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For the first installment of UD’s attempt to be reasonably self-aware about the fact that she’s a liberal, go here, and be sure to read the comments, which include a lengthy give and take between me and my old friend Rita Koganzon.

It’s clear from this blog’s long preoccupation with the genital mutilation of children, enforced veiling, enforced sex segregation, child marriage, various forms of erasure of women and images of women from the public realm, etc., etc., that an absolutely crucial liberal value, for UD, is gender equality.

One of her boyfriends at Northwestern University was an Iranian, from an extremely poor family, who scored so well on a national exam that he got one of the Shah’s special fellowships to study engineering at an American university.

His mother, he told me, was literally taken from playing with her dolls and married off to a man in his thirties. She was if I remember correctly nine years old.

Her husband’s sister could not have children, so this woman’s first child – she must have given birth at twelve or something – was simply taken from her and given to the sister.

I don’t remember the rest of her life story, but I remember my hopelessly naive shock at this tale, my hopeless effort to imagine this woman’s life in all its horror; and this of course was an early lesson for UD in the difference between liberal and non-liberal cultures. (Forget rule of law: “[T]here is no specific age limit for marriage in Iran and marriage is possible at any age.”) Culture (FGM) and religion (all the other stuff; including, in plenty of settings, FGM) continue, all over the world, to subject women to unspeakable cruelty as a routine part of life. We ignore most of it, since it’s so huge, but our attention will certainly be riveted to it at least for a little while as the Taliban begin reinterring Afghan women and girls.

And to be clear: None of this is to deny what Jordan Peterson rightly goes on about: Men have shitty lives too. We all have shitty lives, if you like – as Adam Gopnik, in his discussion of liberalism, points out:

If we got the best government imaginable, with national health care and with actually fair voting democratic voting procedures — we abolished the electoral college and Roe v. Wade was saved — we still would be stuck with the fact of mortality, with the misery of human life, with our inability to get everything we want.

Human life has a deep, deep sadness and the liberal project of reform can seem fatuous compared with the full enormity of human suffering and human unhappiness. That’s not a trivial observation; that’s deep in the richest kind of conservative political philosophy.

More tersely, there’s Adam Phillips:

The reason that there are so many depressed people is that life is so depressing for many people. It’s not a mystery.


Now in all of this, one iteration of liberal culture has it that FGM etc is none of our business – that it is indeed one of the crowning glories of liberalism that our tolerance/moral relativism finds ways to normalize these behaviors. FGM is only a nick …no one will marry you if you’re not… nicked… It’s been part of these cultures forever… To be a liberal after all is to be neutral in regard to what constitutes a good life… Only a moral absolutist would judge, let alone militate against, FGM and assorted other women-only treats…

Yet — put aside the obvious cruelty of the FGM procedure – a cruelty to which you’d think morally serious people – and certainly liberals – would respond — wouldn’t you think that since equality is one of the primary liberal virtues, liberals would judge FGM to be, well, wrong?

Or recall my many posts in 2013 about the decision of the governing body of British universities that gender segregation at university events was fine. In the language of the Muslim student groups who held such events, the Sisters could sit in the back, behind a curtain, and be quiet, while the Brothers could sit in the front and make comments.

Another eminently admirable liberal decision, based on respect for diverse ways of life.

Only right away something interesting happened. This wasn’t some far-away degradation, like FGM or child marriage; this was happening next door to my residence hall! I could SEE this – could see women obediently walking through side doors marked BLACKS ONLY I mean WOMEN ONLY… And a HUGE fuss ensued and the liberally enlightened governing body first tried condescendingly lecturing people on their benighted colonialist myopic evil until absolutely everyone starting with the prime minister came down on them like a ton of bricks and they suddenly announced uh no we meant gender segregation at university events is unlawful.

So… liberalism seems to mean standing your ground when your national liberal values are directly attacked, which is great, only UD recognizes her liberalism as equally international in orientation, which means that unlike some people she thinks there are universal non-negotiable human rights/values, and that it’s perfectly okay – even commendable – to be appalled at – call them militant and even vicious illiberalisms – around the world, and to speak and act against them.


So now let’s return to the story of the day – the EU court’s decision that under conditions of strict across the board religious neutrality, banning the hijab from the workplace might be okay. Might be. This decision is subject to all sorts of local review and approval. But that was the decision; and obviously the broader context is that one liberal European country after another is in various ways restricting the burqa and the hijab, and lots of other in no way liberal countries are also restricting various forms of female Islamic covering.

Clearly, banning certain religious forms of dress is far more questionable than banning sex segregation at university events. The latter takes a stand on behalf of gender equality in a context where such equality is obviously flouted; the former looks like illiberal bigotry against innocuous self-expression. (Marine Le Pen has called for a total ban on the hijab.) Liberal societies enshrine freedom of religion, and only an illiberal person would favor restrictions on religious symbols and apparel.

A practical problem has arisen, however. Some businesses are suffering serious losses, as people who object to the illiberal values of burqas and hijabs vote with their feet and take their business elsewhere. Are these people bigots?

Only some of them. I think some of them aren’t. Consider a woman who doesn’t want her five year old daughter to spend all day every day in the child care center with a woman whose clothing (hijab; loose full-body robe) broadcasts her deep conviction that the public relationship of women and men must be one in which women hide themselves from men; that the proper public posture of women is extreme modesty; that God wants women to hide their bodies. Having grown up in a liberal, secular, culture, this woman wants her daughter to develop in the exact opposite direction: Bold open bodily – and every other form of – self-expression in a context of absolute equality with, and non-fear of, men. (When interviewed, veiled women often talk about how they feel less subject to male harassment – they seem to see sexual harassment as hard-wired in men – when covered.)

I can easily imagine that this woman would without a second thought vote for Muslim-background political candidates, have more assimilated Muslim friends, have no objections to the core Muslim creed, etc. But the profound gender inequality of female veiling (the whole issue would be much more interesting if Muslim men also veiled) is for her a bridge too far; it offends precisely the liberal values she cherishes. It overrides the liberal value of tolerance in this situation because it threatens to have a direct effect on the liberal formation of her child. As Ronan McCrea notes, “Most mainstream religions have teachings on matters such as gender and sexuality that people can legitimately find offensive.” To their liberal values. In a certain setting.

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