Burqa: Principle, Prejudice and Preference

By Anjum Altaf

What is the difference between the yarmulke and the burqa besides the fact that one is minimally small and the other is maximally large?

By now the controversy over the burqa is well known. In France, President Sarkozy has said: “The burqa is not a religious sign. It is a sign of subservience, a sign of debasement… It will not be welcome on the territory of the French Republic…. In our country we cannot accept that women be prisoners behind a screen, cut off from all social life, deprived of all identity.”

In Cairo, President Obama has said: “I reject the view of some in the West that a woman who chooses to cover her hair is somehow less equal…. and I respect those women who choose to live their lives in traditional roles. But it should be their choice.”

I am going to set these remarks against the backdrop of Bertrand Russell’s observations on the tyranny of the majority (from Political Ideals, 1917) where he discusses “matters of passionate interest to certain sections of the community, but of very little interest to the great majority. If they are decided according to the wishes of the numerical majority, the intense desires of a minority will be overborne by the very slight and uninformed whims of the indifferent remainder…. The tyranny of the majority is a very real danger. It is a mistake to suppose that the majority is necessarily right…. there are a great many questions in which there is no need of a uniform decision…. Wherever divergent action by different groups is possible without anarchy, it ought to be permitted…. it is of the utmost importance that the majority should refrain from imposing its will as regards matters in which uniformity is not absolutely necessary.”

Now I wish to extract the principles contained in these three statements. In Russell’s case, the principle is unambiguous – wherever divergent action by different groups is possible without anarchy, it ought to be permitted. In Obama’s case, the principle is seemingly clear but possibly problematic as I shall argue later – individuals can do what they wish (within the law) as long as they do it out of free choice. In Sarkozy’s case, there is no principle; there is a statement of prejudice (the burqa is a sign of subservience, of debasement) and a statement of preference (in our country we cannot accept that women be prisoners behind a screen).

I do not have a problem with Sarkozy’s personal prejudices. Nor do I have a problem with the passage of a law in France dictating what kind of outerwear is acceptable in the country – that is a prerogative of the French parliament. But note that such a law violates Russell’s reasonable principle provided we assume that the wearing of the burqa is not going to be the cause of anarchy in French society.

My concern about actions based not on defensible principles but upon prejudices and preferences is that they can be quite arbitrary and dangerous. What if Sarkozy next gets it into his head that the bindiya too is a sign of subservience? Or worse, what if some new Fuhrer coming to power decides that the yarmulke is an absurd pre-historic head covering stuck to the hair of men with pins and that it cannot be accepted in modern European society?

How does Sarkozy know that the burqa is a sign of subservience? It may be in some cases and not in others. Even when it is, how will disallowing it prevent other less visible forms of subservience continuing inside the home? And how does he know the yarmulke is not a sign of coercion in some cases?

It is here that I sense a weakness in the principle of free choice as enunciated by Obama. It is not generally the case that individuals attain the age of majority and are presented for the first time with the choice of wearing or not wearing a certain piece of outerwear. In most cases, they are socialized into wearing that piece of clothing from very early childhood growing up with the feeling that being without it as almost akin to being naked (in the case of the burqa) or in a state of deep sin (in the case of the yarmulke). This is quite different, for example, from the case of consensual homosexual relationships, which can be seen as an act of free choice – no one is socialized into such behavior from early childhood as a requirement of social or religious duty. So Obama has the wrong analogy in mind on which he has based his principle. What Obama calls free choice, Sarkozy will term subservience.

At the same time, there are indeed European women who are not socialized into traditional behavior but who now prefer to wear a burqini. This is indeed an expression of free choice in Obama’s terms and not a sign of subservience in Sarkozy’s terms. French authorities have to contort themselves to find a public health rationale to keep the burqini out of swimming pools when Western women were wearing similar costumes not more than half a century ago as will be obvious from this pictorial history of the bikini.

Based on the above both Sarkozy and Obama need to reconsider their positions. I personally wouldn’t want to be inside a burqa and I find the yarmulke quaintly odd but as long as there are people who wish to indulge their desires to wear them without causing anarchy in society, I would have to learn to keep my prejudices and my preferences to myself and not goad an otherwise indifferent majority into imposing its will on a minority. At the same time I quite like the bindiya (as long as it is not green) but have to refrain myself from ordering its universal usage. I also consider the move from the burqa to the burqini a giant leap for humanity and would hate to step in the way of this promising evolution.

Not for nothing was Bertrand Russell a philosopher of the highest rank.


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382 Responses to “Burqa: Principle, Prejudice and Preference”

  1. Arun Pillai Says:

    Though I am an admirer of Bertrand Russell and though I agree with his principle of diversity in general, I think the principle is misapplied here just as Obama misapplies his principle of free choice. In fact, I think Sarkozy gets it right although his statement could have been a lot more nuanced than it is.

    The reason why I think Russell’s principle is misapplied here is that it presupposes practices that emerge from individuals who are socially and culturally free, who are able to practice both self-criticism and criticism of social practices, and who are able to make free choices. To put it in a nutshell, Russell’s principle presupposes Obama’s and more besides, so if Obama’s principle is misapplied, so is Russell’s. While it may be true that some women who wear burqas satisfy the prerequisites listed above, it does seem reasonable to say that the majority don’t. Indeed, I would say that these prerequisites are precisely the kinds of things this blog is trying to achieve.

    The reason why a burqa or equivalent article of clothing is oppressive in general is twofold: one is that it exists in a certain social context that disallows the presuppositions above to exist in society and the second is that it appears to be physically extremely restrictive, especially in the wider context of the world as it is today. A yarmulke may fit the first reason above but not the second, so it is a harmless oddity. But a burqa does not appear to be quite so harmless.

    I think one succinct way to put this is to use Amartya Sen’s insightful concept of “capability.” Russell and Obama presuppose certain capabilities in people that do not exist among the majority in the world as it is today. To have various capabilities is to first and foremost have had access to a decent education (which need not be formal). So the argument is as follows: since the majority do not have the required capabilities, their wearing of the burqa is largely a sign of subservience to the powers that be, exactly the statement made by Sarkozy, however politically incorrect it may seem.

    Of course, it is wrong to assert sweepingly that most people in the world lack various basic capabilities without supporting this statement which is not meant pejoratively, just factually. But it is not possible to give an argument for this here.

  2. kabir Says:

    I agree that judging what is “free choice” is problematic, but I don’t see a better position. Some women want to wear the burqa, others are coerced into it, but it is not possible to go into people’s homes and ask individuals “do you truely want to wear this or is your husband (or father) forcing you to?” If the woman is truely being coerced, she wouldn’t even be able to say that she is being coerced. Thus, we have to assume that a woman wearing a burqa or hijab is dong so out of her own choice, and respect that, as long as it is not a threat to the security of the state. I do think it is legitimate for the state to mandate that driver’s licence pictures must show the individual’s face: ID is useless if there is no way to distinguish between individuals.

    Regarding France, their position may seem extreme to some of us but secularism or laicite is the official ideology of the state and is part of the French constitution. As such, France has the right to defend this ideology and people who willingly immigrate to France should understand clearly that they may not be able to practice all their cultural and religious traditions. This conflicts with our US-based understanding of freedom of religion and expression, but one has to accept that the US and French models are different.

  3. Arun Pillai Says:

    I agree with kabir’s observations about France but find his argument about free choice a non-sequitur. He concludes “Thus, we have to assume that a woman wearing a burqa or hijab is dong so out of her own choice …” My question is: why does this conclusion follow from the fact that we cannot reliably ask women wearing burqas whether they are being coerced? The conclusion should be that we cannot find out by asking questions in this way.

    The key question therefore remains: is there coercion among the majority or not? (Not just in France but elsewhere as well.) Then one has to ask what coercion is. Here I would quote the above article: “In most cases, they are socialized into wearing that piece of clothing from very early childhood growing up with the feeling that being without it as almost akin to being naked (in the case of the burqa) or in a state of deep sin (in the case of the yarmulke).”

    But there is another dimension to this question as well related to the capabilities approach of Sen mentioned above. It seems reasonable to assert that most people do have basic powers of reasoning (even without education) and are able to figure out how to achieve what they desire or at least come as close as possible to it. Everyone operates within a set of social and cultural constraints and people are generally able to figure out their best course of action within these constraints.

    However, a basic capability is to be able to critique the constraints themselves, to step out of one’s cultural conditioning and ask whether the culture one is born into is reasonable in all its practices. No culture is likely to be able to stand up to such scrutiny and people who have the relevant critical capability are able to question their cultures and change them by following new practices.

    My claim is that while most people today have the capability to choose their best action within a system of constraints, they do not have the capability to question the reasonableness of the constraints themselves. The presence of science has made the West much more capable of transcending its own limitations while the East has lagged behind. This has made the West relatively more dynamic. This is evident even if one restricts one’s attention to the evolution of Christianity within the last five hundred years as opposed to most other religions.

    Of course, in many situations there is direct external coercion by the state, and then this is clearly visible. But this subtler kind of coercion – the inability to question one’s cultural conditioning and explore alternatives – is harder to ascertain empirically. The best one can do is give an argument about socialization etc. and observe people’s statements over an extended period of time.

    It seems reasonable on the whole to claim that many people worldwide take their social constraints as “natural” and “immutable” rather than as “cultural” and “alterable.” A key capability education should equip us with is the ability to imagine alternatives to what is socially given.

  4. Vikram Says:

    The link to the Russell article in the Daily Times seems broken.

    Vikram: Sorry about that. It is fixed now.

  5. Vinod Says:


    Very sophisticated reasoning there. I admire that.

    I don’t think policies can be made based on the subtler kind of coercion you speak of. Policies are to be made based on the coercion that is, to use your words, “clearly visible”. If that is so, unless there is a hue and cry against the burqa from the muslim community, we have to go with kabir’s assumption – that there is no coercion. I submit therefore that kabir’s reasoning was not a non-sequitur, but very pertinent with regard to policy making approaches.

  6. kabir Says:

    Arun–I agree with your broader point about a good education giving people that capacity to question their societal and familial norms. However, one could argue that (most) people who have their daughters wear burqas don’t want them to gain this ability to question, at least not when it comes to religion or culture. It’s an extremely challenging task to inculcate liberal values in people, and perhaps particularly so with orthodox Muslims– many of whom while extremely intelligent and successful in their professions stop thinking entirely when it comes to religious dogma.

    I just don’t see a better alternative than assuming that a woman who wears a burqa is doing so out of her free choice. We can’t know whether she is doing so or not unless she tells us. I think Vinod is right when he says that unless there is protest from within the Muslim community itself, particularly Muslim women, there’s not much the state can do (unless, like France, it wants to agressively enforce secularism)

    • SouthAsian Says:

      Kabir: I left out the first sentence from Sarkozy’s comment on the burqa. It begins as follows: “The burka is not a religious sign. It is a sign of subservience, a sign of debasement… It will not be welcome on the territory of the French Republic.”

      If the burka is not a religious sign does the issue of secularism being the official ideology of France still remain relevant? What will Sarkozy do about the Sikh turban which is truly a religious sign? If nothing, does it mean that all Sarkozy is expressing is the personal preference that he doesn’t like the burqa?

      As I mentioned in the post I don’t have a problem with the French saying that they will not allow people in the country who follow particular cultural practices – that is their prerogative. This could lead to some pretty silly retaliation though – like some countries not allowing in people who don’t use water for anal cleansing; public health arguments would work just as well in this case. The real issue, it seems to me, would once again be not whether one practice or the other seems more bizarre to one but whether there would be any real danger of (biological) anarchy to the receiving society. Since no such evidence can be adduced, we should accept the diversity.

  7. D.M.D. Says:

    A little bit of reality behind the French frenzy on burqa et al.


  8. Arun Pillai Says:

    Thanks for the kind words, Vinod.

    I wasn’t trying to discuss what policy-makers should do or what the state should do. The question I was addressing was whether the individuals in question had the ability to question their social environment. I think there are both soft and hard constraints on such questioning in many countries. To the extent there are, these individuals can be said to be oppressed. Just because a person doesn’t say she is oppressed does not mean that she isn’t. To take an extreme case, female genital mutilation has existed for a long time. There wasn’t always a hue and cry about it. But that does not mean that such females weren’t oppressed or coerced or that the state should stay idle. Poverty is a basic and widespread fact. There isn’t much of a hue and cry about it. But states do make at least a half-hearted attempt to remove it.

    I just don’t see any logic in assuming that a person isn’t coerced if she does not say so. I realize a burqa and hijab are cultural items of clothing as all such items are and that people may be sensitive about such criticism and therefore that it is politically incorrect to do so but, as I said above, because it is such a restrictive piece of clothing for the modern world, I find it hard to imagine it is uncoerced at some level. Could a woman in such an environment go out in a bikini if she wanted to? Many women in the last fifty years found the sari quite inconvenient and stopped wearing saris to work. The sari also evolved to suit modern times. The burqini is a good example of such an evolution for swimwear because not everyone may be comfortable with a bikini. But it is a colorful garment unlike the black burqa.

    Marx had the very pliable concept of false consciousness which can unfortunately be greatly misused. But I don’t think it is very wrong to apply it to such situations.

    I am not questioning the intelligence or professional success of such people in general. But it is very difficult in some settings to transcend one’s conditioning because conformity is itself a coercive norm.

    • SouthAsian Says:

      Arun: You have very clearly identified the mark of an educated individual: the ability to be self-critical – the capacity to stand outside of oneself and to subject this unique ‘Other’ to the same rigorous examination that one would employ for one’s worst enemy. Once we get to that point, it is only then that the journey can begin. Thanks for that lucid message.

      Now to address, in order, some of the points you have raised:

      1. On Russell’s presupposition: In quoting Russell, I had skipped a fair amount of text. I quoted the following: “But there are a great many questions in which there is no need of a uniform decision.” The sentence that follows immediately and one I skipped is: “Religion is recognised as one of these.” Now religion is quintessentially something into which one is socialized and which cannot be considered free in the sense of being an outcome of self-criticism and deep analysis. I don’t think the operative part of Russell’s principle depends upon the real freedom of the choice but on whether the divergent behavior can be the cause of social anarchy. If not, it should be tolerated. At least, that is how the message came across to me.

      2. Many things exist in society as the result of socialization – the yarmulke and the burqa are the examples we used; Sikh turbans are another familiar headwear. Just because one of these seems a lot more restrictive to us than the others does not seem sufficient reason to disallow its use. This is just the expression of a personal preference based on one’s sense of discomfort with the unfamiliar. A yarmulke may look a harmless oddity to some while others may be really scared by turbans.

      3. You find the burqini acceptable because it is a colorful garment but not the burqa which is black and primitive. It looks so restrictive that you find it hard to imagine it would not be coerced at some level. The discomfort and doubt are understandable but not sufficient grounds to disallow its use. If the burqa were to be jazzed up by Oscar de la Renta, would it make you less uncomfortable and inclined to change your opinion?

    • Vinod Says:

      Arun, the FGM analogy was a very good comeback. It has given me food for thought. I really don’t have much to say. I only now wonder about how did those societies that practiced FGM realize that it had to go. Were there any internal movements? Were there external influences?

      I reckon that subtle coercion can take very draconian forms. But in such cases, I would not expect individuals opting to go through it ever. The burqa may be practiced partly due to coercion. But as long as there is a section that practices it by choice and is willing to make a case for it, it is difficult to deem it objectively as coercive, notwithstanding my personal dislike for the burqa. To me, it is an insult to men!! (think about it). I find it hard to imagine that FGM could ever be opted for by someone and even harder to imagine anybody make a case for it.

      Minority practices will always be under scrutiny. Those that have a permanent character and appear prohibitve or restrictive will especially be so. FGM is one such practice for its permanent character; the burqa for its restrictive character. Minority practices will also be under scrutiny based on the prejudices of the majority. The buqa is generally viewed today as oppressive (there was a a time when it was viewed as a sign of a honourable woman!!).

      • SouthAsian Says:

        Vinod: Let me try and argue why FGM may not be good example to consider in the discussion of free choice.

        There are some practices that were/are based on incorrect medico-scientific beliefs. The closest example would the use of leeches in Europe to suck out poisonous blood as a cure for some diseases. Once the theory is disproved, the practice dies out, not all at once because there are always holdouts who are late in converting. FGM falls in that category and few modern educated people defend either leeching or FGM. In the social context, sati may also be placed in the same category.

        The individual on whom FGM is practiced obviously has no say in the choice because of her age. The adults seem to be practicing it out of free choice but, as I have argued in the case of leeching, based on a scientific belief that was only later proved to be wrong. In such cases the essence is not really the nature of the choice but the advance of science that disproves certain beliefs and the speed with which the new thinking replaces the old.

        There is also no opportunity for the individual on whom FGM has been practiced to give evidence of what her free choice might have been by reversing the procedure in adulthood. The male equivalent would be circumcision which in some religions is routinely practiced at birth without affording free choice again based on a medical belief whose efficacy is still being debated contrary to the verdict regarding FGM. So, in this case the uncircumcised do have the option of revealing their free choice by opting to be circumcised in adulthood. However, this is not something that weighs heavily on the minds of people and both the circumcised and uncircumcised do equally well or poorly. Therefore inertia rules and we cannot get much evidence on whether the violation of free choice of the circumcised is an unacceptable act that should be disallowed by law.

        A more interesting example could be the scarring of the skin of children by some African tribes. Should this be disallowed by law as unacceptable if it does no harm except make the individuals look strange to the majority not used to such a practice? Many Westerners voluntarily acquire tattoos in adulthood and this is accepted as an expression of free choice with no negative social consequences. Here the only argument in favor of a ban on the African tribes would be that free choice is being violated and free individual choice is a principle we wish to uphold in the modern world.

      • Vinod Says:

        SA: It seems to me that free choice looks most important when it is considered in relation to practices that affect the individual physically in a permanent irreversible way.

  9. mazhur Says:

    Before criticizing the burqa it should be understood that burqa is a kind of clothing mainly worn by Muslim women and that it is not the kind of clothing ‘prescribed’ to them by Islam. Islam only wants women to observe modesty in dress, to keep their bosoms covered up. to not allow public to see their make-up or ornamentation; this modesty can be obtained in many other ways such as having the design, style, color, etc of the burqa or hijab altered to correspond to law of places such as France where Muslim culture doesn’t dominate. France should not object to it as it would tantamount to trespassing on women freedom to choose.
    Nudity or semi-nudity may be acceptable to the French but is it generally accepted all over the world? No, I believe. Even in India the Hindu women would ‘veil’ themselves before strangers. Would you call that ‘compulsion (not to use the more drastic word, ‘coercion’)?

    It is correct that in some places burqa is imposed on women and that is certainly not fair. But what can one do if that is the law (statutory, cultural, social) of a place? No choice except wait for the good times.

    In the past few years the trend for wearing burqa has gained quite a strength amongst women and that is due to their own free will.
    No choice again but to wait for the good times.

    I find Obama’s statement more prudent and balanced than crude babbling of Sarkozy, the ignorant.

    • SouthAsian Says:

      Mazhur: By now the discussion has boiled itself down to three very clear general questions:

      1. What is free choice?
      2. How can we know if a choice is really free?
      3. What is to be done if a non-threatening choice of a minority is nonetheless disliked by the majority in a democratic polity?

      We motivated this discussion by referring to the recent controversy over the burqa in France but can now easily abstract from the burqa (and from Islam) in addressing the general questions. This would help keep the reasoning unaffected by the emotions.

      • Vinod Says:

        1 SA, a big part of a man’s choices are a result of his social conditioning. Free choice is where a man can conceive of an idea to act upon or pursue, provided he is able to make a reasonable case for it that does not engender anarchy and is based on some universal ideas of human nature.

        2 Most “choice” is not really free. Every person’s childhood gives him certain dispositions which determine his “choices”. Social barriers can exist to free choice. The “freedom” of a choice can only be known if individuals can articulate what emotional, psychological or spiritual benefits accrue from it. There has to be something of a self-gain in it, even if it be tied to taking on an inconvenience, What matters is the ‘net gain’ for the individual – palpably experienced and articulated.

        3 The majority will have to engage the minority and seek to understand. If the majority can trace their dislike to a general prejudice of the minority then they have to get over it. If the majority do have a rational point to their dislike, then the minority better have decent rebuttals or prepare to give up the practice.

    • Curious Says:

      I find it strange that France choosing to act against the burqa is to be condemned on the grounds of objection to the free choice of a woman while the imposition of the burqa in another country is not to be condemned but shrugged off and we should “wait for the good times”? That’s condemning lack of free choice in one place and condoning it in another, don’t you think?

      • mazhur Says:

        This world and the people there are a mixture of opposites. What’s good for the geese isn’t anymore good for the gander in different places and circumstances. Also, one man’s meat is poison for the other and so on. Burqa sounds dreadful to the French because they are not used to it, they don’t need it. Others need it as it serves their typical needs.

  10. SouthAsian Says:

    Please do not let this distract us from the general questions we have identified but I do want to put this out for the record.

    Could someone who reads French confirm what this report seems to be saying – that there all of 367 women in France who wear the burqa?

    If this is correct, what is the real issue? It seems to me that the burqa is not the real issue but is being used as a symbol to signal something else. There is an element of politics here that I read as follows: Obama is courting the global Islamic community and therefore leaning left on cultural practices. Sarkozy is shoring up the anti-immigrant vote inside France and being vehemently rightist about something that hardly exists in reality.

    Interesting – but we can set this aside for the moment.

    • kabir Says:

      South Asian, you are right, the report does say that there are just 367 women in France who wear either the burqa or the niqab. It is a marginal phenomenon and concerns one woman in 90,000.

      The article quotes a study that the burqa is most often worn by young women (less than 30 yrs old) living in urban areas, who voluntarily wear the garment.

      French muslim groups also say that the burqa is a marginal phenomenon and the issue should be decided among muslims through education rather than laws forbidding the garment.

      Keeping all this in mind, I am inclined to agree with you that the burqa is not the real issue and Sarkozy is only invoking it as a symbol for something else.

  11. Arun Pillai Says:

    South Asian: It is quite possible that I am expressing an element of personal discomfort with the burqa – I am not sure. However, it seems to me that there are certain things that are natural to human beings at least in our modern context: the need for variety in the things we do, for example. That is why being confined in a prison is such an unpleasant experience and that is why we want variation in the food we eat, the clothes we wear, and the things we do from day to day. This does not mean that people cannot live with monotony, only that the norm appears to be on the side of variety. Now, if Oscar de la Renta were to jazz up the burqa with different colors, shapes, patterns, and who knows what else (holes in strategic places as in Rushdie’s “Midnight’s Children”?), I would be all for it because it would allow women the ability to exercise choice and experience variety in the clothing they wear. Don’t men like to wear a nice shirt and share it with others publicly? I can’t imagine it is any different for women.

    I agree with mazhur’s observation that many women are opting for traditional dress out of their own free choice. I think this raises an extremely interesting question: could this be happening because of the larger conflict that has broken out, resulting in a need to defensively assert one’s traditions? I do not know.

    I agree that socialization into religion and various other practices is unavoidable. But I also identified two conditions that appear to be necessary and possibly sufficient for some practice to be coercive – sorry to quote it again: “one is that it exists in a certain social context that disallows the presuppositions above to exist in society and the second is that it appears to be physically extremely restrictive, especially in the wider context of the world as it is today. A yarmulke may fit the first reason above but not the second, so it is a harmless oddity. But a burqa does not appear to be quite so harmless.”

    The harm I am referring to is the harm done to the individual herself or himself: the yarmulke does not appear to be restrictive so it does not seem to harm the wearer; the burqa is restrictive so it may harm the user. Whether an onlooker is afraid of some item like the turban is an orthogonal issue.

    The restrictiveness of the burqa I am referring to is partly because of the lack of variety and partly because it seems to go against certain natural factors involving the body. I don’t think it is because of my personal preferences but who knows?

    All in all, I agree with mazhur: there is little we can do but “wait for the good times.” But mazhur also seems to be agreeing with me by implicitly accepting that these are not good times (in relation to the mode of dress).

  12. Arun Pillai Says:

    South Asian: I think the three questions raised are excellent and lie at the heart of the issues. I would like to suggest adding the word “free” before “choice” in the third question because that makes the question clearer. If the choice by a minority is not free (e.g. minority husbands are beating minority wives), then the question raised is a different one.

    I think “left” and “right” are confusing and complicated terms to use here because the global left has generally aligned itself as anti-West and pro-Islam and the designations stem from that alignment. However, identifying what is really progressive is much murkier in this kind of situation.

    I looked at the report in French and though I only know a little French, what I read seems to confirm your interpretation. That is truly surprising if it is true.

    • SouthAsian Says:

      Arun: I debated adding the word ‘free’ in the third question, put it in, and then took it out. My reasoning was that we would get tripped up with the difficulty of figuring out if the action was really free given that we have not answered the second question yet. Clearly, if the action is one that violates a law (against physical abuse, for example) it ought not to be acceptable whether by the minority or the majority. The interesting issue is one that involves a choice that does not violate a law (wearing ultra-restrictive clothing, for example) but is disliked by the majority. It does not matter if it is ‘free’ or the result of socialization and ‘unfree’ in that sense.

      On left and right, I agree that was lazy. The point is that Obama and Sarkozy seem tilting in opposite directions not based on the application of any principle but because of their peculiar political calculus at this time – they are wooing different audiences.

  13. mazhur Says:

    SouthAsian :

    If the things are as political as you said then there is no point in this debate.

    Free choice may be subjective to laws but which laws? Laws are so different everywhere!

    • SouthAsian Says:

      Mazhur: I think the point of the debate still remains valid. We are not necessarily limited to comparisons across situations which are affected by variations in laws. We can consider our three general questions within a specific situation so that the laws that are applicable remain unchanged.

      Let us define (to start with) free choice as a choice that is not subject to any obvious coercion over and above the systemic coercion that affects (almost) everyone in a given society at a given time.

      The reason for the qualifier is that at some level systemic coercion can always be adduced to our actions. For example, we may believe that the decision to work or not to work is one of free choice but in a capitalist system most of us have to work whether we like it or not. However, there may a lot more freedom to choose who we wish to work (or slave) for.

      Here the minority without free choice would be the indentured laborers whose sons are obliged to work for the same employer to pay off his debt. We can be sure this is not an act of free choice.

      So out third question would follow: What should be done about this minority practice that does not (ostensibly) harm society when it is considered acceptable or unacceptable by the majority in a given society?

      At one level, the answer might be obvious but consider the concrete case of bonded brick kiln workers in the Pakistan Punjab. Despite years of protest by labor advocates, the practice still continues.

      We can think of a different, more difficult example: Suppose (let this be hypothetical) there is tribal group in an Indian state that practices child marriage. Now if a child is married before the age of, say, 12 we can be reasonably sure that the act is not one of free choice. What should be the attitude of the majority residents of the state who might consider this practice barbaric even though it does not lead to any anarchy in the social order?

