family environment is crucial in nurturing young men and women so they are able to lead fulfilling lives.

    When a young woman is asked to wear a burqa, the environment is not nurturing because it closes off many options for the woman’s life. Once these options are closed off, she herself may not experience a desire to become a CEO (for example). She may “freely” choose to become a housewife because she never acquired the education and training to become economically independent. This is why free choice is a double-edged sword.

    I don’t mean to reopen the issue of the burqa as we have decided to drop the issue. My point is just that free choice is not as obvious a principle to endorse as may seem superficially. Of course, one cannot easily translate what I am saying into legislation because perhaps all desire is partly socially constructed. So this is a matter that transcends law and is a matter for social transformation.

    • SouthAsian
      Posted at 13:54h, 04 August

      Arun: I agree with your last point. I don’t know an individual who has not been socially conditioned and we can’t really boil this down to ‘my social conditioning is better than yours.’ So the question we need to think about is how do we look upon the broader phenomenon of social conditioning and the quest for social transformations? Would a more supportive environment induce social change from within or should legislation and laws attempt to force the social change?

  • Arun Pillai
    Posted at 16:22h, 04 August Reply

    South Asian,

    I suppose a judicious mix of both can be optimal.

  • SouthAsian
    Posted at 05:54h, 05 August Reply

    A discussion on some of the issues raised in the commentary on this post can be structured concretely around a recent court ruling on same-sex marriage in California:

    1. A majority of the voters in the state favored and passed via a referendum a ban on same-sex marriage.
    2. A US Federal judge has over-ruled the voter approved ban calling it unconstitutional and discriminatory against a minority.
    3. The judge ruled that “moral disapproval alone is an improper basis on which to deny rights to gay men and lesbians.”
    4. The judge also noted that the voter-approved ban “fails to advance any rational basis in singling out gay men and lesbians for denial of a marriage licence.”
    5. Opposition to the ban was centered around the argument that it violated gays’ and lesbians’ right to choose whom to marry while allowing it to heterosexuals.
    6. Note also from the analysis that till forty years ago there was a ban on interracial marriage in the US. This ban had no justification then and does not have any now. It was just an expression of the moral preferences and prejudices of the majority.

    The question for discussion is the following: When is there a case for limiting the right to choose in marriage and what principle would support the limitation?


    • Anil Kala
      Posted at 10:01h, 30 August

      There is a difference. Many including women strongly believe burqa is an instrument of suppression. The opposition to gay/ lesbian marriage is purely moral.

    • SouthAsian
      Posted at 11:12h, 30 August

      Anil: Is it possible that both aspects might be valid at the same time? The burqa can be an instrument of suppression if it is imposed on an unwilling subject. It can be an instrument of empowerment if chosen freely by the wearer. In such a case one would have to discriminate between the two situations instead of wishing for a blanket judgment on the burqa.

    • Anil Kala
      Posted at 16:09h, 30 August

      I don’t believe this. Why would anyone choose it freely? Is it free will if it is a reaction to external environment – the ‘Male gaze.’

      Shouldn’t that malevolent ‘male gaze’ be crushed. —– this is like Hindus punishing their women for getting raped.

    • SouthAsian
      Posted at 17:24h, 30 August

      Anil: This is a semantic issue. All our choices are made in the context of an external environment. Free will is defined within the constraints of that external environment. Free will does not mean that the environment ceases to exist or impose its constraints on us. In our context, what is relevant is whether a choice is imposed on someone by another person against his or her will or whether it is made freely given the environment that exists. If we include the environment in the equation, we would be in the Sartrean world where there is no free choice.

      Quite some time back I posted a link to an article in the New York Times based on interviews with American women who had chosen the veil freely, without coercion, and without socialization from childhood. Their claim was that they were willing to sacrifice convenience, mobility, and social approval for the feeling of empowerment that they gained. I am not saying whether they were right or wrong, only that they had made this choice.

      Having said that, the point I made via the poem by Frost was the same that you are recommending. We need to focus on the environment that makes such limiting choices necessary. A focus on the individual would be like blaming the victim.

    • Anil Kala
      Posted at 04:26h, 01 September

      If free choice does not take into consideration influence of external environment than it is a grossly faulty definition therefore all the more reason that freedom for free choice should be viewed very suspiciously. And also reviewed periodically.

