Just when the niqab issue was starting to fade, Stephen Harper brought it up again, with his rather surprising announcement that a Conservative government would consider banning them in the public service (a position that was, not that long ago, ruled out by Tony Clement). So apparently this represents a concerted strategy, of ensuring that the election debate remain focused on the pressing issue of women wearing niqabs.
Globally, I’m not very impressed with this strategy. I think that encouraging hatred and distrust towards minority groups is not an acceptable electoral strategy. Imagine if a principal decided to promote school spirit by picking out a few kids and encouraging everyone in the school to bully them. Harper is basically doing the same thing, at the level of the entire country. As far as I am concerned, it shows him to be unfit for public office. (But hey, so does smoking crack, yet 30% of Torontonians were willing to vote for Rob Ford…) Anyhow, I’ve explained my views on that elsewhere.
That having been said, I’m happy to talk about niqabs, because I think they are fascinating in various ways.
First of all, while I also find niqabs quite disturbing, I don’t understand why people have so much difficulty sympathizing with the women in Canada who want to wear them. Some are no doubt victims of patriarchal oppression, but some quite obviously are not. Personally, I can see how a woman who grew up in a country where this sort of dress is normal might become quite used to it, to the point of being uncomfortable appearing in public uncovered. Consider, for example: there are some societies in the world in which women do not cover their breasts in public, others in which they do. So in Canada, there is no particular stigma around girls running around without shirts on (in public wading pools, and so forth), but after about age 8 the expectation is that they will cover up. (It’s not legally required, but as a parent you will certainly get a lot of pushback from people if you let your age 8+ daughter run around in the park or the wading pool without a top on.)
Women who grow up in societies in which it is normal to cover their breasts might feel rather awkward being told that they have to expose their breasts in public, and especially in front of men. Indeed, even if they moved to a country in which women did not routinely cover their breasts, they might never adapt to the local custom. I don’t find it so difficult to imagine that some women might feel the same way about having their faces covered. There are, of course, lots of other reasons why women might wear a niqab – some teenagers do it just to get a rise out of their parents – but if a woman feels genuinely exposed not wearing one, forcing her to take it off in a citizenship ceremony, or as a condition of employment, seems to me just unnecessary.
One can see a somewhat similar phenomenon with Chinese and Japanese women (mainly women) who have taken to wearing surgical face-masks. This has something to do with not wanting to catch or communicate diseases, but also involves a strong desire, which easily becomes habitual, to cover one’s face in public. The cultural habit of concealing one’s mouth, when laughing for instance, long predates that, but reflects a similar impulse. It’s easy to develop the habit, to the point where people become simply uncomfortable with having their mouth and teeth seen in public. Of course, there is nothing sexist about the institution in this case (parents do not instruct their daughters to put on a face-mask), and so it is not controversial, but it does serve as a useful illustration of how people can develop an aversion to having their face seen in public.
As a result, the question of whether a woman can cover her face in public strikes me as an area of reasonable disagreement. The way that liberal-democratic societies have traditionally responded to these sorts of disagreements is by granting individuals the freedom to choose, rather than just imposing the preferences of the majority.
In any case, how women feel about covering their faces is, to me, just speculation. What I have somewhat greater intuitive understanding of are the motivations of men – both those who force women to wear niqabs, as well as those who force them not to wear them.
Men who force women to wear niqabs
Let’s start with the former. It’s always seemed obvious to me that the social practice of making women “cover up” — shapeless clothing, facial veiling, etc. — is a sign of male weakness. The reason is rather straightforward: men find women, especially beautiful women, extremely distracting. This forces men to exercise self-control, in order to stay on task. Some men don’t like this, or aren’t up to the challenge, and so instead try to shift the problem onto women, by forcing them to be less distracting.
The fact that men are more distracted by women than women are by men is obvious to anyone who lives a normal life in the real world, but because some academics don’t, let me cite some literature. Here’s the abstract of a recent paper on the topic, called “Interacting with women can impair men’s cognitive functioning”:
The present research tested the prediction that mixed-sex interactions may temporarily impair cognitive functioning. Two studies, in which participants interacted either with a same-sex or opposite-sex other, demonstrated that men’s (but not women’s) cognitive performance declined following a mixed-sex encounter. In line with our theoretical reasoning, this effect occurred more strongly to the extent that the opposite-sex other was perceived as more attractive (Study 1), and to the extent that participants reported higher levels of impression management motivation (Study 2).
