Saturday, July 17, 2010


Burqaphilia is a philosophical affliction that besets the mind of an otherwise intelligent feminist, making it impossible for her to support a ban on the most conspicuous modern form of female oppression.

When a feminist who has railed against female objectification, both real and imagined, cannot bring herself to denounce an instrument that reduces women to the status of objects, she is suffering from burqaphilia.

A feminist philosopher can explain to you with the most exquisitely twisted logic why miniskirts and lip gloss make women into sexual objects, but when it comes to a cultural practice, enforced by terror, that makes women into social non-entities, she feels that it is beneath her liberal dignity to support a ban on the practice.

So says notable burqaphiliac, philosopher Martha Nussbaum in two eye-opening essays in the New York Times. Links here and here.

A thorough-going multiculturalist, Nussbaum thinks that all cultural practices are created equal and that, therefore, she cannot be judgmental about what the Taliban is doing to women in Afghanistan or what their acolytes are doing to Muslim women in France.

Reading these essays gives you the impression that this is multiculturalism run amok-- assuming that that is not a contradiction in terms. If you did not know that Nussbaum was a serious philosopher, you would find her reasoning perfectly risible.

In her mind wearing the burqa or being forced to wear a veil to go out in public is analogous to the surgeon who wears a mask while operating. Or to a hockey goalie or football player who wears protective face gear.

She makes yet another mindless analogy by comparing the woman who is forced to wear a burqa with those few days when she chooses to cover part of her face with a scarf on a wintry Chicago day.

The sad part is that people take this philosophical rot seriously.

At the risk of being offensive, let's examine a bit of reality. We have been fighting a war against the Taliban in Afghanistan. Said Taliban, we all know, is willing to fight to the death for the right to oppress and brutalize women. The Taliban forces women to wear burqas, which cover the entirety of their bodies, with only a mesh mask over their face.

Is it a symbol of male domination, patriarchal oppression, and human objectification?

No more, Nussbaum muses, than tight jeans. When you read that you think that she is kidding. Alas, she is not.

All that's missing is a defense of the burqa on the grounds that it saves women from the patriarchal tyranny of the cosmetic and fashion industries.

For those who believe that women only wear the burqa because they are being forced to do so-- as though this were doubtful-- Nussbaum has an antidote.

In her words: "Societies are certainly entitled to insist that all women have a decent education and employment opportunities that give them exit options from any home situation they may dislike. If people think that women wear the burqa because of coercive pressure, let them create ample opportunities for them, at the same time enforce laws making primary and secondary education compulsory, and then see what women actually do."

Doesn't Nussbaum realize that the whole point of the burqa, in cultures that practice it, is to deprive women of all educational and employment opportunities? France provides all of the opportunities that Nussbaum finds desirable, and yet, they have voted unanimously to ban the burqa and the veil... precisely because these instruments of female annihilation make it impossible for girls and women to enjoy said opportunities.

I want to be clear here. The burqa is not just another religious symbol, as the committed multiculturalist would have it. It is an instrument of oppression and annihilation whose purpose is to consign women to social oblivion.

If you find that acceptable, say so. Then you should cease your empty railing against the objectification and oppression of women.

Nussbaum has expended so much intellectual effort finding patriarchal oppression in every fashion accessory that when she comes face to face with real oppression, she cowers in the corner and pretends to be observing a higher calling by working to ensure that it is not outlawed.

Wearing the burqa or the veil means one and only one thing. It means that women have no face. They have not just lost face; they can never save face. They have no face.

In cultures that understand the importance of having a social identity, that is, being recognized in public by your face, having no face means that you do not exist as a social being.

If you have no face you have no place in the public square, you are not allowed out on your own, you are not allowed to flirt with a boy, to dress as you wish, or to fall in love with whomever you fancy.

If you have no face, you can be beaten whenever and wherever your father or husband wishes. If you commit adultery or are suspected of same, you will be stoned to death. If you dress Western you will be either murdered or raped.