    • SouthAsian
      Posted at 06:14h, 01 September

      Anil: ‘Free’ choice does take into consideration the influence of the external environment – a lion in a zoo is ‘free’ to do anything it likes within the confines of the cage. The external environment is a given of which we cannot be independent – all of us exist within some kind of cage. I agree on the need for the periodic review. When the environment changes, the degrees of freedom also change. For example, the choices available under an autocratic regime are much more restricted than those under a democratic one. I think we can get beyond this ambiguity if you offer a definition of free choice for discussion.

  • SouthAsian
    Posted at 04:47h, 29 August Reply

    There is an opportunity to reopen this discussion from a seemingly different vantage point. This possibility occurred to me on reading the poem Mending Wall by Robert Frost. The following is the idea I would like to explore:

    All of us spend a lot of time behind and enclosed by walls because that provides us the privacy to be free. Could we conceive of the burqa as kind of walled enclosure, a miniature house, that paradoxically provides the occupant a lot more freedom than she would otherwise have in a given environment?

    If this premise has validity, our attention ought to be focused on reforming the environment that obligates the walls rather than on the individuals who need the walls to be free. Note the line in the poem: “But here there are no cows.”

    In this light, the refrain of the poem: “Good fences make good neighbors” encapsulates a kind of common wisdom that invites analysis.

    • Vinod
      Posted at 14:26h, 29 August

      The ‘male gaze’ is an uncomfortable reality for women. I know women for whom the burqa is a shield against the male gaze.

  • SouthAsian
    Posted at 05:03h, 06 January Reply

    I wish to reopen this discussion because of something interesting I read in a 2007 book (Secularism Confronts Islam) by Olivier Roy. I am curious how readers would respond to the following passage from the book (pages 31-32):

    The problems of society are transformed into a debate about ideas. And consequently ideas become the quarry of a witch hunt… The circulation of ideas is thus attributed to the activity of certain individuals, and the old cliches of the cold war return (like that of contagion, transforming ideas into viruses). There is no analysis of why some ideas work, whereas the market of religion contains not only a supply but also a demand. It is interesting to note that this is practically the same reasoning that is applied to sects: the most prominent explanation is the influence of a guru and mental manipulation. A young girl wearing a veil is necessarily manipulated, and the paradox is that we repress her the better to liberate her: since the veil is a sign of enslavement, a woman could not possibly choose it voluntarily. The same reasoning drove the French Revolution to prohibit religious orders, because a free person could not voluntarily alienate his own freedom. And yet God knows (He especially) that voluntary slavery exists. Emancipating people despite themselves is another paradox. (Emphasis added.)

    Olivier Roy is research director at the French National Center for Scientific Research (CNRS) and lectures at the Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales (EHESS) and the Institut d’Etudes Politiques (IEP) in Paris. His books include “Secularism Confronts Islam”, “Globalized Islam”, “The Politics of Chaos in the Middle East”, “The Search for a New Ummah” (Columbia University Press) “The Afghan-Pakistan Connection” (Mariam Abou Zahab).

    • Vinod
      Posted at 02:33h, 07 January

      SA, I’m unable to follow the extract, especially the bolded parts. Unless you can put it in simpler words for me, I cannot participate in this discussion

  • SouthAsian
    Posted at 02:52h, 07 January Reply

    Vinod: This is what I understood from the argument of the author:

    We should look at societal issues in their concrete manifestations and not transform them into a debate about abstract ideas. Thus the issue of the burqa should not become a discussion about liberty, human rights, etc.

    The author is making the point that religion is not all supply with some imam or guru or patriarch pushing their views on unwilling subjects. There can be a demand side also which should also be examined. Thus it is possible that there can be some women who voluntarily desire in some circumstances to wear the burqa. What are we going to do about them? Are we forcibly going to liberate them because we know more than them what is good for them?

    He then mocks the anti-burqa argument that nobody can wish to voluntarily enslave themselves. He asks: what about all the people who voluntarily become the slaves of God? Doesn’t God ask people to submit themselves to him and people take pride in doing so?

    • Vinod
      Posted at 03:30h, 07 January

      SA thanks for the simplification. I understand better. My thoughts –

      Nobody can prevent voluntary enslavement. The anti-burqa movement is really not about that, although it can and often has gone beyond prudent limits to become that. It is about preventing coercion in the wearing of the burqa and associated practices about female behaviour and the supporting unhealthy ideas behind these practices. There is something to be said for taking a more holistic view of the matter. There is also an ignoble angle to the anti-burqa movement – prejudice against muslims.

      (I personally think the burqa issue is not an issue at all. There are more important matters to worry about in society)

      The comparison with belief in God is also not very sound. But I don’t want to get into that.

