“Liberating” women

I read this interesting article in the Tribune about the Burka ban and I left this enormous comment there in the comments section which I thought I’d copy here. Let me clarify, I am not or have not ever been a Kemalist – this is more of an open question:

Here’s a question addressed to the author of this article

you claim that liberating women is not a matter of symbolic wars over their manner of dress. Well said. But then you state that liberating women is a matter of providing positive opportunities like economic freedom, etc. So by saying that you are admitting that there is some objective standard of “freedom” along which these women must indeed be liberated and by doing so you choose to not take away rights but to grant opportunities.

Now the uncomfortable question – since you have already admitted an objective standard of freedom on which these women (muslim) are lacking what if these women subscribe to a philosophy that makes their freedom that much more difficult to attain. i.e. a philosophy that glorifies their role at home as procreator (or “princess” as the Jamaat likes to say), that encourages them to dress in ways that make participation in the economy impossible, etc. What if a survey is done which shows that in families with about the same economic opportunities, those that hold this retrogressive philosophy have significantly less “women’s freedom” (remember, you implicitly admitted that this can be measured)

What justification do you have for not acting in ways to discourage this this philosophy at that point? Is it just some boundary regarding individual rights defined in Europe in the 18th century that you are not willing to cross?

to clarify: does anyone believe that realistically ‘liberation’ in religiously conservative societies like Pakistan or Saudi Arabia can be achieved merely by simple granting of opportunities or would there have to be some kind of limitation of freedom of religion rights?

And is there any explanation (beyond looking at things from the typically agreed upon Enlightenment values of freedom of speech, etc) that one would consider the right to freedom of religion as absolute, trumping even the desire to improve society? A parallel example is the issue of right to property – many advocates of socialism and land reform do not consider the right to property as absolute if it adversely affects the structure of society. Can we not consider a religious philosophy that seriously hinders 50% of its society from achieving “freedom” as as harmful as land-ownership patterns that create large chunks of landless and economically disadvantaged?

And finally one more parallel is the idea of herd immunity that gives our doctors the right to go around poking needles into our children’s arms because the decisions of those parents who refuse immunization adversely affect the whole of society’s immunity. If women as a whole want to be free (and just looking at a street scene in Pakistan where the few women that are present are invariable covered in a chador and walking hastily from point to point looking neither left nor right one can emphatically say that they are not free), should we not be allowed to infringe on the religious freedom of the puritans in order to change the structure of society so we can exercise our individual rights to be free?


13 responses to ““Liberating” women

  1. Publius


    You seem to be advocating the use of force( under the guise of laws) in order to counter the effects of voulntarily held bad ideas. But is that a truly effective approach ?

    By forcibly preventing a woman from wearing a burqa, can you make her give up the medieval and primtive conceptions of sexuality that lead to her choice of dress ?

    If not, and, if those beliefs manifest themselves in other forms and actions (limiting excursions from home, for instance),what will you do then ? Will you ask for further bans on those actions as well ?

    If the women who wear burqa are doing so voluntarily, why won’t the effect of such a ban be, not freer intermingling, but even greater withdrawal and segregation?

    And if there is a forced intermingling, won’t it breed a certain resentment and embarrasement ? Won’t that affect a person’s ability for economic interaction ?

    In other words, can you be certain of the consequences that result from such a ban?

    And why can’t this principle be extended to other social/personal ills, such as alcoholism, obesity, laziness etc.

    I think that the use of force to solve social problems is fraught with risks,uncertainties and a slow movement towards authoritarinism and totalitarianism.

    The better approach is to change ideas and mindsets.

    Unfortunately people like Faisa (“For the assumption that the burqa is attire that automatically degrades women is ..ludicrous”), are defending, not attacking those ideas.

    The Burqa is unquestionably degrading. It degrades( as you note) a woman’s ability to participate in the society, economically , socially and ( I might add), sexually.

    That , in my opinion, is where the battle ought to be fought.

