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BDSM and Burqas: an argument against the veil

 

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.

Comments

  1. says

    Wow. You just revealed to me a blind spot in my own world perceptions, and it’s pretty clearly based in racism, so I appreciate it very much.

    I had never considered that there might be organized BDSM movements in non-Western countries. Yikes. I’d just sort of assumed that the religiously conservative political culture pftem found in non-Western (and the occasional Western, *cough*USA*cough*) would make it very difficult to achieve, but that’s clearly naive and stupid of me.

    I honestly don’t know how I feel about the ban. From first principles, as a feminist, I believe women should have the choice, and I do know some feminist women who choose to wear hijab (not niqab or burqa), so I lean towards saying no, I don’t think there should be a ban. The agency argument is valid and important, but could similarly be made about high heels, makeup, changing skin colour, steroids, and a lot of other things people do, but which we see as unproblematic because they’re so widespread and (in our cultures) approved. But would women wear heels as much if it weren’t expected that we do so? Would men wear ties if they weren’t expected to do so, despite their being uncomfortable, inconvenient and stupid-looking?

    It’s not an easy thing to approach, because the slope is steep and slippery. But I lean toward opposing bans, and favouring efforts to increase the agency of people to make choices, where those choices are made for themselves (i.e., circumcision of babies, bad; voluntary circumcision of adults, go for it). And then being okay when people with agency choose differently from me, for how they want to live their own lives.

  2. Ed says

    The problem I might have with such bans is that they may have the unintended effect of further isolating Muslim women. If a woman is subject to demands from her family or her own religious convictions either dress this way or stay indoors, many may withdraw from he public sphere. This actually happened in Turkey during periods of aggressive modernization.

    I’m also worried that bans would be seen by nationalists and xenophobes as a victory against “exotic” dress as such, and encourage movements to ban less extreme head covering (I’ve heard rants against even very light headscarves that fully show he face) and discourage the clothing traditions of other immigrant and or minority groups.

    It won’t be long until other ways of identifying a person besides looking at their face could make security concerns obsolete as existing technology becomes increasingly cheap and convenient. Fingerprint, retinal and DNA based ID would be even more useful in confirming who people are.

    When it comes to BDSM, I agree with you. It’s not even the same issue, really, unless people are wearing bondage gear to the office. The BDSM community puts more emphasis on safety than groups promoting virtually all sports or potentially dangerous hobbies. A responsible adult may consent to activities like martial arts, skiing, mountain climbing and horseback riding which regularly result in broken bones or worse.

    Making an issue of bruises or superficial cuts (if the activity was consensual and engaged in because the participant enjoys it)would be hypocritical. Anyone who opposes it should be required to also oppose religious rituals in which people kneel before a superior while calling themselves or being called miserable sinners, totally depraved, etc.

    When it comes to mainstream Western uncomfortable clothing, I agree that pressure to endure beyond a certain point is morally dubious, but it seems like the option of more casual and comfortable products is becoming increasingly available in most democratic societies.

  3. Gerard O says

    I think that culture or religion are irrelevant when discussing burqas. Nobody should be able to completely hide their identity in public spaces for reasons of criminal identification. Any other arguments are superfluous.

  4. Adrian M says

    And now, Gerard O, you have come out against Halloween. And masquerade parties, but mostly Halloween.

    That said, I am against the ban in France, because it is stifling choice, and the ‘driving away from public’ mentioned above. I am also against the veil, because I know it is often taken without a real choice, even despite what proponents say. I’m not particularly fond of the hijab, either, especially on little girls, for the same reason. But, I’m not going to force them to bare themselves; education is the better route here. It worked on me as a conservative Christian, and I believe it will work here as well, until wearing the hijab, or anything else, actually IS a choice.

  5. smrnda says

    I have a bit of an issue with the nobody should ‘hide their identification’ in public since this could easily be extended a bit further than I think I would like it to be taken. If this issue is criminal identification, must we all now wear spiffy new name tags with up-to-date pictures that can be easily seen and scanned?

    I also think taking the discussion in that direction isn’t productive, since it doesn’t address any actual reasons women are pressured into covering up – it would be like saying anti-immigrant sentiment was bad, since it meant there would be fewer new restaurants or something.

  6. says

    The problem with the argument presented here is that it completely ignores the context and the impact that the act of veiling produces. This cannot be discussed out of the context wherein this(veiling) is mandated to ward off potential atrocities by the male. The act of veiling esentially confers to the male the right to prey on women if she is not veiled. And how can the agency of women accept such a violation on the agency itself. A contractual agreement as in the case of BDSM is out of question here, as there is no mutually agreed consent here.

  7. says

    @Shaji; Since I was dealing with the argument that veiling is a consensual act, and that many women “choose” to wear it, I deliberately left out this particular aspect. The undue burden of modesty over women is clear in the scriptures, especially the manner in which the concept of Hijab is dealt with, and I more or less agree with you on this matter. Although I do feel the hijab needs to be differentiated from the niqaab, since one is religious and the other is more cultural, I would want to keep the debate and discussion for later.

  8. says

    Anish, I have disagreement over the observation that veiling is a consensual act. Consensus or rather mutual consent is ruled out in this case, as there is no negotiation involved. The best defence is that it is a matter of personal choice (not freedom, freedom has nothing to do with choice), as argued in this article by comparison with BDSM, but again the agency of women cannot be associated with the choice being made here, as here the agency coincides with the agency of religion itself. Hence the agency in action here is the agency of religion and not that of the woman. When veiling is the only option, choice itself is irrelevant.

  9. the eddy says

    Consensual or mutual agreement in the case of hijab , is the same as many South Asian Hindus continue to encourage caste-sanctioned activities like marriage (except those who rebel & indulge in intercaste marriage), creating caste -based associations assert their caste identities & do a lot of otherwise superficially innocuous activities like believing in Astrology entirely on mutual consent . Is that valid ??

    The ban on burqa is wrong as that means singling a community & does alienate Muslim .In India burqa is a part of Indian History & also in India people of every religion wear religious gear :- Sikhs turban ,Hindus Rakshasutra & so on,so there is no problem here but in France that had stronger anti-religious movements/ reform movements which had done away with uncontrolled usage of religious symbols ,it will be wrong to have not done so because :

    1)Telling the Christians to oppose their religion or religious obscurantism & comforting Muslims ( mostly of non-French origin) to allow obscurantist beliefs just bcoz there were anti-Christianity movements in Europe & there was no Atheist movement (though there are very few individuals but no movements) of Muslim background to critique Islam , would also inturn result in backlash from former…Absence of religion does not mean there is no strong tendency to go to old ways.post-Stalin Russia is an example.

    2)This will stop many French converts from undergoing arabisation & also force non-French muslims who generally come from rightist Middle Eastern societies to intermingle & accept local French culture.Thus can still help curb cultural alienation though it might create religious alienation if they do not create reformist movements like the rest of the people..

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