  • SouthAsian
    Posted at 13:59h, 07 January Reply

    Vinod: A recent issue of The Humanist magazine is a special on the subject of the burqa. All the articles are worth reading and enrich the discussion. I found particularly innovative the one that puts the burqa in an evolutionary framework.

    The issue also contains an interview with a woman who chose to act in adult films. This really poses the issue in the starkest way possible: What position do we take on a voluntary choice that personally we may find very difficult to accept?

    This is her position: “In a nutshell: my body, my rules. Other women don’t get to tell me what’s “right” for me, just as no imam, rabbi, priest or minister gets to tell me what to do with my body. You don’t know better than I do what I need, so don’t presume to. If I need your help, I’ll ask for it, thank you very much.”

    Is it possible to argue against this position?


    • Vinod
      Posted at 04:09h, 08 January

      Human beings are both individuals and social beings. We do have an individuality and we do need a social circle. THe trick is to find the balance. Traditional societies, including pre-1960s America, were largely about the society as a whole compromising individuality. The individualism in the feminist statement above is overdone. Individual’s actions set examples and cause impressions on others. To some extent, we as individuals cannot abdicate our responsibilities towards the effects of our actions on the society. That is the other side of asserting individual rights, of which there is no hint in the quotation.

      In a nutshell the statement is a partial position still echoing the struggle against traditional societal norms. I am sympathetic though. In arguing with traditional folks it is very hard to stay calm in the face of their stubbornness. But then frustration is not a reason to close eyes to the full picture of rights.

    • SouthAsian
      Posted at 15:33h, 08 January

      Vinod: I am not convinced that the notion of balance has utility in this discussion. Every society is characterized by conservatives, liberals and radicals and the right balance differs for each. All we can be sure of is that there is a constant tension between social control and individual freedom. In this tension there is bound to be an overshoot on either side. But given what we know of the history of social control, I would rather err on the side of individualism. It is individualism that has striven against great odds to give us many of the freedoms we take for granted today.

    • Vinod
      Posted at 07:12h, 09 January

      I think you can tell that for all the individualistic bluster in my speech I err, in conduct, on the side of the conservatives and traditional folks.

  • Arun Pillai
    Posted at 14:48h, 07 January Reply

    No society allows people to commit suicide, the logical culmination of this extreme individualist viewpoint. It is not true that a person can do what they like with their bodies and their lives and that the person knows best. There are often self-destructive behaviors. This is now well understood even in studies of rationality where this egotistical view predominates.

    We live in society and are social beings. There is a kind of implicit social contract between and among us. So we are not radically free, irrespective of the polity and ideology we live under.

    • SouthAsian
      Posted at 23:55h, 07 January

      Arun: There is an open discussion on euthanasia and from what I understand voluntary euthanasia is already legal in some places. Beyond that, this has a dimension of place, time and context so a seemingly universal statement like “we live in a society and are social beings” is not too helpful. Sati was considered normal and acceptable for an extended period till the British outlawed it because they knew better. And the subject is also open to nuance. Many people are ready to court certain death for various causes or are sent to face certain death. That variant of suicide is not only allowed, it is encouraged, lauded and glorified as martyrdom.

  • Arun Pillai
    Posted at 00:31h, 08 January Reply

    South Asian,

    I wasn’t trying to suggest that suicide in all its forms was unacceptable. Certainly willed euthanasia in the right circumstances is fine. And other cases where someone may have to defend his country etc. may be acceptable. I don’t want to get into a game of defining precisely what kind of suicide is unacceptable. It is enough for my argument that in every society there are many forms of suicide that are unacceptable. And that is all that I mean by saying that we are social beings irrespective of place, time, and context.

    • Vinod
      Posted at 03:17h, 08 January

      SA, I’m with Arun on this. Any act that resembles suicide will have to be justified by the person embarking on it. It is a reasonable position for the society to presume that the act is to be stopped.

      However, I don’t know whether something similar can be said about women’s dressing. What can be done is that society as a whole has to experiment with the various competing ideas on it and figure their way out. Such conscious and planned experimentation, however, is not the strength of human societies but of individuals in it.

    • SouthAsian
      Posted at 15:26h, 08 January

      Vinod: I am keeping an open mind on suicide. I don’t believe that the social attitude to suicide or voluntary death has been the same throughout human history. Nor has the concept had the negative connotation that we now assign automatically to the word suicide. I think that as the human life span extends further, social attitudes to voluntary death would change. There is precedent for that. In tribal societies that were resource constrained, voluntary death was looked upon with favor and encouraged by the assignment of positive labels to the same act. If you click on this link to the Encyclopedia of Religion and Ethics, it should open on Section 7 (p. 465) which describes the attitudes to voluntary death in earlier times.

