So many full veiling bans have taken place – and will take place – in Europe that you can now discern at least one telling pattern in the process. Noise is made among political parties and leaders about introducing partial or full bans. IMMENSE numbers of opinion pieces appear in newspapers all over Europe, and in the United States, and in the Middle East. Almost all of these pieces oppose bans; the only difference among them involves the degree of anger and self-righteousness with which the author expresses her incredulity that anyone could fail to see the obvious degeneracy and threat to democracy such bans represent.

Next up are the national polls, which virtually always reveal that strong to overwhelming majorities in the country in question support a ban. Since taking seriously results like these is also a feature of democracy, and since disturbingly and very visually annihilated female minorities on your streets doesn’t, when you think about it, smack very powerfully of democracy at all, ban-opposers are in a bit of a fix. Always they write with the confidence that all decent-minded people perceive the evil of forcing women, via fines, not to be annihilated, and then it turns out that their confidence is badly misplaced.


If they are honest, they ponder the disconnect between their sense of the world and what the world really is. Are virtually all of their fellow French citizens vile Islamophobes? Has everybody turned into Marine Le Pen? And what the hell happened to the goddamn European Court of Human Rights? The world’s gone mad!


But it is now really the intellectual responsibility of people who defend a cultural status quo in which women are visually annihilated to examine with honesty and humility how it is that they came to be so out of step with the instinct of vast majorities in almost all of the European countries where the status of fully veiled women begins to become a matter of law.

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9 Responses to ““A large majority of Germans reject the burqa and the niqab. Eighty-one percent of respondents in a representative survey conducted by polling institute Infratest dimap are in favor of banning the Islamic veil, which covers women completely from head to toe, in some public places. More than half the Germans have an even more extreme view: 51 percent were in favor of banning the burqa entirely.””

  1. Greg Says:

    I really regret not having the time to do my reaction justice. So, in most modern western societies, there is in theory at least democratic rule. Rights — such as free expression and free exercise of religion — either can be seen (unrealistically I think) as extremely hard limits on what the democratic will can do or as a brake that slows things down while people have time to ponder whether they really want to interfere in ways that people have come to regret in the past. As in a previous burka thread, I concede that there are health and safety rationales that would trump asserted religious expression — both in the US and to varying degrees in other western democracies — though I don’t know much about the latter. Once the religious dress is made safe for reasonable driving and identification requirements etc., further restrictions pose difficult problems, probably insuperable in the US, and for me that warrants caution. Without some compelling reason, should an adult woman be told how to dress in public? On the theory that the majority, through government, knows that that likely will prove good for her, and for others like her, and enable her to become a realized person who then can make true choices? Obviously the answer is no in the American legal system. But, outside of the current US legal system, my question is intended as a real, not rhetorical, one. I generally like speech and religious freedom, but for example I’m glad that Germany can deal with Nazis in ways we cannot, and likely should not, under present circumstances. I too think that these women are coerced and/or stunted by the most extreme version of their religion and I would like to see it stop. I just have the reservations expressed above about encouraging intervention in this direction–not an absolute position.

  2. Margaret Soltan Says:

    Without some compelling reason, should an adult woman be told how to dress in public? On the theory that the majority, through government, knows that that likely will prove good for her, and for others like her, and enable her to become a realized person who then can make true choices?

    For me this is the crucial part of your thoughts on the burqa/niqab problem. Because I think any full discussion of the problem has to include not merely choices that society considers good for the woman – it’s equally important to think of it in terms of what society sees itself protecting about itself. There are bedrock values – secularism, equality of the sexes, the public sphere as a place of mutually open, relational identities – that pertain in various societies, and you can expect the people in those societies to be very sensitive to forms of being that seem to them a radical threat to those values.

    So for me, the unacceptability of the burqa/niqab began very anecdotally and viscerally – I was in a shopping mall in Virginia with my ten-year-old daughter and she suddenly looked at me with confusion and upset: Who were those women covered in long dresses and full face veils? What did it mean that they were hidden away like that, their eyes invisible, their mouths shut up behind thick fabric, even their fingers covered in black gloves?

    My reflex was to steer my daughter away from them quickly — I did not want her to see that she lived in a world in which women were put in, or put themselves in, that absolute imprisonment. Everything in me wanted my daughter to perceive her world as one in which all women enjoyed a freedom equal to men, and now what was she learning?

    Obviously, this sudden response was in no way an argument about fully veiled women in democracies. It was simply the intuitive beginning of a long bout of reflection on the terribly destructive meaning of the burqa in the free world.

    I didn’t even feel the need to run, on this blog, recent photographs of masses of freed women in Syria ecstatically throwing off their burqas. Why does anyone even need to make the point anymore? The burqa is a horrible thing, and rational people know it.

    And in fact almost no one tries to defend it as a good; people try to argue that it’s the preferable of two evils: If we make these enslaved women take it off, the men enslaving them will simply keep them home for the rest of their lives.

    Do people who make this argument really hear what they’re saying? Do they not think that such a woman’s situation is a situation in which the state should take an interest? Do they hear Angela Merkel when she says the obvious: That people wearing burqas will never achieve any form of assimilation into democratic societies? That standing around for decades waiting for fully veiled women (never forget: children are put in burqas) to decide – have it decided for them – that it’s time to ditch it is rather a waste of time?

    Of course we know that women who never feel sunlight have vitamin deficiencies; that since we are unable to see them we are unable to see if they have been abused; that since they are mute they will never tell us what is going on their lives… Of course we know these are bad things that we should care about, and that it’s morally despicable to claim that these horribly constrained women are freely choosing to constrain themselves.

