“You can’t live in a world in which half the human race walks around in a bag. It’s not okay.” So says Salman Rushdie, and so say I, and I continue to think, despite opposition from arguably the most enlightened members of modern Western societies, that the full face and body covering of women should be banned. And we should do this, not because people don’t have a right to dress as they wish, but because the rationale for dressing women like this is, as Rusdie says, a completely bizarre idea of sexuality and the place of women in society. Dressing women in bags is an open invitation for men who think that this is decent and proper and demanded by their religion, to treat women who are not dressed in this fashion as less than human. Of course, it is already to treat the women so dressed as less than human: that goes without saying. But it has serious implications for those believe it is their right to dress as they wish.
The following is an exploration of the limits of religious freedom in a free society. I think we are much too cautious in our approach to the question of religious freedom, and that it is worthwhile to explore this caution in more detail. I undertake this with some trepidation. The idea that religious freedom is a human right is so deeply embedded in the liberal conception of human rights that any qualification of this right is generally thought to threaten the very concept of what it means to have rights. However, it is my view that religion is a deepest threat to human rights today, and that this question needs to be more forthrightly explored.
There was a case a few years ago in Australia where bands of Muslim youths went around gang raping white girls, and an Australian imam at the time suggested that Australian girls, who dressed in revealing clothes, could aptly be compared to meat displayed openly in a butcher shop, instead of being discretely wrapped or placed in a cabinet. Inevitably, he suggested, just as meat displayed openly would attract flies, so women dressed “immodestly” would inevitably attract the sexual attention of men, and they have only themselves to blame if they inflame men’s passions to such a degree that they are treated as sex objects.
While these facts do not lead most liberals to suggest that perhaps, in this case, it would be better to ban the burqa altogether, it convinces me that Salman Rushdie is right, and that full body covering should be banned in any jurisdiction where the defence of human rights is a primary legal principle. First of all, it is a danger to the women who have little choice but to dress in this way, where community pressure is almost irresistible. It has been suggested that, if the burqa were to be banned, this would mean that some Muslim women would not be permitted to leave their houses. However, this is surely not an argument in favour of not imposing a ban, but an indication of just how repressive Muslim society can be. Along with a ban should go a regulation to the effect that any man refusing permission for his wife to be seen in public would be grounds for an action for marital abuse, as well as the basis for an action for the termination of marriage on the grounds of such abuse. But, second, it is a danger to women who do not dress in this way. If the reason for dressing women in this way is based on a completely bizarre idea of sexuality — an idea which was also, at one time, normatively Christian — and that the people you have to punish for arousing men’s lust are the women, then women who are not dressed in this way are placed at risk.
This, certainly, was the view of at least one woman who lived in student housing at the University of Waterloo in Ontario, in an area which was quickly becoming a Muslim enclave. She felt distinctly unsafe, unable to sit in the back yard in the sun, or to do other things which it should have been her right to do without let or hindrance, because all the other women in the street were shrouded in black bags (to use Rushdie’s term), and sequestered in their houses behind closed blinds, while the men dressed in light Western clothing as befitted hot and humid Southern Ontario summers, and were free to associate with whom they wished. This left the non-Muslim woman feeling not only very exposed, but also devalued, vulnerable and alone. There were only two or three non-Muslim women on the street, and one of them was approached by a Muslim child who told her that her father was going to slit her throat with a big knife. The repression of Muslim women was also the repression of other women who did not share either Muslim beliefs or Islamic prejudices about women and sexuality.
The issue surrounding this question of whether or not to ban the bagging of women impressed itself powerfully on my mind by a particularly disturbing case in Britain, where nine men, eight Pakistani in origin, one Afghani, were convicted of running a sexual grooming network, in which vulnerable teenage girls in care were groomed and then sexually exploited. Everyone is careful, of course, to downplay the role that religion played in all this, possibly with some justice. Nick Griffen, leader and spokesman for the British National Party, claimed that
You only have to read the Koran or look at the Hadith – the expressions of what the Prophet did in his life– to see where Muslim paedophilia comes from. Because it’s religiously justified so long as it’s other people’s children and not their own.
That, of course, is the kind of shrill hyperbole that one comes to expect from the BNP, and, as Paul Vallely says, it is poisonous rhetoric; but it should not escape our attention that, while most of the girls involved were white, some of them were Bangladeshi in origin, and that, while most sex offenders in the greater Manchester area are white,
In 18 child sexual exploitation trials since 1997 – in Derby, Leeds, Blackpool, Blackburn, Rotherham, Sheffield, Rochdale, Oldham and Birmingham – relating to the on-street grooming of girls aged 11 to 16 by two or more men, most of those convicted were of Pakistani heritage.
These facts are certainly suggestive, and at The Times, David Aaronovitch says bluntly: “Let’s be honest. There’s a clear link with Islam.” (The article is behind a paywall.)
Aaronovitch was responding to the Deputy Children’s Commissioner, Sue Berelowitz, who said in a radio broadcast:
It’s not a problem confined to one community. It is absolutely happening across all ethnic and religious groups.