  • Arun Pillai
    Posted at 16:03h, 08 January Reply

    I don’t understand why the discussion has gotten sidetracked on the nuances of suicide. Even in earlier times when suicide may have been encouraged, it was done to preserve society. My point was merely to observe that society does have a right to intervene in an individual’s decision that concerns his or her own life if that decision is of sufficient moment. The case of the burqa is similar. In my view and in many societies’ view, it is oppressive even if it is chosen voluntarily. As I have tried to explain above, a person’s individual desires are in part socially constructed.

    No one is against individualism. It is that society recognizes that an individual may decide on a course of action because there is what might be called “soft” coercion.

  • SouthAsian
    Posted at 16:10h, 09 January Reply

    I have the following tentative conclusions from this segment of the discussion:

    1. Practices are not constant; they change to adapt to the needs of society to preserve itself.
    2. Social norms lag behind the changes that impact on everyday life (technology, politics, economics, etc.)
    3. Therefore there is a continuous tension between social norms and individual expression; society is characterized by conservatives, liberals and radicals.
    4. Without this tension and evolution society would either be rent apart or rendered static.
    5. There can be no blanket judgment on whether conservatism or liberalism is better.
    6. Adolescents are often the vanguard of change rebelling against authority to assert themselves, be noticed, affirm their authenticity or make political statements.
    7. It is hard to accept change when it runs counter to deeply held personal opinions.
    8. It is easy to dismiss many such expressions of rebellion as being the result of indoctrination and manipulation. Sometimes they are and sometimes not.
    9. If manipulation is suspected, a blanket ban on expression is not the optimal strategy. The focus of reform should be the manipulation.
    10. Analysis not ideology should guide policy interventions.

    Some of these conclusions are reflected in the recommendation of an article by Amanda Knief on the burqa in the issue of The Humanist that I had linked earlier:

    “The laws banning the burqa and niqab are wholesale laws restricting expressions of religion and culture without proof of harm and are the antithesis of a free and open secular society.

    If the goal of Western European countries and all Western governments is truly to fight the oppression of women and encourage cultural and societal integration, there are more positive alternatives to explore than banning the burqa and niqab. Instead these governments should create an outreach network, including a hotline, emergency services, and counseling, with education and work programs so that if and when Muslim women who are truly oppressed by their religion, culture, or relatives—whether or not they wear a burqa or niqab—choose to leave their families, their religion, their culture, their entire lives, they will have the resources to move on and start a new life, and, importantly, a society that will welcome them instead of shying away.”

  • mazhur
    Posted at 19:54h, 09 January Reply

    The crux of the discussion is that No perfect secular society exists in the world. Religion was and religion is still overshadowing the societal minds to more or less extent and from time to time and continues to play its role in the lives of people..

    • SouthAsian
      Posted at 20:40h, 09 January

      Mazhur: The crux of the discussion was not to determine if a perfect secular society exists anywhere in the world. There is nothing perfect in this world. Rather, one of the issues being discussed was how an avowedly secular society like France which has made religion a private matter should deal with the revival of religion that wants to affirm its religiosity in the public space. The secondary question is whether this tension is generic to the revival of religion in general or specific to Islam.

  • mazhur
    Posted at 21:05h, 09 January Reply

    ,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,The secondary question is whether this tension is generic to the revival of religion in general or specific to Islam.,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,

    I think it’s both. It also reflects upon the intrinsic bias found in secular societies.

  • Arun Pillai
    Posted at 22:06h, 09 January Reply

    South Asian,

    You have put the issue very succinctly. Surprisingly, I don’t recall this point being made earlier in this whole discussion but it has been a while and I have probably forgotten it.

    I think there are two justifications for France’s wanting to ban the burqa. One is, as you have said, it violates its principle of secularism since it wants to keep religious matters private and the burqa is egregiously public. The second is its principle of equal rights because the burqa to most modern sensibilities violates women’s rights even when worn apparently voluntarily.