One of the basic coping skills that adult men acquire (with greater and lesser degrees of success) is the ability to work and interact with women without suffering this sort of cognitive impairment (loss of concentration, etc.) Women, in my experience, greatly underestimate how much self-control this involves, although they are all familiar with the consequences of the loss of self-control then men frequently experience – again, some more than others. Furthermore, there is a division of labour between men and women, when it comes to the self-control problem that men experience. There are very few circumstances in which the onus is put entirely upon men to remain calm. Women share in the burden, largely through the norms governing dress – specifically, what we define as “professional” attire. Because most people in our society are uncomfortable acknowledging this, the norms are largely tacit and enforced quite informally. Violation of tacit norms is one of the most reliable sources of comedy, like this:
Abstractly, one might think it unfair that women need to shoulder any of this burden – of not dressing in a way that will be overly distracting to men – but at some point pragmatism intervenes. After all, people need to find ways of working together effectively, and sometimes a purely just allocation of the burdens of cooperation is not compatible with an efficient organization of effort.
Anyhow, the tendency in Western countries over the past 50 years has been to shift more of the burden of self-control onto men. There are, however, many ways of organizing things that put much more of the burden onto women, and historically these have been the norm. One of them is physical segregation of the sexes. This is primarily to the benefit of men, and it was, for instance, the norm in our school system until recently. The primary thought was that adolescent boys, having still deficient self-control, would be able to concentrate better without girls around. Another approach is to control women’s dress, in order to conceal their form. This is, it should be noted, something that we do in our society as well (as the 30 Rock scene reminds us), it is just that the approach as not nearly as extreme as the rule that prevails in certain Islamic countries. The burqa obviously represents the extreme of the tendency, in that it puts the onus almost 100% on women, while freeing men of pretty much any responsibility to exercise any sort of self-control.
So when I consider societies in which women are obliged to wear a niqab or burka, I feel sorry for the women, and I feel that it is unfair. But I think it is also important to pity the poor, weak men, so lacking in self-control that they cannot concentrate, cannot make it through the day, without eliminating all forms of female distraction from their environment. Their lack of self-mastery strikes me as positively unmanly.
Men who force women to remove niqabs
Calgary mayor Naheed Nenshi hit the nail on the head the other day on CBC, when he said that, while he is not comfortable with husbands telling their wives and fathers telling their daughters that they must wear a niqab, he’s not much more comfortable with Jason Kenney telling them that they can’t wear one. His suggestion is that women should be left free to make up their own minds about what to wear.
Now of course the reason that Kenney – and now Harper – wants to tell women what they can and cannot wear is that they regard the niqab as a symbolic rejection of Western values, and they don’t see any particular reason why Canadians should tolerate that. Wearing a niqab at a citizenship ceremony, in their view, shows disrespect for the institution. Of course, Christians have also been known to adopt modes of dress that involve symbolic disrespect for Canadian institutions. Here, for example, is Justin Beiber disrespecting the Prime Minister to his face:
Incidentally, I happen to agree that some women who wear a niqab are doing it in order to engage in some kind of symbolic rejection or resistance to Western values. But here’s the thing… I don’t care. I am completely unperturbed. I have lots of colleagues who go railing against “the West” and its values all the time. That doesn’t bother me either. Why? Because of my serene self-confidence as a Westerner. Simply put, I believe that the basic structure of liberal-democratic societies, which includes a market economy, welfare state, individual rights, electoral democracy, and separation of church and state, obviously and self-evidently dominates all known alternatives (“dominates” in this context means “is better in every respect”). The fact that people want to flail around a bit before accepting the inevitable is not something that troubles me very deeply. The ability to tolerate niqabs, hijabs, turbans, or whatever else people want to wear, is a sign of the profound strength of liberal democratic societies.
