Monday, November 29, 2004

Women, Veils and the Logic of “Choice”

The Muslim veil debate continues to occupy column inches and airwaves here in France. Over the past months it has become interesting to note that, increasingly, the argument is made that the wearing of a religious veil or headscarf should not be allowed by Muslim women because it offends women’s rights.

Women who wear the veil or headscarves for religious reasons are, so the reasoning goes, clearly subjugated and so any argument that the head-coverings should be respected for religious reasons must take a backseat to concerns about the advancement of women. The view of some women (those who disagree with the wearing of veils for religious reasons) must triumph over the views of other women.

What is interesting about this argument is that it completely flies in the face of how any area of human rights is usually analyzed. When religious beliefs are generally involved in an area of conflict (such as the assertion of exemption from trade-union membership for religious reasons for example) care is taken not to challenge what is called the “subjective” nature of the religious belief.

Put another way, respect is shown for the person asserting the religious belief, their beliefs are taken seriously not subordinated to an objective standard of reasonableness - - as far as the nature of the belief is concerned.

It is the assertion of many Muslim women that the wearing of the headscarf is important for their religious beliefs. Some say that it signifies humility before God as well as modesty, respect for their husbands and so on. Oops. Did someone say “respect for husbands?” Perhaps that is the real rub. If so, it is really a debate about the relationship between men and women with one side of the argument claiming the full force of law and politics as support.

In this battle, religious beliefs and freedom of conscience are irrelevant or so the arguers think. A point noted some years ago in his 1976 book about re-warmed totalitarians of all sorts, by Jean-Francois Revel in The Totalitarian Temptation, is that “history has abundantly shown that the revolutionary method rules out pluralism.”

Feminists, like so many totalitarians, do not like pluralism and so end up being essentially anti-religious because religions, at their best, are pluralist in affirming human freedom (or a vision of ordered moral action) as the core of their conception of creation. Not all religions affirm this truth at all or to the same extent or in the same ways to be sure, but the most significant of them do or at their core aspire towards it in ways that many mutant “liberalisms” such as most versions of feminism do not.

For the moment, however, let us think a little further about another aspect of how many feminists argue and why such inconsistent uses of “subjectivized choice” pose serious threats well beyond the issue of Muslim head-coverings.

Consider the issue of abortion - - not in terms of what a lawyer would call the “merits” of the issue, but the way the issue is argued.

Many feminists argue that “the issue is choice” and the subjective views of a woman about what abortion entails and whether it is right and wrong should be just between her and her doctor and should not be questioned by anyone - - certainly the decision about whether or not to abort, they say, is not something for scrutiny by law, State, philosophy or, for that matter, theology. A woman, to be a woman, to be a truly free woman, to assert her liberty as a female human, so the line of “argument” goes, must be able to decide whether she wishes to terminate the life of her unborn child. No person has the right to interfere with that weighty subjective choice because, well, because “the issue is choice!”

Now, let’s return to the issue of the head-covering. Is “choice” the determinant here? Hardly. Note how Muslim women are treated as “not fully adult” with respect to the decision about wearing a headscarf. Muslim women (wearing headscarves) presumably are adult enough to kill their unborn children without interference from anyone, and using the feminist beliefs, but the wearing of a scarf on the basis of religious beliefs ? Well, “no” that is oppressive, oppressing and must be resisted whatever the religious reasons are for wearing one! The mathematics are of this sort: Choice to kill a child equals adult. Choice to wear a headscarf equals infant.

Note, by the way, that if the reason for wearing a head-covering is merely fashion but not religion then this is alright. No one on French Radio has yet argued that the wearing of the latest Hermes designs constitutes a state of fashionable infancy. What is the difference? Right. Religious beliefs rather than beliefs in fashion, looking good and being, well, a woman!

Over the years it has become obvious that feminism is not concerned with winning arguments based upon logic. Years ago I had the “good fortune” to be on a television panel with a variety of other people discussing the issue that will not go away and when I criticized the logic of the “pro-choice” feminist on the panel was told, in all seriousness, that “logic is a male thing” and so she, the feminist, did not have to deal with my (male) arguments! How convenient! That lady is now a judge.

It appears that now the religious beliefs of Muslim women will be subjected to the same kind of logic-avoiding bully tactics that have been seen in so many other areas of contemporary life. Perhaps it would be better to simply identify such arguments as fallacious (not phallacious) and urge every adult person who believes in human freedom to do their best to challenge them for the dangerous things they are.

Arguments about “women’s rights” in the context of the human liberty to believe what people wish to believe, should be identified as what they are: veiled arguments that cloak anti-religious, racist and anti-family politics and that lead eventually, to illiberal and increasingly totalitarian policies. You doubt this? Keep watching how religious liberties are eroded in the name of “women’s rights” “same-sex rights” and so on.

The one thing that different religions have in common more and more today is that they are being attacked in the same sorts of ways through different issues by the new believers who believe that they do not believe and will stamp out first the freedoms and then the people who believe otherwise.

Iain T. Benson ©