Hobbes In A Hijab

Another article about veiled threats.

Wearing face veils in modern Ireland is preposterous, but don’t ban them | Irish Examiner

Unfortunately, the task was made that bit more difficult by two bits of news last week. First, it emerged that a Lebanese man, having claimed asylum, settled here, managed to secure a visa for one of his two wives and is now seeking to bring a second wife in as well.

The matter is before the High Court. Hopefully it will take a robust view (If there are any variants of Islam which allow women to have more than one husband, I’m not aware of them).

What would a ‘robust’ view entail? I have no knowledge of the particulars of this case, but it seems to me inequitable to allow a visa to one wife and not to the other on the account of the fact that polygamy is not allowed here.

Nor can I see anything generally wrong with polygamy. Which is to say, if it works for other people, and is freely entered into by consenting adults, who am I to stick my nose in? Sure, there is disagreement about what ‘free entry’ might mean, but assuming one can enter into such an agreement freely, who has the privilege, apart from the entrant, to say of any particular case that it has not been freely entered and thereby forbid it? Furthermore, what business has a state to determine that only monogamous arrangements shall be recognised?

The argument that polygamous marriage tends to entail the exploitation of women and should therefore be prohibited is not a very good one. Monogamous marriage tends to entail the exploitation of women too, but that is not an argument for its prohibition.

On whether the veil is freely donned, Stephen King observes:

One cannot be absolutely sure that no woman has ever donned it voluntarily, but one can certainly say that, in countries where women can choose not to wear it, then not wearing it is the choice they generally make.

The face veil turns women into things for it is through face-to-face contact that we recognise our common humanity. Others’ emotions are hard to interpret from behind a screen. The veil is profoundly divisive — and deliberately designed to be. It has no place in education, at airports or in the courts. Anyone might lurk under those shrouds.

But there is no such thing as women ‘generally making’ a choice, since choice in this context is an individual matter. So if women have the power to make a choice, in this case to not wear a veil, then some will choose it and others won’t. The fact that the latter are in a minority by no means implies that they do not do so voluntarily.

Now, I don’t care much for the Hobbesian concept of freedom according to which a woman in Saudi Arabia would freely choose to wear a veil because she knows that if she doesn’t she will be punished for it. But I think this concept of freedom is worth bearing in mind when confronted with these discussions about whether or not Muslim women choose to wear a veil, since it is precisely this concept of freedom which seems to me implicit in much of what is commonly declared to be Western freedom.

That is, it is often argued, not least by Western men, that Muslim women are coerced into wearing a veil and that therefore there should be a prohibition against this sort of coercion, as in the bans sought by Western politicians. However, I have never seen any of these arguments contain an opposition to forms of coercive power per se.

So whereas Muslim women are said to be coerced into wearing a hijab, niqab or burqa, there is rarely any question of anyone else being coerced into wearing whatever it is that they wear. And yet, if I turned up in work tomorrow with a t-shirt that read I Am A Wage Slave Whore, I would meet with legally sanctioned disciplinary action from my employer, and many of those who argue against Muslim women wearing a veil, on account of its associations with coercion, would conclude, after Hobbes, that in fact I had freely chosen to violate company policy and that therefore I could have no complaint if I ended up on the dole.

And clearly coercion into wearing particular garments is by no means the sole manifestation of coercive power in everyday life. Capitalism demands all manner of coercive limits on people’s actions -what they wear, what they say, how they work- on account of the fear of losing one’s livelihood, status and so on.
But the consequences of any action that contravenes these limits is widely represented as the product of free choice. More important though is the implicit assumption that any decision to refrain from contravening these coercive limits is also free choice. I am inclined to conclude, therefore, that what ‘lurks under those shrouds’ is simply an argument for coercive power in its Western capitalist form, in which everyone is held to be where they are purely on account of the free (market) choices they have made.

One more thing:

…If rights are really at issue, don’t others have the right to be able to read the facial expressions? It’s an elemental part of personal communication.

If this ‘right’ were to be somehow enforced, it would spell the end of telephones. And beards. And sunglasses.

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February 2010

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