      Note that theoretically the marriages in the tribal group might be the most stable. Once we define stability appropriately, it should be possible to do a controlled experiment assessing its stability in three groups: unfree child marriages; marriages arranged by parents with agreement of children; and free marriages arranged by the partners themselves. Should the experimental results have a bearing on the nature of public policy or should one take an exclusively moral position independent of the consequences?

      There remains a lot of scope to continue thinking about these issues.

  14. Tahira Says:

    I would like to know if France has any roman catholic nuns and what is their outfit? A muslim woman can wear that outfit and be perfectly acceptable in France and satisfy her faith. Unless all nuns’ outfits are banned by Sarkozy, muslim burqa should be allowed otherwise it would be clear cut religious discrimination against muslim women.

    The face covering is not part of burqa. It is clearly optional as you can compare various muslim countries. Some women choose to do so, others not (except in Afghanistan and NWFP). It can obstruct peripheral vision. But then how many of us look all around when we are headed out for a particular purpose?

    I think a burqa is advised for muslim women because muslim men are not following the advice given to them – “Ghazz-e-Basar”- (cast your eyes down). It is unnerving to a muslim woman if men stare at her as they pass by. If men obey the injunction, women will be happy to remove the outer garb. May be Sarkozy should impose that rule on men.

    • martin Says:

      I’ve found, for once, the discussion led here very sensible and with much understanding about the different contexts at stake. The post lacked cultural background and philosophical judgement, and was rightly criticized for these.
      I’m only going to comment on the French aspect of the post. First of all, I feel Russell morals scarcely apply here for one good reason, it is a Constitutional matter in France, as Kabir correctly pointed out, so it is a matter of the greater majority. And, the principle of tolerating everything that does not cause anarchy is just untenable from a practical point of view.
      Ok, what is called “burqa” in France is a piece of cloth that covers the face includingly, and this is very important as it is what may bring a law to be passed. Focusing on free choice as the highest principle in terms of judging whether the burqa is legitimately worn or not does not work neither. The post fails to recall that in the French context (as in most countries, Germany for instance, and that is a main difference with the US), freedom of expression is restricted to a principle of public order, that means for example that racial slurs or publications are illegal. The principles that preside over the burqa issue are the ones of “laicité” (secularism) and of human dignity.
      Somehow, the post argues that burqa should be legal because its consequences are unharmful for the majority, and that it is a matter of free choice for the individual. But, the French (and Sarkozy here speaks for the majority, which is not often) situation is that it starts from a moral standpoint, regardless of the consequences, that the burqa is an offense to human dignity and that it affects freedom of movement. It is not out of Sarkozy’s mind that suddenly this piece of cloth or that is now unlawful. There are excellent grounds to think that wearing the burqa (with full face coverage) is effectively detrimental for them, that it affects the principle of equal opportunity for instance. Of course, the French principles are debatable, and they are even within the country, but the position expressed today, even though extreme to some Muslim ears, is in line with a long history of secularism in the country.

      • SouthAsian Says:

        Martin, merci beaucoup. It is invaluable to get a perspective from France. We are quite unfamiliar with the notion of “laicité” and naturally think in terms of the UK/US frameworks with which we are familiar.

        It is useful to realize that completely different principles can legitimately be used to guide public policy. Thus France does not consider Russell’s principle of ‘no social anarchy’ a useful one but instead relies on a moral standpoint that is independent of consequences. It is also useful to know that the operative principles continue to be debated in society because obviously societies are not static. Given that France (and Europe in general) now has a lot more ethnic and religious minorities in its population, it would be interesting to see how policy evolves and what principles would guide this evolution of policy.

        One thing is common in your and Arun’s arguments – that the burqa is harmful/detrimental for the wearers themselves. We know that being in the sun without adequate covering is also harmful but a minimum covering or duration of exposure on beaches is not legislated – the determination of the harm and protection against it is left to the individuals. Is there a parallel to be considered here given that the burqa is presumably not worn round the clock? How are these determinations of excessive harm to be made and who would make them?

        • SouthAsian Says:

          I always find I learn more from fiction writers than from professional analysts. Writers are interested in observing and describing what they see; analysts are more interested in proving some theory they have cooked up in their heads often without having seen the places they are talking about.

          Here is Mohammad Hanif (author of A Case of Exploding Mangoes) on what he sees in Karachi:

          Unlike a lot of immigrants in London I never had a frozen, idyllic image of a motherland to cherish and yearn for. First, because my motherland was never idyllic, and, second, my day job in London involved covering Pakistan. But yes, places change and they change when Newsweek is looking somewhere else. For instance it seems that when I moved to Pakistan a significant part of the country decided to cover itself in black hijabs and burkas. They weren’t shying away from me, they had just decided that dressing like those women in the Arab desert was cool. The purda-fication of Pakistani women had started years ago but as a visitor I always assumed it was nothing more than a bout of seasonal piety. I grew up in a village in Pakistan where the first burka in the 80s was seen as a sign of vulgarity. It was a conservative village but it was open enough that you could walk into anybody’s house; surely someone who decided to cover their face either had a deviant mind or was camouflaging some new perversion imported from some big city? For days, my late mother went around doing the Punjabi version of “there goes the neighbourhood”.

          Walking along the Karachi seafront after returning from London, I worked myself into a self-righteous rage at these young women in black burkas hanging out at the beach when they should have been at school or in some mosque praying for our collective salvation. But then I looked closely and found out that many of them were on a date. Some were actually making out, in broad daylight, with men with beards. Covered from head to toe in a black robe, this is quite a spectacle – and provides just the right combination of challenge and opportunity. Walking on the beach with my wife the other day, we stared at a couple who were exploring the full possibilities of the burka, using their motorcycle to lean against. With the Arabian sea lapping at their feet.

          And here is Pankaj Mishra (another good writer who has not written this particular piece very coherently) first describing the rantings of the analysts and then ending with a seemingly sensible recommendation:

          Liberal spaces within Europe have brought many more Muslim women out of their old confinements. Benhabib asserts that these women, who “struggle at first to retain their traditional and given identities against the pressures of the state”, then go on to engage and contest their Islamic traditions. As Europe’s own passage from tradition showed, this necessary reconfiguration is not the work of a day. It requires the practices and institutions of European citizenship to grow more rather than less flexible.

    • SouthAsian Says:

      Tahira: This is an interesting line of thought and I am intrigued at how people would answer it. There is an equivalence between the two coverings at one level and those who grew up in South Asia and attended Convent schools were quite familiar with the burqa and the habit. The first always suggested illiteracy, ignorance and backwardness; the second, simplicity, charity, and devotion. Were these just the prejudices of our social milieu?

      Of course, the habit looks much more stylish (give credit to the Europeans) and so seems less restrictive – it might survive Arun’s discomfort test.

      Is it possible that the habit was designed by women and the burqa by men? In general Muslim men do too little but they do get involved where the have little expertise and end up making a hash of things. Does this generalization extend to all South Asian men? I know what Aakar Patel would say – that’s the reason South Asian women think poorly of South Asian men!

      On Ghazz-e-Basar, what if you get the response (say in France) that it is a pre-modern practice that is harmful for men and can be the cause of traffic accidents? Modern men can surely look women in the eye and (both) survive!

      I am reminded of a quip (attributed, I think, to the late Shaukat Thanvi). On being asked aap aurtoN kii taraf kyuuN dekhtey haiN? he is said to have responded to aur kis kii taraf dekhuuN, gadhey ghoroN kii taraf? I am sure Shaukat Thanvi was no relation to Ashraf Thanvi who must have deliberated quite deeply on Ghazz-e-Basar. All his admonishments have been for naught. I think we have to come up with a solution assuming we are not going to get Muslim men to go along with it. Even if such a practice is legislated, the resulting choice would be unfree and there would be no way to enforce it since the enforcers would also be subject to Ghazz-e-Basar – social anarchy would result violating Russell’s eminently sensible principle.

  15. mazhur Says:


    <<<<<<<<<<<the burqa is an offense to human dignity and that it affects freedom of movement. <<<<<<<<<<<

    such a thinking is highly offensive to all women, secular or religious.
    Apart from covering the face, I have no objection to women wearing any apparel to hide their ''feminine' parts in public. And there is good reason for that. No.1: Some women feel comfortable being fully clad. Refer to women apparel worn by 17 and 18th century British and even American women.
    2. Why be women be 'forced' ( by law or otherwise) to appear before men in a dress other than want to wear??
    3. How would a woman hide her bust if she has to breast feed her baby in public??
    4. Then, there is religious constraint as well. Why be women barred from freedom of religion even in a secular country like France? if America can 'tolerate' Mormons why not France?? Polygamy is already banned in many countries but why should it be banned in a secular country which believes in freedom of human values, including religion??

    May be there is another instance when we would be arguing about ban on women wearing bras on some lame excuse!

    the matter is simple but Sarkozy and his proponents are only trying to make a mess of things.


  16. kabir Says:

    Thanks Martin, for a French perspective on the issue. One question though: Would the proposed law ban burqa only in schools and other public institutions as is done with other religious symbols or would it ban it entirely within France? To me, it seems rather bizarre for the state to legislate what people wear within their own homes or in their private lives.

    Asides from the constutional issues and laicité, I don’t think Sarkozy or anyone is really in a position to judge what kinds of dress are moral or not. From a human dignity perspective, I think restricting people’s right to dress the way they want or practice their religion the way they want, even if we disagree with it, is rather troubling. I say this despite my personal dislike of the burqa.

    Mazhur, as Martin has explained above, France does not believe in secularism as defined in the US model. Rather, “laicité” is an important part of the French constitution, which stems I believe from Napoleon’s reforms and his weakening of the power of the Catholic church. It is the official position of France that “laicité” is more important than freedom of religion in the absolute. This is certainly debatable, but the French have the right to make laws according to their own understanding of their constitution.

  17. Arun Pillai Says:

    I think this discussion may be viewed through the lens of relativism vs. objectivism (or universalism). Probably all human beings are partly relativists and partly objectivists. For example, most people are likely to be relativists as far as taste in food is concerned. Whether someone should eat chocolate ice cream or not is a subjective/relative matter. On the other hand, whether someone should kill someone else or not is a matter of objective law. Extreme cases are easy to decide. It is the intermediate cases that are hard. It is a matter of where we draw the line between objectivism and relativism. For this we need principles.

    Russell chose to draw the line at anything that does not cause anarchy. Things causing anarchy have to be objectively disallowed and things that don’t can be subjectively chosen. Many interpretations of multiculturalism allow a lot of latitude to relativism, almost as much as Russell. Obama draws the line at free choice: if an act is freely chosen (and if it does not cause anarchy), then it falls within the subjective sphere. (I believe this is what Russell also implicitly intended but that is another matter.) Sarkozy drew the line differently.

    So one further question is what the right principle is to divide actions into relative or universal. Then this principle can be applied to the case of the burqa.

    • SouthAsian Says:

      Arun: Re your discussion of relativism vs. universalism. Sooner or later we had to arrive at the point where we would need to push the analysis back and consider the philosophical frameworks underlying the principles we have been discussing. Relativism gives us Russell’s principle while universalism yield’s Sarkozy’s principle.

      We can also use the frameworks of consequentialism and intentionalism – whether an action is to be judged by its consequences or by its intentions. One can say that Russell is a consequentialist – he is saying if the consequences are harmless, the action should be tolerated even if its intentions are suspect. Sarkozy is an intentionalist – he is saying if the intention is harmful, the action should not be tolerated even if the consequences are harmless.

      Simple examples can make these distinctions clear:

      1. I rush into your house suspecting a burglar. There was no burglar there but in my rush I upset a candle, set the house on fire and it burns down.
      2. I enter your house to rob it. There was intruder there intending to murder you whom I scare away thus saving your life.

      In the first instance my intention was good but the consequence was bad; in the second the intention was bad but the consequence was good. How are my actions to be judged in the two cases? What gets more weight in the judgement, the intention or the consequence?

      It seems societies differ in their attitudes on such determinations. In South Asia, one often finds sympathy (even from the victim) for an individual who has caused harm if his intentions can be deemed good or at least not bad (niyyat burii nahiN thii). In the US one is more used to the response “I don’t care what you intended, you have screwed up my life.” Think of situations in which a physician has misdiagnosed a patient. Whether the differences stem from a greater acceptance of fate in South Asia and a more litigious society in the US can be discussed further.

      The point is that if people subscribe to different philosophical frameworks they would also differ in the principles that seem reasonable to them. And to understand the reasons for these differences we have no option but to step back and examine the philosophical frameworks themselves.

      I believe Amartya Sen has also written about consequentialism and intentionalism. Sen should be required reading in South Asian colleges given how much of what we do and think is shaped by these underlying frameworks that often we are unaware of. I feel there is a need for putting together a primer on the essential ideas of Sen.

      • SouthAsian Says:

        I found an interesting post today from the Jewish Observer, October 2008. I am sceptical of some of the arguments but two points are clearly explained that should help our discussion: The nature of the ban in France and why the Americam model might be the better one to deal with the issue.

        When the French government, for instance, banned the wearing of a veil or other forms of Muslim dress in French public schools, it also banned the wearing of yarmulkes. (The only difference, of course, being that Jewish boys who wear yarmulkes would almost all have been in private religious schools, whereas Muslim parents sought to force the public schools to accept their norms.)

        The American model of dealing with religious diversity has proven the most successful one for the integration of Muslim populations… Though America has a civil religion based on a commitment to its constitution, as a nation of immigrants spread out over a vast continent, there is no national culture to which all are expected to conform. Nor is the natural culture decidedly secular, as in France, for instance.

        • SouthAsian Says:

          I would like to interject into this discussion a few excerpts from a review by Bruce Robbins of a book by Charles Taylor – A Secular Age (Harvard University Press, 2007). I chanced upon this review last week and do not recommend reading it in connection with our discussion because its focus is not our topic and it presumes familiarity with a lot of related literature which at least I was not familiar with. I am just extracting a few paragraphs that might trigger some new thoughts relevant to our debate.

          The key argument of the author seems to be that secularism is not the negation of religion (Christianity in the case of Europe); rather secularism has its roots in religion:

          Secularism’s rise is generally presented as what Taylor calls a “subtraction” story. Religion is said to shrink as science, technology, and rationality expand. Thus superstition is little by little expelled from the world. In Taylor’s counter-story, secularism is not the widening zone of clarity that remains as myth and error are dissipated, but rather the product of shifts in thinking within religion, and in particular within Christianity.

          For Taylor, the modern concept of freedom is Christian at its origin and to an important if unspecified degree it remains Christian. Modern individualism similarly retains the imprint of a “Christian, or Christian-Stoic, attempt to remake society.”

          This is followed by the following observation of interest to us:

          Readers will also be reminded of recent critiques of the French head scarf ban, which claim that laïcité is not in fact neutral but rather a mask for Christianity, one religion lording it over other religions by pretending not to be a religion at all.

          Readers should note that this claim of secularization of religion as the outcome of internal shifts in Christianity is not new. Other people have argued it and sometime back on this blog Dr. Bettina Robotka had explained it in very simple terms:

          I think the argument is wrong that Kant was rationalizing outside the ideological framework of Christianity with the saying “what I do not want to be done to me I should not do to anybody else.” These are ethical rules that may be put into a popular frame which in Europe is based on Christian ideas because for centuries this has been the ruling ideology. Even if people think they don’t believe in God they will not be able to leave the ethical part behind even if they don’t call it Christian any more.

          Two examples. First, the EU when designing its constitution (which until today is not accepted) wanted to describe the ethical basis on which Europe is going to work together. While digging for the roots of their ethical understanding they ended up quoting Christianity. Second example, myself. I am East German, I grew up in an absolutely atheist family (not only my parents but even none of my grandparents or anybody else in the family went to church or believed in God. It was just out of question.) But when I check the kind of ethical behavior which has stayed with me it’s the same Christian one. Communism has been trying to substitute religion as an ethical basis by some broad humane understanding, and I think it failed. Religion is rampant in Russia which is not part of the secularized West. In united Germany they are working now to reintroduce Christian religion as a subject taught in school. I think ethics don’t arise out of the blue sky or in a vacuum. Ethics is based on the historical experience and tradition of mankind and that is Christian in Europe. It is less clear in the subcontinent where different religions have lived together over centuries and longer.

          • Vinod Says:

            Religion has two major trends in the texts – universal humanitarian trends plus religio-facist trends. Which one stands out depends on the particular interpreter of religion. While secularism can be seen as having arisen from the former trend within Christianity, it did severely limit that latter trend in Christianity. That is how secularism can be said to have subtracted religion – not in its entirely but in some of its trends.

  18. Arun Pillai Says:

    I think one reason why the burqa may seem oppressive to an outsider is that it appears an an element of a *system* of male oppression. There are other elements of this system that are even more oppressive: for example, the penalties for having an extra-marital affair are draconian for women. But the system may be different in different regions of the world and so its elements like the burqa may have different meanings in those different contexts. So one should qualify the various statements depending on the system of which the burqa is a part.

    For young women who are taking to the burqa and who are open to making out in it, as Hanif seems to have observed, perhaps the burqa exists in a different system that does not involve male oppression. In this case, I would say a burqa is fine.

    So, perhaps one thing to draw from this is that a cultural item like the burqa should not be viewed in isolation but as part of a larger system. And then one should ask questions about the system: is it oppressive in any way? And is the item therefore part of this oppression?

    • SouthAsian Says:

      Arun: This is a crucial insight.

      There are at least two burqas involved and they are quite distinct from each other. The first is the conservative social practice associated with the black, ungainly, tent-like garment that is on its way out much like FGM or leeching or sati. There is hardly any need to ban it as it it is fading away on its own.

      The other is the second-wind of the burqa, the voluntary, aggressive, indeed defiant, adoption of the headscarf by modern educated Muslim women. This is a political assertion of identity at a peculiar historic juncture. It cannot be banned; as Pankaj Mishra notes, it needs a more rather than a less flexible response.

      Because the second burqa has emerged before the first burqa has disappeared there has arisen the confusion that has lumped the two together. Seeing through this confusion would make it easier for us to figure out what really is at stake.

  19. Arun Pillai Says:

    kabir has been saying over a couple of posts that an empirical approach is desirable: why not just ask the women concerned if they are coerced? I have resisted this saying this is not a reliable way to tell. But his message of looking at the empirical facts *is* highly desirable. Literature can give one some such insights if the writer is good (and something of a realist) but not always because the writer also may not have adequate access to the facts. Just because one couple was making out in a burqa is no proof that this is widespread.

    I would say an important fact has been mentioned but its significance has been overlooked.

    The fact that only 367 women in France wear burqas – if it is really a fact – is very significant but its significance has been missed. It would be very interesting to know how many Muslim women do not wear burqas in France. If this number is much larger, it would imply that immigrants who get out of their home countries by and large give up the burqa. This would then further imply that they give it up either because it was coercive or otherwise inconvenient to wear.

    This suggests the following general empirical test: look not at Muslim women in their home countries but look at immigrant Muslim populations. See what their behavior is: do these immigrant populations stick to the burqa or do they give it up? This would reveal whether the burqa is coercive or not because in a foreign country where Muslims are a minority they are likely to have greater freedom.

    I think the modern young women who are adopting the burqa as a statement of identity should be discounted because they are probably a minority within a minority and are doing it for political reasons. So the question above should be addressed to “ordinary” Muslim women in foreign countries.

    • Vinod Says:

      Arun, that is a brilliant suggestion. I think if it is found that the overwhelming majority of immigrant muslim women abandon the burqa it will tell us two things – one, that it is coercive in muslim countries and two, that if it is coercive even where the majority deem it normative, it is even more so where the majority are critical of it.

    • Vinod Says:

      Arun, in light of the comments by mazhur and Juanita, I am having doubts on the test suggested by you – does it yield the conclusion we think it yields? The majority of women who are giving up the burqa in France may be doing so purely to fit in French society. They may have worn it in their home countries to fit in there. The need to fit-in is a socialization impulse. So the giving up of the burqa can also be seen as a coercion if the cause of it is the same that causes them to wear it in muslim countries.
      The question that needs to be answered then is how do the larger social patterns emerge which determine who fit in and who does not. We have to know how the practice came about; how it was justified over time. It is only in those details can be determine coercion (or not). In the course of unpacking those details if it is found that there is a significant section of women in the society who advocate wearing the burqa it is impossible to see cocercion in it.

    • kabir Says:

      Arun, I think I said that one can’t go around asking the women concerned if they are coerced, it doesn’t seem like a useful way to find out this info.

      I agree with Vinod that immigrant women not wearing the burqa might also be because of social pressures and the need to conform, just as these pressures in their home countries dictate wearing the garment. Muzhur was also right when he said that if South Asian men in the west give up wearing shalwar kameez or dhoti, does that prove that these garments are oppressive or coercive?

      I think the more general issue is about how socialization and the desire to conform dictate the need to practice (or not) certain behaviors. That doesn’t make the behaviors right or wrong in and of themselves. Hence, we’re back to free choice and the difficulty of judging whether it is really “free” or not (Who will judge?)

    • SouthAsian Says:

      Arun: With reference to literature, I would like to archive here a great sentence from the Lant Pritchett paper on India that I have placed in The Best From Elsewhere section of the blog (#30):

      To understand the Indian state today one has to read fiction because non-fiction, the streams of government reports and commissions and documents produced by official agencies (including of those foreign agencies working with the government) are truly fiction.

      Pritchett is referring to what he has read into Indian society from Vikas Swarup’s novel Q&A.

  20. Juanita Says:

    ….To grow more rather than less flexible…. is another whole topic which I am sure could be discussed at length but I want to go back to: <<<<<<<<<<<the burqa is an offense to human dignity and that it affects freedom of movement. <<<<<<<<<<<I have seen many fashions which are offensive to human dignity and also affect freedom of movement – boys and young men wearing their jeans waylow is just one example. (I am not sure the yarmukle would be desribed as either offensive or affecting freedom of movement.)
    I am interested in addressing the wearing of the burqa.
    The burqa is worn by some people (regardless of reason or free will). The burqa offends some people (regardless of right or wrong).
    So my question is, who has the right to determine whether it is worn or not? We come back to the tyranny of the majority, no?

  21. mazhur Says:


    <<<<<<<<This would then further imply that they give it up either because it was coercive or otherwise inconvenient to wear.<<<<<<<<<<<<

    What do you say men from our part of the world giving up their ''Shalwar Qameez/Kurta' or 'lacha/dhoti' once out of their countries?? It evidently indicates a feeling of 'inferiority complex' on their part and an attempt to hide their national (if not religious) identity. What's wrong if men and women want to retain their respective identities in a foreign land where they may be a minority???

    It's true in certain cultures women are forced to wear burqa but this is not the case with modern Muslim women who opts for burqa or scarves out of their own free will.

  22. mazhur Says:

    <<<<<<<<<<<Vinod Says:
    August 17, 2009 at 3:19 pm | Reply

    Arun, in light of the comments by mazhur and Juanita, I am having doubts on the test suggested by you – does it yield the conclusion we think it yields? The majority of women who are giving up the burqa in France may be doing so purely to fit in French soci etc etc <<<<<<<<<

    I agree with Vinod's analytical observations. Now, he's hit the nail on its head!

  23. Arun Pillai Says:

    I agree with all of you that the test does not unambiguously determine coercion. To be fair to myself, I did say: “This would then further imply that they give it up either because it was coercive or otherwise inconvenient to wear.” So the implication is that they are either coercive or inconvenient. The second possibility of inconvenience owing to reasons of conformity or similar reasons needs to be ruled out. Here we could employ the technique of interviews more fruitfully: All immigrant women who have abandoned the burka could be asked why they chose to discontinue it. Their answers could be interesting to obtain and classify and are likely to be more transparent. So the test is not so simple to carry out just from statistical data.

  24. mazhur Says:

    Arun Pillai :

    There is no need to hold a poll on your second point. My mother used to wear burqa (out of own free will) but would take it off when she went to attend any school function where all the ‘elite’ had assembled without coverings thinking in her mind that if she was spotted there with a burqa she might be thought an odd ”illiterate” or ”backward”. Now I realize she was so right not only in what she thought as said above but by taking off her burqa she also wanted to save me from the vain mockery of the so-called ‘elite’ class which studied at that school and who would attend the school functions.

  25. Arun Pillai Says:

    Your mother was certainly very wise – more modern than the so-called elite – but I was thinking of younger women who might have felt forced to wear burqas in their home country and who might have felt freer to give it up in the West. You yourself mentioned in an earlier post that in some countries there is coercion about these things. I think it might be useful for someone who knows about this to make a list of where there is coercion and where there isn’t. For example, I would expect that Saudi Arabia has some degree of coercion.

  26. mazhur Says:


    <<<<<<<<<<but I was thinking of younger women who might have felt forced to wear burqas <<<<<<<<<<<<<

    and <<<<<<<<to make a list of where there is coercion <<<<<<<<<<

    The answer to both the above points is:

    immediately the day after I got married in 1972 my wife who used to wear burqa, at my request, gave it up and opted for a 'gown' coupled with 'dupatta' and she lived that way as long as she lived and nobody in my family or anyone could object to it. After our children were born and grew up she became more liberal on 'covering' even with 'gown' so much so that she gave it up after 5 or 6 and never wore it again. However, she retained the 'dupatta' and would cover her head while going out for shopping etc. but she was not totally 'obsessed' by this head-gear and wouldn't mind if it sometimes slipped off her head.

    i could gather from her talk and culture in the town she lived that she was compelled to go 'covered' because of the 'dread' of the terrible dirty stare of men around there. Also, she was afraid of some crazy loafer 'followed' her tonga (which boys usually did and still do in almost every small towns of Pakistan) while going to and coming from school/college etc. Thus in a way the burqa served as a physical and spiritual ' defensive mechanism' for the woman to save herself from the dirty whims and clutches of bad men while moving around the town without her family men or alongwith other women folk; she was obliged not to expose herself or her beauty which may create and bring unnecessary trouble to her and scandalize her in society. Once scandalized it is very difficult for a girl in our part of the world to get a good 'match'

    There me be other reasons to but I recall these alone at this moment.

  27. Arun Pillai Says:

    kabir, it makes a huge difference whom one asks and exactly what one asks. You are right that one cannot ask whether someone is coerced. But one can ask a woman in a foreign country why she gave up the burqa and hope to get a true response.

    • SouthAsian Says:

      Arun: I have some observations regarding what you said in an earlier comment:

      1. You proposed the following experiment:

      This suggests the following general empirical test: look not at Muslim women in their home countries but look at immigrant Muslim populations. See what their behavior is: do these immigrant populations stick to the burqa or do they give it up? This would reveal whether the burqa is coercive or not because in a foreign country where Muslims are a minority they are likely to have greater freedom.

      Others have already pointed out that the conclusion of coercion does not necessarily follow from the change of behavior. For example, if a vegetarian in India becomes a non-vegetarian on migration to Europe, it would not follow conclusively that the practice in India was due to coercion.