    • SouthAsian
      Posted at 03:06h, 10 January

      Arun: Perhaps it is because the issue is now clearer in my mind. I have completed reading Secularism Confronts Islam by Olivier Roy. It is only 100 pages but a penetrating analysis by an incisive social scientist. It is worth a read if only to observe how social science ought to be approached. Olivier is making a more wide-ranging case:

      “The redefinition of the relations between religion and politics is a new challenge for the West, and not only because of Islam. Islam is a mirror in which the West projects its own identity crisis. We live in a postculturalist society, and this postculturalism is the very foundation of the contemporary religious revival. Managing these new forms of religiosity [represented by faith communities with communitarian values but divorced from specific cultures] is a challenge for the West as a whole. It is also a task to which this book intends to contribute, by drawing lessons from the French debate, but only to resituate it in the general context of the relations between Islam and the West.”

  • SouthAsian
    Posted at 18:44h, 11 January Reply

    In light of the discussion on this topic what should be the position on the following issue in the Michigan School District? How should the conclusions be applied to a new case?

    SALDEF (Sikh American Legal Defense Education Fund) Working for Kirpan Accommodation in Michigan School District

    SALDEF is deeply concerned over the temporary ban of the kirpan from Plymouth-Canton Community Schools (P-CSS) in Michigan, which was prompted by a young Sikh boy wearing his kirpan to Bentley Elementary School. The Principal of the school recognized the religious significance of the kirpan and was inclined to allow the young Sikh boy to continue wearing his kirpan until the District convened a meeting to discuss a proper resolution.

    Deputy Superintendent Kenneth J. Jacobs issued a memo that stated, “until such time as a compromise is reached, any and all religious emblems that resemble a weapon are strictly prohibited.”

    SALDEF and UNITED SIKHS wrote to the Superintendent last month to allow the student to continue practicing his faith while the District worked with civil rights advocates to fashion an appropriate resolution. SALDEF is optimistic for a positive outcome given the Superintendent’s statement that the District respects the “right of all students to practice their religion and wear religious symbols.”

    The local Sikh community has worked to educate their neighbors about the Sikh faith and the kirpan. At a Community Forum on January 6, 2011, at St. Thomas a’Becket Catholic Church in Canton, Michigan, concerned parents, representatives from the school system, and local community members learned about Sikhs, their beliefs, and their values through a presentation developed and delivered by Jaspal Kaur in conjunction with SALDEF.

  • Arun Pillai
    Posted at 18:56h, 11 January Reply

    I don’t mean to be disrespectful to the Sikh religion or to Sikhs, but practicing Sikhs should recognize that, like many other world religions, certain practices in their religion date to earlier medieval (or, in other cases, even to classical) times, and, as a result, they may conflict with modern life and society.

    It is obvious today that a kirpan is unnecessary for one’s protection. Like everyone else, Sikhs should realize that following a religion does not require literalism but following the spirit of the religion, its basic intent.

    In these circumstances, I would be in favor of banning kirpans from certain types of public places like schools as they could be misused, either by the wearer or by someone else.

  • Vinod
    Posted at 01:01h, 12 January Reply

    I’ve never seen a kirpan before. I assumed that they’d not be a real sword and would be merely symbolic, blunt, small sword shaped objects. When I saw the images I was a bit startled. They are sharp and dangerous objects and can definitely be misused. Should it be banned? I thought about my school days where we carried shaving blades as pencil sharpeners. Shaving razors can be misused too to hurt others although the main concerns were about injuring oneself while sharpening pencils with them. But they were not banned. They were discouraged in favour of the pencil sharpener.

    The difficulty in such matters is obvious – freedom of religion versus safety of others. It is hard to decide but I’m inclined to ban the kirpan.

    But I don’t think this case is similar to the burqa ban issue. The burqa ban comes from a patronizing view of the burqa-wearing women. The main argument for the ban is not about safety of those not wearing the burqa. I think it is coherent to take different approaches on the burqa and the kirpan issue although both have to do with freedom of religion. I find no inconsistency in permitting the burqa and banning the kirpan.

    • SouthAsian
      Posted at 03:11h, 12 January

      Vinod: Regarding the burqa and the kirpan, the issue is the same in France but different in the US (this is the reason the original post began with the positions of Sarkozy and Obama on the headscarf). France does not allow the expression of religion in public spaces; the US does. In the US the separation of church and state is limited to neutrality towards all religions – hence no prayer in schools. Therefore, in the case of the burqa and the kirpan, in France the issue is the public expression of religious symbols while in the US it is one of public safety.

      This discussion made me curious about the position regarding the turban in France. Sure enough, it has been disallowed (http://www.examiner.com/europe-policy-in-national/european-court-rules-against-the-sikh-turban-french-schools).