  2. Rabia

    hey Publius,
    I’m not really advocating the burka ban or anything similar. As I said up top it’s an open question that I’m thinking about. The issue really is that people like the author are so convinced that the nikab ban or other similar steps are going to be ineffective. What I want to know is why is that so? I mean maybe the issue is that such solutions are effective and the only thing that prevents us from trying them is (justifiable) fears that society will become authoritarian.

    The question is, however, can a society be changed from a fascist one (I’m not really talking about Western society now) without any coercive steps taken? I realize now that this is moving into Kemalist territory and I’ve never been a fan of the Turkish approach to secularism. It’s all deeply disturbing to me to think about and really it’s just something I want to think about in a contrarian way to the existing and exasperatingly smug opinion of people like the author of the article rather than anything I would actually want to prescribe.

  3. Rabia

    Like here’s an example of a coercive step that I think would be justified – somehow curtailing the freedom of speech of radical Imams in both the West and in the Muslim world and having a sort of 3 strikes and you’re out rule for mosques that employ such imams to give their friday sermon – i.e. 3 such incidents and not only will that particular imam be banned but your mosque will have to be shut down.

    Does that violate free speech? Undoubtedly. One could also argue that it will be ineffective and counter productive. Who knows. All I know is that we’re dealing with a fascist group with clearly hegemonic ambitions and liberals like this author persist in treating them as if they are an ideological emptiness with no agency of their own.

    Another example is Bangladesh’s recent step to reinstate the ban on religious parties that was in their original constitution. This is clearly a coercive step and in an ideal world, I don’t think I would support it. But with the huge problems in Pakistan who the hell am I to dictate to Bangladesh (or France) how they should manage their political freedoms. I’m just fed up of this preachy morality that prescribes nothing constructive and only attacks one side of the debate. (actually it ignores that there is even a debate by denying any agency to the Islamist side of the conflict).

    • Tilsim

      I agree with the thrust here. A softly softly approach has not worked in Pakistan. In fact, obviously secular politicians fell into this trap (pandering to the deobandis) and we now have a radicalised population. The changes in Bangladesh are interesting. There should be more discussion around whats happening there.

  4. Publius


    I understand the direction of your thoughts and my arguments above are applicable mostly to well established free societies.

    The use of coercion to protect (even the limited) freedom that exists in societies where it is not well established and where it is highly vulnerable to groups that want to extinguish it, is a difficult and messy topic. I haven’t given much thought to it and I appreciate the fact that you are grappling with it.

    Let me offer, you, some unorganized thoughts on it. (Not , presumptuously , as advice from high above, but , as thoughts from an ideological fellow traveller)

    Even in classical liberalism, coercion is allowed, when it’s purpose is to counter and prevent another existing or potential coercion.( Free speech is limited by slander, treason etc)

    But there has to be a direct and immediate connection between actions that are being banned and a coercive effect that the absence of a ban would produce. And the banning has to be a necessity, with no valid non coercive substitute. Further it has to be minimal and targeted.

    I am not sure that these common sensical rules need be violated even in the societies we are talking about.

    If , for instance, there was a political group, which openly advocated, the takeover of the state and overthrow of a semi free constitution, and if this group’s activities, did pose an immediate and direct threat of takeover, with nothing else to stop it, I would support legal action , targeted precisely at that group, which limited it’s speech and actions. Does the Bangladesh example fall into this category ? I am not sure the burden is fulfilled.( It may be, I just don’t know enough).

    But to take an opposite example, there is a law in India, banning the incitement of religious hatred and hurting religious feelings. I think that this law is meant to prevent religious riots, and that is necessary , only because , the politicians will not take the trouble of fixing the deeply dysfunctional law enforcement systems in India or even utilizing the police machinery with the requisite will to prevent riots( which have proven to be eminently preventable when politicians have taken the trouble)In other words this particular law may have a valid non coercive substitute and so may not be necessary.