      You are right in suggesting that the freedom of choice in some areas is greater in Europe than in India just as within India the freedom of choice in a city is greater than in a village. At the same time the cost of exercising that choice is much lower in Europe. The shift in costs, the benefits of adaptation, and the assurance of seeing others who have adapted, all these can lead to a change of behavior.

      There is a flip side to this. For example, one is free to urinate in the street in India but not in Europe. It would not follow that the Europeans in Europe are coerced in any way. They are just socialized into the behavior and the costs of transgression are very high. In India they might just let themselves go if they are stuck without an alternative.

      2. You hypothesized the following:

      The fact that only 367 women in France wear burqas – if it is really a fact – is very significant but its significance has been missed. It would be very interesting to know how many Muslim women do not wear burqas in France. If this number is much larger, it would imply that immigrants who get out of their home countries by and large give up the burqa. This would then further imply that they give it up either because it was coercive or otherwise inconvenient to wear.

      I think this number was mentioned in the French news item – 1 in 90,000 Muslim women wear the burqa in France. But the conclusion would not follow that immigrants who get out of their home countries by and large give up the burqa. For that to hold, it would have to be established that the majority of Muslim women who migrated to Europe migrated wearing the burqa and gave it up in Europe. This is almost definitely not true – I have not seen any mention of a declining trend in wearing the burqa in Europe or North America. The headscarf has become an issue because of its revival among Muslim women in Europe and that in turn has focused attention on the anachronistic burqa.

      3. On the validity of asking direct questions:

      Both Kabir and you are right. Those who have internalized a behavior are unlikely to think it coerced in response to a direct question – I think you rightly pointed to ‘false consciousness’ in this regard. Perhaps a cleverly designed interaction by a psychologist might be able to confirm or refute the possibility through indirect clues. However, those who have changed behavior could be expected to give much more reliable answers to direct questions.

      4. On literature, you observed the following:

      Literature can give one some such insights if the writer is good (and something of a realist) but not always because the writer also may not have adequate access to the facts. Just because one couple was making out in a burqa is no proof that this is widespread.

      It’s not to be expected from a writer that he or she would do a statistical analysis but writers often pick up on trends much earlier than social scientists. The way this should work in a dynamic and open society is that a social science teacher would bring the newspaper cutting to class and propose the students do a survey to find out how widespread the practice is in reality.

  28. SouthAsian Says:

    This discussion remains open for further comments but at this point I wish to summarize the debate and record my understanding of the issue. Readers are encouraged to respond with their views and disagreements, if any.

    1. The case for banning the burqa based on a principle that can be defended has not been made.
    2. The objections against the burqa are based on prejudice.
    3. What we have is a contest of preferences, the preference of a minority versus the preference of a majority.
    4. In general, the preference of a majority in a democracy (in which all votes are equal) can be legislated into law; the preference of a minority can’t.
    5. If the preference of a majority is legislated into law, it has to be obeyed or challenged within the legal system. The final option is that of exit.
    6. The case of the burqa in France is not an issue of free choice, it is one of civil rights.
    7. To paraphrase another Frenchman (Voltaire): I disapprove of what you wear but I will defend to the death your right to wear it.

    Let me explain:

    A number of countries in South Asia disallow public displays of affection. This is a preference of the majority that has been legislated into law. It is not based on any principle; it is just an expression of the sensibility of the majority. However, as a law it has to be obeyed.

    In the same vein, France can legislate a law against the burqa, which, if passed, would have to be obeyed or challenged. It will also be an expression of the sensibility of the majority and not reflect any principle. There is no moral basis to deem such a law good or bad.

    All ex-post rationalizations of a ban on the burqa would be expressions of prejudice. The burqa is no different from a turban, yarmulke, bindiya, or bikini. Because it looks hideous and primitive, we begin to think of it as demeaning, restrictive and harmful – surely so ugly a garment must be coerced.

    In many cases it may be coerced (just as the turban or the yarmulke may be) but in many cases it may not be. There is no way for outsiders to make individual determinations without launching a witch-hunt. There are many things that are oppressive in patriarchal societies. These have to be resolved by struggles within communities in which outsiders may be sought as allies. But outsiders cannot take it upon themselves to do so without the risk of prejudices overwhelming reason and turning into real witch-hunts.

    The argument that the burqa is harmful to health is especially weak. Consider the analogy with cigarettes where there is now no doubt that smoking is dangerous for health. But smoking was not banned because the onus of taking personal risks is on individuals. Only when it was determined that passive smoke was harmful to non-smokers was smoking banned in public places. Individuals who wish to smoke can still do so in designated places. The burqa falls in the same category. Even if it is proven to be dangerous to the health of the wearer (it has not so far) it cannot be banned following the principle that the individual is responsible for the risk he or she wishes to bear. And there is no proof that wearing a burqa endangers the health of others.

    Therefore, this is a case of civil rights, not of free choice. As long as there is no legal bar against wearing the burqa, women should have the right to do so. Any such bar, if legislated, would be based on a prejudice of the majority. In France, the burqa does not violate the Constitution because it is not a religious dress (unlike the turban or the yarmulke). It can easily be remodeled as a fashion garment, a la burqini, if needed.

    In this context, Russell’s principle makes eminent sense. If a minority practice does not cause social anarchy it should be tolerated, even if it rankles, in order forestall the bigger danger of the tyranny of the majority riding roughshod over the preferences of a minority.

    I urge you to read this linked short piece. It is both amusing and educative. Note the words of the writer (a woman) when she says: “Never mind the fact that all this talk… makes it seem like society gets a say in how one woman chooses to dress. The decisions women make about their clothing and bodies isn’t something for which we need approval and support.” Comments on this piece and how it relates to the controversy about the burqa are especially invited.

  29. Anil Kala Says:

    I was thinking about the similarity of a catholic nun’s attire and burqa, as pointed out by Tahira and how the former is never an issue while burqa is put on the centre stage. I looked for my own reaction to these two outfits and must say that while a nun’s attire looked bizarre for a brief second, burqa appeared grotesque. On the other hand Iranian way of using scarf produces no reaction and seems perfectly normal. Is it because of my inherent prejudices? The difference I believe is in exposing face. Much of our personality is reflected through our face, the senses and mind are lodged here while rest of the body is slave to it. Without alive face we are zombies, vegetables. A woman completely covered under a burqa does not appear human.

    This apart I am happy that French government has banned it and would be happy if the rest of the world does the same. Burqa is nothing but red herring for chastity belt syndrome. There are a few things which should be denied even if it does no harm to anyone and a large majority desires it.

    • Vinod Says:

      A woman completely covered under a burqa does not appear human.

      I fully second this. Well said.

    • kabir Says:

      Anil, much as I personally dislike the burqa, I am uncomfortable with the idea of banning it. Once the state starts interfering in private matters such as choice of clothing, where does it stop? Who decides which prejudices (or preferences, if we want to call it that) everyone must adhere to?

      By banning the burqa aren’t we just being fundamentalists of a different kind? Islamic fundamentalists tell women they must wear the burqa while secular fundamentalists tell them they must NOT wear it. Why not leave it up to the woman herself?

      • Anil Kala Says:

        Kabir, I would have been happier if the state had thought of serious plan to discourage it, nevertheless this isn’t such an unpleasant course. Unfettered freedom is just not practical and do not forget France is a well evolved society.

        Mazhur, by burqa I meant exactly how Vinod has described it; something that covers entire body with perforations or a slit at eye level. I have assumed that the French government has banned this kind of burqa, no other. I did not mean to say that burqa as about chastity, it is about male human’s animal instinct to protect his harem.

  30. mazhur Says:

    @Anil Kala :

    <<<<<< Burqa is nothing but red herring for chastity belt syndrome.<<<<<<

    This is a merely presumptuous. Chastity has nothing to do with burqa.
    Burqa is merely an attire for the Muslim women to conceal their femininity from NaMehrams ie strangers or public.
    The aspirations and desires of women wearing Burqa are no less than those women who do not cover up.

    I recall that about 20/25 years ago women wearing burqa in Karachi were generally suspected as 'not chaste'….however, it may not be so in small towns, poor localities or up north.

  31. mazhur Says:



    What is a Burqa?? How many types are there??
    Are all burqas designed to cover a woman completely??
    What if a woman covers up her torso with a long gown and her head with a scarf and calls it a ‘burqa’ without hiding her face??

    • Vinod Says:

      Mazhur, if Anil is from India then both he and I have the same idea of what a burqa is – the long black and blue dress that covers a women from head to toe. In my head, the word ‘hijab’ connotes the varieties that you refer to. I am aware that burqa in Sri Lanka simply means the scarf.

  32. mazhur Says:

    @ Vinod

    There is no fixed design for a Burqa. It’s merely a costume worn by Muslim women to hide their femininity and ornamentation as prescribed by Islam. From what I recall as a child, It was commonly worn by Muslim women from UP India who had migrated to Pakistan. Burqa was also worn by Muslim Panjabi women. The burqa worn by these women was different than the one worn by Muslim women up north ie in the NWFP who wore ‘topi walla burqa’ which was apparently one piece attire hiding a woman form head to toe with only an inlaid netted window type opening in front of the eyes. The burqa worn elsewhere was made in two pieces-one piece resembled a long gown the other a head scarf with retractable single of double veil. Black colored fabric was chosen to make the burqas but in the NWFP i recall women wearing white ones…
    Nowadays, burqa seems to have become more like a ‘fad’ and is available in many colors and designs.

    Although the Hindu women did not wear the burqa and were instead clad in sari they as well observed ‘purdah’ from strangers by pulling the ‘pullooo’ (or corner of their sari) over their faces or using the sari edge as a veil.

    Thus it seems that ‘purdah’ is quite a ‘social’ necessity felt by the Indo-Pakistan women to feel more ‘safe’ and ‘comfortable’ in our society. Though this trend had quite changed over the years but has again returned and most Muslim women are rapidly adopting it at their own will and in some cases even defying men for not letting them wear burqa or scarf.

    I know at least one married young woman having two kids and who lived in the US who divorced her husband for objecting to her wearing burqa….

  33. mazhur Says:

    @ Anil Kala :

    Kabir, I would have been happier if the state had thought of serious plan to discourage it, nevertheless this isn’t such an unpleasant course. Unfettered freedom is just not practical and do not forget France is a well evolved society.

    Mazhur, by burqa I meant exactly how Vinod has described it; something that covers entire body with perforations or a slit at eye level. I have assumed that the French government has banned this kind of burqa, no other. I did not mean to say that burqa as about chastity, it is about male human’s animal instinct to protect his harem.

    Burqa IS NOT about male human’s animal instinct to protect his harem..anybody’s harem. If you go back to pre-Islamic days you will note that ‘nobility’ used to keep ‘harems’ and appointed Khwaja Sara’s or eunuch’s to watch over them. For a fuller detail of this you can make recourse to the Kama Sutra which reflects on more which was required to serve the ‘male instinct’ than the need for a burqa.

    As dressing up in general is to hiding nudity, Burqa is to women for hiding their femininity from the illicit ‘sexual yearnings and hunger’ of nobodies and strangers.

    Covering up also has a religious perspective as evident in the case of nuns.
    Men also adopt various kinds of attires to mark their socio-religious bent, e.g, Buddhist monks, Sadhus and Faqeers….

    I really fail to understand what has been so repellent to the French in allowing women to wear an attire of their choice? Let alone Burqa the French have a biased opinion about the simple head gear -scarf -whereby face remains uncovered and doesn’t pose any ‘identification problem’. It seems men are at liberty to do whatever they liked, women not. This is yet another type of ‘fundamentalism’ not much different from the Talibans!

    • kabir Says:

      Mazhur Sahab, Anil is right, though I wouldn’t put it quite in those words. The institution of burqa is intimately tied with the patriarachal system. Patriarchy demands that the man be absolutely certain that whatever children his wife has are his own and not someone else’s. This is why Islam permits polygamy for men, but not for women. As any coursework in feminist studies will tell, all the three monothestic religions, Judaism, Christianity and Islam, are intensly patriarchal. Compare the clothing of Orthodox Jewish women with the burqa. Orthodox women even wear wigs so that no one sees their actual hair.

      Of course, non Judeo-Christian-Islamic religions also have elements that are tied to patriarchy. What else was sati?

      The above is not meant as an attack on burqa or Islam, but it is factually true that the obession with women’s clothing and by extension their sexuality is intimately tied to patriarchy. The reason why there are less controls on men is because men are running the show.

  34. mazhur Says:

    @ kabir

    I fail to understand as to what is wrong with a patriarchal society?? Even in a patriarchal society you will find women dominating the family! Why should one aspire a matriarchal society of the mythical Amazons or the Gilgamesh??

    Not only does Islam disallow polygamy to woman, all religions and societies do. The western society is so bleak and shallow that it doesn’t allow a man to take more than one wife! Nor does it allow a woman to take more than one husband. Western society is more than liberal on sex while oriental society isn’t.

    Like harakari and suicide bombing, Sati was a custom; jauhar was a Rajput custom. History tells us it was ‘volunteered’ by most women….though coercion is also related in some instances. I think it takes a lot more to change these customs than mere religion.

    • kabir Says:

      Dear Mazhur Sahab,

      There’s nothing inherently wrong with a patriarchal society, I’m just pointing out that the burqa is tied up with patriarchy. It is intellectually dishonest to pretend otherwise.

      One could argue that burqa is also custom — in this case an Arab custom — and not an integral part of “Islam”. The fact that more and more women in Pakistan are wearing burqa is a sign of the increasing Wahabisation and Sunnification of Pakistani Islam. South Asian women traditionally observed purdah through the use of the chunni or the dupatta, which allowed them to meet their religious requirement of modesty. No where does it say that the burqa is the only way to do so.

      • SouthAsian Says:

        In the context of the ‘old’ burqa I can construct the following arguments from this recent round of comments:

        There are certain things that can seem bizarre or grotesque or repulsive to an individual. This we can call a personal opinion if we wish to remain neutral or a prejudice if we do not agree with the opinion. Just to take an example that is different, let us consider this the reaction of a vegetarian to the eating of dog meat by people belonging to another culture.

        We can search for the reason why people in some cultures find it natural to eat dog meat. Different people might come to different conclusions. Suppose an individual comes to the conclusion that eating dog meat is a barbaric custom of a culture that is insensitive to the life of animals. Also suppose that this individual is a fervent believer in the rights of animals.

        Now the question is this: What is to be done with the opinion of this individual? Keep in mind that this is an opinion about the practice of a different culture.

        If the individual is upset to the extent that he or she advocates an immediate and universal ban on the practice, should the intensity of the desire lead to a ban of the practice (as it would if the person were in a position of authority in a non-democratic system)?

        If the individual is part of a majority that finds this practice of a minority unacceptable, should the electoral power be translated into a ban on the practice? If no principle can be adduced for the dislike this would be tantamount to the legislation of a prejudice.

        Should the search be for some credible principle (to which all reasonable people may be able to subscribe) that could be used to find a resolution of the issue? Russell’s principle of accepting diversity if it does not cause social anarchy is one such principle that also brings in the dimensions of civil rights and freedom of choice

        In the meanwhile opponents of the practice could continue to advocate their position based on arguments that would go beyond mere prejudice. The mounting, and finally convincing, evidence against the harmful effects of smoking could be considered an example of such advocacy by those opposed to smoking. In some respects, the inhaling of tobacco could also be considered a barbaric custom.

        Is it possible to go further than this in the discussion at this point?

        While we consider this last question I would request participants in this debate to read an essay by Pofessor SN Balagangadhara on India and Her Traditions. Let us read it and come back with an assessment of whether it changed our thinking in any way and, if so, why and to what extent. Even otherwise, it is an interesting essay to read and I have archived it for easy access in the future.

  35. SouthAsian Says:

    Let us not lose sight in this discussion of what might be the real issue at stake in Europe.

    There is the ‘old’ burqa (of the type Anil and Vinod are talking about) and the ‘new’ burqa (of the type that Mazhur is talking about). The old burqa was definitely on its way out and would have faded away or remained confined to a miniscule population. The new burqa is a revival and is less a dress and more a symbol of political defiance.

    So, if we are focused on Europe, the real question to ask is what lies behind the emergence of political defiance, what does it dignify, and how might it best be handled?

    On the other hand, if we are focused on anachronistic practices, we can discuss what might have been their origins and what should be done if some find them unacceptable at the personal level.

    • Anil Kala Says:

      SA, as I have already explained any other kind of attire banned by French government is purposeful and mean therefore unacceptable. There is however one point which explains this reaction as you yourself claim. If burqa is a symbol of defiance but people of France treat it as provocation then this reaction is expected. A politician is adept at reading public perception therefore Sarcozy is only keeping his constituency happy. By the way it is the ‘old burqa’ which is making a comeback in India. It is everywhere.

      Another point being debated here is if a custom does no harm and desired by a large multitude should it be banned because another set of people find it irritating? Even though there is no comparison between burqa and Sati, one is merely an irritant the other unmitigated monstrosity, do we approve or not of banning Sati? It apparently does no harm to anyone while a large public approves it. There is a Shankaracharya who publicly defended it and swarms of people gathered at Deorala to witness it. The frenzy was so great that local government did not have the guts to stop it.

      • kabir Says:

        Anil ji, As you’ve rightly pointed out the burqa is an irritant while Sati is a monstrosity.

        I feel a ban on Sati is completely justified because it is tantamount to murder. You write “it apparently does no harm to anyone”. What about the woman who is killed? Sati does irreparable harm to her by depriving her of life. As far as I know, no one has yet died from wearing a burqa. There lies the difference, at least in my opinion.

  36. mazhur Says:

    @ kabir :

    <<<<<<There’s nothing inherently wrong with a patriarchal society, I’m just pointing out that the burqa is tied up with patriarchy<<<<<
    <<<< It is intellectually dishonest to pretend otherwise.<<<<<<<

    Perhaps but in the absence of a matriarchal society it would be elusive to put the entire blame on patriarchs..


    Arab countries suffer monarchy and it is mandatory for women to go out covered in a burqa or something of that type. You cannot compare Arab countries with secular or democratic countries, not even with Iran or Pakistan which are Islamic Democratic Republics as their names suggest.

    <<<<<<The fact that more and more women in Pakistan are wearing burqa is a sign of the increasing Wahabisation and Sunnification of Pakistani Islam.<<<<<

    This seems probable….but burqa is also worn by Shia women and women of other Muslim sects like Bohri, for example.

    <<<<<<<South Asian women traditionally observed purdah through the use of the chunni or the dupatta,<<<<<<<<

    Oh, no! You cannot say that. Chunni or dupatta is additional. Women who wear burqa also wear chunni or dupatta…

    . <<<<>>>

    this is like beating about the bush as I already said that Islam commands women to cover up decently so that their bodies and ornamentation remains hidden from the dirty eyes of other men. Instead of burqa one can call it a gown or scarf or even a kimono which serves the ordained purpose!

    • kabir Says:

      Mazhur Sahab,

      If Islam enjoins modesty or what you term “covering up decently” I don’t see how a woman wearing a dupatta draped over her head and chest is being immodest. Thousands of women in Pakistan and India do this every day. It is your interpretation of Islam that burqa is necessary. Nowhere in the scripture does it ever specifically outline what the garment should look like.

      As for the issue of the “dirty eyes of other men”, why not address this issue by making it clear to men what is acceptable and civilized behavior expected of them in society? Why should the poor woman have to bear the brunt of male perversion?

  37. Arun Pillai Says:

    After this long discussion, I am inclined to think that Russell’s principle is just wrong because its presuppositions are often not met in practice as with sati or the burqa.

    • SouthAsian Says:

      Arun: Could you expand on that and explain why you feel the presuppositions are often not met in practice? It would help if you spell out the presuppositions as well.

  38. mazhur Says:

    @ kabir :


    Unless you know about ‘ the feminine parts’ of a woman as mentioned in the scriptures or writings on ‘Body Language’ It would not be possible for you to comprehend the concept of ‘covering up’. Dupatta or chunri just covers the head and bosom of a woman, not her entire ‘femininity’ or her ‘ornamentation’. Hence these are optional coverings for women when they are not wearing a burqa or when they wear them as a token of grace, dignity and respect in the presence of their elders. However, I do not agree with women hiding their faces, hands and feet.


    Read my comments, I never said burqa is a token of religious obligation. It can be any covering …which conceals their ‘femininity’ and ‘ornamentation’ and ‘body contours’ from the eyes of strangers or non-mehrams.


    Western society is based on sex, ours is not. Hence our men are wont to ogle and even molest women if they moved around uncovered from their dirty stares. Thus one of the only option for women to keep safe and comfortable from ‘rabid dogs’ is to observe purdah either through a burqa, a chadar, a scarf, a gown or anything which covers them all (except face, hands and feet).

    Do you think you can change an illiterate and uncivilized culture or ‘culturally hardened and sex hungry men’ in poor countries (for the sake of this discussion ) in a jiffy?? No chance! Men in Western countries are compelled to behave in regard to women because of the strict enforcement of laws there… India and Pakistan are relatively ‘lawless’….in so far as women rights and security is concerned.

    • kabir Says:

      Mazhur Sahib,

      Let’s just agree to disagree. I personally find absolutely nothing wrong with shalwar-kameez and dupatta and nothing you have said has convinced me otherwise. I’m afraid emotional/religious and other non-rational arguements don’t work with me. If it’s not intellectually convincing, it’s not intellectually convincing.

      Again, I do not see why the onus for dealing with men’s perversion is on the woman who must put herself in a repressive and frankly inhuman garment.

      Also, modesty is in how someone (male or female) carries themselves. One can be modest in so-called “liberal” Western clothing. Conversely, one can be immodest while being “piously” dressed.

      • SouthAsian Says:

        Kabir: Sometimes arguments can become over-intellectualized and distanced from reality. It is inevitable that we all generalize from our lived experiences and have to make a conscious effort to imagine beyond them. I would urge that you consider Mazhur’s argument not just from the perspective of a ‘rationality’ that might have limited provenance. It is more than likely that in the subset of men with whom you are familiar the male-female relationship is of the kind that you are implying. But is it possible that there may be a subset where the relationship might be different? Where women have different hazards to contend with? Think, for example, of the world described in Daniyal Mueenuddin’s stories. Or, ask women who have to go to Bano Bazaar whether they feel it is a different experience than going to Liberty market. If the experience is different, we have to concede some ground to Mazhur. Perhaps he is talking of an environment with which you may not be fully familiar. If so, we need to learn about that world and not agree to disagree too quickly. Let us continue talking.

    • Vinod Says:

      Thus one of the only option for women to keep safe and comfortable from ‘rabid dogs’ is to observe purdah either through a burqa, a chadar, a scarf, a gown or anything which covers them all (except face, hands and feet).

      I used to think like this. But it won’t take you too much to enquire with women in India, a country known for molestation and groping of women, that perverts are going to molest any women REGARDLESS of how they dress. Even burqa clad women get molested, and it is no less frequent than others. The burqa provides no additional security whatsoever against perverted men. I have seen videos of women in burqa getting molested. What molesters look for is not dressing style but powerlessness.

  39. mazhur Says:

    @ kabir :

    kabir Sahib,


    yes, I too feel nothing wrong with shalwar-qameez and dupatta provide it is not ‘ooltee shalwar’ ( an inverted design of shalwar–Jodhpuri design etc ) and ‘loondi qameez’ (mini-shirt) exposing the entire contours of bust and hips to the pleasure of the viewers!!


    good for you but what said i said from practical observation and honest conviction. you have the right to disagree …..

    <<<<<<<Again, I do not see why the onus for dealing with men’s perversion is on the woman who must put herself in a repressive and frankly inhuman garment.<<<<<<<

    Physically and emotionally women are different than men. Men can even walk out without shirts a woman can't though no body stops her from doing that. You see how 'femininity' comes into action naturally and spontaneously with women in certain matters…..this is the critical point which requires them to cover up their physical display decently


    Morality and ethics….are the same for men and women. Infact islam condemns men who stare at women or even throw an intentional second glance!

    <<<<<<<One can be modest in so-called “liberal” Western clothing. Conversely, one can be immodest while being “piously” dressed.<<<<<

    burqa is NOT a pious dress….is just a covering for women ,,,it can be anything even a nun's attire..or even a plain sheet of cloth!

    • kabir Says:

      Mazhur Sahab,

      The reason men can walk about without shirts is because cultural and societal norms permit this. It has nothing to do with “physical or emotional difference between men and women” There are (or were) certain societies in Africa where women went around bare breasted and no one had a problem with that or found it prurient until the European missionaries arrived.

      I urge you to familiarize yourself with some feminist theory and then perhaps you will understand the argument that all these restrictions on women arise out of patriarchy. As I said earlier, there is nothing inherently wrong with patriarchy, it is simply a system of societal organization. Let me now qualify that statement: there is nothing wrong with patriarchy TO THE EXTENT THAT it permits women to fulfill their potential and live lives that are equal to those of men.

      Burqa apologists are akin to those Muslim men who force their wives (who are educated and have MBAs) to sit at home after marriage simply because a woman working outside the home is “un-Islamic”. That is totally shameful if you ask me.

      I have no problem with a woman choosing to wear the burqa in certain situations if she feels uncomfortable otherwise (as South Asian mentioned perhaps in Bano Baazar). My issue is with women being coerced into doing so through these types of quasi religious arguments which are just rationalizations for patriarchy.

    • SouthAsian Says:

      Mazhur: I mentioned in my earlier post that I see the logic of your argument in an environment where uncivilized (to use your description) men may have a predatory attitude towards women forcing the latter to find ways to protect themselves. The burqa, as a garment, would provide such protection – its severity increasing with the severity of the problem.

      There is little doubt that such environments existed and still do. One can read accounts of kings (one of the Nizams of Hyderabad was also included in this category) who could ‘requisition’ any woman they fancied. Whenever it was announced that the king would travel through the city, ordinary citizens with good looking wives and daughters would lock them up in dark rooms without windows. This could be considered the ultimate burqa. The haris in Sindh entertained similar fears about their waderas. So, this argument is reasonable when the imbalance of power is so great that there is little check on what men can get away with.

      However, you also seem to be making another argument when you say that women should not dress indecently (which in your description consists in showing the contours of the body). In this argument the burqa is not really a physical garment but any adjustment that results in conforming to the standard of decency.

      A number of arguments emerge from this position:

      1. Here the women are not taking recourse to the burqa for their protection. Rather the women wish to dress in a particular way and the burqa is being urged upon them to prevent the men from being provoked. The question to consider here would be why the men are susceptible to such provocation?

      2. I hope you will concede that the definition of decency in your argument is a personal opinion rooted in a time and place. There is no conception of decency that has stayed unchanged through time. Kabir has mentioned, and books on anthropology would verify, that in many cultures it was not considered indecent for women to be bare-breasted. It was the Victorian missionary definition of decency that was applied to these societies. There is a very revealing observation (I think in Margaret Mead’s Coming of Age in Samoa) of how the shocked missionaries gave women vests to wear. When the women came to church the next morning, they had cut two big holes in the vest fronts in order to feel normal. Some time back I had mentioned on the blog an article by William Dalrymple about the changing notions of sexuality in India. Once again it were the Victorian attitudes of the British missionaries that gave rise to a new conception of decency quite alien to the indigenous practices.