    • Vinod
      Posted at 04:50h, 12 January

      SA, principle always has to be balanced again pragmatism lest it goes to ridiculous extents. The question in my mind to France in separating religion from state is – are you weighing the real pragmatic benefits of drawing the line where you are in the case of each religious symbol and the state or are you just whipping up emotions to ban certain religious symbols. Are the risks being emprically ascertained?

    • SouthAsian
      Posted at 14:01h, 12 January

      Vinod: It is very hard to ascertain the risks empirically but this is one strain in the debate in France and Olivier Roy argues it quite well. Something that worked well enough when France was a relatively homogeneous society is falling apart in an environment characterized by much greater diversity. Earlier application was also pragmatic with yarmulkes, cassocks and crosses being allowed but the very visible attempt to stop the head scarf has forced a much more stringent application in order to maintain the appearance that it is principle and not prejudice or fear that is the driving force behind the renewed focus on the law.

  • mazhur
    Posted at 03:35h, 12 January Reply

    Kirpan is a dagger mainly used during the wars during Moghul period. The Five ”K’s” that were recommended to Sikh followers by their Guru’s aimed at preparing them as ”soldiers’ who were always ready to fight against the Moghuls or the Muslims, being their bitter enemies. Since the Moghuls have long gone and society has changed over the centuries the 5 K’s (Kirpan (dagger), Kachha (a sort of short underwear), Kara (bangle), Kangha (comb), Kais ( hair on head) are no more a necessity for the Sikhs to go on for the original purpose those were meant for. However, some Sikhs do observe some traditions such as Kara (a metal bangle which could also assist during fist to fist battle), Kanghi and Kais. Wearing the turban is perhaps mandatory for the Sikhs for religious reasons?

    Kirpan is a dangerous weapon and if allowed will surely tend to discomfort the safety of others. It may be compared to someone carrying a pistol and roaming about in public all the time. However, if at all the Sikhs want to preserve their tradition or culture they might opt for a miniature Kirpan the same way cross is worn by the Christians.

    One more thing comes to my mind: It is a custom or rather religious beliefs of some religious minded Muslim men to wear their pants, shalwars or pajamas above their Takhna’s (I don’t remember the right word for the bones protruding on either side on top of feet and at the lowest point of calves!!)….Maybe in future this may also show up as yet another issue in the Western world but since it is related to men and doesn’t fall in any objectionable category of their rule will not be much cared for.

    • SouthAsian
      Posted at 13:51h, 12 January

      Mazhur: The example of wearing trousers above the ankles is interesting. It shows how a situation can tend to absurdity if the letter is allowed to dominate the spirit of a principle. It would be quite possible for a non-Muslim Frenchman to wear an exactly similar item designed by Yves St. Laurent. He would not be challenged under the law because the trouser would not be a symbol of religious expression for him. Ditto for headscarves and turbans – they would mean different things on different heads.

  • mazhur
    Posted at 01:51h, 13 January Reply

    Hehe!! See how Men have made a joke of religion!! Whenever I see a religion-hit man dressed up with pants just above his feet I am filled with awe! That guy just seems to me like someone ready to lunge into the Indian Ocean or the WWF arena!!

    Then there is strong controversy over how long the beard should be to be a good Muslim??? Some say the beard should be not longer than one that fitted the fist whereas some vie for a free-falling beard like the Sikhs. All this seems to me like a joke of religion, a great religion like Islam got sunk in the trifling rituals of unnecessary self-inflicted or over-drawn do’s and don’ts.

    Personally I am not against Muslim women covering up their bodily adornments but covering up from head to toe is something disturbing!

    • SouthAsian
      Posted at 04:18h, 15 January

      Mazhur: We are at the stage in this discussion where personal opinions have ceased to be the issue at hand – your, mine or anybody’s like or dislike for the attire is just that, a personal opinion. What is of greater interest is the issue that is posed for the French system – how to deal with the expression of religiosity in the public space? And, the conundrum that results from attempting to keep it out – how can the same attire worn by one set of people be acceptable and by another be unacceptable? Are we going the tell people’s religion by their attire? If so, would this not lead to new types of distortions in behavior?

  • mazhur
    Posted at 06:43h, 15 January Reply

    @ SouthAsian

    My personal comment is on the basis of Quranic tenets as I understand them and many may agree of disagree with me to take it as a ‘religious’ requisite or cultural?

