May 08, 2010
Burqa Niqab Ban in Belgium - Equality Overrides Freedom?
A well thought out write up on the "Burqa and Niqab Ban" in Belgium.
The writer of this post is an individual whose ideas and opinions hold a lot of weight for me.
"My thoughts on the niqab ban
In my opinion, there are two major philosophical issues that underlie most serious discussions about banning the niqab: the balance struck between freedom and equality within a society and the marginalization of individuals within that same society. Therefore, before giving my thoughts on such a ban, I want to consider both issues.
First, it is important to determine whether the use of the niqab is a space where the government has the right to legislate. Being a warm-blooded American, my immediate answer to whether the government has a right to legislate anything is usually “No!” But is that actually fair? Recall that the legislations in question ban the niqab in public spaces. Therefore, governments like Belgium’s are saying, where free interactions may take place between any two residents of this nation, we feel it is our right, as the elected representatives of the populace, to legislate the bounds of acceptable clothing. To some extent, even here in the United States, we legislate what people can wear in public places (just think about how many naked non-arrested people you see on the streets [the answer is zero]). Therefore, I believe that it is within the purview of a government to legislate on the outerwear of its residents and, as a result, the use of the niqab.
There is really only one principled reason to even consider banning the niqab: shifting the balance between freedom and equality within the nation further towards equality. It should be fairly obvious that the banning of the niqab impinges upon the freedom of some Muslim women. Either it limits women’s freedom to dress as they please (within the bounds agreed upon prior to the enactment of the ban). Or it limits the Muslim individual’s right to practice her particular flavor of Islam. Therefore, without a doubt, the niqab ban is an impingement upon the freedoms of a subset of any society. How does the ban increase equality? The key is that everyone can see everyone else’s face, which, I believe, is quite important for a functioning western liberal society. Essentially, the ban on the niqab levels the playing field in any interactions between people involving talking, arguing, bartering, playing, fighting, etc. While we may not be conscious of it, we take millions of cues from the facial expressions of the people with whom we are interacting. By allowing the niqab wearer to hide her facial expressions, the niqab puts her in an unfairly advantageous position in situations where displaying emotion is disadvantageous (just imagine how you would fare against a semi-competent niqab-wearing poker player). Similarly, women wearing the niqab are at a disadvantage when facial emotion is useful, for instance, when persuading the jury while arguing a case in court. However, that is unlikely to be why various western nations wish to ban the niqab. But, it is entirely reasonable to believe that governments wish to ban the niqab in order to allow for fairer interactions and improve the level of equality amongst their residents.
More pragmatically, the banning of the niqab is likely to interact with marginalization of Muslims within western society in ways that we would not like. First, recall that the sects of Islam that require women to wear the niqab are already fairly conservative. By banning the niqab, the government is telling these conservative Muslim women and their families that, in order to continue living in the country, they must change their religious beliefs. Such a demand is bound to marginalize most such families and practically drive them into the arms of radical Islam. Therefore, the ban undoubtedly leads to the radicalization of a number of Muslim youths who may not otherwise have sought out radical Islam. Such radicalization leads to the sort of “home-grown” terrorism that we hear about on the news constantly. Considering the strategically devastating outcomes of the ban, it is unlikely that any nation considering the pragmatic consequences of the ban would implement it.
Having considered the points above, is it best for a western nation to ban the niqab or not? On principle alone, a western nation would be best served by implementing such a ban, in order to foster a sense of equality alongside the freedoms long ensured by its constitution. On the other hand, pragmatically, a niqab ban is quite likely to increase the threat of home-grown terrorism in the nation and therefore an inadvisable legislation. However, I strongly believe that laws regarding the freedoms of individuals should not be made on the basis of pragmatic security concerns; such concerns are what bring about legislation like Arizona’s recent immigration law. Ultimately, leaders of any western nation must think of their populace’s beliefs regarding equality and freedom. Where on the spectrum between those two ideals does their country lie? In the cases of Belgium and France, it is quite likely that a ban is the right decision, as both of them put a great deal of emphasis on the notion of equality [see: liberté, égalité, fraternité]. However, as I put more weight on freedom than equality, I do not agree with the ban on the niqab. While the notion of increasing equality by implementing a ban is an alluring one, I do not think it is worth the price of the corresponding reduction in the freedom of the populace."