Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Martha Nussbaum: Veiled Threats

An extended argument -- philosophical, political, and pragmatic -- rebutting those of the supporters of a ban on the burqa (especially in some European countries).

Five arguments are commonly made in favor of proposed bans. Let’s see whether they treat all citizens with equal respect. First, it is argued that security requires people to show their faces when appearing in public places. A second, closely related, argument says that the kind of transparency and reciprocity proper to relations between citizens is impeded by covering part of the face.

What is wrong with both of these arguments is that they are applied inconsistently. It gets very cold in Chicago – as, indeed, in many parts of Europe. Along the streets we walk, hats pulled down over ears and brows, scarves wound tightly around noses and mouths. No problem of either transparency or security is thought to exist, nor are we forbidden to enter public buildings so insulated. Moreover, many beloved and trusted professionals cover their faces all year round: surgeons, dentists, (American) football players, skiers and skaters. What inspires fear and mistrust in Europe, clearly, is not covering per se, but Muslim covering.

A reasonable demand might be that a Muslim woman have a full face photo on her driver’s license or passport. With suitable protections for modesty during the photographic session, such a photo might possibly be required. However, we know by now that the face is a very bad identifier. At immigration checkpoints, eye-recognition and fingerprinting technologies have already replaced the photo. When these superior technologies spread to police on patrol and airport security lines, we can do away with the photo, hence with what remains of the first and second arguments.


  1. Anonymous said...

    Prof. Abi,
    Why do you sometimes link to this kind of absolute garbage? When u see any woman covered in black cloth from head to toe - don't you feel suffocated at the mere sight of it ? Using religion and the garb of freedom to force this kind of inhuman tradition should be condemned by all means.

  2. Anonymous said...

    Wow! Martha's ex-husband - Sen - writes an apologia in favor of those who would behead the cartoonist of Jyllands Posten, and Martha herself now comes up with a rationalization for nikab and burqa? Let's instead read this honest interrogation of the limo-lib's hypocrisy,


    Are Some Honor Killings More Equal Than Others?
    By Phyllis Chesler
    Published July 12, 2010 |
    Print Email Share Comments (13) Text Size
    If an honor killing is committed by Muslims in North America, chances are you won’t read about it in the mainstream American media, except perhaps locally, and briefly. However, if the honor killing has been perpetrated by Hindus or Sikhs, and in faraway India, the crime merits prominent treatment in The Washington Post, The Los Angeles Times, and of course, in The New York Times.

    For example, on Saturday, July 10 the Gray Lady ran a front page article about a caste-related honor killing in Koderma, India.

    Read more here

    It's not a matter of convenience Martha, it is about misogyny and patriarchy. It is the cooption of women into supporting an unjust order - only this one is isn't Hindu, but Muslim.

  3. Anonymous said...

    In summary its just abt compulsion and freedom.

    Here's a link to the opposite, a college lecturer being forced to wear burqa in Kolkata. She's being transferred offsite.

    Compelling somebody to wear a burqa or a bikini is a problem. A woman who has the freedom to wear a bikini also has the freedom to cover up in a burqa or equivalent and does so when she goes to her job in that radiology lab or visiting Chicago.

    The converse is usually not true. But if the burqa wearer willingly accepts constraints on her freedom the problem is solved.

    Freedom includes the freedom to be "less free"- at least voluntarily and by informed consent.

    Its hard to grasp that anybody would willingly wear suffocating tent-like covering in sweltering Indian weather but this is not dissimilar to tasks and penances that many Hindu devotees set themselves on a weekly or even daily basis.

    Any self-imposed hardship is viewed as a character-building, soul-cleansing offering that improves your score on "proximity to God". Respect is often accorded, even by non-observant Hindus, to the overtly religious and fasting ones. They can get used to receiving respect and sometimes come across as self-congratulatory and *superior* to the non-observant H. And this is with the priest in a low-key role.

    Social pressure to observe such customs can be compared to social pressures to wear bikinis in Western societies but I dont know. I guess swimwear models are admired but not really looked up to or respected in an analogous way.

    My outsider feel of the faith-under-discussion is that its much more protective of its beliefs and symbols, the burqa being one such. The *proximity to God scale* I notice within my system is perhaps much more steeply graded in there. I think the priest has considerably more clout to decide what is acceptable and what is "haraam".

    Considerably more people hold these totems in considerably more value and if you wish to be listened to, you will have to convey your respect for their beliefs; if you try that "nobody has a right to be not offended" attitude all you can do is score points and come away with a "win" feeling.

    I'm runnning away now and so will stop... :-)