      Let us try and answer the first point taking Pakistan as an example. It seems odd that men who start reading the Quran before they go to school, read Islamiyat throughout their education, and listen to sermons every Friday about how they will burn in hell if they look at women with an evil eye are still unable to control their desires. This suggests either the complete irrelevance of religion to social and ethical behavior or some other pathology in society.

      My own feeling is that if a society creates an environment from the very beginning that severely restricts the interaction of males and females, it sets itself up for problems. Having created the problem, it then tries to deal with the consequences by hiding the women, frightening the men with the fires of hell, and pairing the two off at an age before they really understand what is happening. All these remedies have failed which should force us to examine how we have been dealing with male-female relations in early childhood.

      In one of your earlier comments you had said that “Western society is based on sex, ours is not.” I think by this you meant that Western society is comfortable with sexuality, not that it is licentious (which is what Imran Khan claims, for example). Garments like beach wear and shorts are considered normal in the West and not indecent. The display of female contours has no anarchic consequences in Western society – people still go to work and all the leading inventions, discoveries, and advances continue to come out of the West. So, something must be working in Western society that we need to think about. In this regard the US is not a good example because it has it own peculiar problems (somewhat analogous to Pakistan’s but at a different level) – prudishness about sexuality that finds its obverse in a fixation about sex. But take the Scandinavian countries, for instance – a very open environment but with a remarkably low incidence of sexual harassment of any kind.

      This brings me back to the second point that notions of decency and attitudes to sex are very culture specific and we need to study the social practices that give rise to what we are calling social pathologies. Even within the same country there can be a lot of variation – for example, it is frequently reported that the incidence of sexual harassment in Delhi is much higher than in Mumbai. If correct, one would need to dig deeper to find out the reason for the variation.

      Women need protection where warranted but at the same time we need to figure out why is it that women still need this kind of protection in the twenty-first century. We don’t need to ape the West but we still need to understand and address the roots of the problem in our own societies.

  40. Mona Says:

    Hi Kabir,

    I really like your points of view in response to S on the changing chup site. Can you please clarify on Five Rupees blog also that Indian secularism is not a sham? I will appreciate it as it will clear lot of misconceptions about Indian society.

    • kabir Says:

      Thanks Mona, for appreciating the comment. It’s a long hard slog trying to get people to understand that Jinnah envisioned a secular state not an “Islamic Republic”. I’ve just checked out Five Rupees for the first time and will be sure to keep putting the message out there at an appropriate juncture.

      India, for all it’s problems living up to the ideal, is at least aspiring to be a secular democracy, which is more than any of us can say for Pakistan.

  41. SouthAsian Says:

    Amartya Sen is a Nobel Prize winner, an economist and philosopher, and a very wise man. This is what he said recently in an interview about his latest book on justice:

    I wasn’t so much saying that justice means different things to different people. There are different ways of looking at justice. Sometimes the same person can take different views…

    The main point is that there can be different reasonable positions not that different people must have different positions. It’s not related to difference between persons. It’s related to difference between arguments and reasoning.

    Let us keep that in mind as we continue to consider different positions and argue and reason about them. Our collective objective is to determine what the various reasonable positions are, why they differ, and whether there are ways to reconcile them.

  42. mazhur Says:

    @ SouthAsian :

    let me begin with Religion and Culture–

    Religion does tend to change culture as it did in India and Pakistan and many other parts of the world. It is because of religion that pagan Arabs and Muslims denounced worshipping idols. It’s all due to religion that the Hindus won’t slaughter cows and Muslims won’t eat pigs. IF there was no religion or their religions allowed they would be enjoying both cows and pigs! The point is not that religion is wrong-it the wrong or erroneous interpretation of edicts by the followers of a religion that makes all the difference. The Muslim world also differs on the issue of Burqa and so many other things that a myriad of sects have cropped up and fouled Islam. Hindu or Muslim, one has to abide by the commands of his faith. If it says cover up to hide your ‘femininity’ do it…if it says don’t don’t. ‘Decent’ attiring is what you think best to fulfull the injunctions of your own religion. As such it is futile to try establishing the meaning of ‘decency’ in comparative cases not linked to you or your faith.

    The Quran clearly says, “To you your religion, to me mine’!

    I hate oppression and coercion in all matters but sometimes you have to take ‘precautionary’ measures to stay in tune with the environment. For example, I had to put on a jacket to seek entry to a restaurant in New York. If such unimportant places have their rules which they can impose on their customers the I think religion and culture is much much stronger than them! If you try to break the rule you are nowhere!

    Men and women have equal rights in the West,,,okay,,but I have seen the condition of women there and could only deplore their frustration and indignity in the eyes of men. Men regard them as ‘bitches’ we don’t. What the West calls equality is a hoax to exploit women and treat them as tools of sexual and economic pleasure and relief.

    it is wrong that hightly educated women such as MBA’s and doctors are not allowed to work in the Muslim world….such thinking is maligning and hypothetical. I can say that for sure that even my daughters and all educated girls I know are freely working in business and government departments…

    I also do not accept the contention that Pakistan was created to be a secular state. there is a long going controversy over one of Jinnah’s speeches where he spoke of ‘freedom for all’ sort of thing for followers of all religions. Wasn’t old and sick Jinnah susceptible to make mistakes?? Nehru and Gandhi also did.
    It wouldn’t be fair to catch Jinnah’s tongue—to justify secularism or to denounce the historical background of creation of a ‘separate homeland for the Muslims’!

    to be contd………….

    • kabir Says:

      Mazhur Sahib,

      You are of course right that religious people should follow the commands of their faith. But what about those of us who are not particularly religious? Why should be forced to follow customs or injunctions that we don’t rationally agree with? Isn’t there some non-religious criteria to decide which customs are acceptable or not?

      Regarding the issue of Pakistan being created to be a secular state that is a tanget that it’s better not to get into here. But lets just say that Jinnah himself was a hugely secular person and there is no way he ever fought for a Shariah state. Those are lies spread by Maududists and Jammat-Islami types. Also remember that Pakistan was orginally intended to be the “Republic of Pakistan” just like the “Republic of India”. It’s only later that unfortunately Islam was brought into the public sphere.

    • SouthAsian Says:

      All participants: I have two requests: First, let us keep the issue of Pakistan and Jinnah out of this discussion because it distracts from the main topic. There are many posts on this blog where it would fit better. Second, please avoid capital letters in comments as they are considered to be against net etiquette.

      Mazhur: I am not saying that religion has no impact on society; of course it does. But I am saying that in this particular dimension that we are discussing – the attitude of males towards females – it has not had the impact on social and ethical behavior that we expected in our society. This is a fact because, as you have pointed out, ‘rabid dogs’ continue to be born and flourish and oppress women.

      In the face of this strong evidence it is a weak defense to argue that the problem lies in our not being ‘true’ believers. If 1500 years of religion has not turned us into true believers, it is unrealistic to expect that it will happen in the next few decades – a magic wand of that sort does not exist. And in this regard it is sobering to realize that things are not improving but deteriorating.

      We have to consider that social and ethical behavior could be affected by factors other than religion and that our reflection on the underlying factors might be imbalanced. We might be giving too much attention to religion and not enough to the other factors. (One aspect of this is discussed in two earlier posts on this blog – Faith and Development and Is Faith Necessary for Progress?)

      Two such factors come immediately to mind: the balance of power between males and females and the rule of law. Variations in these factors correlate quite well with the treatment of women in different places. The other evidence supporting this hypothesis is that even in societies where the religion is the same, there are variations in the treatment of women – I had mentioned Mumbai and Delhi earlier. Presumably this difference could be due to the other factors that we are ignoring in our discussion.

      We should recognize that even within the same religion, there are variations in local cultures and in the balance of sexual power. How local norms emerge and stabilize is a different topic but one can think of the impact of social stability. Places with socio-political continuity can be different from places that are frequently destabilized by invasion and subject to loot and plunder. There could be other reasons that need to be studied.

      As we both agree, cultures are impacted by religion but I am not sure I would agree with the assertion that culture adulterates religion. Culture is prior to religion and the accepted use of the term adulteration signifies the influence of an addition to something that already exists – thus water adulterates milk; milk does not adulterate water. Unlike, the milk and water example, adulteration need not always be a negative phenomenon. Many desirable alloys result from the adulteration of a base metal by a small amount of another.

      Incidentally, as a matter of interest, the first name for the language that was later called Hindustani was Rekhta which means adulteration – in this case the base of old Punjabi, khari boli and braj bhasha was adulterated with Persian yielding a very sweet Hindustani which politics later bifurcated into Hindi and Urdu.

      Rekhta ke tum hii ustaad nahiiN ho Ghalib
      kehtey haiN aglay zamaaney main koii Meer bhii thaa

      So religion has an influence on culture that could be good or bad. Where religion creates disharmony in society (as it did in Europe because of inter-factional conflicts), we need to examine the phenomenon dispassionately. Uncompromising loyalty to anything, be it religion or nationality or family, is antithetical to critical enquiry. And the objective of this blog is critical enquiry without fear or favor, without the apprehension that we ourselves may have to concede the logic of an argument. We should not cease being compassionate but our loyalty must remain directed to reason.

  43. mazhur Says:


    i take your point on perverts molesting both veiled and unveiled women but in cultures where burqa has to be worn by women to be less alluring to men such cases are scant. Moreover, a pervert may call for his death if he molests a woman in certain tribal cultures upnorth or in the Arab world.

  44. mazhur Says:


    All feminist theories sprang up from the suffrage movement then snow balled into more and more rights for women. Good enough.

    I will agree with you if you eliminate poverty from our part of the world and make all women self-sufficient to propel the boat of their lives in our societies….the much maligned patriarchal system would die its death spontaneously!

    it’s no use quoting about African women going around top less…glance at Indian history ..it was also the same there.–Ceylonese women moved around topless at one time. These are related to cultural and tribal issues….
    Nawab Odd Deccan was a cynic and an eccentric… being one of the richest man .he treated his wife churlishly and badly and gave her peanuts as home allowance. these are oddities of abnormal human mind, we are concerned with normal average men and women.

    • Vinod Says:

      Mazhur, by co-opting the word ‘normal’ to describe only those cultures where women cover their breasts you have mocked those cultures that do not have that norm. These are clear indications of blinders on your eye from the cultural conditioning that you have. The very existence of such cultures is a testament to the social conditioning behind what masquerades as ‘feminity’ in nature.

  45. mazhur Says:

    i would like to share this comment received from a Pakistani Muslim lady (let me name her ‘NA’) living abroad

    “””Call it “burqa”….”chaador”….NAQAAB….Palloo….Jillaaba….abbaayaa…
    where ever the tradition…of wearing the “libaas”…
    there was only one purpose….
    Taken on to cover and protect oneself… from the prying eyes of the wealthy and powerful…MEN…
    especially for those households that did not have the courage to stand up to the ruling class.

    This is how…culturally the dress originated…however there are still parts of The world..that …ALAS…
    it has NOW become…the MUST dress …the attire..thrust upon a woman….even if she wants to discard it….
    NOW THRUST upon her by the male culture in those parts of the world..where rights of women has been DSICARDED..

    If a woman chooses to wear it…it should be because she CHOOSES to…..NOT because she is forced to wear it…””

  46. mazhur Says:

    FYI here is another feedback from lady NA

    “In fact many regions practice CULTURAL beliefs…in the name of religion…
    The CIRCUMCISION of girls….which is clearly condemed in Islam..is widely practiced in the Arab and African muslim world…
    In Africa Mutiple marraiges…is practiced by all religions of the region….even CHRISTIANS….

    As for the women and their disrespect in the west ISSUE..There I personally blame the WOMEN themselves….They flaunt themselves as SEX objects..
    They misunderstand the freedom issue…Alas there again CULTURE dominates..

    RILIGION [4 ME] is pure and uncomplicated…..CULTURE adulterates religion..
    and as CULTURE is the dominating factor of any region…
    It is mis-understood as RELIGIOUS belief and dictat….thanx to our Religious leaders.”

    • Vinod Says:

      Cicero and Plutarch would turn in the graves at this distinction between religion and tradition. Ancient Rome and Greece tolerated Jews because the jews somehow managed to show that they stick to a tradition. The Christians had no such luck. They were evidently new on the scene and did not have much to offer by argument that they were a tradition. The Romans, believe it or not, referred to the Christians as ATHEISTS because they did not have a tradition and were ‘meddlesome innovators’. Cicero and Plutarch were philosophers who were candid about their disbelief in their own gods but nevetheless so a point in upholding tradition. The oft-peddled distinction between religion and culture is only that of intellectuals who can afford to dissociate themselves from the society to some degree or who can only do so in words but not in practice. In reality, the masses make no such distinction between religion and culture. That distinction can never become real in anyway. It is purely an intellectual gimmick.

    • Vinod Says:

      The first time ever that religion was countered against tradition was in the arguments of the early Christians against the Romans. This peeved Roman sensibilities to no end.
      Abrahamic faiths (Islam and Christianity in particular) have continued to do this wherever they went.

  47. mazhur Says:

    As far as I know Jinnah was born into a middle class family, studied in a small madressah in Karachi, practiced law in Bombay and left for London when his father got bankrupt. Being himself and Aga Khani, he was liberal as most Aga Khanis are. A man of super intelligence Jinnah entered Indian politics and won a ‘separate homeland ‘ for Muslims. Why, you can read Jaswant Singh for latest disclosures.

    However, just by the time Pakistan was created the liberal Jinnah succumbed to ‘conventions’ and hastened to give up his ‘liberal western’ skin and switched over to traditionally Muslim type of attire viz Shervani-pajama and Karakuli topi !! He starrted offering ‘Namaz’ as other sects did (Wahabis, Shias, Sunnis etc) even though there is no concept of the traditional way of offering Namaz 9prayer) among Aga Khanis who just sit in their Jamaat Khana’s and raise their hands for due (prayer)

    It’s rightly said ‘politics has no principles’…..

    Maududi, Azad, etc were against the creation of Pakistan….how could you relate them to Jinnah??

    We must examine historical background of the Pakistan movement before terming it as a state other than an Islamic republic. The 1973 Constitution of Pakistan also unanimously says so…
    Let’s not close our eyes to truth….

  48. mazhur Says:

    <<<<<<<<<Cicero and Plutarch would turn in the graves at this distinction between religion and tradition.<<<<<<<<<<<<
    they should.

    Traditions and customs vary among different ethnicities belonging to the same religion and are often not interchangeable among them.

  49. mazhur Says:

    @ SA

    <<<<<<As we both agree, cultures are impacted by religion but I am not sure I would agree with the assertion that culture adulterates religion. Culture is prior to religion and the accepted use of the term adulteration signifies the influence of an addition to something that already exists – thus water adulterates milk; milk does not adulterate water. Unlike, the milk and water example, adulteration need not always be a negative phenomenon. Many desirable alloys result from the adulteration of a base metal by a small amount of another.<<<<<<<

    You have posted a good comment indeed, I appreciate it.

    As regards your analogy, I may like to put forth another one
    take it this way….
    Religion= flavor/fragrance (or poison)

    Now whom would you call the 'pollutant' or 'adulterant'??

    Frankly, we cannot draw one model for this topic.

    Personally, I think no religion teaches evil-if it does it is not a religion at all. Instead of putting the blame on religion which its followers do not follow or misinterpret we cannot accuse religion of failure to correct the society. Communism which is devoid of religious concepts was tried but finally failed in serving the ends of humanity.

    Believing in a faith, I believe, is analogous to a student choosing a subject for his studies. Since the curriculae is not set by the student himself he is bound to study whatever is prescribed to him by his University. If he doesn't he is certainly going to fail and earn a bad name not for himself but also for his educational institution. Thus religion is like this 'Institution' and the 'students' are like followers. Similarly, a soldier is bound by certain rules in military; a worker is bound by rules of his company; if they refuse to obey those rules or misinterpret or defy them they would certainly be sacked or punished.

    When a person swears 'allegiance' to a religion it becomes almost impossible for him to commit infraction unless he's a hypocrite or a renegade from his faith. This is the essence of Islam. Muslims are bound by their faith to accept the Quranic commands without questioning it. Of course there is room for 'reasoning' but you cannot 'reason out' its fundamentals ie the existence of Allah and His Prophet. If any Muslim does that and still calls himself a Muslim he, in the words of Quran, is a Hypocrite.

    So, when it comes to burqa there are explicit orders in the Quran for women to adopt such measure by which their femininity does not become a common scene for the public; that women should cover their 'bosoms', etc. Nowhere does the Quran suggest a burqa which is an attire the outcome of socio-cultural imperatives from place to place.

    A woman in our part of the world is NOT like the woman in the West. Eastern and Western values and preferences are different. Gender equality doesn't mean that the East should follow the West or vice versa. As France has banned scarf as well as burqa its action is clearly prejudiced because in the case of a scarf the woman keeps her face exposed whereas, as an alternative, and to the content of the biased Sarkozy I suggest that women begin wearing a long coat/gown and cover their head with a dupatta or chunni. I am sure the narrow mindedness of the French would ban this too….what a pity!

    • SouthAsian Says:

      Mazhur: Thanks for the appreciation.

      I am not sure I understand the point that you wished to make with your example of adulteration. The adulterating material remains the one that is added to the base. So, in this case also, religion is being added to culture. But adulterant is not synonymous with pollutant which has a negative connotation. As I mentioned earlier, the adulteration can have either good or bad consequences or some good and some bad in complex cases – for example, an alloy can be stronger but more brittle at the same time. Going back to a simple example of adulteration: Islam emerged in Arabia and then migrated to a lot of places where it was added to already existing cultures. Because these local cultures were different in different places, the resulting mix was also quite different. Thus Islam in Bosnia and Islam in India share a religion but differ in many social practices. This is the way it happened; there is not much to be gained by debating whether this was good or bad because we have no way of knowing what would have happened otherwise.

      On religion, I do not feel we should think in terms of blaming religion. The question we have to ask is whether whatever mechanisms we are employing to civilize society are working or not. I would urge you to read the interview by Amartya Sen that I had linked earlier. He explains the conceptual point very well – it couldn’t be said better. He is speaking of systems of justice but the argument can be applied to systems in general, including religions. Here is a relevant excerpt:

      And so you have to judge [a system] not just by well meaning arrangements — whether [X] is a good thing or whether [Y] is a good thing — but what it is actually doing. And then if it’s not doing enough, then how to change it. And if it is doing enough, then how to solidify that….And so you have to judge it in terms of its consequences. As to what it is doing. What opportunities or freedom or well-being is being created by the system. Not whether one system is inherently superior to another. We have to judge it against what it is doing to the lives of the people.

      I am not able to agree with your relationship between religion and obedience – the Quran repeatedly enjoins its adherents to think and seek knowledge; Ijtihad is a part of religion. The fundamentals do not need to be questioned but there are many social issues where interpretation is required. Whose interpretation is one to follow – Deobandi or Barelvi? How would one know that the one whom one considers an expert really knows what he is talking about? (On this topic see an earlier post on the blog – Islam: Moving On.)

      The nature of belief constitutes a personal choice. What matters (as Amartya Sen says) is how effective we are in ending oppression and injustice in this world. There is no evidence that effectiveness is correlated with religious belief. It certainly is with honesty, sincerity, selflessness, compassion, dedication, perseverance, and thoughtfulness.

  50. Mona Says:

    Thanks Kabir. Keep up the good work. You should write for Huffington Post. I will forward you the editor’s email if you are interested in contribution to their South Asian segment.

    • kabir Says:

      Hi, Mona: This is really off-topic to the subject of this post, but since I don’t know how to reach you otherwise, it’ll have to do. Please do forward me the editor’s email, I’d love to explore the opportunity of working with them. You can send it to me via the blog (thesouthasianidea@gmail.com). Thanks.

  51. mazhur Says:

    @ SouthAsian :

    In my milk and flavor ( or poison) analogy it is for you to judge as to what is the ‘adulterant’. Similarly, mixing a pinch of saccharine in a tubfull of water will make it sweet. Religion was ‘added’ to cultures to improve their quality but unfortunately the ‘flavor’ evaporated over the years or perhaps turned into ‘poison’ due to mishandling or environmental inadequacy, whatever.


    Religion has brought many changes into the lives of its adherents but still culture and religion seem to be overlapped or sometimes religion seems to be over shadowed by socio-cultural factors. This may be attributed to habits/psyche and economy etc


    It would be futile to try to bring a change without changing the mind/thinking of people. Without justice, rule of law and alleviation of poverty I don’t think any mechanism would provide any beneficial or long lasting result.

    <<<<<I am not able to agree with your relationship between religion and obedience – the Quran repeatedly enjoins its adherents to think and seek knowledge; Ijtihad is a part of religion.<<<<<

    Oh, yes, you are right! The Quran asks Muslims to seek knowledge not to pick faults in the Quran or its tenets.


    I don’t care about Deobandi or Barelvi–those are mere ‘schools of thought’ not depicted by Quran. God has given us ‘common sense’ to judge good from bad. Why not use your own mind and prowess??


    Where in the world do you find an Islamic Welfare state??
    Why not ‘experiment’ with one and see the results!

    • SouthAsian Says:

      Mazhur: I have the following responses:

      1. On adulterants: I see what you are saying but this is a matter of definition. The adulterant is always the ingredient that is added to the base. It does not matter whether the impact is very large or negligible. But this is not important – I understand your point.

      2. I am not sure that one can say that religion was added to cultures to improve their quality in every case. In a lot of places alien religions were added by force in native cultures – It would be difficult to argue that this was always good. And, if good, from whose point of view?

      3. I am not sure what you mean by religion and culture seem to be overlapped. They have to coexist – culture cannot disappear just because religion has arrived. If this were the case, there should be no cultural difference between Muslims in Africa and Indonesia. There is also no reason for one to overshadow the other.

      4. I agree that justice, rule of law, and poverty alleviation are critical. These are the things we should focus on and reflect on why some societies have done better than others.

      5. If we use our own mind then we don’t have to worry about schools of thought. But if we follow blindly, we have to adhere to one school of thought or the other because they differ in their interpretations of the shariah. Usually people just follow the school of thought of their parents and believe that is the best in the world. I think that is pretty dumb.

      6. Could you describe what an Islamic welfare state would be like?

  52. Anil Kala Says:

    I am just curious! What exactly is banned in France?

    Also please understand that we are not impacted by ‘real religion’ but what is practiced therefore it is futile to dive into scriptures and fish out beautiful quotes.

    • SouthAsian Says:

      Anil: Luckily the perfect article appeared for you in the New York Times today. It makes all the aspects of the issue absolutely clear. There is also a photograph of the niqab so you can see what is being talked about. Personally, I found the garment quite stylish – I think it would pass Arun’s test of acceptability!

      Note this sentence that started the entire controversy: “The burqa is the tip of the iceberg, Islamism really threatens us.”

      • Anil Kala Says:

        Seems there is no ban yet only a commission going into various aspects of it. In conclusion the article says a ban is unlikely and if legislated not enforceable.

        So a storm in a tea cup!

        • SouthAsian Says:

          Anil: If you look at it narrowly – whether a ban is likely in France or not – it can seem like a storm in a teacup. But the issues raised – human rights, civil rights, rights of minorities, freedom of choice, feminism, political protest – are profound and will keep arising in one context or another. We need to take a position on them based on a good understanding of the underlying principles – that is what we have been doing in the discussion. Whether the ban will occur in France is now a minor sideline. Why the issue has arisen in France has more relevance. If you are following the news you would have read of the spate of Islamophobic books coming out of Europe. Here is one review that will convey the intellectual climate.

          • Anil Kala Says:

            I suppose you are right. Without the vehement protests the ban probably would have been imposed.

            Not in long past Islam was just another religion, not any more. There was not even lumping of Islamic countries; Pakistan was distinctly different from Arab countries while many were not even aware that Malaysia and Indonesia were largely Islamic countries. Politics with these countries was not religion centric. Suddenly the world has split into seemingly us vs them factions. There is hypersensitivity on Islamic side and frivolous condescending attitude towards Islam on the other side. Why? Is it because of Israel alone?

    • Vinod Says:

      I think it looks like someone is dressed for a costume party!!

      • SouthAsian Says:

        Vinod: That is just a reflection of what we think of as normal. An African woman in her native dress or a Scotsman in his kilt would also appear to us as being dressed for a costume party.

  53. Arun Pillai Says:

    Instead of trying to say what is wrong with Russell’s principle, I will try to articulate a better principle by building on Russell’s idea (“wherever divergent action by different groups is possible without anarchy, it ought to be permitted”):

    An action ought to be permitted if and only if:

    1. It does not cause anarchy (i.e. it does not harm others or harm society)
    2. It is freely chosen
    3. It does not harm the person who performs the action.

    #2 and #3 are in my view what Russell presupposed (i.e. took for granted). I have tried to spell them out explicitly. #3 is necessary because even when a person chooses freely, they may not realize an action is harmful to them. (However, a libertarian would typically reject #3.)

    By this new principle, sati would be forbidden even if a woman freely chooses it (as many did) because it violates #3. The burqa is more difficult to judge because one needs a more subtle argument to decide whether it harms the woman wearing it. In some cases, the burqa may not be freely chosen in which case it violates #2. The difficulty arises if it is freely chosen but harms the woman because it is part of a patriarchal system that does not allow the full flowering of every member’s talents and personality. In my view, this is largely true except in those relatively few cases where it is being worn by young women as a political gesture against the West. Even in these latter cases, the burqa is at best ambiguous – there are surely more effective ways to register one’s protest than to promote a garment that is so compromised.

  54. Arun Pillai Says:

    As stated, the principle is too strong as it would rule out a person eating five successive scoops of ice-cream because it satisfies #1 and #2 but fails #3. So some modification of #3 is required. Perhaps it could be restated thus:

    An action ought to be permitted if and only if:

    1. It does not cause anarchy (i.e. it does not harm others or harm society)
    2. It is freely chosen
    3. It does not cause serious harm to the person who performs the action.

    Of course, one needs to spell out what “serious harm” is.

    • SouthAsian Says:

      Arun: Thanks. This is a major advance that allows us to proceed forward systematically. We are looking for a set of principles against which we can objectively evaluate any action thereby cutting out the emotion.

      The test of any set of principles lies in their application and I see a problem when this set is applied to smoking. Smoking harms others and it also causes serious harm to the person who smokes. Society has tried to address this dilemma by taking recourse to another principle – you can do what you wish (even harm yourself, with the caveat of not violating ethical edicts) as long as you do it out of free choice, are fully informed, and do not harm others.

      Thus because smoking harms others, it is not permitted in public places. But private spaces are provided where the smoker is free to harm himself or herself as long as he/she is not coerced into smoking and is fully informed. This last is taken care of by the warnings printed on cigarette packs and beneath cigarette advertisements. The ethical edict is needed to rule out something like suicide that society does not permit.