And then, says Aaronovitch, she said that people were looking for a pattern, so they found it, and then, he says,
Ms Berelowitz … blew a little more fog over the subject by invoking 14-year-old boys who abuse 11-year-old girls, and then disappeared into her own mist.
However, he then asks what Berelowitz knows that “Mohammed Shafiq, director of the Ramadhan Foundation” does not. For Mr. Shafiq told Aaronovitch seven years ago that there was a problem within the Muslim community, pointing out that
of 68 recent convictions involving street grooming 59 were of British Pakistani men, Mr Shafiq concluded with characteristic straightforwardness that the community clearly had a problem. In his view, a minority of Pakistani men had got it into their heads that white girls were fair game.
Aaronovitch points to other Muslim leaders who attribute the problem to imported cultural baggage. The men involved, according to “Nazir Afzal, Chief Crown Prosecutor for northwest England and the man leading the prosecution in this case,” who said that the men involved
think that women are some lesser being. The availability of vulnerable young white girls is what has drawn the men to them.
To quote the Australian imam once again: they are like uncovered meat in the marketplace; they will attract flies. This assessment of women permeates Islam. The idea that freedom of religion should give a license to men (or, indeed, women) the right to conceive of women as they choose, and act on that conception, is a mockery of freedom.
When you put this together with the way that women are treated in so much of the Muslim world, where women are imprisoned for adultery or impurity when they have been raped, where beautiful women are scarred with acid simply because of their beauty, where, as Robert Fisk reports, “guest” workers (both men and women) are treated virtually as slaves or indentured workers, and executed without even a semblance of justice when accused by their “employers” of a crime, it is clear that Islam has a problem with women, as well as with racism. Allowing this to be swept under the carpet because of some misunderstanding of what constitutes cultural sensitivity is not only stupid; it is storing up social debts — problematic situations of Muslims in democratic polities — that will have to be cashed in sooner or later, and may well have become unsolvable if we do not address them now. In my view a beginning could be made by shaping policies that would make it difficult, if not impossible, for Islam to keep women in subjection, by indicating, in law, aspects of Islam that are incompatible with respect for human rights. I think we should do this with respect to other religions as well, where women are forced to play a secondary role if they are to have membership in, and participate in the activities of, their religion.
David Aaronovitch ends his article by suggesting that feminism has not yet gone far enough. There is so much more left to do. As Ophelia Benson points out again and again over at Butterflies and Wheels, and as Aaronovitch points out in his article, there is much to do:
Still, in our society, women are subjected to abuse as bitches and “ho”s, ridiculed for their appearance and somehow incapable of being bishops. Feminism has gone too far? It’s gone nowhere near far enough. Feminism has gone mad? It ought to be as mad as hell.
It should be impossible, in a free society, for a religion to refuse leadership positions to women. It should be impossible, in a free society, for women to be repressed in the name of religion. This is not a matter of religious freedom. The purpose behind religious repression of women is the control of women and their sexuality. And religions will use any means available to them in order to prosecute this purpose. They will try to define foetuses as full human persons with the same rights that pertain to adult human beings, even if this means controlling and ruling over what pregnant women may and may not do, even to the extent of criminalising them for living their lives in the way that they choose. Canada has no abortion law, and that is the way that it should be. This is a matter for individual women to decide. The state has no place in the bodies of women. Religions propose completely asinine arguments that restrict leadership to men. The familiar one, made famous by the fatuous Ann Widdecombe, that priests must be men because Jesus was a man, is so palpably vapid, and goes so directly against Paul’s claim that in Christ there is neither man nor woman, slave or free, but all are one in Christ Jesus — a promise of equality that has seldom been made good — despite the fact that these words are held by Christians to be inspired by God. Widdecombe converted from Anglicanism to Catholicism on precisely this issue. As she said in an interview with the New Statesman:
The issue over women priests was not only that I think it’s theologically impossible to ordain women, it was the nature of the debate that was the damaging thing, because instead of the debate being “Is this theologically possible?” the debate was “If we don’t do this we won’t be acceptable to the outside world”. To me, that was an abdication of the Church’s role, which is to lead, not to follow.
But my point would be precisely that being a leader in the repression of women is not only not a good thing to be; it should be impossible, in a free society, for a religion to advocate a conception of women in which their sex alone makes them ineligible for leadership. So long as this continues, women will continue to be treated with contempt, and their lives will be cabined and confined. The notion that it is “theologically impossible” to ordain women as priests is one that should not be given free rein in a free society, because it has such serious implications for the freedom of women. Why should such beliefs be tolerated in a free society? In On Liberty John Stuart Mill suggested that people should have the maximum amount of freedom that is consistent with the greatest freedom for all. It is impossible to claim that religious beliefs about women’s place does not restrict women’s freedom, or that allowing people to adhere to such beliefs has no deleterious social consequences for women. That being the case, there should be no reason why religious freedom should include the right to hold and practice beliefs which are detrimental to women’s freedom.