Monday, 23 September 2013

A Complex Issue

Some of my most detailed thinking occurs after I've been disagreed with, which is why it's so valuable. In this particular case, a Facebook friend who I respect and admire very much for his thinking skills, disagreed with my position on the proposals to ban the Burqa and Niqab in some European countries. I don't support the ban, for reasons I shall explain, but I would like to see an end to these veils. Yes, it is possible to take this stance.

Before we begin, let's be clear on what we're talking about in two very important ways.

Firstly, we are talking about a garment that hides the face. Not a headscarf. There are two levels of this. This illustration shows the difference.

Secondly, before we go any further, it is vital to stipulate, there is no recommendation whatsoever in the Koran for this garment. There is a recommendation for women to dress modestly, but that, like most scripture, can be interpreted any way you please. Some ultra-observant Muslims have adopted this style of dress, but it is a cultural practice, not a religious one. Doesn't matter that they often claim it to be religious. That would be like me claiming that black eyeliner is my religious right. We can all claim anything.

Now, you know as well as I do, that there are many opinions and attitudes about this among westerners, but I find the views of people with a middle-eastern background to be particularly interesting, and not surprisingly there is nothing close to consensus. It is very easy to find objection to the veiling of women among them. Here is just one for you, to make my point.

And for balance this lady will give you another perspective.

And the arguments will continue.

Everyone's opinion, regardless of who they are, is valid, because this is not a no-harm issue. If it were, I'd stay right out of it.

To simplify the argument, basically what it comes down to is this:

Some women are asking for the right to walk around in public in disguise, because they like it that way. 

Should they have the right to do this?

Do you?

Wearing what we please is a right we are used to in the west, mostly. The women in question are not always actually familiar with that right, but they are conveniently latching onto it, and many westerners are supporting them. You can't really blame them, "When in Rome" is a very cherry-picked concept already, and they are not the first to be hypocritical about it. I smile daily at the local Mennonite community who eschew cars, but rent schoolbuses. No, people are people and will use all sorts of get-out clauses to get what they want.

Laws about clothing tend to be restricted, here in the west, to having something covering your genitals. After that, as far as the courts are concerned, you do as you please. There are other rules, rules of etiquette, good taste, and societal pressure to conform, that govern most of our clothing choices. Most importantly there are very few instances when a police officer would be within his rights to ask you to take something OFF.

One of those occasions seems to be when identifying people - teenagers are sometimes asked to take down their hoods so that their faces can be clearly seen. Is this an invasion of privacy? That seems to be the question here.

We tend to interpret hiding the face as a suspicious, rebellious activity.

But there are times, if we support the rebellion, we see it in a more positive light

So, our attitude isn't really about the mask, it's about the reason behind it.

What we claim frequently with any objection to the veiling of women, is that we are giving them freedom, that they are wearing it under pressure from family and community members. The counter objection is that not all women feel pressured to do so, that they prefer to be veiled, and that a ban on this garment effectively prevents them from feeling comfortable.

Banning anything, however, is problematic. People resent it, and some who might otherwise not feel strongly about the issue one way or another will come out strongly against the ban, on the grounds of freedom of choice. So there's a lot of freedom being talked about in this issue.

But we ban things all the time. And many of these bans impinge upon personal freedoms.

Whose freedom is the more important?

You can't have all of them at the same time. Can't be done. There has to be a compromise here. Somebody is going to lose a personal freedom. Ultimately, I will tell you, the winner will be the one quickest and easiest to achieve. Our society enacts laws for expediency because changing public attitude is slow. It is conveniently kick-started by laws. Consider labour laws, racial and gender equality laws. There was a call for them, and there were objections to them. But after the laws were enacted it became normal to agree with them. There are still objectors, and there always will be, but the moment something becomes law, objections diminish.

It is a curious phenomenon of humans that we are essentially law-abiding people. We like leadership, and we like rules, even sometimes when we claim not to. It keeps things peaceful, and provided the laws are mostly just, we go along with a few bits we don't like here and there, to maintain that peace.

I'm a natural rebel, in fact I'm an anarchist. But I'm also a pragmatist. And I like peace. This probably sounds like a bit of a contradiction, but I'm not so very unusual. I go along with all sorts of rules and laws to keep the peace. It's a "Pick your battles" thing. A compromise thing. Compromise is very necessary in a pluralist society. I am also an immigrant who believes in compromise of culture. I was lucky, in that my background culture wasn't terribly different to my adoptive country. Still, some people from the same background as me find fault deeply and constantly with many aspects of Canadian culture, and I make no bones about it - the airport is THAT WAY>>>>>>>

I am fully aware that some westerners are intolerant. We all know this. Let's not pretend otherwise - some are racist and don't like Muslims anyway, and that's the end of it. Not much we can do about them. Others have no problem with Muslims that assimilate totally and behave "like us", but are intolerant of anyone who is visibly and proudly very different. Maybe they can be talked round. Sometimes it just takes more exposure to "different" people.

