Bare breasts good, burqas bad

The Washington Post’s Michael Gerson explains, in terms I 95% agree with, why Europe’s burqa bans are a bad idea:

Belgium is moving toward a total ban on face-covering veils in public. Italian police recently fined a woman for wearing a burqa. In France, a law banning garments “designed to hide the face” is likely to be introduced in July. “The burqa is not a sign of religion,” says French President Nicolas Sarkozy, “it is a sign of subservience. It will not be welcome on the territory of the French Republic.”

The motives of European leaders in this controversy are [un]sympathetic. Some speak deceptively (and absurdly) of a security motive for banning Islamic covering. Who knows what they are hiding? But by this standard, the war on terrorism would mandate the wearing of bikinis. The real purpose of burqa bans is to assert European cultural identity — secular, liberal and individualistic — at the expense of a visible, traditional religious minority. A nation such as France, proudly relativistic on most issues, is convinced of its cultural superiority when it comes to sexual freedom. A country of topless beaches considers a ban on excessive modesty. The capital of the fashion world, where women are often overexposed and objectified, lectures others on the dignity of women.

For what the opinion of an outsider is worth, I do think the burqa is oppressive. It seems designed to restrict movement, leaving women clumsy, helpless, dependent and anonymous. The vast majority of Muslim women do not wear complete covering because the Koran mandates only modesty, not sartorial imprisonment.

But at issue in Europe is not social disapproval; it is criminalization. In matters of religious liberty, there are no easy or rigid rules … Some rights are so fundamental that they must be defended in every case. But if a democratic majority can impose its will on a religious minority for any reason, religious freedom has no meaning. The state must have strong, public justifications to compel conformity, especially on an issue such as the clothes that citizens wear.

In France — where only a few thousand women out of 5 million Muslims wear the burqa — a ban is merely a symbolic expression of disdain for an unpopular minority. It would achieve little but resentment.

Keys here for me:

  • The idea that we’re respecting the dignity of women by banning burqas is contemptible nonsense given how we treat women ourselves. Immodesty is not authentically liberating.
  • As intimated in Gerson’s opening (not quoted above), the ban is a kind of Western imperialism, only exercised over immigrants not “through colonialism but through migration.” As Gerson says, “Some rights are so fundamental that they must be defended in every case,” but burqa bans are not protecting fundamental rights.
  • I have long wanted to maintain a capacious middle ground between (1) crime and (2) legal right. I want to be able to disapprove and even, perhaps, to shun practitioners of bad behaviors (call them “(1.5) Vice”) that I wouldn’t want criminalized. As an Orthodox Christian, I would exercise that sparingly, but there are instances like excommunication where it is expected that arms-length will be maintained even as one prays for the repentance of the excommunicated one. And, yes, I willingly cede the same to others who disapprove of something I do; I’ve been wrong, and sometimes it was expressions of disapproval — not legal sanctions — that set me right again.

However, Gerson emphasizes the wrongness of burqas even on Islamic principle (“the Koran mandates only modesty, not sartorial imprisonment”). It strikes me as presumptuous for an outsider to hold much opinion about the teaching of another tradition’s holy books. Living religious traditions may well have interpretive traditions of some subtlety, or may have extratextual traditions that are considered legitimately binding. In that sense, Gerson himself applies his Protestant “Bible only” sensibility to Islam in an “imperialist” spirit that may differ from European secularists impositions of sexual freedom more in degree than in kind.

Faces, Burquas and Decolletage

There’s a bill in France proposing that “no one can wear a garment intended to hide the face in the public space”.

Unless it’s a fashion show, I guess:

Acceptable French face covering
Acceptable French face covering

The good folks over at ask if what’s going on really has to do the dignity of women as persons:

[I]t is difficult to escape the impression that the real issue at stake for the French is not the oppression of Muslim women but the visibility of Muslim culture and the way it challenges feminist and secularist assumptions.

Those assumptions also produce blind spots when it comes to the dignity of women. A person who takes that dignity seriously is more likely to be offended by the dress sense of the crowd rather than of an isolated Muslim in a burqa, for the typical European/American/Australian woman today also goes about with something that obscures her face: the exposed breast cleavage just below it.

As western women cling to fashions that aim to reveal everything about the body, they too are depersonalised. The stranger’s eye is not drawn to the face where they might encounter the person, but to the body as a sexual object. And this leads also to oppression, even if the woman, just like the one in the burqa, does not understand that she is oppressed.

Oppressed or not, Muslim women are fighting back. Some who wear the face veil told a group of reporters in France this week that they would not obey the ban (which is expected to come into force next year) and they would not leave the country. They say it is tantamount to denying freedom to practice one’s religion. They talked about having recourse to the European Court of Human Rights if arrested.

As for their dignity, they say it cannot be dictated by the state. The secularism of the state should guarantee religious freedom, they argue. Also, they ask, if the French are such feminists, why do women make up less than 20 per cent of the 577 members of the National Assembly, the lower house of parliament?

Good points, ladies. But the truth that human dignity is not defined by decrees of the state does not mean it is defined by the customs of any particular group, either. For all that some women embrace it willingly, there is something very undignified about hiding the face. The dignity of a woman is the dignity of a person, and the face veil suggests, quite simply, that the wearer is not a person — for her husband and children, maybe, but not for you and me.

This is a sad state of affairs but not one that governments can solve with bans. If anything, these will provoke resentment among Muslims at large and rebellion among the young (watch for more veils appearing, not less). As Muslim leaders themselves say, the answer lies with the education and empowerment of Muslim women.

What would help a lot is a decision by European women to dress and conduct themselves in a style consistent with feminine dignity. Half-bared bosoms and burqa rage are definitely not the way to persuade our Muslim sisters to give up the veil.

Despite all our surface feminism, we really don’t treat women with dignity.

(But do we treat men with dignity, either?)

Franklin Graham

There is a kerfuffle about Franklin Graham being excluded from some upcoming government-sponsored events because of his criticism of Islam as “evil” (not my scare quotes; I unequivocally believe in evil). For instance, testosterone-crazed Doug Giles rails here against the political correctness of it all.

I doubt not that Franklin Graham’s Samaritan’s Purse is a reputable enough charity, but the younger generation Graham, like the younger generation Frank Schaeffer, far surpasses his father in delusions that he has been given a prophet’s mantle, rather than the more modest platform of an evangelist. His mouth too frequently shoots off about matters of which he is ignorant.

He has, for instance, gently calumniated Orthodox Christianity, as in his 2007 Ukraine crusade, with charges of which it is entirely innocent. The gist was that the Orthodox Church, despite its antiquity and grandeur, doesn’t teach a personal relationship with Christ. (I believe, but cannot track down, that he has said much worse of Orthodoxy in the past.)

His comments about Islam are certainly undiplomatic. I’ll leave it to others to debate whether Islam is evil – the kinds of people who get suckered into other debates where the key terms are too equivocal to invite anything more than a shouting match. But on Orthodoxy, Graham is deeply wrong.  As is so often the case, Father Stephen Freeman says it better than I:

The salvation into which we are Baptized is a new life – no longer defined by the mere existence of myself as an individual – but rather by the radical freedom of love within the Body of Christ. To accept Christ as our “personal” savior, thus can be translated into its traditional Orthodox form: “Do you unite yourself to Christ?” And this question is more fully expounded when we understand that the Christ to whom we unite ourself is a many-membered body.

Read the whole article.