A Critique of Alibhai-Brown’s Burqa Ban

I have not read as much as I would like on the burqa debacle – which seems a little overblown. Nonetheless, when I read a recent piece by Yasmin Alibhai-Brown, I felt she made some rather fallacious claims. Hence this critique.

According to Yasmin Alibhai-Brown, in a recent online debate at New Humanist, we should accept banning the burqa. I know little of the current situation of cultural politics in the UK, so I will attempt to assess the arguments as they stand. Readers may then ponder themselves whether there are specific contexts – I do not think there is – in which the arguments do hold.

Her analysis is rather flimsy: she begins by saying something about Voltaire and Enlightenment figures being ‘prophets’ for defenders of secularism. Being somewhat of an Enlightenment defender myself, this strikes hard of oxymoronic confusion. The so-called ‘prophets’ of Enlightenment precisely dedicated themselves to fighting against anyone who proclaimed him or herself a prophet of any kind; they fought, as Susan Neiman has stated, against any and all forms of authority: religious, political, royal. They precisely aimed at providing tools of analysis and liberation. That which clarifies the world also frees you from its chains, one tool being the universalisation of reason exemplified by Kant’s moral system.

Alibhai-Brown says the torch-bearers of the Enlightenment ‘are as committed to literalism as are literalist religious believers – in all situations they revert to the rule book, quote Voltaire, Mill and Locke, their prophets.’ Considering they were fallible human beings, who often premised our fallibility as a reason not to take the word of authorities as perfect, it would be strange for any ‘torch-bearer’ to be literalist. Indeed, if we were truly being literalist about Enlightenment thinkers, we would not be literalist at all – since this is directly what they tell us. As Voltaire says: ‘Think for yourselves and let others enjoy the privilege to do so, too.’ Yes, let us take that literally. And, yes, I did just quote Voltaire, Ms Alibhai-Brown.

She then makes some more strange claims:

Real liberalism means accepting illiberal choices they say, somewhat self-righteously. The burqa does not affect their own lives or test their powers of endurance. I tried to wear the full veil for a day, but threw it off in a couple of hours. I felt wiped out, lifeless and voiceless.

I am uncertain why there is a sudden switch to a first-person perspective, but it jars. The first part tells us liberalism means accepting ‘illberal’ choices – if it is a choice one has not been coerced into making, then it is accepted as a so-called ‘liberal’ choice – then she says she tried to wear it, but felt ‘lifeless and voiceless’. So what? Was she coerced into wearing it? No one forced her into wearing it. No one forced her out of it. This is the essence of liberalism: freedom, choice, etc. We can predict she will use this as argument to ban the burqa, because it makes one feel ‘wiped out’.

When all complex dilemmas are reduced to choice, liberty itself becomes limp and eventually irrelevant. A daughter of, say, Christian Scientists will refuse medical treatment for a life-threatening condition. We all know that response was steadily injected into her – it is a choice she cannot not make. And yet if a group of girls were ready to hurl themselves off a cliff, proclaiming their right to do so, the most libertarian of warriors would surely try to stop them.

She has given us no reason to accept her first sentence, in this paragraph. Karl Popper warned us long ago that a theory that explains everything explains nothing. To reduce everything to choice would be a bad move, but in this instance, we are not saying that: we are saying, specifically, the ban on the burqa is about choice and the lack thereof. And what are we to make of her idea that a daughter of Christian Scientists has a response ‘steadily injected’ into her? Alibhai-Brown appears to be saying the girl has not chosen to reject life-saving treatment herself; it was the parents’ beliefs, which was drilled into her, making her refuse. This appears to be saying: ‘she has no choice because of her past’. But why does this not apply to myself, women who choose to not wear the burqa, Alibhai-Brown herself? We are all influenced by our past, but we are not chained by it. This only means we must speak loudly and more broadly about choice. (Also, if we are talking about children, the State can legitimately intervene to prevent parents’ stupid beliefs killing their children). To say women living with a highly religious past are automatons is rubbish: this argument applies to us all. A common argument is these women have no choice, they are still living according to their past. Even if we grant this as true, which to some degree it is, it does not give us any more right to tell these women how they must live. This is the very problem we should help them be aware of, not force them out of. We must be wary of most, if not all, instances of paternalism, which Alibhai-Brown is defending on poor grounds.