      In the light of the above could we reformulate the principles as follows:

      An action ought to be proscribed if and only if:

      1. It causes anarchy (i.e., it harms others or society)
      2. It is not freely chosen
      3. It is not based on full information
      4. It violates a pre-existing law (which may be challenged through the legal process)

      #4 (mentioned here to rule out suicide, which is a hotly debated issue today) is a problem because pre-existing laws can be patently unfair, e.g., laws pertaining to slavery or apartheid, and going beyond the law has been required to get them off the books.

      Leaving aside issues like suicide, the crucial determination we need to make is what evidence would we require for ascertaining that a choice is free. If an adult states (on oath, if necessary) that the choice is free would that suffice? Otherwise, we leave the loophole for the mainstream being able to assert that something like the burqa is so grotesque a garment that it can never represent a free choice no matter what the wearer might say and using its majority to force the issue. This is a backdoor for our prejudices to creep right back into the analysis.

  55. mazhur Says:

    @ SouthAsian :

    <<<<<<<<<2. I am not sure that one can say that religion was added to cultures to improve their quality in every case. In a lot of places alien religions were added by force in native cultures – It would be difficult to argue that this was always good. And, if good, from whose point of view?<<<<<<<<

    May I draw your kind attention to the Pre-Islamic culture and how Islam changed it? Glance into history scattered all over….


    Notwithstanding the commands of religion, any religion, Culture does seem to have its strong roots in several societies…
    Religion and culture do co-exist but often culture is led to dominate religion regardless of its rules and spirit. This is also happening in societies where women are forced to wear burqa..


    The answer to your question lies in that the advanced societies

    1. Are based on law, equity and justice
    2. people there work leaving least room for unemployment
    3. systems are well-organized
    4. state takes cares of its people
    5. education
    6 feeling of honor and nationhood

    <<<5. If we use our own mind then we don’t have to worry about schools of thought. But if we follow blindly, we have to adhere to one school of thought or the other because they differ in their interpretations of the shariah. Usually people just follow the school of thought of their parents and believe that is the best in the world. I think that is pretty dumb.<<<

    Nobody follows anything blindly. People have fixed notions or suffer from superstitions. For example, if someone thinks he's good at philosophy he would not switch over to physics easily and so on.

    Parents do influence the minds of their children but not for long. As the children grow up into adults they are free to think and make a decision. But usually they won't do it as it appears to them that there is no religion better than what they are already following!

    <<<<<6. Could you describe what an Islamic welfare state would be like?<<<

    Islamic Welfare state is more or less same as the Western society but not based on the type of 'value-less' democracy the West propagates. Islamic state is based on Worth and Value of Humans and Proportionate Electoral system based on conditions and guarantees all amenities of life and security to Muslims as well as non-Muslims. A glimpse of model Islamic welfare state may be seen in the reign of Hazrat Umar and other 3 Califs of his time.

    • SouthAsian Says:

      Mazhur: I was careful to say that religion need not improve culture in every case. You have given an example where you think it did. There are other examples where people think it did not. Every case has to be examined individually. No generalization can be made.

      You seem to be saying that religion should necessarily dominate culture. Usually culture has more weight – that is why people of the same religion but raised in different places differ from each other. Many Arab Muslims look down upon South Asian Muslims because they think their culture is superior. In real life few really care much about the commands of religion – if they did there would not be so much corruption and dishonesty.

      About the advanced societies, the puzzle is how they became so advanced by rejecting religion and not having any values?

      About following blindly, I was reacting to an earlier comment you made that believers should be like soldiers and do as they are told. Even thinking has to be learnt. People may be free to think but they don’t because they never learnt to think. That is why it never occurs to them that there could be some other belief systems that are just as good as the one they are following. They don’t really understand their own belief but are ready to argue that it is better than anything else. I think that is pretty dumb.

      Could you explain what you mean by ‘value-less’ democracy. Many Western states have a proportional electoral systems and value their citizens guaranteeing their lives and security.

      There are many non-Muslims on this board so could you elaborate on the reign of Hazrat Umar and the other Caliphs. What was special about it?

  56. Arun Pillai Says:

    South Asian: Thanks. This seems like a major improvement. The full information condition is what I was looking for but did not quite succeed in formulating it. It takes care of the issue of harming oneself.

  57. Arun Pillai Says:

    South Asian: A slight wrinkle that arises in the full information condition is that one seldom has full information about anything because science is continuously evolving and so almost all actions would be proscribed. So I would propose the following slight modification:

    An action ought to be proscribed if and only if:

    1. It causes anarchy (i.e., it harms others or society)
    2. It is not freely chosen
    3. It is not based on all relevant information available through contemporary science
    4. It violates a pre-existing law (which may be challenged through the legal process)

    #3 is still problematic.

  58. mazhur Says:

    @ SouthAsian :


    Ethnically it may be so but culturally you will find many similarities among them. You cannot say this about members of a differing religion in different places.

    <<<<<<Many Arab Muslims look down upon South Asian Muslims because they think their culture is superior. <<<<<

    It's not only with the Arabs – Japanese, for example, also think so. Even our local elite thinks so about the commonace. This is a mental dilemma between have and have-nots and not directly related to religion, especially Islam which stands for universal brotherhood of Muslims.

    <<<<<<In real life few really care much about the commands of religion – if they did there would not be so much corruption and dishonesty.<<<<<<

    how many of us fully observe the man made laws in our part of the world??
    To err is human and therefore the concept of legal infractions and sin. The disparity you mentioned could be eliminated if there is total rule of law and justice is indiscriminately imparted to all, big or small, strong or weak, which unfortunately is not being done.


    I didn’t say the West has no values..it does in matters of morality and ethics. Perhaps this is more due to their culture, administrative strength, effective legal system or ingrained psyche and not necessarily wholly due to religious influence. The basic point is how you implement the laws, religious or otherwise.


    this is a very wide ball ! Who says people don’t think? They think therefor they are, as the saying goes. You must not expect all Ph.d’s in matters of religion or any other subject. As a simple Muslim I think and don’t find any better religion than mine…you as a Hindu or Christian may be doing the same. At least my parents are not there to stop me from thinking …nor anyone else can. At least I am free to think and choose. looking at the various religions around I cannot find any religion ”just as good as the one I am following”, if there is one please let me know.


    sorry I couldn’t be clear on this point. I meant to say that in the Western society every human has a count not value. This poses all the problem in democracy. A bunch of loafers gets ganged up and ‘captures’ the helm of the affairs. I saw this mostly in business associations where a majority of non-operational businessmen who were once members (and always members) would always win the election and not allow genuine people to handle their industries! What a pity to be misrepresented on forums by fake and idle people!


    It will take time as I will also have to google for information ….
    those who may be interested may kindly google for Umar Farooq, the Caliph , or allow me time to search and post the link..

    (am afraid of sudden power cutoffs!)

    • SouthAsian Says:

      Mazhur: Even within the same country, the haves and the have-nots have different cultures – the former will not have the latter sitting at the same table with them. Universal brotherhood is all right in theory but in real life culture seems to have the upper hand.

      If we observe where rule of law and justice exist, they do not seem to have arrived via religion. So yes, the former are very important but the route to them does not seem to pass through religion.

      Thinking does not require a PhD. How one thinks is shaped by early childhood and school education. If these are in the nature of indoctrination, discouraging enquiry, the ability to think can be impaired. Of course, everyone believes they are thinking. In my view all religions are fine in theory; it’s the practices we should be comparing.

      What is the evidence that in Western society individuals do not have a value beyond a number? The kind of unsavory people you describe who capture the helm of affairs seems more the case in Pakistan than in the West.

      On Hazrat Umar, Googling may not be a good idea – an equal number of positive and negative articles will turn up. We will take your word on this. The more interesting question for readers would be why this golden age lasted for only a few decades and why it has never since be reproduced?

  59. mazhur Says:

    Some excerpts from another discussion board on the burqa issue


    Sheherzade: The non-Muslim women who go to Muslim countries are expected to cover their heads even if just for the sake of appearance. Why cannot non-muslim countries ask Muslim women not to cover their heads when they are in the West?


    by mazHur:

    A very intelligent question put by Scheherzade which I sincerely appreciate.

    In most of the Muslim countries including Pakistan ( excluding monarchies which have their own rules) I never saw a foreign woman clad in a burqa or anything of that sort. I also remember Western women moving around the city and busy market places in their usual western dresses. I also remember my fellow Muslim and western female classmates attending school in school uniform which consisted of shirt and skirt. But this was until mid 80’s only . thereafter the situation changed critically so much so that now no Western woman , even if she is a Muslim, can expect to roam about the city without hiding behind a veil or a burqa. This does not seem to have a purely cultural or religious reason; infact this change has much to do with international politics and mainly due to unpopular foreign policies of the West, especially the Americans, towards the Muslim countries. People ask where are the WMD’s?? Where is Osama, the terrorist? Why is US bent on invading other Muslim countries? What is war on terror? The US is waging war against an abstract enemy on the pretext of ‘war on terror’! Given all this the Muslim world is wary of the West and it thinks the West, including America, is trying to exploit, bully and harm them. This sentiment has been embedded so strongly in the hearts of Muslims in Muslim countries such as Pakistan that a Western/ American woman (and even a man) would be playing with death going out in the city without some sort of security or ‘disguise’ . So, you can see how a change in minds of the Muslims as well as the West has provided reason for all this chaos and turmoil.

    Comment 2

    ”You all know as well as I do that covering up your women in public settings in any form is just a way of keeping other men from hitting on them, and as such is a expession of Machissmo, which is itself a manifestation of insecurity. It robs women of one their pleasures in life which is comparing theirselves in fashion, taste, and beauty to other women. Men of this sort feel they must rule women, ’cause they can’t trust them, (they’re just so inferior you know) ”

    response by me:

    As regards remarks by Hunley I may say that even a woman clad in a burqa is a woman and she enjoys the pleasures of life like all other women. It’s only bad when a woman is forced to wear it.

  60. mazhur Says:

    @ SouthAsian


    True but a rich man would also go begging for votes from beggars.

    As far as Islam is concerned, it teaches universal brotherhood which can b e witnessed from their prayers in Arabic common all over the world or in the manner of their greeting each other. Apart from oddities ,you will generally not find any idol worship in a Muslims house…no wine, no swine, etc etc. These are ‘practices’ which are observed by the Muslim religion and which form a part of their culture. Similarly, you can find similarities of culture in different places among the HIndus and Christians as well.

    thus religion shapes an existing culture. People violating the laws of their religion or misinterpreting them for their own convenience to stick to their culture which their religion condemns is not a religious problem but deviation from Truth.


    Laws may exist anywhere but not justice which is a divine trait. Justice is connected to human conscience and honest conviction. Man made Laws have developed over time from religion as well as precedences. But all man made laws do not guarantee justice but rather contain an element of force and coercion. Remember any Black laws? Have a look at the Roman and Greek laws and you will note how laws were shaped from scriptures and Imperial imperatives and h ow they have undergone modifications from place to place and time to time.


    This is a mistaken belief. Childhood education ceases as a person enter adolescence; indoctrination may continue a long time but still a person has time to think. But how could you expect illiterate and ignorant masses to think other than how to eke out some bread for their survival?
    You can only think with a ‘full stomach’ and liberal time and opportunity. We should take for granted that all people should think alike..no Why should they?


    I can’t agree with you on this point. Some religions are animistic, some ritualistic and some agnostic. Here you expressed your own lack of judgment and thought….by trying to herd all religions with the same stick!


    In that case you should blame ‘democracy’. Why then democracy of the West doesn’t bring us the same results as it does there? there is certainly something wrong with the ‘democracy’ or the people on whom it is enforced.


    ok will google out some link by some authentic Muslim scholar

    • SouthAsian Says:

      Mazhur: I am less interested in religion and more interested in practice. Even in case of the latter, I have a social science interest – how did the practice get to be what it is, what were the influences that shaped it, and what it implies for the future?

      Some are excited by the exercise of ranking religions but I don’t share that excitement. What religion anyone subscribes to is not of interest to me – you can term it lack of judgement or thought. But this kind of ranking may be of some interest to other readers. Why don’t you give your ranking of the ten best religions with the best being ranked number one. I don’t know where you would rank Islam but where ever you do, it would be of interest to see your sub-ranking within it, i.e., how do you rank the various sects within Islam (Sunni, Twelvers Shiah, Seveners Shiah, Bohri, Khojah, Zikris, Qadiani Ahmadis, Lahori Ahmadis, etc.)? If in both cases the religion and the sect you belong to comes out on top, I will be skeptical of the objectivity of such a ranking and would like to understand the methodology you used to arrive at them.

      You are making a very radical claim that childhood education ceases as a person enters adolescence. This can be so in a very mechanical sense – otherwise, the child is the father of the man. I hope there are some child psychologists among the readers who can shed light on this.

      Nothing is wrong either with democracy or the people. The belief that the same system should work equally well across time and place is misplaced.

      The authenticity of the Muslim scholar should be acknowledged by all sects within Islam.

  61. mazhur Says:

    here’s a nice article on veiling

    Saturday, Sept. 5, 2009 03:30 PDT
    Feminists face off over the veil

    Pull up a chair and grab some popcorn, because there’s another battle royal raging over the veil. In one corner, we have Naomi Wolf, third-wave feminist heavyweight and author of “The Beauty Myth,” defending Muslim garb. In the other, we have Phyllis Chesler, second-waver and author of “The Death of Feminism,” attacking both the veil and Wolf for daring to defend it.

    “I do not mean to dismiss the many women leaders in the Muslim world who regard veiling as a means of controlling women. Choice is everything”

    The first shot was fired with the Sydney Morning Herald’s publication of an article by Wolf headlined “Behind the veil lives a thriving Muslim sexuality.” She recounts her travels in Morocco, Jordan and Egypt, and the time she spent with women in “typical Muslim households.” She observes, “It is not that Islam suppresses sexuality, but that it embodies a strongly developed sense of its appropriate channelling — toward marriage, the bonds that sustain family life, and the attachment that secures a home.” There was “demureness and propriety” outside of the home, “but inside, women were as interested in allure, seduction and pleasure as women anywhere in the world.”

    Then, Wolf turns to the inevitable comparison with Western styles of dress. Many of the Muslim women she spoke with said that revealing get-ups cause men to stare at and objectify them. Wearing a headscarf or chador, however, leads people to “relate to me as an individual, not an object,” they told her. When Wolf went to the local bazaar wearing a shalwar kameez and a headscarf, which hid her womanly curves and wild hair, she “felt a novel sense of calm and serenity” and even, “in certain ways, free.”

    She ends the essay, however, with a colossal caveat:

    I do not mean to dismiss the many women leaders in the Muslim world who regard veiling as a means of controlling women. Choice is everything. But Westerners should recognise that when a woman in France or Britain chooses a veil, it is not necessarily a sign of her repression. And, more importantly, when you choose your own miniskirt and halter top — in a Western culture in which women are not so free to age, to be respected as mothers, workers or spiritual beings, and to disregard Madison Avenue — it’s worth thinking in a more nuanced way about what female freedom really means.

    Wolf isn’t defending forced veiling or even the veil itself. She’s arguing in defense of women’s individual experiences of veiling. Much like any decent anthropology 101 professor, Wolf is trying to force a shift in the perspective of her Western readers so that we might seriously consider the possibility that some Muslim women truly and legitimately see dressing scantily in public as repressive and experience covering up outside of their home as freeing. Let’s not forget whom we’re talking about here: Wolf penned “The Beauty Myth,” a book that indicts all of the culturally specific ways that women’s bodies are controlled and manipulated in the West.

    Chesler is horrified by Wolf’s argument and doesn’t pull any punches in a blog response titled “The Burqa: Ultimate Feminist Choice?” It bears the taunting subhead: “Naomi Wolf Discovers That Shrouds Are Sexy.” Chesler hyperbolizes Wolf’s argument, suggesting that she sees women in chadors as “feminist ninja warriors” and “believes that the marital sex is hotter when women ‘cover’ and reveal their faces and bodies only to their husbands.”

    She goes on to contend that “most Muslim girls and women are not given a choice about wearing the chador, burqa, abaya, niqab, jilbab, or hijab (headscarf), and those who resist are beaten, threatened with death, arrested, caned or lashed, jailed, or honor murdered by their own families” and asks whether Wolf is so “thoroughly unfamiliar with the news coming out of Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Sudan on these very subjects.” (Never mind that Wolf is talking specifically about the experiences of women she encountered in Morocco, Jordan and Egypt, as well as those of women in France and Britain, where there is great political resistance to Muslim dress.) This caused Wolf to e-mail Chesler to ask that she correct “terrible inaccuracies” in the post. Chesler hit back, posting Wolf’s e-mail along with a hostile response; yesterday, she posted a related item with the subhead, “The Hundred Year War Begins.”

    It’s hardly the beginning, though. This feminist debate is long under way. The cultural relativists are firmly rooted on one side; the absolutists are on the other. We can agree on some common ground: It’s appropriate, as Chesler suggests, to talk about, and fight against, the ways that the veil is used to control women. But fighting for the acknowledgment of the nuances of Muslim women’s individual experiences of covering up is still something of a suicide mission. Now, David Horowitz is absurdly proclaiming on NewsReal that “if Naomi Wolf and her radical friends had their way, America would be disarmed and radical Islam would be triumphant and women would be back in the Middle Ages, and the rest of us along with them.” On the same site, Jamie Glazov declares that Wolf “loves the burqa,” despite the fact that the burqa isn’t mentioned once in her article. (He might want to brush up on the different types of veiling before entering such a debate.) Even Ann Coulter has linked to the one-sided online debate.

    You might notice that as this conflagration spreads, more and more conservatives — many of whom do not identify as feminists — are rushing in to stoke the fire. As they do, the discussion becomes less about defending women’s rights and more about supporting their ongoing culture war. That reminds me of a line from Wolf’s essay: “Ideological battles are often waged with women’s bodies as their emblems, and Western Islamophobia is no exception.”
    ― Tracy Clark-Flory

    Other links on the topic

    1. http://www.smh.com.au/news/opinion/behind-the-veil-lives-a-thriving-muslim-sexuality/2008/08/29/1219516734637.html?page=fullpage#contentSwap1

    2. http://pajamasmedia.com/phyllischesler/2009/08/31/the-burqa-the-ultimate-feminist-choice/2/

  62. mazhur Says:

    I just received these comment from an American lady Psychologist the contents of which are self-exlanatory and serve a good ‘food for thought’

    “……perhaps the major reasons the West hates the veils (any type) so much is that:

    1. It prevents women’s bodies from being displayed like pieces of meat to the public.
    (The US has an incredibly high incidence of sexual assault — one in four women)

    2. Westerners think that veiled women might not spend so much money on cosmetics, clothes, fashion accessories, etc.
    (In the US, more money is spent on cosmetics alone than on public education. Big, big business.)”

  63. mazhur Says:

    One more notion that just hit my head is that “burqa also serves as a ‘uniform’–an overall— for a community such as the Muslim women the same way as a ‘sari’ is generally understood to be a Hindu dress though some Indian Muslim women also wear it.

  64. mazhur Says:

    @ SouthAsian :

    First of all let me make clear that I do not belong to any sect of Muslims. (Remember Islam has no sect, Muslims have just as other religions do.) I am a simple Muslim and no more no less…
    Earlier I said one must use his commonsense to judge good from bad. Good and Evil, as you find them in the Pilgrim’s Progress, is universally accepted and acknowledged by all religions to be the same and having a common base.

    i am not interested in ranking religions. The only thing I can do is to classify them as the ‘revealed’ and un-revealed’ religions and when I refer to ‘religions’ I refer to all the great living religions of the world. Sects do not matter as those are deviations from the basic or constructions of human mind.


    For this you will have to peek into the social history of people in different places. For example, can you tell why the bitter enemies of Muslims, the Mongol dynasty later embraced Islam and spread it to the Far East and South Asia without raising their swords? There certainly must be a very strong influencing ‘factor’ which made those wild conquerors switch over to Islam.


    Which sects?? Which scholar? you are communicating with a Muslim, ain’t that enough?

    • SouthAsian Says:

      Mazhur: According to some people even religions are a construction of the human mind. Even God is a construction of the human mind. How do we refute these claims?

  65. mazhur Says:

    @ SouthAsian

    <<<<<<<Mazhur: According to some people even religions are a construction of the human mind. Even God is a construction of the human mind. How do we refute these claims?<<<<<<

    No way. The world of heart and mind is much wider than the world of science. The only way to prove it is to come up with miracles (or perhaps a 'demonstrative god!)….but according to my belief Miracles won't happen!

    So, let us all take our own course instead of arguing and pursuing the impossible!

    paoqaI pD, pD, jaga mauAa, pMiDt Bayaao na kaoe
    Za[ AaKr p`oma ko, jaao pD,o saao pMiDt haoe

    Reading books everyone died, none became any wise
    One who reads the word of Love, only becomes wise.

    Dunya aisee bawari pathar poojan jaaye
    ghar kee chakki koi na poojay ja ka peesa khaaye!

    • SouthAsian Says:

      Mazhur: A fair conclusion – to each his own.

      • Anil Kala Says:

        akbar ilaahabaadi: some contradiction

        har zarra chamaktaa hai anwaar e ilaahi se
        har saans ye kahti hai ham hain to khuda bhi hai

        • SouthAsian Says:

          Gentlemen: It is my task to direct this discussion back to the subject of the burqa and what it means in terms of freedom of choice, civil and minority rights, and public policy. I feel we have concluded with a useful set of principles and need to focus on those now to test their validity. We need to subject them to the rigor of logic and test them with real examples to find contradictions, if any.

          There are many posts on the blog about religion and God and we can direct our interest in the topic to those discussion boards. Also, we have an entire series on Ghalib in which much is said about these topics. For this reason, I am not posting on this board some comments that have repeated verses from Ghalib. I regret this is necessary to keep each discussion focussed on its topic.

          • murthy Says:

            At some level the society needs to take responsibility for what goes on in the name of religion. India is a easy target for rich Wahabis , it is painful to see in an open society like India small girls of age 5or 6 to be put hizb and sent to madrasas. Every one knows what would be the fate of that 6 year girl once she grows up all along accepting the wahabi rules. Sarkozy makes sense at that level, he may be fool but he is right when he says there is no place for a burqa in France and definitely no place for hizb on a small 5 year old in India

          • SouthAsian Says:

            Murthy: I agree that society should take responsibility for what goes on in the name of religion. For that reason, I share your feelings about the 5 year-old in India. But what if an agnostic Frenchwoman in Paris wishes to wear a burqa for some perverse reason or a burqini to the pool? French designers have come up with some bizarre costumes over the years. Should she be barred from this non-religious expression of free choice?

          • murthy Says:

            I think we are still missing the point, what muslim women feel about burqa, with an emphasis to south asian women India,Pakistan,Bangladesh etc. visit this page: http://www.dawn.com/wps/wcm/connect/dawn-content-library/dawn/the-newspaper/editorial/12-burka-the-other-view-620–bi-10

            French ban is a minor diversion to argue about.

          • SouthAsian Says:

            Murthy: The French ban is a minor diversion in itself but it has raised the issue for debate. The article you have linked makes the point that the voice of Muslim women who do not wish to wear the burka is being ignored. The solution to that is for those women to raise their voice and join the debate not to ask for the burka to be banned. That is tantamount to a request for censorship. The issue needs to be separated from religion and evaluated as one of choice. What should the attitude of the State if a French Catholic woman wishes to wear a burka on the street or a burqini at the pool?

  66. SouthAsian Says:

    Ladies and Gentlemen: We have the ideal parallel case to apply the principles we have derived in the discussion on the burqa.

    In Sudan there is an existing law (Article 152 of Sudan’s penal code) that calls for women to dress modestly: up to 40 lashes and a fine can be assessed anyone “who commits an indecent act which violates public morality or wears indecent clothing.”

    Lubna Hussein, a journalist, has been convicted under this law for wearing trousers in public. She has appealed the sentence and insists she has a right to wear pants in public.

    In Sudan, some women wear veils and loose-fitting dresses; others do not. Northern Sudanese, who are mostly Muslim, are supposed to obey Islamic law, while southern Sudanese, who are mostly Christian, are not. Mrs. Hussein has argued that Article 152 is intentionally vague, in part to punish women.

    The Sudanese government claims the law is meant to protect the people: “We have an act controlling the behavior of women and men so the behavior doesn’t harm others, whether it’s speech or dress or et cetera.”

    Many Sudanese women are protesting and say the law is vague and discriminates against women. They are asking for a more defensible definition of “indecent clothing.” Dozens of women — many wearing pants — gathered in front of the courthouse to express their solidarity with Ms. Hussein.

    Based on the principles we have derived, how to we analyze this case and where do we come out on the happenings in Sudan?

    The complete report on Ms. Hussein’s case is here.

  67. mazhur Says:

    “indecent clothing” for women may mean any clothing which exposes the contours of their feminine parts, and is alluring to men, in a particular environment , could be one definition. It’s just like an Eastern man walking through the streets of Manhattan dressed in dhoti banyaan or shalwar qameez!

    • SouthAsian Says:

      Mazhur: We can accept that as your definition. It is within the right of women in Sudan to challenge the definition that is in force there. At this time, we should focus this discussion on how we are going to apply to the Sudan case the principle (Russell’s extended principle) that we arrived at following the earler discussion.

  68. SouthAsian Says:

    Let me attempt to apply the principles we had derived to the situation in Sudan and see if we find the conclusions valid:

    1. There is an existing rule on the books against ‘indecent’ clothing. The state claims that trousers worn by women fall into this category.
    2. Some Sudanese women disagree with this determination and consider the prohibition a violation of their freedom of choice.
    3. The ruling is being challenged within the legal system of the country.
    4. As far as I can make out the rule is not being imposed on non-Muslim women.

    Given the above, the process should be allowed to take its course. This is not a case where a new restriction is being arbitrarily imposed by a majority on a minority based on personal dislikes.

    Proponents on both sides should be encouraged to come out in support of their positions. This is how the law has evolved in most cases.

  69. Vinod Says:

    This makes interesting reading – it gives a context to what’s going on in France. Few neo-con racist intellectuals seem to be rabble rousing.


    • SouthAsian Says:

      Vinod: This article was referenced earlier in the discussion on Kashmir in connection with the somewhat less known facts about the how the minority problems were resolved in European nation states. The question that came to mind was whether the minority problem in India was going to be resolved in the same way? If not, how else? This is an important discussion and those interested can rejoin that discussion. The link is here.

      This the excerpt from Pankaj Mishra’s op-ed that is relevant:

      Genocide during the second world war followed by ethnic cleansing were what finally resolved Europe’s longstanding minority “problem”, blasting flat, Judt writes, “the demographic heath upon which the foundations of a new and less complicated continent were then laid”. In Europe’s largest migrations of refugees, some 13 million ethnic Germans fled Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary and Romania after the war. The eviction of other ethnic groups (Poles, Czechs, Slovaks) brought many countries closer to fulfilling the Versailles ideal of national homogeneity.

    • Anil Kala Says:

      The article at the link is as alarmist as the individuals it talks about.

