When one thinks about BDSM, first things that come to mind are leather costumes, nipple-clamps, collar belts, whips, and so on. But believe me when I tell you that BDSM actually made me rethink my stand against ban on burqa.
I can assume that most liberal-minded (for the lack of better words) out there, even after being repulsed by the practice, would tolerate it as something confined to a private space, which is an individual’s sexuality (I sincerely hope so since I do occasionally indulge in it). What makes it so tolerable? The things that people do in the name of BDSM can be categorised as torture, slavery and even rape. There is a good amount of possibility that physical injuries will be inflicted. But there is one crucial factor that makes BDSM so radically different from torture, slavery and rape, and even tolerable for many. Consent.
But, questions arise. Why should consent sanctify something that is otherwise considered morally reprehensible? Thought experiments on consensual slavery is brought up, to drive the point home. But another crucial difference between a consensual whipping and inflicting of pain, and a hypothetical consensual slavery would be that the former allows one to retain their agency. When I enter into an agreement with a partner to be whipped or slapped, one thing is very certainly and explicitly agreed upon: I can unilaterally withdraw my consent at any point in the act, even for no reason at all. That’s why we have “safewords”. My point here is that, consent is only morally valid if the party concerned doesn’t have to give up their agency, i.e., the liberty to choose and the liberty to withdraw consent. It is such consent that differentiates (hypothetical) consensual slavery from any kind of unpaid labour, rape from sex, and BDSM from torture.
Now let me come to the Burqa and the bans instituted by France and Belgium, and reinforced by the EU court. One of the central arguments, or at least the ones I have come across, against the ban is that the right of a woman to choose to cover her face in public, even if she cites religious reasons. The big question that comes here is, while they “choose” to cover their face in public do they retain their agency? For me the answer was completely clear: No. It never has and it never will. Without a face, I’m pretty sure it’s extremely difficult for a person to assert their identity as an individual. And when that happens exercising one’s agency is very complicated. But if one assumes that a woman with her face covered can somehow retain their agency, then the assumption would entail a possiblity that the said woman can say no to the niqaab at any point? Notionally, it should, but it doesn’t. One only has to look around the world, to see that societies that doesn’t require woman to have a full face covering have very small proportion of women actually wearing the veil, and most of the time there would be external factors influencing the decisions of these women.
It is this lack of agency that one must take into account before defending the veil, no matter what you call it, burqa, niqab, jilbab, etc. But do I still support the blanket ban on face-covering by Belgium or France? I’m not sure. The anarchist in me is still reluctant to embrace it. If such a ban were introduced in India, I would have fought against it vehemently. Here I’m also considering my right to wear whatever I feel like, without having to give a reason to anybody, including the state.