    Have you noticed that when women in burqas bring civil rights complaints to court they almost never show up in court? They are in the excruciating, almost comically horrible, position of trying to argue legally for their right to have no legal voice.

    My point is that it goes farther than the horrible condition under which these women live: We also know what freedom, secularity, equality, full human dignity mean; and we know that the burqa is a direct and potent symbolic attack on all of them. No one should be surprised that vast majorities of people in enlightened countries like France and Germany perceive the burqa as unacceptable.

  3. Greg Says:

    I acknowledge the power of your arguments and the passion and eloquence with which they are expressed. Not that it’s really important, but (a) my post indicated that I am undecided about the best resolution of these issues in a variety of places and cultures, even including ours, and (b) that it was a hasty post– all of the vectors of harm, both of governments doing something and its doing nothing could not be explored. They would, and probably have filled, books. What you excerpted was the crucial part of my post, but not the totality of my thoughts on this matter. I’m left with this. Not that it shouldn’t be done, but wouldn’t it be exquisitely difficult to draw lines, once you start drawing them to define and exempt this sort of oppression from the protection of personal autonomy, religious, and/or expressive rights. A yes, it is hard, doesn’t mean that you don’t proceed, but proceeding does increase the likelihood that — long term — some things you hold dear may face serious threats from the government. And if, like me, you are happy both (1) that Germany can deal with Nazis in restrictive ways but (2) that we cannot, how would you feel about your preferred French response coming to the U.S. I’m not making a point. I really am open and to input and asking a question. I’m not sure whether or not you find this sort of regulation easy in terms of regulation or hard, but still, justified. I find it very hard — like a which child do you save dilemma.

  4. Margaret Soltan Says:

    Greg: You’re absolutely right to worry about precedents once bans of this sort get going – the ridiculous business of the French trying to ban the burkini goes to this point. There are also now efforts to ban hijabs! So I totally get the point that human beings being what they are, once you start down this road, you might not be able to stop. The rational approach is to make a clear bright line at obscuring the face and stopping there, but given the French experience one can anticipate efforts to broaden the law.

    As to the good ol’ US of A – I’ve thought a lot about our particular country and this issue. Assuming there are ever enough visible burqas in our cities, in our schools, to draw serious attention, I will be fascinated to see how Americans deal with this. I support burqa bans among the European countries that have them or are trying to have them; if 80% of my fellow citizens wanted a ban, I’d be with them. On the other hand, if 80% of my fellow citizens expressed horror at the very idea, I’d keep my trap shut.

  5. Derek Says:

    This South African Muslim woman doesn’t need to be patronized by white feminists claiming to protect her from herself:

  6. Margaret Soltan Says:

    Yikes, Derek: One cliche after another. Surely you can find a better example of this point of view.

    Anyway, she’s arguing against people legally opposed to the head scarf, and there are very few of those. If women give her a hard time because of the head scarf (I doubt many do), that’s pretty rude, but nothing she shouldn’t be able to handle.

    “The problem, you see, is that you cannot see a woman as your equal unless she is a mirror of yourself.”

    How patronizing that “you see” is. And the sentiment is bullshit. Progressive feminists tie themselves up in knots understanding and affiliating themselves with people who are different from themselves. Note that your writer doesn’t even use the word “similar” here. No, no – unless you are an exact reflection of white feminists you are their inferior.

    The argument she’s making needs to be made. But she’s making it so superficially, so unfairly.

  7. Derek Says:

    I don’t think her arguments are any worse than your embrace of majority rules. And I’m not convinced that “Scathing Online Schoolmarm” suddenly gets to call someone else patronizing. (I mean seriously — I enjoy your work, but if we took away “patronizing” — and “unfair” for that matter — as go-to moves your range of motion would be seriously restricted.)

    But beyond that I’m a historian of civil rights in the US and South Africa, so maybe I’m hypersensitive to majority rule arguments about civil rights. And I’d argue that what you call superficial might just be a lack of recognition of the South African context where that “exact reflection” is at the crux of the matter. Maybe progressive *white* feminists tie themselves up in knots understanding and affiliating themselves with people who are different from themselves. But at the same time, maybe they too often congratulate themselves for doing so, and when a black South African woman points out that just maybe that self-congratulation is bullshit they resort to calling those black South African women patronizing and superficial and unfair and discount the legitimacy (“I doubt many do”) of their experience. Indeed, the histories of the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa and the civil rights movement in the US are in part histories of having to convey to white self-proclaimed progressives that they weren’t as progressive as they thought they were.

  8. Margaret Soltan Says:

    Derek: We’re very much at odds on this one, and I doubt we can get much closer. I read that little essay as smug and ill-considered. In a world of plenty of real enemies you shouldn’t toss away friends, even if they’re not quite as one would like them. The business of scolding, say, liberals for being insufficiently progressive, or for being deluded in the degree of progress they think they’ve made, etc., etc., is, IMHO, a wasteful and self-destructive political strategy. I read this essay as that sort of thing.

  9. Derek Says:

    But again — you are a white American woman. You have spent exactly how much time in South Africa? And of that time you’ve spent exactly how much time among Muslim, or even black, South African women?

    It might be the time for you to admit that you know fuckall about the South African context.

    This is not simply a matter of you and me being “at odds on this one.” I’ve literally forgotten more than you know about South African society and history. So our “being at odds” doesn’t mean “we could both be right.”

    I can find the shebeen in the township. You can’t.


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