Not being a person, being treated like a human object, is something that feminists have always and consistently denounced. So here, the burqa and the veil reduce women to human objects and Martha Nussbaum cannot see her way to wanting it banned by liberal society.

Her answer: other cultures have known domestic violence. In fact, she avers, since domestic violence is associated with alcohol and since Islam forbids alcohol consumption, there might even be less wife-beating in Muslim cultures.

Do other cultures have honor killings? Do other cultures stone adulteresses to death? Do other cultures encourage wife beating? Do other cultures terrorize women with these threats?

Nussbaum does not seem to grasp the difference between an illegal practice that sometimes occurs and that is punished by the state, and a barbaric practice that is encouraged and defended as a cultural norm.

Women who wear and burqa or the veil are stripped of their dignity, their freedom, and their public persons. They are treated as the possessions of their fathers and husbands and are terrorized to the point where it is fatuous to say that they are making a free choice. If you can choose between wearing the burqa and being murdered or gang raped, what kind of a choice is that?

Where would anyone get the idea that we are respecting these women's dignity and their right to practice their religion when we, as a society, condone this terrorism?

Nussbaum considers the burqa a matter of personal choice, roughly equivalent to choosing to date only within your religion.

This is moral relativism run amok. In the Muslim suburbs of Paris, girls who dress Western can be gang raped. Do you feel that a girl in this culture who wears a veil is exercising a personal choice?

Nussbaum recognizes that this might be a form of emotional coercion. Then, she recommends that families deal with the problem.

This is beyond naive. Does she not realize that the parents and the ambient culture are the problem-- who does she think instigates and commits honor killings and gang rapes-- and that the state is morally obligated to intervene to protect women and girls from their families?

How does Nussbaum defend herself against the idea that the burqa and veil make women into non-persons?

Here's how: "Several readers made the comment that the burqa is objectionable because it portrays women as non-persons. Is this plausible? Isn't our poetic tradition full of the trope that eyes are the windows of the soul? And I think this is just right: contact with another person, as individual to individual, is made primarily through the eyes, not nose or mouth."

True enough, Aristotle and some poets have declared that the eyes are the windows to the soul. But if the rest of the face is covered, then how do you know whose eyes they are, or whose soul you have just contacted?

As the Chinese understood quite well, and as Nussbaum seems to understand not at all, contact with another individual is made by recognizing the face. The face gives you a public identity.

When people hide their faces from you, you naturally become mistrustful because you do not know who you are dealing with. Bandits and outlaws hide their face.

Women in some cultures are forced to hide their face because the men who possess them to not want anyone outside of the family to have any dealings with them.

But that is not the end of Nussbaum's meanderings. She adds that if the burqa depersonnalizes, then so do miniskirts.

In her words: "... a lot of revealing clothing is plausibly seen as a way of marketing a woman as sex objects [sic], and that is itself a form of depersonnalization."

Women choose freely to wear more or less revealing clothing. It is their choice. This clothing represents their public presentation. It does not mask them; it does not hide their faces.

It is not "plausible" to suggest that women are being marketed-- as though they are passive victims-- as sex objects. They are presenting themselves as attractive women, something that Nussbaum apparently finds objectionable.

The terror that forces them to wear the burqa and the veil, that deprives them of any rights or dignity as free individuals, is a crime against their humanity. Unfortunately, Nussbaum has gotten so completely tangled up in her predicates that she can find nothing especially wrong with that.


3rd Culture said...

Islam does not require the full niqab and facial veil. Modest dress and a covering of the hair AT MOST is all that is required.

Niqab is clearly a cultural thing.

Anonymous said...

You are suffering from Islamophobia, where you are simply assuming things about a culture because of what some religious/ terrorist groups have made it. Wife beating isn't supported by the culture, and neither are the rest of the things you noted. I'm not mad, you are simply ignorant and have never been a Muslim woman. This is a muslim woman writing: and I assure you, it is a choice I made to wear a burqa.