    During my trips to NYC I noticed that in a certain area known for ‘cheap prices’ most of the shopkeepers there wore Kippah and it was easy to know that they were Jews! I did not feel any repugnace for that nor for the large Sikh community I once found running their shops at Jackson Heights, Long Island. The French are just over-touchy and want to make a mountain out of mole hill by interfering in the religious or cultural parameters of other religions which are not posing them any ‘epidemic’ problem. It may not be out of place to state that the French do seem to suffer some ”religiophobia’ and apprehend that by allowing other religious communities religious liberties they might get their own culture affected in some way or the other.

    India is also a secular democracy, the largest in the world, yet it doesn’t level stupid laws to strip down minorities from their religious or human rights.So which country can be termed rightly secular, India or France, for that matter?? The French and others who lay discrimination against different religious or cultural communities are clearly violating human rights and off the secular imperative.

    • Anjum Altaf
      Posted at 17:44h, 15 January

      Mazhur: The issue is more complex than this and its best description is to be found in the book (Secularism Confronts Islam) by Olivier Roy which I have mentioned earlier. Let me excerpt the underlying issues as presented in the book:

      1. While a Muslim population has taken root in the West, the question of its integration remains open, especially in Western Europe, where there is an overlap between Islam and work-driven immigration – an overlap that is not to be found in the United States.

      2. So far, the West has managed its Muslim population by mobilizing two models: multiculturalism, usually associated with English-speaking countries and northern Europe; and the assimilationist model, specific to France.

      3. Nothing can be more opposed than these two models: the French consider Anglo-Saxon multiculturalism either as the destruction of national unity or as an instrument of ghettoization, while assimilationism is perceived abroad as the expression of an authoritarian, centralized state that refuses to recognize minority rights, when it does not infringe on minority rights.

      4. Since 9/11 both these models are in crisis. The intellectual and practical question has opened up again of how best to handle the articulation of religious identity in the public sphere in secular societies.

      5. Olivier concludes that Islam is just a digression – “a mirror in which the West projects its own identity crisis.” The real issue is the redefinition between religion and politics in a changed context. “We live in a postculturalist society, and this postculturalism is the very foundation of the contemporary religious revival.”

      6. The conclusion is that the earlier models worked well enough but are now outdated. Because of globalization, there is a religious revival and new expressions of religiosity for many reasons. New models of integration are needed in secular societies to integrate this change. The discussion, and the re-examination of the old models, relates to this phenomenon.

  • Arun Pillai
    Posted at 16:49h, 15 January Reply


    From the article:

    “For the first time in the month of protests, large numbers of young women joined the crowd, almost none wearing any form of Islamic veil.

    Many, accustomed to living under one of the region’s most repressive governments, were both excited and uneasy about their new sense of freedom. “We are too many now, we are too big, it is more difficult to silence us,” one woman said, grinning. “But for us it is new to talk. We are still a little bit scared,” she added, declining to give her name.”

    • Anjum Altaf
      Posted at 01:59h, 16 January

      Arun: Both phenomena are occurring at the same time. In places, women are throwing of the veil in the name of liberation. In others, they are adopting it in the name of protest. We have to explain both as well as we can. The trend that your link points to is much the more familiar one. Naturally, we have individual value judgments but they need not come in the way of analysis.

  • Arun Pillai
    Posted at 19:27h, 15 January Reply

    Roy’s analysis is typical of the deracinated French left where all problems are turned back onto the society. Jacques Ranciere is a similar writer. They write partly to shock and glamorize and go against commonsense observation. This is not the case with English intellectuals like Tony Judt, for example, who will start by calling a spade a spade.

    There is a serious problem in France of finding employment for the foreign underclass, which is what led to the riots some years ago. If that problem had been solved, there would be no serious problem with the burqa in France.

    France’s model of secularism is geared more to an atheistic public sphere compared with other Western democracies. This model is more suited to more advanced social thinking and to relative prosperity. Because certain parts of the global population have been “left behind” by modernity, there is a resurgence of the most retrogressive practices that are present in all societies and religions. Should these literalist retrogressive practices from medieval and pre-medieval times (e.g. Hindu dowry killings) be encouraged by doing fancy things with ideas as Roy tries to do or should one simply call a spade a spade and figure out practical policies to integrate the underclass?

    • Anjum Altaf
      Posted at 02:08h, 16 January

      Arun: We are more comfortable with the English way of thinking. The French approach issues somewhat differently but in this case Roy is saying more or less what you have indicated. The French approach worked but the context and reality have changed now. Islam is not at the bottom of this crisis. There are structural reasons that need to be grasped. The problem is more likely my attempt to compress his ideas too much. Also, he is conducting an argument with other French commentators which leads to some parochialism. Still, I think he does a great job in 100 pages and offers many new angles that we can pursue on our own. I don’t think we can ask much more of a public intellectual.