  70. Arun Pillai Says:

    South Asian,

    You suggested reading an article of Balagangadhara’s earlier. I have just gotten to it. I do not know if it is still relevant to comment but here is a brief remark.

    I find his style engaging but unscientific and I find his argument flawed. It is not easy to offer a rebuttal here but there appear to be three basic flaws: he seems to deny people ordinary commonsense thinking whether they are of Indian or Western origin; he seems to deny the global impact of science and attributes everything to Western missionaries and to colonialism; lastly, he seems philosophically to give experience greater weight than reality, which makes him an idealist, a position that I find unconvincing.

    Having said this, the argument is still worth reading because it makes one reflect on certain aspects of one’s experience more closely.

  71. SouthAsian Says:

    In this discussion there have been several references to the difficulties faced by women in patriarchal societies and what can be done to eliminate the unwanted advances of men. In that context, the introduction of women-only commuter trains in India is both an indicator of the problem and a sensible idea towards a solution. Any thoughts?

  72. mazhur Says:

    Currently a bus-hostess attracted some young men who were travelling in her bus. They went crazy after her , kidnapped and gang raped her.
    This shows our culture is yet not mature enough to allow women the sort of ‘freedom’ they are aspiring for. In other words they do need the company or supervision of their men to save them for the ugly enticements and atrocities of other men who jump at the first opportunity they get to exploit women!!

    In one another instance 2 girls went to a snack bar and drove off a young waiter to their place where they tied him up to a charpoy, fed him with Viagras and then had sex with him until he was half-dead.

    In both cases, if women were escorted by ‘their menfolk’ such things wouldn’t have happened. This points out to the ‘necessity of women being held in purdah or in ‘their men’s escort’ unless they wanted to be safe or act decently in this world which evidently (as scriptures tell us) God made for Adam (and not Eve).

    • SouthAsian Says:

      Mazhur: The logic of this escapes me. What you are saying is that ‘their menfolk’ are somehow different from ‘other menfolk’. If some menfolk are different from other menfolk then the misbehaving menfolk should be apprehended and tried for breaking both religious and secular laws. If menfolk are menfolk then your solution would not work. While escorting ‘their womenfolk’ the menfolk would get unnaturally excited by ‘other womenfolk’ and run after them leaving their own womenfolk to be exploited by other menfolk who have abandoned their own womenfolk. Either all these berserk menfolk should be locked up or the commonsense solution proposed by Siddharth Singh should be employed. Clearly religion has failed completely to drum any ethics into the menfolk. What do they learn at all those endless Friday sermons?

  73. mazhur Says:

    @ SouthAsian

    It seems you are ignoring the ethos noticed at several public places where ‘only families are allowed”. You will notice all there behaving-both men and women. What does this suggest??

    Culture is NOT the same as religion. Religion prohibits Muslims not to drink yet they do against it; parents teach their children not to lie, not to cheat, not be cruel to animals, be punctual, be honest, be hardworking, be honorable, etc etc but how much of this ‘teaching’ work is open to all??? Similarly, all those who listen tot he Friday sermon,Sunday mass or Temple ashloks compulsorily don’t do as they are preached. That is pretty human psyche….to revolt, to commit infractions whenever possible. Even so called ‘free women’ in the West are not Free in the right sense of the word….
    They are still being beaten up, raped and exploited by men there. Providing women ‘social freedom’ doesn’t amount to ”complete freedom’ which normally men ‘enjoy’. This is a socio-politico-psychological problem and has to be tackled from that angle….

    • SouthAsian Says:

      Mazhur: This could suggest the following to me if I extend the logic of the argument to its natural conclusion:

      1. Men only behave themselves when they are with their families. Therefore men should not be allowed to go anywhere without their families. They should even take their families to work with them. If they go alone they might see a woman on the way and go berserk.

      2. That men are like lambs when they are with their families and the same men turn into wolves when they are alone. This is quite contrary to reality.

      3. Religion is a component of culture. The traditional rationale for religion is that it is introduced in soceity to improve behavior. In the kind of depraved culture you are describing, it seems that religion has completely failed in this objective. Therefore religion should be discarded and some more effective means employed.

      4. The problem I have is with the kind of culture you describe. You are generalizing from a few dramatic incidents to the entire society. How many men behave the way you are describing – one tenth of one percent, one percent, ten percent, fifty percent, or ninetynine percent? Once we have a sense of the magnitude of the problem we can figure out how best to address it.

      5. In the culture you are describing the problem is not confined to men. You mentioned the two women who abducted the waiter. So, if there is no difference in the depravity of men and women, all of them should be locked up. The scenario you describe is equivalent to the arrival of a rogue elephant in a village; your prescription is that everyone should stay locked inside their houses for protection. This is hardly a sustainable solution. Ultimately someone will have to venture out and shoot the elephant else everyone will starve to death.

      6. As long as we keep making excuses for the bad behavior of some men and make all women suffer for it, this problem will not go away.

  74. mazhur Says:

    Mazhur: This could suggest the following to me if I extend the logic of the argument to its natural conclusion:

    1. Men only behave themselves when they are with their families. Therefore men should not be allowed to go anywhere without their families. They should even take their families to work with them. If they go alone they might see a woman on the way and go berserk.

    Conversely, the same problem lies with women. When they move around they do tend to entice men and both men and women tend to go astray. This is against the norms of a ‘familial system’ we, the Indo-Pakistanese live in. Western mode cannot be applied in our countries because of socio-economic differences and lack of respect for law. Religion bounds a person to some law which if properly and fully implemented does serve to curb unnatural and socially ignoble gender association( at least in our part of the world where hunger and poverty is rampant and where there is no official social security provided).

    2. That men are like lambs when they are with their families and the same men turn into wolves when they are alone. This is quite contrary to reality.

    Generally, men go wild and manic at finding the first opportunity to put a hand on a female in our part of the country—Given sociio-economic conditions prevailing here that is NOT unnatural. Here religion plays its role to let men keep their brains level in the company of women in certain ‘seclusive or inviting avenues’.

    3. Religion is a component of culture. The traditional rationale for religion is that it is introduced in soceity to improve behavior. In the kind of depraved culture you are describing, it seems that religion has completely failed in this objective. Therefore religion should be discarded and some more effective means employed.

    In the absence of religion being enforced in letter and spirit how can you say Religion has failed??? No, it hasn’t yet.-Only humans have failed, cultures have failed,
    systems have failed!

    4. The problem I have is with the kind of culture you describe. You are generalizing from a few dramatic incidents to the entire society. How many men behave the way you are describing – one tenth of one percent, one percent, ten percent, fifty percent, or ninetynine percent? Once we have a sense of the magnitude of the problem we can figure out how best to address it.

    Once when there was an electricity outage in USA people there immediately began looting and destroying private property. I believe they will do it again unless curbed by force and law. What can religion do with ”hungry humans’ who are wont to forget all principles and lessons ”when hungry upto nose”?? Recent example is Hait. Check out how people began looting and plundering at the first opportunity. You have no reasons to attribute their behaviours to religion. as I believe no religion of the world teaches evil.

    5. In the culture you are describing the problem is not confined to men. You mentioned the two women who abducted the waiter. So, if there is no difference in the depravity of men and women, all of them should be locked up. The scenario you describe is equivalent to the arrival of a rogue elephant in a village; your prescription is that everyone should stay locked inside their houses for protection. This is hardly a sustainable solution. Ultimately someone will have to venture out and shoot the elephant else everyone will starve to death.

    No need to shoot out the wild elephant. Enforce religion rigidly on both men and women equally or forget your faith. Sane Elephants are usually employed to round up wild and drunken elephants….in Indian language we call it HAANKA! For this you need stringent enforcement of law or rule of law…and system to ensure social welfare of citizens.

    6. As long as we keep making excuses for the bad behavior of some men and make all women suffer for it, this problem will not go away.

    If most men are bad the most women are bad tooo. It would be equitable to treat the both gender equally and not subject the females to male sympathy or pity unreasonably. They don’t need pity from men…..they just want men to behave!!

  75. mazhur Says:

    It just occurred to me that the main objection of women (and proponents of women rights) usually target the ‘patriarchal system’ for the all the evils. May I invite their attention to the tale of Gligamesh which suffered the brunt under ‘matriarchal system.
    A pros and cons of both patriarchal and matriarchal system seems to be the need of the day. If neither of the systems are viable then what’s the solution??

    • SouthAsian Says:

      Mazhur: I don’t think women want to replace a patriarchal system with a matriarchal one – this is not a question of who is going to be on top. The quest is for equal rights. The history of slavery can provide a parallel – slaves did not aim to become slave masters; they wanted equal treatment as human beings. As far as civil rights are concerned society should be blind to color, race, religion, and gender.

  76. mazhur Says:

    @ SouthAsian

    I don’t think women are being ‘denied’ civil rights as such. On the whole, they are freely doing what men do…but to a limited extent ofcourse which fact is directly related to socio-economic and religious conditions.

    A law in the West which lays stricture or permits some act to men or women is not applicable in the East, at least in Indo-Pakistan to which land I belong to. There is left hand driving and right hand driving in various countries of the world but you cannot call none of them bad.

    Is it possible for a woman in Chota Nagpur or Rajhastan, for example, to walk on the path men do?? No. First of all ensure civil amenities to all then expect to enforce the so-called ‘civil rights’. Slavery is condemned by all civil, social and religious doctrines…….women cannot be read in the light of movement against slavery as they are not slaves but partners of men!

    Civil rights does not exclude one’s duties towards home and family in our part of the world where civil privileges are minimal and even men are denied civil rights!!

    In Pakistan the so-called civil rights have been completely denied to its citizens by the military dictatorships for more than half the age of that country. What reason then we, the men, have to fight over women rights who always needed protection of their men!!

    There is an old proverb which reflects on the status of women (and even men)

    When two ride a horse one has to ride behind!!
    That’s pretty civil, ain’t it not??

    • SouthAsian Says:

      Mazhur: You have made a very strong claim:

      “Slavery is condemned by all civil, social and religious doctrines”

      It might be worth looking up on the Internet what the holy books of the major religions have to say about slaves. We could then have a discussion about the implications.

    • Murthy Says:

      I think it is wrong to say burqa is a socio religious practice, it is more related to the outlook of how men want to treat their women.

      Read this excellent article by Anees Jillani at http://expressbuzz.com/biography/Sania-Mirza’s-new-role/169131.html,

      To quote :”The solution to this menace is not withdrawal from public life which many in Pakistan opt for. The women should learn to fight it back. One of the first things that is noticeable upon crossing the Wagah-Attari border into India is the large presence of women. It is a pleasant change to see women driving tractors and scooters in Amritsar. It unfortunately remains a front-page news in Pakistan even in this day and age if a girl rides a bicycle. It is still considered provocative in Pakistan for women to sit on a bicycle or a motorbike like men — they are expected to sit on a bicycle or bike with both their legs on the same side, even when it remains dangerous and uncomfortable.”

      Burqa only enables men to strengthen their view that they can do what they like with women, and law is too weak to punish them.

  77. mazhur Says:

    @ SouthAsian

    From my past travels to the West including the USA I take this opportunity to state that I had seen least courtesy shown by men there toward women. for example, while traveling on a bus or train I noticed that men wouldn’t offer their seats to women. Against this, men in our part of the world would atonce volunteer to leave their seats for the women as a matter of courtesy and respect for the female gender. Of course, all this does not have any connection with religion. Those are Oriental VALUES ……I wonder how the West still boasts about male attitude towards women (whom they generally feel proud to address as ‘bitches’ !) and what do they mean by ”civil rights”. Civil rights, as I understand, are greatly related to governmental systems and governance rather than religion.

  78. mazbut Says:

    @ Murthy :

    In cultures where there is lack of rule of law women need some shelter to save themselves and their families from socio-cultural troubles which may lead even to killing and that shelter they find in being less exposing and less exhibiting and inviting by taking the support of a veil you call Burqa!!

    However, despite strict enforcement of law in places like Saudi Arabia women are required to wear burqa which proves that burqa is a socio-cultural factor rather than a religious one

  79. SouthAsian Says:

    Murthy: It would be good if you spell out the contradiction. That would avoid a misunderstanding of what you have in mind and move the discussion along better.

    I re-read Mazbut’s comment and agree with you that there is a contradiction in it. Saudi Arabia is a place where the law is enforced with draconian powers; yet the burqa exists there. This is not due to socio-cultural factors; it is enforced in SA explicitly to abide by religious edicts as interpreted by them. The burqa or niqab are also emerging in Europe and North America where there is no problem with lack of law.

    The difference bewteen the two cases is that women have no choice in SA; so, if one believes in freedom of choice regarding dress, the SA situation is problematic. However, in Europe and North America, freedom of choice is a cardinal tenet; so if some women prefer to exercise that choice they cannot be condemned no matter how much anyone may dislike the garment. Of course, with the caveat we have discussed earlier that the exercise of the choice poses no threat to society.

    There is an interesting recent article (Behind the Veil) in the NYT about free choice in the US. It is based on interviews. The women exercising the choice claim it makes them feel closer to God. This would seem bizarre to many. But is that enough reason to disallow it?

  80. mazbut Says:

    @ Murthy

    If you think I contradicted myself how will you justify the ban on women to wearing shalwar Qameez during the reign of King Zahir Shah in Afghanistan? it was not a religious edict to force Afghan women to wear Skirts leaving legs bare ! Also, you may refer to similar past oppressive laws regarding Turkish women.

    New Lords make new rules, goes the saying. Burqa is just a taboo and it’s popularity may fade out with time as it did in Pakistan several years ago. The more the repression the greater the Burqa gets popularity!!

    • SouthAsian Says:

      Mazbut: The focus of the discussion in this post is on the issue of free choice. We are trying to understand what the conditions might be under which free choice by some may not be allowed by the majority in a society. I suppose we agree that arbitrary or coercive restrictions on free choice are not a good idea. Personal likes and dislikes, no matter how strong, can also not be sufficient reason to curb freedom of choice. We are seeking a set of principles that are coherent and unbiased that can be recommended for such situations.

  81. mazbut Says:

    As evident from the examples given above the answer to your question on ‘free choice” can be deduced very simply! It’s the form of government that makes ‘free choice’ for both the man and women! Change the type of government and it will change the laws and enforce them as well to over-whelm people’s aspiration for ‘free choice’, and I think this is all that is relative to and dependent upon to larger and provisional extent on man-made laws.

    • SouthAsian Says:

      Mazbut: I agree. The human struggle over time has been to change governments so that the range of freedoms – economic, political, civil – can continue to expand. With occasional reverses at the local level (e.g., Afghanistan), this is a broad trend that is likely to endure.

  82. SouthAsian Says:

    I recommend this precisely argued philosophical intervention on the justifications being offered for the ban on the burqa. The argument is grounded in philosophical traditions that are themselves worth being aware of.

    Veiled Threats? by Martha Nussbaum, Professor of Law, Philosophy and Divinity, University of Chicago.

  83. SouthAsian Says:

    This time an interesting application of the law to the issue of the burqa:

    Veiled Arguments by Ronald P. Sokol, a French lawyer.

  84. Anil Kala Says:

    I am glad France is on course to ban burqa. The ban it appears is only for covering up face. Rest of the obnoxious attire is not covered under the up coming law.

  85. Anil Kala Says:

    You can’t have always ‘yes or ‘no’ answer to these things SA. On most other issues I may opt for principle, personal freedom.

    Apart form all other reasons, this attire is not only distasteful but aesthetically unacceptable as well. I disagree on prejudice point. I am told in France wearing ‘Cross’ is also not allowed in classrooms. I whole heartedly agree with that also.

    • SouthAsian Says:

      Anil: I don’t see the logic of these arguments. There are many things I might find distasteful and aesthetically unacceptable, say long beards, but I can’t expect a ban on them. This is a stance that violates a basic right to freedom of expression. The other point is even less convincing. By this argument, countries where the Cross is allowed in classrooms should also allow the burqa. Your agreement or disagreement is not really relevant to the argument in this situation. You are expressing a personal preference to which you are certainly entitled.

      • Anil Kala Says:

        You are reading too much on personal dislike. It is not put forward as a reason for banning burqa but expressed merely as a satisfying thought for me.

        The other point is also taken out of context. Ban of ‘Cross’ is symbolic of French government’s uniform policy in these matters. If other governments too have similar uniform policies then I wish to endorse that policy as well. I don’t see how one can draw the conclusion that if ‘Cross’ is allowed in a classroom then burqa should also be allowed.

        Quite obviously I am expressing my personal view but I wouldn’t want it interpreted in a manner it is not intended.

        • SouthAsian Says:

          Anil: Yes, it is quite obvious that you are expressing a personal view. I have no quarrel with your personal likes and dislikes; what I find problematic is the desire to impose personal likes and dislikes on society.

          The Cross entered the discussion because you drew the comparison with the burqa, i.e., since the Cross was not allowed in classrooms in France so should the burqa not be. This prompted me question the logic by posing the counterfactual: If the Cross were allowed in classrooms should the burqa also be allowed? If the answer is in the negative, then clearly the Cross has nothing to do with the argument or the reasoning. It is simply the expression of a personal dislike for the burqa to which you are fully entitled.

          Just for clarification of other readers, in France religious symbols are not allowed in government-funded elementary and primary schools to conform to the separation of Church and State. The proposed ban on the burqa is not confined to such schools – it extends to all public places. The controversy is focused on this extension and the question being asked (see the contributions by Nussbaum and Sokol) is whether there is any principle that can be adduced to support this extension and whether it would be upheld by law.

          • Anil Kala Says:

            I think you are again wrongly interpreting my views. Expressing happiness at something which is to your liking is not the same thing as imposing your will on others. I very well know that the world is not fair. There are many things which I despise but accept as common choice. This is one rare occasion for me to rejoice!

            Again you are ignoring the point of uniformity of French law, instead harping on the word ‘Cross’. Use of ‘Cross’ was incidental to point out neutrality of French law. If burqa is banned in public place as well then this shows that the wise law makers of France think of it as transcending religious boundaries and causing discomfort to general public. Why should it be considered prejudiced especially knowing France has been stubbornly neutral in religious matters.

          • SouthAsian Says:

            Anil: My response to your first comment asked whether it ought to be filed under principle, preference or prejudice? After all the subsequent discussion it is clear that it belongs to the category of preference. As I have said, you are entitled to it and can rejoice at a decision that conforms to your personal preference. There the matter can rest.

            There is a larger question as to whether French law is uniform and neutral. The National Assembly has passed the bill on the burqa and the Senate is expected to pass it in September. After that France’s highest court and the European Commission on Human Rights will weigh in on whether the bill can be upheld under existing law. The point of contention, as I have mentioned before, is that while the ban on religious applies only to government-funded elementary and primary schools, the ban on the burqa extends to all public places. It will be this extension that would be the subject of the challenge. We will know at that time what principles are adduced for endorsing or rejecting the ban.

  86. mazbut Says:

    @ Anil Kala


    If human being or things are judged by their aesthetic and acceptability, I believe most men and things would go off the list of many persons.
    To cut short, Answers to these discriminative approaches can be seen in Apartheid, racism and bigotry.

  87. mazbut Says:

    @ Anil Kala

    If the burqa was a symbol of apartheid then no woman in India would have tried to veil herself with the Palloo of Sari , Ghoonghat, Chunri etc etc
    It’s the thinking which goes in the making of Apartheid…ie dislikes over likes…etc

    Why was Gandhi not compelled to wear a proper dress when he visited England and met Queen Victoria?? Nobody then objected to his semi-nude costume of Dhoti-chadar just because he was a man?

    The problem with burqa in the Western society has more to do with their culture and the difficulty with the people there to identify faces…
    In Pakistan there was no need for a woman’s picture of National Identity card or passport some years ago..just thumb impression used to be enough.
    But now posting a woman’s picture is compulsory because the burqa is liable to be misused by men for ulterior motives. It is the threat of terrorism which seems to have compelled EU to be extra-precarious on issue of Purdah otherwise it is a patent trespass on women rights..

    • Anil Kala Says:

      I don’t find any of your argument relevant.

      I can’t see any other purpose of veil than to hide one’s women folks from other men’s view to avoid a clash. The monstrous philosophy simply ignores existence of women as thinking individuals who have similar need for freedom as men. If Hindus do the same with palloo, ghoongat they are guilty of the same crime against women.

      By this argument we shouldn’t have banks because frauds are committed there, not airlines because they are hijacked etc. But we have banks and airlines and we don’t shut them up, instead we put in place systems to avoid these things.

      France is doing the same thing. It is shutting down an archaic philosophy.

      Let us punish those men who view women as a commodity. Both, who make them wear burqa and those who are the cause of this insecurity. If some women find it comforting to go around in burqa, it simply reflects that society’s inability to provide them a sense of security. Quite obviously the choice of these women is not voluntary.

  88. mazbut Says:

    @ Anil Kala

    I regret to note that your dislike for burqa has overwhelmed you and you see the whole thing with a jaundiced eye.

    There are two conditions when burqa is worn by women

    1. as a cultural necessity….for example wearing a burqa is a cultural issue with Pathans and more orthodox Muslim families. The same could be said of some Hindu communities.

    2. Volunteer acceptance of burqa …ie what the women in France or in other advanced countries are doing.

    In none of the above case you have reason to deny women their choices. What’s the harm if some cultures necessitate wearing of a burqa to hide their adornment from public eye and keep the men in a ‘culture’ peaceful??
    Read history and you will find many cases of duels between men for the sake of women. Jackson wouldn’t have been the President of USA had he lost the duel he fought to win a woman. Edward VIII wouldn’t have abdicated if if weren’t for a woman’s sake.

    You cannot compare women to banks or chattels of sorts…that would be cruel ,,,,women deserve the same dignity as men do and have all the right to hide or reveal themselves at their own will….
    Just because the West apprehends some men hiding behind the burqa and committing violence is no excuse for strippin women off their human right….
    good governance can overcome such apprehension of the West….in the same way you cannot close all banks or traffic on the pretext of insecurity or accidents.

  89. SouthAsian Says:

    A follow up comment from Professor Martha Nussbaum should clarify a lot of the recent questions in our discussion:


    And a report based on interviews in the US on whether wearing the burqa can be a voluntary choice:


    • Anil Kala Says:

      I tried to read the kilometer long article by Ms Nussbaum, lost patience midway. Then I realized that in these matters there are always enough arguments on either side and the matter nearly always reaches a dead end and eventually decided by majority choice.

      The very basis of the principle of protecting conscience seemed flawed to me because conscience is rarely formed freely. The paradox is that there is no other way for conscience to form; therefore principle of protecting conscience by default seems fair.

      The second point which no one seems to have addressed is whether the burqa as a cultural legacy is genuine? It is transparently clear to me that it was deliberately created to serve a male need, therefore treating it as a genuine cultural legacy is bad idea.

      • SouthAsian Says:

        Anil: Bills are passed by majorities in assemblies but their constitutionality is ratified by courts. And in the courts it is philosophical and legal arguments of the sort made by Nussbaum and Sokol that count. There are indeed always enough arguments on either side of any issue but, in a fair court, it is the side whose arguments are more robust that wins the case. This is the way the system works. For example, there was once a move to ban obscenity in literature. Communities passed resolutions by majorities and assemblies passed bills by majority but ultimately it was the court that decided on the constitutionality of the proposed legislation and it rejected the majority opinions. That is why there are paid professionals dealing with such issues whose job requires that they not lose patience midway.

        I don’t see how the point about the burqa being a genuine cultural legacy or not is relevant. Suppose it is indeed determined that it is not; is that sufficient grounds to ban it? Cricket was also deliberately created to serve a male need. Should it not be considered a genuine cultural legacy by the English and, if not, should it be outlawed? A more extreme example would be of Playboy bunnies. They too were deliberately created to serve a male need. Are they not a genuine cultural legacy of the Americans and, if not, should they be banned? Does it matter that I might despise Playboy bunnies and consider them derogatory to women and exploitative of them and that I would rejoice if they were banned? The only thing that is relevant to a decision with regard to a ban is whether it would conform to or violate any of the rights granted under the American (or European) Constitution.

        • Anil Kala Says:

          It is true that eventually courts decide whether a law passed by the legislature meets basic tenets of the constitution of that country, but courts too are known to have overturned their own verdicts.

          As already said there are enough arguments on either side and no clear winners. Even in courts often the verdicts are split, it may just be possible that a court verdict goes one way or the other because the constitution of bench was such. (I have faint memory of Bush-El Gore election in USA and case of recount of votes going to Supreme Court and verdict splitting on political affiliation of the judges.)

          I would trust my own instinct in these matters.

          If you think it is immaterial to know if a legacy is farcical then there is nothing to argue here. I feel very strongly that if a legacy is known to be prejudiced against a section of society then due weightage must be accorded to it while making a decision regarding free choice etc. If a cultural tradition is applied uniformly through a society then there is little likelihood that it is discriminatory but tradition applicable to only a section of society has high chance that it is a result of selfish motives. There is no case for equating cricket and burqa.

          • SouthAsian Says:

            Anil: I feel the central point is being missed. These issues are not determined by majorities but by legal decisions and this procedure is in place to avoid the misuse of majority power. It is true that court decisions can be split or biased or overturned later but the fact still remains that it is legal decisions based on arguments that matter in the end and one side would be the winner for such time as the verdict is overturned. Your or my instinct has no say in these issues. We can certainly trust our instincts but what public policy decision would follow from that given that there are others whose instinct tells them something contrary? Can this be turned into a contest of instincts?

            Who is going to determine if a legacy is farcical or not? Once again, your or my opinion can be an input into public policy but it is not the determining input. We are continuously trying to go beyond the expression of personal preferences. If there is something that is prejudicial to certain interests, it would be appealed in court and the court would decide.

            Yes, the cricket example is absurd but deliberately so to point out that the criteria you propose are flawed. It was invented by males to satisfy their needs and it is played disproportionately by men – so what are we to make of these facts? That is why I proposed the more relevant example of the Playboy bunny costume. As it is, this line of thinking about the genuineness of cultural legacies is fraught with problems. If some people wish to do farcical things, is there a legal principle that can be evoked to prevent them from doing so?

  90. mazbut Says:

    The present judicial system works on the principle of precedent. But in the French case there is no precedence to follow and there is all probability that the decision of the French court banning burqa may get over turned sooner or later.

    Have you heard of the Saansi clan in India?? They were a small community and said to eat cats. Would that mean cat-eating should have been banned in India just because a small minority practiced that?? There are hundreds of such examples found among the minorities of India ….but never have they been banned or the minorities harrassed for their likes…and dislikes. (except a law was passed banning Satti)

    Democracy is rightly called oppression of the minority by the majority and the present ban on burqa is a glaring example of it…. I wonder if the French or the West as a whole would also ban Bengali, hindu dhoti and Punjabi Laacha, which is a cultural choice of men there, on flimsy grounds, I think dhoti is better than Bermuda shorts or nickers!

