In last week’s newsletter I wrote that I opposed Switzerland’s new law banning the burka, a law targeting what amounts to a few dozen women in the country. I also strongly oppose Quebec’s Bill 21 which forbids anyone wearing visible religious garments from working for the government (as a nurse, teacher, police officer, etc.). In these cases and others, thoughtful friends have disagreed with me and so I thought I should say more on this important issue. Whether or not you agree with me, I hope below to at least offer food for thought about freedom, women’s rights, and tolerance. (If it’s helpful, here’s a quick primer on hijabs vs niqabs vs burkas).
What is Freedom?
Western societies, at their best, have valued and promoted individual liberty. Most Westerners share a belief that people should be free. The real issue is how do you define freedom? I think freedom is your right to do something I do not like. And further that the state may not like either. Even in North Korea or Saudi Arabia, you can take actions that your neighbours and the state approve of. But take unpopular steps and you discover you are not so free after all.
It doesn’t matter what it is. Your neighbour might be gay; a Scientologist; covered in fifty tattoos; smokes pot; wears a turban; drinks too much; is an abortion activist for the “wrong” side; has an angry dog; or wears a niqab. A saying attributed to Voltaire says that I may disagree with what you say but I will defend your right to say it. It should apply to actions too. So, does that mean anything goes?
No. American Oliver Wendell Holmes clarified that your right to swing your fist ends at my nose. Actions that harm your neighbour – depriving them of property or injuring their person – are not liberty but rather its erasure. But if the woman next door is not harming you, I think we must let her be.
By Engraving by P. Baquoy, from a painting by Monsiau. https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=430043
This is the issue with Quebec’s Bill 21 (mentioned above). Many Québècois find the idea of public employees (a teacher, police officer, etc.) having a visible religious identity to be offensive. The law bans this, forcing young people with dreams of a career in medicine to suddenly have to either give up their dream or leave the province. That feels more punitive than freeing.
Some friends have raised important counter-arguments so let me address them in turn.
Photo by John Kenney, Montreal Gazette, Oct 31, 2019
Defending Women’s Freedom
A key justification for such laws is to stop the oppression of women. Obviously, I share this goal so the question again becomes how to promote women’s freedom. Who defines when a woman is free? Should it be a politician? A bureaucrat? The majority? I humbly suggest we should leave it to her. She may make decisions you or I or her imam thinks are unwise (some imams dislike the niqab and the burqa) but it is her body, so I think it is her choice. Violating this principle can lead to disturbing situations such as French officials who were patrolling beaches to force women wearing the “burkini” (a modest Muslim swimming garment) to remove more of their clothes. The state forcing women to disrobe was horrible enough that they soon backtracked.
Are They Really Free?
Some wonder whether women wearing these garments are really free? One concern is that they are being forced by husbands or fathers. If true, this is coercion and the laws prohibiting it must be enforced. In my own, somewhat limited, exposure to women wearing niqabs and burqas in the West, they have chosen to do so. Actually, often their husbands are less keen on it since it can bring unwanted attention. Every situation is unique, however, and real coercion must be stopped.
A second set of concerns is around false consciousness or “brainwashing.” Within academia, for what that is worth, these terms have little traction. We are all affected by our social groups and the society we grow up in. Many today think Trump supporters are brainwashed by Fox News and talk radio; many Trump supporters think liberals are brainwashed by the media and the universities. Ditto on vaccines. My own socialization will never seem like brainwashing to me but I’m not so sure about you! We are all affected by our social circles and our media consumption. I am not sure who decides whose views are clear-sighted and whose are misled.
I Still Don’t Like It!
That is fine. Really. Granting your neighbour their freedom does not mean agreeing with everything your neighbour does. In turn, they might not like all of your choices. So, let us recommit to valuing tolerance. In this interview I noted that tolerance has been transformed in recent decades. We often denigrate it now, saying difference should be celebrated, not tolerated. Yes, in some cases. But not all difference needs to be celebrated. Real freedom requires tolerance in its original meaning – forbearance. To put up with something you genuinely do not like is hard. It’s work. It is also a virtue central to creating truly free societies. So disagree with your neighbour! Maybe even try to convince them of your view. But I urge you to refrain from using the state to impose your views on them.
Want to Learn More?
Encounter’s programs encourage both freedom and tolerance. The conversations fostered humanize people. We hear someone’s voice, appreciate her humour, and maybe disagree (perhaps even strongly) with something she says. But it still gets us beyond the Single Story so she becomes a more rounded person to us and more than her choice of garments.
Programs like our Discovery Week (coming up May 2-7) help you to make decisions based on fuller information. You encounter people and their stories, we ponder the role of religion versus culture, and we learn at times to see things from a different perspective. Indeed, understanding these perspectives will help you will learn about others, but will also help you learn about yourself. Come join us!
Really enjoyed the article on dress!!
I absolutely agree with everything you have said Brian however I have one more question. Why do many of women in the Middle East wear heat “absorbing” black clothing while their male counterparts wear heat “repelling” white clothing? I can understand being modest but not being unbearably uncomfortable.
It’s a good question Irena and I’m not exactly sure. And to be clear, many of those countries do not uphold women’s freedom to make choices regarding their own bodies. The laws in Iran and Saudi Arabia are simply unfair. I’m glad you liked what I wrote though. Always value your thoughts!