Among those who are generally tolerant there is a phenomenon of tolerance fatigue. It feels like every time they give a little more leeway, another chunk is demanded. We all have different lines in the sand, nobody is totally tolerant, it's simply not a good idea to allow everything. In this issue ordinary, decent people, not racists, have been pushed to their personal limits. I believe this is where the real problem lies. Furthermore I do, personally, think that demands can become excessive. Remember what the issue is:

"I demand the right to walk around in public in disguise, because I like it that way."

This is not a right I would expect to have myself. I would not ask another person to abide by something I am not willing to abide by myself.

The last time I stated that, I was asked if I would be willing to strip naked for genuine security reasons. It was a silly, slippery slope question, but the answer is unequivocally yes.

All of this is important, and could lead to much further discussion, but what arose in the initial exchange that brought about this blog, is the question of whether women who veil themselves by choice are truly doing so from free will. I know some do. I question just how many.

Some are in a situation where to rebel against the veil would make life very difficult, due to overt pressure from family and community, and for some it would actually be dangerous. WE CANNOT PROTECT THOSE WOMEN. As a society we have an appalling track record with regard to protecting vulnerable people from domestic abuse at all levels.

I have spoken to veiled women, in a very relaxed atmosphere in the playing park with children, when they were completely free to speak, back when I lived in the city. The overall impression I got was that it was easier for them to go along with it than fight it. They were neither strongly pro or anti, they were simply ordinary women coping with life the best they could. Like all of us. Most of these women would in fact benefit from a ban. It is quite possible that research undertaken by those proposing bans has included similar interviews and similar conclusions.

To put it simply, in raw numbers, more women would be helped than harmed by a ban. More would increase their personal freedom than lose it.

Then there are those who have essentially been brainwashed. We actually call it cultural conditioning, or enculturement. We are polite about it because we try to be culturally sensitive, still we notice it happening.

In other situations we wouldn't be so polite about it. When it comes to the question of consent to sex with minors, for example, we call it grooming.

I hear your objections already, so don't bother. I'm not comparing the two, I'm simply saying this is what humans do. Remember how I said that attitudes change slowly, and laws speed things up? This is how we get round that. We persuade very effectively, until people think they want to do what we want them to do. If you don't believe in the power of persuasion, you've obviously never heard of advertising. Selling you something you didn't know you needed is one of the biggest rackets society knows, but it's extremely effective.

Convincing a woman that to veil herself is a good thing is really very easy within the bounds of a tight-knit religious community. I am not suggesting that her comfort is a delusion, it's very real. No wonder she objects.

And the idea persists as long as the pressure from within community, including that by other women, persists. This is not only a patriarchy issue (although it is one, because men are not veiled.) Peer pressure. It's incredibly powerful.

The exact same situation has allowed FGM to continue to happen despite women moving away from places where it is rife. Mothers want their daughters cut because they honestly believe it is better. We have no problem with the ethics of interfering there, of trying to persuade them otherwise, and banning it, but because it is hidden, the ban doesn't work. They do it anyway. They break the law to continue something obviously harmful.

So bans may not even work. The policing of it would be horrible. Imagine if you will, scenes of police officers ripping off veils from women who refuse to remove them. It's not something I want happening.

The best way, albeit the slow way, to end the veiling of women,  is obviously for the women themselves to resist it. Given what freedom they do have within the west, this is made far easier than for those women living in Muslim countries. Every woman who refuses it makes it easier for others to do so. These things reach critical mass, until only a tiny minority follow an old way. Society can easily deal with tiny minorities, it already does so all the time.

Every woman who demands the right to remain veiled slows that progress. She is held up as an example by those who wish to keep women veiled. She is probably already a minority but she is given massive exposure by both the patriarchy, and those who don't understand that you can't please all the people all the time. They are fighting for her rights too and they mean well.

I believe those who wish to ban it will succeed. I don't think it's the right way to go about it, but I don't have a better solution right now. I will continue as I always do, discussing the whole concepts of free thought, tolerance, and feminism.

I'm quite certain you have your own thoughts on this, will agree with some of what I said, and disagree with other parts. All your thoughts are valid.

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