    Similarly I am not sure about your radical imam proposal( unless their sermons are direct propaganda for groups involved in terrorism, such as Al Qaeda, in which case, they should be covered by treason).


    I deeply empathize with your frustrations about the pseudo liberals. You are doing a lonely job. May you always have the motivation to keep doing it.

  5. Rabia

    Hi Publius,
    you make good points against coercive laws. Here’s one thing I’ve been thinking though. In the case of Bangladesh, the decision to ban religious parties for example would have two broad consequentialist reactions (apart from the obvious one that such a move violates free speech and freedom of association rights)

    1. that such a move would be counter-productive because it would create resentment amoung the religious right and force them to go ‘underground’ rather than taking part in the electoral process.

    2. that it would send a strong message to those religious groups that constantly threaten the democratic system.

    I don’t know which of those reactions is more “true”. A smart ruler would have to weigh the real world effects of such a ban and whether 1 or 2 would have more weight making the ban either harmful or useful. I just know that a liberal would a priori assume that 1. would be true. You can of course construct a similar set of conflicting outcomes for the French veil ban.

  6. Farukh Sarwar

    Choice of dress should be left on the women and the ban on Burqa wont do any good. Lilberty in other fields, e.g. right to employment of her choice, right to education, property rights etc, would give the real difference to our society.

  7. Sultan Geelani

    So long as real evidence about Alvi’s death is not avaialble we do not know (and would maybe NEVER KNOW) if a foreign intelligence got him killed to sow dissension in Pak Army; he was killed by an assasin hired by a jilted woman; or he was a killed by ISI just as the luckless British Defence Scientist David Kelly was killed by CIA in Britain because he made comments which made American aggression in Iraq look what it really was. To ventilate this matter so vigorously on paltry evidence appears to be designed, more likely, by the ISI-CIA combine to confuse the public.

    I bet this will not be published by this blog.

    Sultan Geelani

  8. Mackers

    The discussion around this topic has really piqued my interest. I generally agree that policymakers must be more circumspect and generally weigh the intended and possible, inadvertent causes of their actions. I think the French ones have, to a degree, done so.

    I agree mostly agree with what Publius has to say and especially on the point that the Burqa ban won’t really ‘liberate’ the burqa clad women, at least in France, but, rather, generally push them further into isolation. I suspect, though, that policymakers in France aren’t naive enough to believe this argument that they themselves have been making for the burqa ban.

    I think that the arguments have been misstated intentionally. As you know, France has the largest muslim population in Europe, mostly immigrants from former French, North-African colonies. I am inclined to think that the burqa ban is an effort to salve the spectrum shift – by creating a deterrent for wannabe immigrants hailing from the most conservative strains of Islam.

    While initially being against the burqa ban – as based on the stated rationale it appears to be a bad idea, upon reflection, I am more sympathetic to the French authorities and really can’t fault them vis a vis what I feel to be their actual motivations.

  9. Rabia

    exactly, Mackers. I don’t think the French ban is about liberating women as much as it is about sending a message to right-wing Islamists.

  10. stuka

    “The question is, however, can a society be changed from a fascist one (I’m not really talking about Western society now) without any coercive steps taken? ”

    heh, this is precisely the justification for the Iraq war.

  11. Publius

    “French ban is about liberating women as much as it is about sending a message to right-wing Islamists”

    I competely agree and that is why I have argued elsewhere that , although , I don’t support the ban, I like the reasons behind it and would like an even stronger opposition to these sort of primtive, premodern values.

    In fact it is part of my general belief, that the less a civil society protects it’s values through moral and social criticism, through moral isolation and ostracism etc the greater is the tendency to use coercive laws to protect them.

    That is why multiculturalism is such a disastrous doctrine in this context.

  12. Zulfiqar Haider

    Liberation of women is directly related to economic liberation and sustainable development. All the societies where women work as equal partners are certainly progressing.

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