Enlightened as always, Brian. Secular intolerance is just as toxic as any other form of aggressive dogmatism.
Very interesting. TY
Glad you liked it!
Thanks for this article Brian. I don’t actually agree with you, but you make very good points.
I’ve just discovered your blog, and I’m enjoying once again hearing your wise dispensations.
What a pleasure to hear from you Joseph! To respectfully disagree is divine.
Hi Brian! I really loved your article, especially the clear and entertaining way you structured your points. Living in Switzerland, it is very interesting to see this new law be passed. What I love about the Swiss government is the possibility for citizens to vote on laws – not just that, but citizens can propose laws in what as known as a “popular initiative” (launched by gathering 100,000 signatures). One of the major problems, however, is a lack of understanding in general of this law – does it really make sense to have the entire population vote on something like this, a subject which many people do not fully understand? If you look at the distribution of the voting, the law was rejected in many of the cantons with the largest cities (Geneva, Bern, Zurich), whereas it was passed in many more rural (and typically, less diverse) areas. Just some food for thought!
Thanks Holly! And thanks for the on-the-ground perspective! Yes, I agree – having a majority vote on a minority’s rights is always a bit dicey. Courts are intended for this very purpose – to protect a minority from this situation.
Glad you liked the post & thanks for contributing!
When I was in Lahore in Pakistan in 2000 a strict Pakistani Muslim whom I knew told me: “Mahomet said that a woman is only allowed to show her eyes!” I pointed to women on the street who were dressed in long, flowing robes, but did not have their faces covered. (The majority of women in Lahore are like this.)
He got very angry and said: “They are Muslims in name only! On the day of judgment there will be big punishment for them – for disobeying the Holy Prophet!”
Thanks for sharing your experience Geoff. Yes, there are always a million views in each religion. I know imams who dislike it. But others feel different. My hope is that women aren’t coerced by men or the state in any direction.
I’d like to see you write the same article about gambling, prostitution, pornography or stripping. The proponents of these activities use the same arguments. It’s a free country, they aren’t hurting anyone, they are consenting adults. And yet each of these are often shunned, very heavily regulated, or even outlawed. Why?
I think the answer is that there is such a thing as societal harm. There is also such a thing as systemic coercion. If you create a society that does not give good job opportunities to women; where economic downturns disproportionately affect women, where the cost of childcare disproportionately falls on women; and where women are looked at as sexual objects – is it really an equal choice for women to turn to professions that perpetuate these negative stereotypes at the expense of society and themselves?
Surely an adult person can make a decision in a free country to spend their money as they please. If that means dropping their weekly social insurance cheque on a roll of a roulette wheel – more power to them, right? I would suggest no. Due to the fact that the largest harm of gambling falls on those who can least afford to lose, we see that this is an activity that preys on those who are looking for economic help and are not really making a rational decision. These decisions don’t just harm them, they harm society. Not only by removing that individuals’ productivity, but by perpetuating and industry that will prey on others.
So, if we posit that there are such things as society harms that transcend just the free will of an individual, and we concede that an otherwise independent intelligent adult can make a seemingly free decision that is in reality coerced (in a non-illegal, non-physical fashion) then can we not consider that in this case?
When we outlawed child labor – it was the parents and children that complained. They were losing money, losing their livelihood. But it was for the betterment of society in the long run and for the sake of similarly situated families. I’d be open to hearing the distinction here.
Thanks for you comment. Let me try and reply.
First, putting your specific comment aside (for a moment) I want to note that the Quebec law affects Sikhs and Jews and not just Muslim women. And, I think there’s a fair bit of evidence that race plays a factor in the way these communities are targeted. Neither of these factors are what you are addressing and so I will set these aside to address your comment but I wanted to at least note their relevance for the larger question of understanding the law itself.
Re societal harm – yes, I agree. Societal harms are a relevant factor. So, for example, you brought up economic marginalization. I think this is a tough sell here: if you have women with headscarves who act at teachers, nurses and police officers, how are they leading to the marginalization of women (given their professional status)? And how does stripping them of their jobs help? Are we as a society happy these individuals pursued education and a career or not?
I do think societal harm is relevant here however. Namely, by ensconcing a second-class status for some citizens. As this article highlights, support for Bill 21 correlates with anti-Muslim sentiment. Note too in the article that half of Quebeckers feel their way of life threatened by religious minorities. For me, that is an alarm bell. Much, much harm in human history is done by majorities that feel threatened by a minority. The majority, after all, holds power but if they feel threatened, it can justify all sorts of marginalization.
France has been enacting these kinds of measures for years and the larger societal impact to me seems quite negative. Relations between Muslims and the rest of French society is (to put it mildly) not great. I think a state announcing “you are not one of us” has all sorts of societal harms. I suspect it emboldens hatred and makes dislike or prejudice more palatable.
What is the societal impact of every once in a blue moon encountering a Muslim women with a hijab who’s a police officer? Or a Sikh man who is a nurse? Or a Jewish man who gives you your driver’s license? I think it’s to say that they belong just like the police officers, nurses, and government workers beside them. It suggests we all belong.