Monday, 11 April 2011

Banning the Burqa: A Comment

France's controversial ban on wearing Islamic veils such as burqas and niqabs takes effect Monday. A silent protest march against the burqa ban is planned for Monday morning in Paris. The ban pertains to the burqa, a full-body covering that includes a mesh over the face, and the niqab, a full-face veil that leaves an opening only for the eyes. The hijab, which covers the hair and neck but not the face, and the chador, which covers the body but not the face, apparently are not banned by the law. "The ban does not target the wearing of a headscarf, head-gear, scarf or glasses, as long as the accessories do not prevent the person from being identified," the Interior Ministry said in a statement.(1)

Banning the burqa would seem to be contrary to the negative idea of freedom, as notable expressed by Isaiah Berlin, and also taken up by the libertarian ideals of justice.

"Negative liberty" for Berlin is freedom from: freedom from interference in personal matters, which implies the circumscription of state power within a strong legal framework.(2)

and we find this in the kind of statements about freedom that say that:

People should be free to publish cartoons of Mohammad. They should be free to wear the burka. In a free society, men and women should be able to do, say, write, depict or wear what they like, so long as it does no significant harm to others. (3)

But part of the problem with this approach is its idealised concept of the individual as an independent entity, able to make choices with complete and unforced freedom. It's fine on paper, but people are not really as rational as the argument suggests.

For instance,  within a marriage, the concept of freedom is more problematic. A marriage is not just two individuals leading separate and disconnected lives, and history shows that marriages can become places where coercion and violence can flourish. That's not true of all marriages, but just consider the special status, and the special kind of handling that the police give in cases of domestic abuse, where they may be called in, but the beaten wife (there are cases in which it is the husband) will not press charges. If this was a fracas between two people who were not married, the determination of the policy would be quite different, and with less "kid gloves". There is often a kind of dependence, because of the emotional investment, and the
wife will remain in that situation despite abuse.

In "Inevitable Illusions: How Mistakes of Reason Rule Our Mind" by Massimo Piattelli-Palmarin notices that a particular kind of economic mistake assumes that if a considerable investment has been made in a project, it is better to invest more, even if it seems to be failing, to ensure success rather than make a decision to cut one's losses. This is a well-known bias called "loss aversion".

one is irrationally risk tolerant when trying to preserve capital.  Or put another way, once you have a vested interest (time or money) into a company, you are willing to take irrational risks to protect your investment (4)

I suspect that much the same happens in abusive domestic situations, and that is where women's refuge play such an important role,  in providing an escape.

But returning to the question of the burqa. In a marriage that is a free partnership of equals, the burqa would be the wife's choice. This is the concept of freedom - along with the Danish cartoons - that we see above. In fact, that is a fiction, and the marriage, even if not physically abusive, may still have the man imposing his religious ideals upon his wife.

And there is also - and even more importantly - one other scenario which should be considered - that which psychologists call "internalised oppression":

External oppression is the unjust exercise of authority and power by one group over another. It includes imposing one group's belief system, values and life ways over another group. External oppression becomes internalized oppression when we come to believe and act as if the oppressor's beliefs system, values, and life way is reality. Internalized oppression means the oppressor doesn't have to exert any more pressure, because we now do it to ourselves and each other. (5)

In this scenario, the wife or woman wearing the burqa has a learned submissiveness, a learned behaviour that tells her that it is right to wear the burqa, and this may be supported by religious beliefs. This does not just happen with Islam, however. I have come across people whose Christian beliefs are fed by a fear of burning in hell, and where they have violated the norms of their religious community, even after they have left, the internal burden remains with them, always present. It is far, far more effective as a means of control than external coercion because the inner demons have taken hold of the person, and their shackles are internal. As Kirsten Anderberg says:

Dostoevsky also talks about the inner conflicts of a man such as these quite succinctly in his spiritual classic, "The Brothers Karamazov." In that book, he says the one thing people fear more than anything else is their own freedom and he uses the book to show example after example of that, especially highlighting the way religion has exploited and fanned those fears of freedom. (6)

She also notes how "those with internal oppression try to learn how to oppress themselves to please the oppressor". This was a recurring theme with Annie Parmeter, where she describes how her upbringing, with a forceful father, left its mark in how she reacted:

My father used to make me feel deeply academically inadequate, I used to dread not getting full marks in school tests because of his anger at my being 'lazy' or just generally 'a waste of space'. The pattern associated with this distress can now make me internalise the oppression and feel fearful of my ignorance being 'found out' so I usually want to dodge the request entirely or run away.  (7)

She noticed how this set up patterns of behaviour, which would become deeply ingrained:

From a personal point of view the ideal of non-judgement is one that can be hard to live up to, our patterns lead us to judge even at a subconscious level; we also judge ourselves through internalised oppression the consequence of which is that we place artificial limits on our lives and our thinking.  (7)

So the notion of freedom, that women should have a choice to wear the burqa is over simplistic; it assumes free, uncoerced relationships, where the choice is free, and considered, and does not consider the kind of society in which that choice is never available, or can be questioned, along with the deeper consideration of whether it is a form of oppression which those oppressed have bought into.

"Internalized oppression is not the cause of our mistreatment, it is the result of our mistreatment. It would not exist without the real external oppression that forms the social climate in which we exist. Once oppression has been internalized, little force is needed to keep us submissive. We harbour inside ourselves the pain and the memories, the fears and the confusions, the negative self-images and the low expectations, turning them into weapons with which to re-injure ourselves, every day of our lives" (8)

(7) Memories, Reflections and Insights, A. Parmeter, 2005
(8) Micheline Mason, entitled "Internalized Oppression" it was first
published in Reiser, R. and Mason, M. (eds) (1990) Disability Equality in
Education, London: ILEA

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