  • Arun Pillai
    Posted at 03:12h, 16 January Reply


    I agree that both contradictory things are happening simultaneously and both need to be explained. In the Tunisian case, it is clearly an action against an oppressive regime and against the oppressive burqa. In the French case, it appears to be a sign of solidarity with the underemployed underclass and not really an argument for the burqa as such.

    Regarding the related point you made earlier about two identical physical objects worn for different reasons, one religious, the other to be fashionable, the fact is that physical objects by themselves seldom carry any meaning. It is the context of use that confers meaning. So it seems perfectly reasonable to ban and allow the same physical object. Occasionally, with something like the burqa, one may want to ban it whether it is religious or not because it comes in the way of public professionals performing their duties.

    • Anjum Altaf
      Posted at 14:54h, 16 January

      Arun: Yes, it is the context that conveys meaning. My query pertains to the implementation required in unveiling the context. Suppose two girls with headscarves arrive together at school. Will they be asked to declare their religion and the Muslim girl’s scarf would be removed? This asking of religion would itself be a violation of laicite. This could also lead to dissimulation – the Muslim girl could try and pass herself off as a non-Muslim much like persecuted Jews pretended to be Christian in Spain.

      Work related restrictions are the norm and exception cannot be taken to them – for example, chefs are required to cover their hair even if they are non-Muslim. But a blanket ban extends to non-work environments as well and a justification for that is harder to come up with.

  • Arun Pillai
    Posted at 03:14h, 16 January Reply


    If Roy is saying roughly what I have said, then of course I have no disagreement. However, he seems to asking for a different model of secularism which is disturbing.

    • Anjum Altaf
      Posted at 14:41h, 16 January

      Arun: No, In my reading Roy is not asking for a different model of secularism. What kind of model did you interpret him as asking?

  • mazhur
    Posted at 08:44h, 16 January Reply

    @ Arun Pillai :

    1. <<<<<<<<<<It is the context of use that confers meaning.>>>>>

    2. >>>>>because it comes in the way of public professionals performing their duties.>>>>>>>>>

    No.1 reminds me of a Muslims Tradition attributed to the Holy Prophet Muhammad and unanimously accepted by all Muslim sects which goes to say that once the holy Prophet saw her beloved daughter, Fatima, unveiled before a visitor male in her house. The Prophet became unhappy at that and when the visitor had gone he asked his daughter why didn’t she cover her up properly before the visitor?? To this Bibi Fatima replied,” My dear father, that visitor was blind”. At this the holy Prophet remarked: ” He was blind but not you”!

    So, the moral of the Hadith is that Muslim women are bound to cover themselves up decently under all circumstances.

    2. The hypothesis is fallacious and cannot be applied generally to all places, times and circumstances. Muslim women had been attending wounded Muslim soldiers during early war times and even today Burqa clad or decently covered up Muslim women are attending to most sophisticated professional jobs such as flying, etc. For an example , even a modernized ex-Prime minister of Pakistan, Benazir, fully covered up her body in decent dress and never let go her head gear off in public. Burqa is just a costume design/fashion considered by some women as a better form of veiling to hide their bodily adornments from the public eye and perhaps most women seem to feel more comfortable wearing it.

    • Anjum Altaf
      Posted at 15:08h, 16 January

      Mazhur: The argument from religion is well known but that is not what will resolve the debate in France (or in the case of the kirpan in the US). Most Muslims in the West have adjusted their lifestyle to the requirements of secular societies and secular societies have made the adjustment to foreign practices (e.g., Sikh policemen wearing the turban in UK). It is only a very tiny minority (in France it is estimated that about 80 women wear the burka) that represents the challenge to the system and the interest is in following the arguments that are being aired to deal with the situation.

      There are of course contradictions that come into play as was apparent in the article on the turban in France. The accompanying photograph showed Dr. Manmohan Singh wearing a turban in a very public place in Paris.

  • Arun Pillai
    Posted at 20:07h, 16 January Reply


    In #5 above, you wrote, “The real issue is the redefinition between religion and politics in a changed context.” Is this not asking for a new definition of secularism?

    • Anjum Altaf
      Posted at 22:23h, 16 January

      Arun: But why shouldn’t the relation between religion and politics adjust to changed circumstances?

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