And if someone wanted to kill himself, I am not sure to what extent I would stop him: be it shooting himself or hurling himself off a cliff. I do not think I would presume to know his life should be continued, just because he is a person. I would probably presume choice, but then I could be wrong. (And we would only intervene premised on the Millian ‘harm-principle’.)

The reader must also be aware that Alibhai-Brown accuses torch-bearers of Enlightenment of bifurcating the world (apparently committing the ‘either-or fallacy’). She says: ‘Avowed liberals are only able to see conflicts in binary terms – left/right, faith/atheism, freedom of expression/censorship, west/rest, Islam/enlightenment and so on.’ Whilst this gross generalisation receives no defence, she then, a few paragraphs later, says: ‘The burqa [is a battle] between open and egalitarian Islam and obscurantism; human rights values and inhumane exceptionalism; integration and apartheid.’ I don’t mean to say she is being hypocritical, only that for the sake of communication, we can postulate legitimate polarised views. She should be consistent.

This paragraph is all over the place and not worth reading, but she says that the burqa is repressive, prevents us realising women as free beings, prevents us seeing the scars of abuse, etc. None of this being denied, the problem is then saying this allows us to ban the burqa completely.

Modernist Muslims watch helplessly as organised brainwashers, aided and abetted by liberals, bury Muslim females in living graves because femininity is treacherous – an evil slur. Muslim men too are demonised as sexual beasts lacking self-control. Most Muslims may have come to Europe for economic reasons, but many also migrated to escape women-hating Ayatollahs and Mullahs and regimes, to live in democracies that uphold civil and gender rights. Those oppressive ideologies have migrated too. There seems no escape.

I do not know what a ‘modernist’ Muslim is, but presumably a Muslim who recognises the inherent idiocies of Islam, its juvenile attitude to the world and misogynistic tendencies to the better sex.  Alibhai-Brown says that liberals aid the brainwashers; presumably because liberals will defend a Muslim woman’s ability to make a choice for herself. However, this is something that Islam directly opposes: the burqa is testament to that. Liberals oppose coercion. Just because they both result in women wearing burqas is not the point: Islam forces, liberals say choose. If you do not want to, Islam will oppose you, liberalism will defend you. Alibhai-Brown, ironically, is denying choice in this second formulation: you will not wear the burqa.

Finally we come to the rehashed arguments in one single paragraph.

It is perfectly legitimate to require that faces must be visible in public institutions. And surely it’s a defence of human rights to insist that pre-pubescent schoolgirls are protected from restrictive and inhibiting coverings. Progressives should stand for non-racist, universal human development.

Of course it is legitimate. But once again, we must be consistent. Why place special emphasis on the burqa? People wear all manner of things that obstruct their faces: scarves, for example. Are we to ban scarves in winter, when people fear their noses will fall off from the cold? Surely not. What does she mean ‘protected from’? Are these ‘restrictive and inhibiting coverings’ stalking the streets late at night, waiting to pounce on some poor, unsuspecting girl? If not, why do they need protecting from ‘restrictive’ covering? And what about the numerous strange things women wear all the time, quite openly that are, even they say, restrictive. My female friends constantly complain about high-heel shoes, tight-dresses, and so on. Are we to ban these because they are restrictive? Must we protect our poor, defenceless women from themselves? From their clothes? And indeed, what is racist about any of this defence? At no point have I limited my critique to a particular group of people, aside from women. And, we might note, men also can wear scarves in winter, wear uncomfortable clothes and so on. But both sexes can be adult about this and decide for themselves.

What we must oppose is not pieces of cloth, but pieces of choice. Autonomy must slip through the cracks of dogma within secular societies. We must promote women’s liberation, which comes from themselves not from societal imposition. Freedom imposed it not freedom at all. Alibhai-Brown does a disservice by thinking we must remove, rather than promote, choice for Muslim women. Indeed, as many know, our goal in today’s world is engaging with the freedom of all women, for all time. This, dictating what they may and may not wear, prevents this goal from arising. If there is one thing we need to scream louder it seems, it is this for all circumstances: let women choose for themselves.