    • SouthAsian Says:

      Mazbut: Both the French court and the European Commission on Human Rights have yet to rule on the ban. Only the National Assembly has passed the bill; the Senate is expected to pass it in September. I think we have exhausted the arguments based on personal preferences. These won’t hold up in a court of law. Whether some one likes the dhoti or shorts is neither here nor there.

  91. mazbut Says:

    @ SouthAsian

    I know that the proposed ban has yet to be ratified but the condition of a precedence may have to be taken into account finally. In case there is no precedence available then dhoti and laacha and perhaps Kimono too may step in for assistance!

    • SouthAsian Says:

      Mazbut: In my view precedence does not require a previous case with a one-to-one correspondence with the burqa. This is a case in which precedence would be sought in the wider context of human rights to freedom of expression in Europe but not in the context of universal cultural rights. Thus something like the Kimono is unlikely to have anything to do with the determination. Rather, the issue of not wearing any dress could well come up. Going undressed is not allowed in most public places in Europe but allowed in designated places like clothing-optional beaches. So the question could be how does being fully covered differ from being not covered at all as long as it is voluntary and not a threat to security?

      Vinod/Anil: There is an interesting op-ed by Maureen Dowd today (Rome Fiddles, We Burn) that illustrates quite a few of the issues we have been grappling with. It deals with the tradition of only allowing celibate males to be priests in the Roman Catholic Church.

      Note first that Dowd provides a material explanation for this tradition. But leaving that aside, what kind of existential angst does this tradition relieve in its adherents? What kind of comfort does it provide? Is it discriminatory since males invented it and it is restricted to males? Is it a genuine cultural legacy? Should it be banned or overturned? If so, what would be the process of doing so? Do you support it?

  92. mazbut Says:

    @ SouthAsian

    I take your point in that the argument rests between two choices, veiling vs nudity and both these ‘rights’ have still to be further debated in their own perspectives to comply with women rights.

    Will check out with Maureen Dowd’s article….but needless to say some women would be most insecure in certain cultures without wearing the burqa…I think wearing a burqa gives a woman a feeling of ‘security’ against stranger men in certain cultures and is the only way to serve their cultural needs as well as curtail the feuds over women which normally go on for decades there. One such example is, inter alia, Afghanistan and North West Pakistan ,,, but it makes me wonder why women do have to wear burqa when they are out of their cultural territories such as France? Do they do it due to family pressure or on their own? Or, they just want to keep their cultural heritage wherever they went??

  93. Arun Pillai Says:

    South Asian,

    I think the discussion is going around in circles a bit with many arguments being repeated from earlier posts. There are many reasons why women might wear a burqa. For the women in the NYT article you cite, it is voluntary. In my view, for a society like France, a burqa violates some essential notion of personhood and freedom. In such difficult cases, it has the right to impose this notion on all its members. Those wearing the burqa voluntarily will suffer but not everyone can be appeased in any difficult decision.

    It is also a little bit like smoking. A decision to smoke is not just a personal decision because it also affects the health of others around the smoker. In the same way, the presence of a woman wearing a burqa affects people around her as well, often in a negative way in Western society. So such a decision must be made by society taking everyone’s views into account, not just the wearer’s.

    • SouthAsian Says:

      Arun: I agree, the discussion is marked by repetitions but sometimes repetitions are part of a spiralling forward movement. We often see that in discussions across a table. So I am open to some repetition as long as I sense we are not completely mired in one place.

      You have a valid general point. Sometimes the welfare of a society can be improved by restricting the actions of one segment of that society. I can accept that logic. I become wary if the argument is that we can advance the liberty of one segment of society by restricting the freedoms of that very segment.

  94. Arun Pillai Says:

    South Asian,

    Regarding freedom and liberty, and restricting a group’s freedom to advance that very group’s freedom, I think the puzzle can be resolved if we identify two very different attributes of freedom, one that is typically protected by constitutions and another that is philosophical. The first is simply freedom of choice. The second is the kind of notion Amartya Sen and others have advanced where freedom is identified with increasing the capability of persons to do things in the world. It is arguable that because the burqa is so restrictive, it is possible to increase a person’s capability while restricting their choice by banning it. So freedom in the first sense is reduced while freedom in the second sense is increased.

    • Vinod Says:

      Arun, how would you apply that to people who choose to be vegetarians? Is their philosophical freedom restricted and by banning vegetarianism (the details of how being disregarded) are capabilities increased?

    • SouthAsian Says:

      Arun: Vinod has asked the right question which had also occurred to me. You have articulated an interpretation of Sen that I doubt Sen would endorse. Sen’s focus is on expanding the choice set which should, in general, lead to an increase in capabilities. Once one moves to restricting the choice set in order to increase capabilities, one enters much more contentious territory in which the burden of proof is considerably more onerous.

      Take the case of the women in the US who have adopted the veil out of free choice. They have clearly articulated that for them this sacrifice in mobility increases their capabilities in a number of ways. Now someone comes along saying that he/she knows better what is good for the women. This cannot be accepted unless one starts with what one needs to prove – that the veil is restrictive in all situations.

      I don’t wear the veil so this example is at one remove. But I can apply an analogy to myself to test how I would react to such a determination being made on my behalf. Suppose the Singapore authorities tell me that I cannot wear my hair long because that would decrease my capabilities in the Singapore job market. This is a tradeoff that I would wish to make for myself.

      Your response to Vinod’s example about vegetarianism has similar problems. First, you begin with what needs to be shown – that vegetarianism is good in all circumstances. Second, you label vegetarianism a free adult choice whereas it is just as much an acculturation from childhood in the majority of cases in India. Individuals who forsake it in adult life go through a period of severe psychic trauma before doing so.

      In such arguments one cannot presume the conclusion, i.e., the veil is restrictive or vegetarianism is healthy. If one does, there is nothing left to argue about.

  95. Arun Pillai Says:


    That’s an excellent example. In the case of the burqa, capabilities are increased by banning it because it makes women free to interact with others in a fuller way. For example, facial expressions are a crucial aspect of human interaction. The only cost is that some men may become unruly if they are not used to the sight of women in ordinary clothes but this is primarily a matter of habituation. And this is certainly not a real cost if the majority of women in society do not wear a burqa.

    In the case of vegetarianism, it is arguable that people can enjoy a wider variety of foods but only by incurring the cost of sacrificing animal rights. There are also other reasons for vegetarianism e.g. it is a more efficient way of acquiring energy so that fewer people need to starve.

    In addition, it is much clearer in the case of vegetarianism that it is a matter of adult individual choice. In the case of the burqa, I would wager that the majority of women are not exercising a free choice. But this takes us back to matters already discussed above.

  96. SouthAsian Says:

    I came across two articles that are inter-related in the context of the issues we have been discussing:

    The first (Seriously, What About Cousin Marriage?) raises the issue of choice and rights asking why people can be for same-sex marriage while at the same time opposing marriage between cousins.

    The second (The Minangkabau: Mixing Islam and Matriarchy) describes a society in Indonesia that is Muslim and matriarchal and where women still prefer to wear the veil. This seriously questions the exclusive attribution of veiling to patriarchy.

    I also like the term ‘projective disgust’ used in the first article (attributed to Martha Nussbaum) to characterize mainstream attitudes to phenomena like cousin-marriage and veiling.

  97. Arun Pillai Says:

    Vinod and South Asian,

    I think there are some misunderstandings about what I am saying.

    It is a physical fact that women who do not wear a burqa are able to be freer in their interactions. There is nothing to prove here, it is just an empirical observation.

    By removing the burqa from the choice set, there are some costs and benefits. The cost is making unaccustomed men unruly. The benefit is freer interactions, that is, women become more capable of fuller interaction.

    By removing vegetarianism from the choice set, there are again some costs and benefits. The main cost is that one gives up animal rights. The main benefit is that one can enjoy a wider variety of food.

    In the majority of cases, it is true that both the burqa and vegetarianism are things people are born into. When they become adults, wearing or not wearing a burqa is more often a social-familial matter whereas being vegetarian or not is mostly an individual choice.

    I have tried to lay out an analysis of both. I am deliberately not drawing any conclusions.

    • Vinod Says:

      When Sen talks about capabilities, he is talking about capabilities of individuals in a society. You are using his terminology but are following the utilitarian calculus which Sen disputes.

    • SouthAsian Says:

      Arun: This comes across to me as a very fragile argument. Since when did ease of interaction become so important that it started taking precedence over freedom of choice? Isn’t this something that individuals should be able to trade off on their own? And where would the optimal stopping point be given that shorts enable freer interaction than skirts?

      In the 19th Century, aristocratic European women wore immensely restrictive clothing like corsets and hoops but these were not banned; they just faded away over time. Even today Amish women in the US wear dresses that make their interactions considerably less free than those of the average American woman. Yet, there is no move to restrict the choice of the Amish.

      What your argument seems to be implying is: When in Rome, do as Romans do. But this immediately runs into the problem of historical precedence. Europeans did not adhere to this dictum when they were in the colonies. So, what principled basis is there for arguing the contrary position now?

  98. Arun Pillai Says:


    I agree I am mixing frameworks. Increasing capabilities is an absolute good for Sen, I believe, but the examples at hand make it clear that it is a relative matter. So I thought of introducing utilitarian considerations into Sen’s framework. He may disagree but I see nothing inconsistent about such a mixture.

    • SouthAsian Says:

      Arun: The problem I see with this argument is the following:

      The legitimacy of expanding the choice set is driven from the acceptance of certain fundamental rights of human beings (e.g., right to education, health, security, etc.) or from acceptance of the notion of equality of opportunity. An expanded choice set is expected to lead to an increase in capabilities. But, and this is critical to the framework, how an individual trades off capabilities against choices or weights them in the utility function, remains an individual decision. Once a utilitarian dimension is introduced, we are talking about maximizing the welfare of society and we get into the problematic area of who is going to decide what is best for society. Here the door to coercion begins to open.

  99. Arun Pillai Says:

    South Asian,

    I think the main problem with the burqa is that it covers the face almost completely, sometimes there is even a mesh over the eyes. No one seems to find a nun’s habit problematic. Besides, I think you are taking a few exceptions where women have themselves opted for the burqa. But the majority wear it out of a sense of tradition so it is a matter of judging a tradition. In terms of the exchange in a different post, this tradition is unduly restrictive and does not expand life’s possibilities. So I think the framework of individual choice is inappropriate for this problem in the large majority of cases.

    This brings in my earlier point about welfare as well. It is disconcerting for others to interact with a woman in a burqa, for example, if she is a teacher in a classroom.

    • SouthAsian Says:

      Arun: My discussion is confined to Europe and North America in the context of the rights and freedoms that exist there. This excludes the tradition as it might exist, say, in Afghanistan. I feel we can leave the Afghans to deal with this tradition. In Europe and North America the number of women wearing the full veil is miniscule (the upper estimate for France is 2000) and most are young women choosing the attire out of choice or defiance. At the intellectual level, the true test of our arguments pertains to the case where a ‘bizarre’ choice is nevertheless a free choice. On what grounds can such a ‘bizarre’ free choice be prohibited across the board?

      • Arun Gupta Says:

        Given the incidence of allegedly forced marriages of women of South Asian descent in England, for instance, one can hardly infer that wearing the full veil is by choice. That is, if there exist pressures for marriages that are not visible, then how much less visible will be those for the matter of lesser import – the full veil?

        “Currently some two hundred cases of forced marriage are reported to the Foreign & Commonwealth Office each year”.

        • SouthAsian Says:

          Arun: Where there is coercion a violation of the right to choose exists, so the case is clear cut and societies have to find ways of dealing with the situation. The more interesting situation, and the one we are grappling with, is what, if anything, is to be done when there is no violation of free choice?

          There was an interesting op-ed by Gwynne Dyer (Hysteria and the Veil) a few days back in which he referred to a bill introduced in the British Parliament along the lines of the bill passed by the National Assembly in France. His opinion: “We can also assume that it will never become law, for British immigration minister Damian Green immediately replied that “telling people what they can and can’t wear, if they’re just walking down the street, is a rather un-British thing to do.””

          He also asks an interesting question: “Why did a ridiculous law banning the full veil pass through the French parliament without opposition, whereas a similar bill will never reach the floor of the British House of Commons?” The responses have less to do with the veil than with the nature of the stresses and fears in the host societies themselves.

          • Arun Gupta Says:

            I’m asking – how do we know it is free choice?

          • SouthAsian Says:

            Arun: Read the article based on interviews in the US. It was linked in one of the earlier comments. Read Gwynne Dyer’s op-ed. At least half the women adopting the veil are converts and so not socialized since birth. Notwithstanding that, one can still carry out a thought experiment. Suppose there was one, just one, woman who we were sure had chosen the veil without pressure. Is that possible? If so, how would we deal with that choice given that no existing law is being broken?

  100. Arun Pillai Says:

    South Asian,

    I think the strongest argument is that wearing the burqa out of free choice is a little like smoking in that it reduces the welfare of others. This is especially so when the burqa-clad woman tries to occupy a social role – classroom teacher, office-goer, even activist – as opposed to merely walking down the street. In most social roles, the burqa creates discomfort in others. Try getting Damian Green to admit a burqa-clad woman to being a member of Parliament.

    Perhaps a compromise can be reached: the burqa should be banned wherever a social role in involved. If the woman works from home (e.g. as an author), she can wear a burqa but if she works with others in an organizational setting, she cannot. This would be like banning smoking in public places.

    The argument above implies that the burqa is not just physically restrictive but also socially restrictive.

    • SouthAsian Says:

      Arun: I can also consider this a weak argument, one that almost reflects a desperation of sorts. There is incontrovertible evidence, despite the billions spent by the tobacco lobby, that passive smoke is injurious to the health of non-smokers. Where is the similar evidence in the case of the veil despite the fact that there is no veil lobby to speak of?

      This desperation leads you to propose a seemingly absurd compromise. What would be the point of wearing the burqa at home? It is intended exclusively for the outside.

      As for the burqa creating discomfort in social settings, say classrooms, I would guess that all unfamiliar things would have caused discomfort in the beginning. I can think of mini-skirts or teachers of color in the American South. People get used to the unfamiliar as long as their fears and prejudices are not stoked by others.

      And as for Damian Green admitting a burqa-clad woman to Parliament, that is not Damian Green’s prerogative. The democratic system works well in such situations. If a constituency elects a burqa-clad woman, it would be difficult for Damian Green to keep her out. It was over a hundred years ago that the first MP of South Asian origin was elected and admitted to Parliament. Nor has it been possible to keep a Black president out of the White House once the electorate has decided to send him there.

  101. Arun Pillai Says:

    South Asian,

    1. I think we are obscuring the issue of the burqa by focusing exclusively on those women who opt to wear it freely. This is an extremely small minority. The primary reason most ordinary people feel the burqa is repugnant to them is that it is largely based on coercion and the subjugation of women. By focusing on the small minority who wear it for political reasons, we are actually condoning this rather archaic practice. I think it should first be determined clearly whether the burqa is largely an instrument of oppression or not.

    2. If it is admitted that this is indeed a barbaric practice for modern times, then it is possible to have a reasonable discussion about what to do in the case of the small minority that is exercising free choice. But we should be clear about the overall context in which the argument is taking place. I realize that it is an everyday thing for many many persons in the world (e.g. many older women who have just been socialized into wearing a burqa) so my real objection is directed towards those who are coercing young women into this practice.

    3. I do think there are many social roles – like being a school teacher – that cannot be performed fully by someone in a burqa. I do not think it is a matter of an unfamiliar thing that one has to get used to. Just as nudity would be inappropriate so would a burqa. I don’t think many school teachers wear miniskirts either.

    4. My comment about Damian Green was meant to point out that the burqa is inappropriate in many modern institutional and organizational contexts, not whether a burqa-clad woman could be elected to Parliament or not.

    5. I also meant to say that if a woman works from home, she can wear a burqa in ordinary public places – like walking down the street. But it should be banned in all organizational settings – like a classroom.

    • SouthAsian Says:

      Arun: We are indeed on different wavelengths on this issue and have to arrive at a common understanding of the point we wish to debate.

      First, we are discussing this issue in the context of fundamental rights in Europe and North America having initiated this discussion with Russell, Sarkozy and Obama. Second, if we argue in favor of fundamental rights, we cannot be for coercion at the same time. So, coerced choices are outside the purview of this discussion. Third, till such time as some credible international organization declares the veil an unacceptable tradition (as has been done for slavery, apartheid, child trafficking, etc.) personal opinion has little weight in the argument. It is so for some, not so for others, and I do not know how one can reach a definitive conclusion.

      At the intellectual level, there is only one issue of interest, the one we started with in the name of Bertrand Russell. If, in the context of the acceptance of the fundamental right to choose, a minority exercises a free choice that does not violate an existing law or endanger public safety, but is one that the majority does not like, what is the acceptable recourse? That, in my view, is the focus, not the appropriateness of the burqa per se or a defense of coercion.

  102. Arun Pillai Says:

    South Asian,

    I had forgotten the original context for the discussion. Now that you have laid it out again, perhaps some credible international organization should be given the task of determining the status of the burqa taking all relevant factors into account.

    Regarding the abstract issue of a minority choosing something that the majority dislikes, I think it has to be determined what the extent of the externality is. This determination has to be carried out by a neutral body made up of members of the minority and the majority. If it is felt that the externality is substantial, then the practice has to prohibited, otherwise not.

    • Vinod Says:

      This determination has to be carried out by a neutral body made up of members of the minority and the majority.

      If this group can include members from outside the political entity within which the issue is in focus, then I think we have a healthy, albeit rudimentary, body of persons engaging in what Sen would endorse as Public Reason.

    • SouthAsian Says:

      Arun: I agree this would be an acceptable way to proceed although I feel it should be a non-governmental body with credibility. A inter-governmental organization would be subject to intense politicking and my guess would be that Saudi Arabia with the backing of the US would manage to derail any pressure. Also, at this time the US is not inclined to rock the boat in Afghanistan despite all the rhetoric about ending discrimination against women.

      I presume you know of the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination. It recommended an end to all “descent-based” discrimination in 2002 but the Indian government has used its leverage to get around the proposed legislation. Recently the UK House of Lords has passed the Equality Bill empowering the British government to include “caste” within the definition of “race”. This is a direct parallel to the bill on the veil in the French National Assembly. It would be interesting to see how this evolves and how the various sides line up with their arguments.


  103. Arun Pillai Says:

    South Asian,

    I was unaware of some of this legislation. I feel there are a number of institutions and practices that are completely outmoded and have no place in modern society. Race is one, caste is another, the burqa is a third. It is very unfortunate that politically aware young women are using this way of fighting discrimination because the burqa is not something semantically neutral that can be invested with new meaning.

    • SouthAsian Says:

      Arun: I don’t think that politically aware young women are using the veil to fight discrimination. I think this is more a gesture of political defiance. Your comment has intrigued me about the difference between rebellion and defiance and I hope to explore the distinction and its implications in a post.

      Meanwhile, the Parliament in Spain is taking the path suggested by you (here) – allowing the veil in public places but disallowing it in government buildings.

      And just so we are clear on what we are talking about, here is a pictorial description of the burqa, the niqab, and the hijab.

  104. SouthAsian Says:

    It is interesting that the issues we have been discussing with regards to the burqa in Europe (i.e., is there any place where the burqa should be prohibited? If so, where and why?) have found a complete parallel in the case of breastfeeding.

    This report from Italy actually ends with the following question: “Is there anyplace where breastfeeding should be prohibited? If so, where and why?”

    The underlying phenomenon is the same – a minority claiming a right to practice an act that the majority is not comfortable with. What are the principles that should govern the decision?

    This is an interesting parallel because it takes out the emotive issues of Islam, barbaric traditions, hideous appearances, public security, and oppression of women.

    How do we look upon the basic issues in this relatively clean context that should help us focus on principles rather than religions?


  105. Arun Pillai Says:

    South Asian,

    This is a red herring. Breastfeeding and its related problems have nothing to do with the problem of the burqa. How can you ignore the issue of women’s oppression in the context of any discussion of the burqa?

    • SouthAsian Says:

      Arun: I am afraid you missed my point. Stanley Fish has a very nice column (Is Religion Special?) in which he describes how “the law is more often than not in the business of avoiding substantive issues by recasting them as issues of procedure. Rather than directly confronting the moral questions apparently animating a case, courts will replace them with the questions demanded by the tests, models and magic phrases that make up the machinery of legal inquiry in a particular area. The process of applying those tests and models and of invoking those phrases has the effect of distancing one from the urgencies felt by the opposing parties as the professional urgency to find the right (or most persuasive) rubric becomes paramount.”

      Applying this to a recent case he shows how “C.L.S. v. Martinez ceases to be a case about Christians who want to express their beliefs and a university that wants to hold itself aloof from discriminatory practices, and becomes instead a case about expressive association, limited forums, viewpoint neutrality, compelling interests, and the distinction between belief and conduct, all of which receive explication in narrowly legal terms.”

      In this spirit I am trying to reformulate a substantive issue into a procedural one. In both cases under consideration, the underlying issue is exactly the same: Is there any place where the activity should be prohibited? If so, where and why? We can take the case of the classroom or a public place that we have used previously.

      In this reformulation, it is the oppression of women that is the distraction. Let us agree that the burqa is oppressive if you are unable to wrench yourself away from that aspect but then focus on the case of the women in Europe who have adopted it by free choice. Restricting ourselves to this subset makes the two situations completely alike and we can proceed with finding the arguments that would lead to a legally defensible resolution.

  106. Arun Pillai Says:

    South Asian,

    I can imagine a baby being breastfed in a classroom or in a corporate meeting but I cannot imagine a burqa-clad teacher in a classroom or a burqa-clad executive in a meeting, even if the burqa is freely worn.

    • SouthAsian Says:

      Arun: This is fair enough. It is an expression of an individual’s imagination which would have to contend with other imaginations. The issue is about the legal principle or principles that would be adduced to arrive at a ruling either way on these two cases. What would be the grounds that would make breastfeeding acceptable in a meeting but not a burqa? It cannot be the likes and dislikes of the other attendees at the meeting because that would run into violations of anti-discrimination laws. I am searching for the legal argument that can support the distinction between the two cases. Let me try and pose this question to Professor Fish.

  107. Arun Pillai Says:

    South Asian,

    I didn’t literally mean to cite my imagination. Anyone can imagine all sorts of things. It was a way of saying that the burqa would interfere with teaching or participating in a meeting whereas breastfeeding would not. I think this distinction can carry legal force.

    • SouthAsian Says:

      Arun: I am very, very skeptical. I hope we can get a lawyer or student of law to provide an input. I have circulated a request to a few friends. You might do the same if you know any.

      A baby can scream in a meeting and disturb the proceedings. A burqa can be no worse than an audio conference – these are quite the norm today.

  108. SouthAsian Says:

    It is good to find an article that provides some history on the use of the veil. This is a particularly interesting one from Lima in Peru. I found it of interest that the attire (called Tapadas) was used by the elite and then appropriated by the middle class because, in the words of a sociologist, the clothes “provided more freedom to those who wore them than ordinary women.” In the context and social milieu of the times, it actually “loosened the stranglehold on women.”

    “In the end, changing fashions spelled the demise of the tapadas… As the 19th century drew to a close, social codes changed, and the tapadas disappeared amid a new desire to see clearly.”

    I particularly like the conclusion: “As with the debate over the Islamic veil, views and opinions for or against the tapadas came mainly from the outside, from the authorities or observers… The only voice we didn’t hear was from the wearer.”

    Whatever personal opinion we may have about the practice it is useful to know its history and to situate it in its social, economic, and political context.


  109. Arun Pillai Says:


    • SouthAsian Says:

      Arun: There is little doubt about the facts in Afghanistan and they have been used in various ways to sell the intervention in Afghanistan to the US public – I am quite sure it would resonate well that Hillary Clinton is not going to desert Afghani women just as Laura Bush and Condoleeza Rice went in to liberate them. But this takes us off-topic. What we are exploring in this series are the legal and philosophical principles that can or will be used to prohibit the veil in Europe, not eliminate it from Afghanistan. I would be very surprised if the justification in Europe turns out to be the oppression in Afghanistan.

  110. Arun Pillai Says:

    South Asian,

    My point in mentioning the link was to identify the larger context in which the burqa exists. One cannot separate Europe from Afghanistan or the wider world as such. The young women who are freely taking up the burqa in defiance also have this wider context in mind. What the NYT article points to is that the oppression of women in Afghanistan and many other parts of the world is a reality. The burqa is unambiguously one element of this subjugation of women. This is its primary effect and meaning. In a new context in Europe, it still retains some of this taint even if it is freely chosen.

    • SouthAsian Says:

      Arun: I am not disputing the wider context or the fact that the burqa is being used to oppress women in Afghanistan in the sense that many are being forced to wear it against their wills. Where we are apart is that I hear you as saying that the ‘taint’ is sufficient to justify the ban in Europe whereas I am not so sure. I don’t follow the logic of this argument. Presumably the women who are choosing it freely in Europe are also aware of the wider context and the taint. Over-ruling this choice based on free will and complete information would be over-ruling the principle of free choice, wouldn’t it?

      Let us consider a couple of examples to clarify the argument. I would argue that the profession of prostitution has the primary effect and meaning of the exploitation of women and it also carries a taint. Yet, there are continuing moves to legalize prostitution rather than to ban it. Presumably this is because there are no constitutional or legal arguments to prevent an adult women from freely disposing off her services if she so wishes and is not causing harm to anyone else in society.

      Or consider the fact there is today a strong taint of pedophilia associated with the Roman Catholic Church going all the way up to the Pope himself. Yet there is no move to prohibit young men from joining the priesthood or young boys from joining church choirs if they do so in full knowledge of these facts and this taint.

      I am not defending the burqa. The point I am trying to make is that the wider context and the taint do not provide sufficient legal grounds to prohibit an expression of free choice in Europe.

  111. Arun Pillai Says:

    South Asian,

    While it can potentially be degrading to women, prostitution serves a real need in society, so the dispute about banning it versus legalizing it remains moot. This is not the case with the burqa which serves no real need.

    With young boys joining the priesthood in the Roman Catholic Church, there are again pros and cons. For those who believe in its larger mission, there are real needs that can potentially be fulfilled. As has been discovered with all the revelations about pedophilia, there are real dangers involved. So what is required is radical reform – for example, allowing priests to marry and lead normal sexual lives – rather than outright prohibition.

    The thing about the burqa is that it serves no real need. It is designed precisely to maintain women as property and to keep their bodies from the “prying” eyes of other men (as judged by the male relatives of the women) and to keep women from interacting in natural and full ways with the world. The relation between women and men that is perpetuated is one of subservience rather than equality.

    If one finds that 95% of the women in Europe who wear the burqa do not wear it freely, then what is the point of focusing on the 5% who wear it for political purposes? The case of the burqa should be compared with other oppressive practices: sati, genital mutilation, foot binding (China), etc. Just because some women opt for it owing to the peculiarities of East-West political relations today, should not be a reason for allowing such a practice to continue when it can be nipped in the bud.

