Inconsistency and intolerance

As you no doubt know, in April 2011 France introduced legislation barring women from wearing the niqab. There’s some immediate irony in that, in the sense of telling women what they aren’t allowed to wear, in an ostensible effort to liberate them.

I’m conflicted about that particular ban, because as much as the niqab seems such a powerful symbol of subjugation, it’s impossible to rule out the possibility that some women wear it out of genuine choice, rather than because it’s the only choice they have, or the obvious choice thanks to years of programming. And if these women exist, a ban certainly violates their freedom, even if you might disagree with the ways in which that freedom is used.

As much as I – and all of us, I imagine – want to find ways in which we can maximise the freedom of others, it challenges preconceptions about the oppressive nature of the niqab to see headlines talking about French Muslim women effectively being “under house arrest” as a result of this bans. It also doesn’t seem to be winning any public relations points – not only is this sort of thing fuel to extremists, it’s also fuel to those who want to cast secularism as intolerance.

But the niqab is an extreme example, because of the way it seems to eliminate the person wearing it. You, as a Muslim women, are represented entirely by the item of faith, with only your eyes visible to the external world. You could be anyone, at least to those of us on the outside, who might not be able to pick up the subtler clues of identity that no doubt exist.

So I can at least have the conversation around whether this should be permitted or banned, because it is at least plausible that something so extreme can’t be a matter of free choice. But when it comes to other, less extreme statements of faith like the fez, kuffiya or hijab, it seems immediately false to me that we should prohibit Muslims from wearing them.

These thoughts are prompted by a South African example from a couple of weeks ago, where two children were sent home from high school for wearing a hijab and a fez, and told that they could not come back wearing their respective headgear. They were allowed back a week later, but only after intervention from the provincial school board. Meanwhile, talk radio had a field day, with one person making the absurd suggestion that religious clothing is good, because then we’d know who all the atheists are (they wear black, you see).

And then, there were some callers and letter-writers who we can be quite confident in thinking would be happy for children to wear a crucifix to school, because it’s Islam that’s the problem, not religion. One even spoke of the Muslim “infiltration and indoctrination”!

A confounder in this case is of course that the children in question are 13 and 16. As Dawkins often points out, it’s an error to referr to Muslim children, Christian children, or [insert any other religion] children. Until a child is old enough to choose for itself, it is the parents who are religious rather than the children. Indeed, this particular case is notable for the fact that it’s the mother who is quoted as saying “I can’t allow them to take it off because it is against our Islamic beliefs.”

She’s then quoted as saying “It is very sad. It is very disturbing” – and while she clearly means the actions of the school, those words could easily apply to some cases of children who are given no option but to believe what their parents do – and thus also easily apply to her previous quoted sentence.

As I wrote in a recent column on this case,

a 13 and a 16 year-old could also be Muslim by choice, even if we think the choice flawed. Unfortunately, we often only get to know how much volition is possible when people try to change their minds (through observing how their families and community react), but it’s certainly possible that these two children are contented in this particular faith, and proud of being identified as members of it.

We can’t guarantee that these sorts of choices are made freely. But we can help to create a climate that encourages free and rational choice, and also taking responsibility for choices. Forbidding the hijab while permitting the cross encourages inconsistency and bigotry. Permitting them both – as well as any other outward signs of religious affiliation – can be done alongside restrictions that encourage civic virtues such as understanding and compassion.

I mean two things: first, that allowing the hijab, but insisting that it be in the colours of the school uniform, reminds the scholar that a plurality of values are competing, and that none should be assumed to have priority until the relevant debate has been held. And second, allowing religious headgear avoids sending a signal of prejudice, which will hopefully result in an increased chance for people like me to argue against the choice to ever want to wear the headgear or the crucifix.

The system of thought – or sometimes lack of thought, to be more honest about some forms of religious indoctrination – that forces some women to cover themselves near-completely does merit opposition, as does a tradition that won’t allow women to be priests, or to have abortions, or whatever the case might be.

But expressions of those ideologies are not equally thoughtless, and treating them all as if they are – or not allowing them at all – runs the risk of acting no differently to that which you’re protesting. If you don’t think children should wear a hijab or a fez, persuade them and their parents that they shouldn’t. As David Mitchell puts it, “It bears restating that it’s not bigoted to disagree vociferously with people’s choices, as long as you’re even more vociferous in defending their right to make them”.

A final thought takes me back to inconsistency, though – can such neat distinctions be made between the niqab and the hijab? If I’m happy to allow the latter, am I inconsistent to think the former permissible? And if this inconsistency needs resolution, should it be through banning both or permitting both?

On the too-large pile of unread books, which probably looks similar to your too-large pile, my SkepticInk colleague Russell Blackford’s Freedom of Religion and the Secular State awaits. Perhaps it will contain a clue or two.

By Jacques Rousseau

Jacques Rousseau teaches critical thinking and ethics at the University of Cape Town, South Africa, and is the founder and director of the Free Society Institute, a non-profit organisation promoting secular humanism and scientific reasoning.