So the question then becomes, why are some Canadians so lacking in confidence, with respect to the country and its institutions, that they feel the need to declare a “state of exception” in this regard, and use state power to coerce these women (in contravention of liberal-democratic principles). “Liberal institutions are not sufficiently robust to confront this threat, we must resort to illiberal measures,” is essentially what they are saying. Why are they so worried?
In the case of Quebec, the source of this insecurity is clear. Francophones, being a somewhat precarious and endangered minority in North America, have good reason to worry that their society does not provide a powerful enough “basin of attraction” for immigrants. This is the insecurity that motivated Bill 101 and its successors. Furthermore, it is hardly unreasonable for Quebecers to worry, at least more than other Canadians, that immigrants will show up, fail to learn the language, and thus not be able to integrate into the society. Unfortunately, rather than focusing just on language, which is the real issue, the insecurity tends to become more generalized, resulting in the widespread feeling that “unless we force newcomers to integrate, they will not voluntarily choose to do so.”
So in Quebec, the connection between cultural insecurity and the intolerance shown to the niqab is obvious. It doesn’t make it justifiable, but at least the explanation is right there. But what about conservatives? Why are they feeling so insecure?
There are I think several different strands in conservative thinking that tend to promote insecurity, by encouraging them to underestimate the robustness of liberal institutions:
1. The grand narrative of decline. The way that political liberals like myself see things, Western history post-WWII is pretty much entirely a history of progress. From the introduction of social insurance programs and the development of the welfare state, the sexual revolution and the movement for gender equality, the U.S. civil rights movement and the development of official multiculturalism, all of this has tended to expand the realm of individual freedom while simultaneously increasing social welfare. Furthermore, we see it as the unfolding, or the development, of the essential logic of Western liberalism. Conservatives, by contrast, have been strongly influenced by a narrative that considers the 1960s to have brought about an important rupture with the past, with society having gone “to hell in a handbasket” since. Thus the tendency is to regard the rise of the welfare state, feminism, and multiculturalism as essentially illiberal developments. Thus, for example, conservatives regard the hordes of “political correct” intellectuals, not as the shock troops of Western liberalism, but as its enemies. This is, as far as I am concerned, a complete misreading of the situation. Nevertheless, once you realize that conservatives regard liberal societies as having been already weakened by internal enemies, then it is not so difficult to understand why they overreact to the threat posed by “external” enemies.
2. Misunderstanding the role of Christianity. The second major source of insecurity comes from a widespread confusion about the origins and foundations of Western liberalism. Liberal institutions arose primarily as a reaction against political Christianity. It was precisely because post-Reformation Christians were unable to rule without becoming embroiled in interminable civil wars that secular institutions began to seem like an attractive alternative. Unfortunately, within the conservative movement, this history has been rewritten, in such a way as to suggest that ideas like “individual rights” and “limited government” arose out of the Christian tradition (as opposed to being an attempt to limit the role that Christianity had played in politics). From this perspective, then, the presence of non-Christians poses a threat to liberal institutions, which is one of the reasons that there is so much insecurity about Islam. (From my perspective, by contrast, religious pluralism strengthens liberal institutions, by making their indispensability obvious to all.)
3. Overestimating the importance of the family. Many conservatives subscribe to a “folk sociological” view, according to which the family is the “bedrock” of society. Families, they claim, make an essential contribution to social order to providing appropriate socialization for children – making sure they grow up with the right “values.” This gets repeated ad nauseam (“strong families make for strong communities,” etc.) despite the fact that none of it has a very strong empirical basis. There is lots of sociological research showing that “strong families” are not particularly prophylactic against various social pathologies. Peer groups, by contrast, are far more important than our folk-sociological theories suggest. Conservative thought, however, has been peculiarly resistant to this evidence. Nevertheless, because of it, conservatives tend to be rather pessimistic about the possibility of achieving social integration in multicultural societies, because they assume that children who grow up in families with illiberal values will almost inevitably come to share those values. Thus they underestimate the integrative power of liberal institutions, and of Western culture more generally.
There may be more, but those are three that occur to me. In short, I think that the conservative misreading the current situation is based on deeper misunderstanding of Western institutions and political traditions. This is what is leading them to panic, and to betray the core principles of the Western political tradition, at a time when we should rather be reaffirming them.