    • SouthAsian Says:

      Arun: Let us pursue this argument. Who is going to define whether a need is real or not and what criteria are going to be used? You are taking a male perspective and justifying prostitution as a real need even though it comes at the expense of the exploitation of women. If we are comfortable with a male definition of needs what argument would we have against some men justifying burqa as a real need even though it also comes at the expense of exploitation of women? And why hedge prostitution as being potentially degrading to women while being categorical about the burqa? Wouldn’t it be better to ask the women in both cases instead of deciding on their behalf?

      I don’t think one can take a majoritarian perspective on such issues. Just because only 5 percent of a population might want to do something cannot be sufficient grounds for ruling against it as long as that something is chosen freely and does not harm anyone else in society. Let us suppose statistics show that 1 percent of men turn violent after drinking. In this case there is actual harm to society. Yet, even in this case there is no call to prohibit drinking or to nip the evil in the bud. Why not? The same argument would apply in the case of the ownership of firearms. Both these practices are much more dangerous to others than the burqa, aren’t they?

  112. mazbut Says:

    @ SouthAsian

    1. Generalization that men force women in Afghanistan to wear burqa is not correct. It is the structure of their society which compels them to cover themselves up in that fashion because unless they did that their safety and security would be at stake and tend to create feuds among men.

    2. The structure of Western society is not like Afghanistan where women are free to make their own choices…and thus societal pressure does not force them to wear burqa. Consequently there is least logic in depriving those women the right to choose and wear a certain dress voluntarily.

    I remember women wearing mini-skirts and roaming in the streets freely without anybody objecting to that…infact everybody enjoyed the ‘inviting scene’. If burqa seems like an uninviting scene to others they better don’t look at burqa-clad women …

    In any case it is oppression of women rights by the majority in barring them of the costume they wanted to wear. You cannot ban women from driving cars from roads just because they are more likely to meet accidents …

  113. mazbut Says:

    @ Arun Pillai

    >>>>>>>>>>This is not the case with the burqa which serves no real need.>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>

    this is quite a sweeping statement. Burqa helps ensuring peace in certain cultures such as found in Afghanistan and Pakistan where the rule of law tends to be lacking. This is not so in developed countries hence women who opt for burqa are free to have their choice without fear of cultural encumbrances which might elsewhere need decades or centuries to overcome.

    Burqa is just a dress code and comparing it to satti, jauhar or genital mutilation or foot binding is unreasonable because in the former case NO bodily hurt exists whereas in the latter corporal destruction or harm is intrinsically embedded.

    BTW Why can’t women enjoy the right to keep themselves safe from the dirty looks of stranger men??? Which code of law allows strangers at large to ‘prying’ at women??

  114. Arun Pillai Says:


    I find it absurd that just because men might become uncontrollable, there should be such a harsh consequence for women. Why can’t society impose fines or a jail sentence if someone becomes unruly? Why penalize women for male lapses? Would men accept wearing a burqa if women became unruly in the presence of unclad men?

    Foot binding in China was something the upper classes practiced initially and it later spread to all of society. Many women opted for it freely because without it they could not get husbands. One could say foot binding was a result of the “structure of society.” Foot binding was banned a long time ago now but would you say it was curbing the rights of women because women freely wanted it?

    One can change the structure of society by passing appropriate laws. If men get used to seeing women dressed “normally” they would get used to it and in less than a generation they would cease being unruly. In fact, I personally doubt that today men would become unruly if they saw a woman without a burqa. There are too many images in the media of women without burqas and there is enough habituation already.

  115. Arun Pillai Says:

    South Asian,

    I am not condoning prostitution outright, I am saying it is moot because it is a case of a real need vs. exploitation. In the case of the burqa, there is only exploitation so the case is much easier. It has absolutely no redeeming feature.

    If 95% of the women in Europe who wear it wear it because they are oppressed, it should be banned.

    • SouthAsian Says:

      Arun: We are not making headway here. We still have no basis or criteria to define a ‘real’ need. The way you are characterizing it every perversity can be a real need because it caters to some drive in human beings. The redeeming features have to be determined by the free-choice users not outsiders. And we are still relying on a majoritarian argument. The question is not whether we feel an act should or should not be banned. The question is what legal principle can be used to do either. I feel I have already given examples where the majoritarian argument is rejected despite acts being harmful to society. To me the bottom line still seems to be that we don’t like it. That, I am afraid, is not enough because there are many things we don’t like.

  116. Arun Pillai Says:

    South Asian,

    I believe right from the start – all the way up to the beginning of these responses – I have been trying to give arguments that might form the basis of a legal case against the burqa. For example, comparing it with foot binding is not a matter of my feelings or my dislike. It is an attempt at a valid comparison: in both cases, the wearer sometimes exercises free choice, in both cases, the wearer is harmed either physically or more subtly by stunting the full development of the person, etc. Foot binding was banned so why not the burqa? Many other arguments have been cited.

    I understand that many older women are habituated to wearing the burqa. I am not trying to target them. My target is the younger women who are 95% of the time forced to wear it. I would rather protect the rights of these 95% than care about the 5% who want to wear it for political reasons.

    • SouthAsian Says:

      Arun: The problem here is that you are assuming the stance of a benevolent patriarch who wishes to protect the rights of people and is willing to over-rule their free choice if necessary. My argument is that this could have been done under authoritarian regimes but is doubtful under the laws, rights, and polities prevailing in present-day Europe. Nobody is binding his or her feet voluntarily today but if they were it would become a similar case of a test of free choice. I guess we have presented the two sides of the argument in sufficient detail and can now only wait to see how the courts actually handle the issue when it comes up for judgment.

  117. mazbut Says:

    @ Arun Pillai

    your arguments miss several other factors which warrant adoption of burqa.

    I have previously stated example of Afghanistan during the reign of King Zahir Shah (I was in Kabul in 1969) who not only banned burqa but also banned the wearing of Shalwar Qameez and all women were ordered to wear Skirts and blouse. Because that was a monarchical order women were forced to comply (while men sat with fingers crossed!). Today it is the same Afghanistan where you can’t imagine any woman to go out without a burqa!!

    Enforcing draconian laws which are against the will of the people have temporary effect a they had in Zahir Shah’s days. There is cultural pressure as well as religions like Islam do not support mixing up of genders…and Purdah is compulsory. Purdah or veiling could be done in various ways and one of the choicest ways for women is to wear burqa. Burqa in itself is just a costume and not prescribed by Islam…

    Thus you can see to get rid of burqa, which may not be possible though, because it is not only a choice by men but also one by women, you will have to change the entire culture of a place as well as align your outlook with religious bindings which not only men but women too are inclined to observe voluntarily.

    Men cannot be asked to wear a burqa….it’s like asking men to serve as ‘surrogate mothers”!! :)

    • SouthAsian Says:

      Mazbut: We are going very far off the topic. I want to now restrict the discussion to the test posed to the European system of laws and rights by the free choice of the veil by a minority no matter how small. The interest is in the legal and constitutional arguments that would be used when the proposed legislation goes to the courts for the legal ruling.
      I would like to exclude discussion of whether the burqa is oppressive of women, why it is still being used in Afghanistan, etc. We have gone over these issues and should move beyond them.

  118. Arun Pillai Says:

    South Asian,

    I agree that probably all possible arguments pro and con have been made. So it is best to wait and see what happens.

    On a matter of principle, I do not agree that free choice is the only basis for making laws. Why has marijuana been banned in so many states in the US?

    • SouthAsian Says:

      Arun: This is a useful angle to pursue since analogies are quite likely to figure in the legal arguments. My feeling is that bans are a legacy of more authoritarian times when prejudice and misinformation had more sway. Over time, the principle of free choice would increasingly exert its sway.

      During this discussion we have mentioned some analogies in passing but it would be good to focus more on them now. We can look at same-sex marriage where the ban due to prejudice has been eroded. First-cousin marriage had a lot of informational noise and as new evidence comes in, this too is likely to lose ground in the US. Marijuana has already been legalized in California. The growing sentiment seems to that legalizing presents the lesser of the two evils.

      The factor of politics remains constant and the lack of a ban on possession of firearms is the outcome. There are some complicating factors that have to be kept in mind. There are some situations that are a clear cut case of adult choice with no proven harm to others – same-sex marriage is one. On the other hand, there is marijuana that is very hard to keep out of the hands of children who are not old enough to make informed choices. Marijuana is also mixed up with the use of other drugs and the criminal racketeering that goes along with that. So, we will have to take a nuanced view when considering appropriate analogies.

  119. Arun Pillai Says:

    South Asian,

    In my view, free choice should be just one basis for forming laws relating to allowing or disallowing various practices. It is an extreme libertarian principle which I do not accept in isolation. This is because – as even recent approaches to economics have shown – people are not entirely rational and free choice depends on the assumption of people as rational beings. Firearms is a good example. It makes more accidents likely so it is better to ban them. Banning firearms would reduce free choice but it would be for the overall good of society. That would be a majoritarian decision made by the government.

    It is also important to make a distinction between legal philosophy and what courts actually do. As we know, recently the Supreme Court in the US allowed corporations to fund election campaigns. This is a disastrous decision according to most people and there were many articles criticizing the philosophical basis for this decision.

    • SouthAsian Says:

      Arun: During the early part of the discussion on this topic we had arrived at what I felt was a useful set of principles that could govern such decisions. Free and informed choice was the core but not the only criterion. In particular, we stressed that the action should not cause demonstrable harm to others in society. It should also not violate any existing laws governing the society concerned.

      I am not convinced that free choice can be tied to complete rationality. We know for certain that complete rationality is only a theoretical construct; bounded rationality is much more the rule and people make judgmental mistakes all the time. This does not mean that we can do away with free choice. I think the ‘do no harm’ criterion is the most important one and can take care of the shortfalls in rationality. The exception on firearms is not due to limited rationality but very strong political lobbies that are quite rational in promoting their vested interests.

      I am also not sure how the government can make a majoritarian decision; it can only be made by the majority that would enable to government to act on that mandate. Or it could be made by the court. You are right that all decisions of the court are not in accordance with what seems sensible to us but that comes from the fact that the courts have the prerogative of interpreting the law. That is why court decisions are more often split than not.

  120. Arun Pillai Says:

    South Asian,

    I have forgotten the earlier discussion. However, I would say that the emphasis on allowing all actions that enact so-called “victimless crimes”, that is, allowing all actions that are performed freely and do not cause harm to others, is precisely the libertarian credo. Of course, just because it is libertarian does not mean it is wrong. I am sure a legal expert would have plenty of examples where many such actions would be unacceptable in society. Speeding, firearms, drugs, sati, suicide, etc. would all be acceptable.

    Regarding rationality, my point is that there are many situations of coercion where it is not clear if a freely chosen action is because of social conditioning. For example, foot binding was freely chosen and caused harm to no one else. People do not always know what is best for themselves. In my view, that should be a starting point for laying out the principles for laws.

    What I meant by the government making a majoritarian decision is that it would be a decision that favored the majority and ignored the minority.

    • SouthAsian Says:

      Arun: It is not clear to me why you equate the acts you list (speeding, firearms, drugs, sati, suicide, etc.) as “victimless crimes”? All of these have potential victims and in most cases the victims are others. It is also not clear to me why the category of “crime” has entered the discussion. Same-sex marriage or first-cousin marriage are not crimes. Nor, in fact, is the burqa to date although many would like to see it turned into one. If we stay with acts that are not crimes and do not have potential victims in society (like same-sex marriage, for example), then the twin principles of informed free choice and do-no-harm should prove adequate.

      We have already eliminated issues that involve social conditioning from the discussion. In order to elicit the underlying principles we are only concerned with the subset of practices that cannot be attributed to social conditioning. The choice made in adulthood by European women to wear the veil would fall in this category as would same-sex marriage. The line of argument that “people do not always know what is best for themselves” would start us down a very slippery slope. Who would know what is best for people? This is both a general/specific question and a global/local one. For example, who would know what is best for the people of Iraq? The neo-cons thought they did and they had the power to back up their convictions.

      Governments favoring the majority could also be very problematic. Governments are not political parties; they are supposed to represent all the citizens equally. This responsibility includes protecting the legitimate rights of minorities against the prejudices and biases of the majorities.

  121. Arun Pillai Says:

    South Asian,

    These are admittedly difficult issues. On the one hand, free choice sounds like a very desirable principle. But it assumes that people are informed and free of social conditioning and reasonably rational. I don’t understand why you are confining yourself to the subset of practices that cannot be attributed to social conditioning. Many of the the objections to the burqa are based on social conditioning. If you assume that away, what is left that is realistic in the situation? You also want to restrict yourself to the very small minority of women who want to wear the burqa for political reasons when the large majority wear it because of their conditioning. So what you want is to protect the rights of the tiny minority who might be self-aware and want to wear the burqa freely. This to me is an absurd kind of case to be arguing for – it ignores the wider context completely.

    In general, people are not always informed, are socially conditioned, and are not as rational as required. For example, many women – even those who claim to want to wear the burqa freely – may not know the possible adverse effects of wearing a burqa both on themselves and their co-workers.

    The whole system of law is premised on some people who study the law having a better understanding of what is desirable for people generally. This should be constantly critiqued and revised based on new information. The whole population of a country does not write the constitution of a country. It is left to experts. Yes, many things should be left to free choice but in cases like the burqa where an oppressive male tradition plays an overwhelming role, it is right to reject it even if some women opt for it (just like foot binding).

    • SouthAsian Says:

      Arun: This difficulty is arising because we are addressing two different issues. You are addressing the issue of the burqa in its wider context. I am interested in the issue of minority rights and am therefore divesting the issue of all confounding variables leaving just a pure case to be considered. This could be some other issue having nothing to do with the burqa. I wish to understand what argument could be used to prohibit a practice that is repugnant to a majority but is adopted by a minority, no matter how small, out of fully informed free choice and the practice is not harmful to anyone and does not violate any existing law.

      I am perplexed by your pre-condition for free choice. There is no doubt that people are not fully informed, are socially conditioned and not as rational as required (but by whom?). Wouldn’t this do away with all free choice? Wouldn’t this imply that experts would have to decide for everyone? Wouldn’t this consign us to the kind of Orwellian world where Big Brother would tell us everything we ought to do? I would think the better option would be to provide better information rather than to curtail choice unless there is demonstrable harm to society.

      I am also not convinced that laws in democracies ought to be made by those who know better what is desirable for people. Laws in such polities should be derived from a set of principles that are acceptable to a majority in society which is why all constitutional amendments need to be ratified by a majority of the representatives of the people. The laws can and should be challenged continuously and they are. This brings us back to the point where we started: What principle or principles can be used to deny the right of a minority to a fully informed choice that does not harm anybody else in society and is not in violation of any existing law? From here on we can drop the burqa from the discussion.

  122. mazbut Says:

    >>>>>>>>>>>>For example, many women – even those who claim to want to wear the burqa freely – may not know the possible adverse effects of wearing a burqa both on themselves and their co-workers.>>>>>>>>>>>>

    burqa or covering of the sort is in vogue for the last 1400 years or so and there is not a single evidence of its posing ‘adverse effects wearing it on ‘themselves and their co-workers’!! Burqa is not like secondary smoke from smoking that would harm others!
    Foot binding and ‘head-binding’ are methods of restricting physical growth of a person and are physically hurtful whereas the burqa has no such implication.
    If people in the West dread it there is no solution for their ‘phobic syndromes’ but to make them accustomed to women with burqa around!!. In short time their phobia will mitigate and vanish!!

    <<<<<<<The whole population of a country does not write the constitution of a country. It is left to experts. <<<<<<<

    this is a fallacious statement. People through their elected representatives 'write' the constitution and even get it amended!! After all what is a Parliament for and what's the reason for passing constitutional amendments??

  123. Arun Pillai Says:

    South Asian,

    I do not believe the case of the burqa is relevant to the abstraction you have created: “I wish to understand what argument could be used to prohibit a practice that is repugnant to a majority but is adopted by a minority, no matter how small, out of fully informed free choice and the practice is not harmful to anyone and does not violate any existing law.” In particular, the practice is not merely repugnant to a majority but is actually harmful to both wearers and non-wearers who interact with wearers. But you are unwilling to accept this point which has been made before. So if you abstract from this harm, then it leaves nothing to be discussed. Also, there are two majorities involved, one being the majority of the population and the other being the majority of the burqa-wearers. For this second majority, one cannot abstract out the factor of social conditioning. If you create such an abstract context, the only issue of conflict becomes the repugnance. This is clearly not enough to warrant a ban. Otherwise, all kinds of reasonably practices would have to be banned. But you have created a “straw man” that can easily be knocked down. I don’t know what purpose that serves when the real issues being debated by society and the courts lie elsewhere.

    Regarding the case of law-making, people may judge that 80 mph is a safe speed limit, but statistics may show that such a limit is too high and would result in too many accidents. So the law is usually set at a lower limit. If you take the majority of laws in society, they are of this type. That is why there are legislatures. Political representation does not mean averaging people’s opinions but using one’s best judgment keeping the interests of all parties in mind.

    Yes, of course, these laws must be based on principles that are widely acceptable. There is no disagreement there.

    • SouthAsian Says:

      Arun: If it can be proven that the burqa is actually harmful to both wearers and non-wearers who interact with wearers then I would fall foul of my own argument. But where is the proof?

      What you are alleging is exactly the point I wish to make. That repugnance is not enough to warrant a ban. I don’t believe it would be legally possible to damn by association. By all means find remedies for social conditioning although I fear this would open up a whole new set of issues. Where is the individual who has not been socially conditioned? Taking children to church is social conditioning and it is not unambiguously positive.

      Could you elaborate what the straw man is? What in your view is the real issue being debated by society and the courts in Europe?

      You are mixing apples and oranges here. Speeding is clearly of potential danger to others in society. There is no argument where such danger can be clearly established.

  124. Arun Pillai Says:

    South Asian,

    In matters that are psychological, it is difficult to prove harm. For example, is rape harmful when there is no physical injury? Is child abuse harmful when there is no physical injury? In the case of the burqa, my point is that common sense would dictate that something which so limits free and full interaction with others is harmful because it stunts the full growth of the person’s personality and enjoyment of life. Even those who wish to wear it for political reasons would not wear it if those political reasons did not exist because they are presumably more self-aware liberated young women.

    The straw man is that the burqa issue is about the repugnance of the majority. It has nothing to do with this. In my view, it has to do with two facts:

    1. It obstructs the full and smooth functioning of many institutions and organizations by limiting fuller interactions among its members when some of them are clad in a burqa.

    2. It adversely affects the lives of those who are socially conditioned to wearing it who happen to constitute the majority of the wearers.

    I fully sympathize with the fact that many people see many women including relatives who are habituated to wearing burqas. They may not be able to understand why one is saying that the burqa is oppressive. This would be similar to practices where people were socialized into believing that they were acceptable – like sati, foot binding, and so on. True, in those cases, there was physical harm which was easier to prove. That is why those practices have been wiped out earlier.

    I believe that women are no less capable than men in all spheres of life and should have the opportunity to pursue their dreams and ambitions in the fullest way possible the way many men are able to. I further believe that a garment like the burqa comes in the way of such fulfillment. And in so doing it also affects others with whom wearers interact adversely.

    To apply Sen’s ideas to this situation, people should be empowered and given capabilities to pursue fulfilling lives. The burqa restricts women rather than empowers them. Can you imagine women wearing burqas in public or corporate roles? Could someone like Shabana Azmi have achieved her acting career if she had had to wear a burqa? Can you imagine a female CEO of even a small business let alone a multinational corporation in a burqa?

    The sad fact of the matter is that the environment in which a person functions can either promote or hinder that person’s innermost ambitions and desires to grow. So while free choice sounds great on the surface, many complexities lurk beneath the surface that can inhibit choices that are best for the person concerned. Free choice should be allowed to operate in most circumstances but not when it is being used to support choices that keep women subjugated and incapable of realizing their possibilities.

  125. Arun Pillai Says:

    South Asian,

    There are many ways to respond to the analogy you are making. First, I am not equating the burqa with rape obviously. However, one could say if the burqa causes harm, that does not mean one should ban clothes.

    Anyway, I think I have said all I can say. As you have wisely said, let us see how the courts decide what they do. There is certainly no move to ban the burqa in the US and France may decide similarly.

    • SouthAsian Says:

      Arun: I agree, we should drop the issue of the burqa per se till there are new developments in Europe. However, I do feel that thinking some more about these two analogies could help us see things afresh.

      Given the available choice of consensual sex no woman would choose to be raped. By analogy, given the choice of less restrictive clothing no woman should choose more restrictive clothing. But some do. Why does this difference arise? I think it is because rape is an either-or act while the restrictiveness of clothing is on a continuum. There is no optimal stopping point that can hold across time and place or be legislated. Even within communities there can be large variations. It is only the wearer who can decide what affords her or him the most comfort in a given situation. The responsibility of society should be to ensure that this decision is not a coerced one nor is otherwise damaging to the wearer or to others.

  126. Arun Pillai Says:

    South Asian,

    The analogy is too formal for my taste. The only reason I mentioned rape is to point out that psychological harm is difficult to prove.

    I would like to re-emphasize that a person’s innermost desires and ambitions are partly socially constructed. That is why the son of a medical doctor who is exposed to talk about medicine at home will often opt to become a doctor himself. The family environment is crucial in nurturing young men and women so they are able to lead fulfilling lives.

    When a young woman is asked to wear a burqa, the environment is not nurturing because it closes off many options for the woman’s life. Once these options are closed off, she herself may not experience a desire to become a CEO (for example). She may “freely” choose to become a housewife because she never acquired the education and training to become economically independent. This is why free choice is a double-edged sword.

    I don’t mean to reopen the issue of the burqa as we have decided to drop the issue. My point is just that free choice is not as obvious a principle to endorse as may seem superficially. Of course, one cannot easily translate what I am saying into legislation because perhaps all desire is partly socially constructed. So this is a matter that transcends law and is a matter for social transformation.

    • SouthAsian Says:

      Arun: I agree with your last point. I don’t know an individual who has not been socially conditioned and we can’t really boil this down to ‘my social conditioning is better than yours.’ So the question we need to think about is how do we look upon the broader phenomenon of social conditioning and the quest for social transformations? Would a more supportive environment induce social change from within or should legislation and laws attempt to force the social change?

  127. Arun Pillai Says:

    South Asian,

    I suppose a judicious mix of both can be optimal.

  128. SouthAsian Says:

    A discussion on some of the issues raised in the commentary on this post can be structured concretely around a recent court ruling on same-sex marriage in California:

    1. A majority of the voters in the state favored and passed via a referendum a ban on same-sex marriage.
    2. A US Federal judge has over-ruled the voter approved ban calling it unconstitutional and discriminatory against a minority.
    3. The judge ruled that “moral disapproval alone is an improper basis on which to deny rights to gay men and lesbians.”
    4. The judge also noted that the voter-approved ban “fails to advance any rational basis in singling out gay men and lesbians for denial of a marriage licence.”
    5. Opposition to the ban was centered around the argument that it violated gays’ and lesbians’ right to choose whom to marry while allowing it to heterosexuals.
    6. Note also from the analysis that till forty years ago there was a ban on interracial marriage in the US. This ban had no justification then and does not have any now. It was just an expression of the moral preferences and prejudices of the majority.

    The question for discussion is the following: When is there a case for limiting the right to choose in marriage and what principle would support the limitation?


    • Anil Kala Says:

      There is a difference. Many including women strongly believe burqa is an instrument of suppression. The opposition to gay/ lesbian marriage is purely moral.

      • SouthAsian Says:

        Anil: Is it possible that both aspects might be valid at the same time? The burqa can be an instrument of suppression if it is imposed on an unwilling subject. It can be an instrument of empowerment if chosen freely by the wearer. In such a case one would have to discriminate between the two situations instead of wishing for a blanket judgment on the burqa.

        • Anil Kala Says:

          I don’t believe this. Why would anyone choose it freely? Is it free will if it is a reaction to external environment – the ‘Male gaze.’

          Shouldn’t that malevolent ‘male gaze’ be crushed. —– this is like Hindus punishing their women for getting raped.

          • SouthAsian Says:

            Anil: This is a semantic issue. All our choices are made in the context of an external environment. Free will is defined within the constraints of that external environment. Free will does not mean that the environment ceases to exist or impose its constraints on us. In our context, what is relevant is whether a choice is imposed on someone by another person against his or her will or whether it is made freely given the environment that exists. If we include the environment in the equation, we would be in the Sartrean world where there is no free choice.

            Quite some time back I posted a link to an article in the New York Times based on interviews with American women who had chosen the veil freely, without coercion, and without socialization from childhood. Their claim was that they were willing to sacrifice convenience, mobility, and social approval for the feeling of empowerment that they gained. I am not saying whether they were right or wrong, only that they had made this choice.

            Having said that, the point I made via the poem by Frost was the same that you are recommending. We need to focus on the environment that makes such limiting choices necessary. A focus on the individual would be like blaming the victim.

        • Anil Kala Says:

          If free choice does not take into consideration influence of external environment than it is a grossly faulty definition therefore all the more reason that freedom for free choice should be viewed very suspiciously. And also reviewed periodically.

          • SouthAsian Says:

            Anil: ‘Free’ choice does take into consideration the influence of the external environment – a lion in a zoo is ‘free’ to do anything it likes within the confines of the cage. The external environment is a given of which we cannot be independent – all of us exist within some kind of cage. I agree on the need for the periodic review. When the environment changes, the degrees of freedom also change. For example, the choices available under an autocratic regime are much more restricted than those under a democratic one. I think we can get beyond this ambiguity if you offer a definition of free choice for discussion.

  129. SouthAsian Says:

    There is an opportunity to reopen this discussion from a seemingly different vantage point. This possibility occurred to me on reading the poem Mending Wall by Robert Frost. The following is the idea I would like to explore:

    All of us spend a lot of time behind and enclosed by walls because that provides us the privacy to be free. Could we conceive of the burqa as kind of walled enclosure, a miniature house, that paradoxically provides the occupant a lot more freedom than she would otherwise have in a given environment?

    If this premise has validity, our attention ought to be focused on reforming the environment that obligates the walls rather than on the individuals who need the walls to be free. Note the line in the poem: “But here there are no cows.”

    In this light, the refrain of the poem: “Good fences make good neighbors” encapsulates a kind of common wisdom that invites analysis.

    • Vinod Says:

      The ‘male gaze’ is an uncomfortable reality for women. I know women for whom the burqa is a shield against the male gaze.

  130. SouthAsian Says:

    I wish to reopen this discussion because of something interesting I read in a 2007 book (Secularism Confronts Islam) by Olivier Roy. I am curious how readers would respond to the following passage from the book (pages 31-32):

    The problems of society are transformed into a debate about ideas. And consequently ideas become the quarry of a witch hunt… The circulation of ideas is thus attributed to the activity of certain individuals, and the old cliches of the cold war return (like that of contagion, transforming ideas into viruses). There is no analysis of why some ideas work, whereas the market of religion contains not only a supply but also a demand. It is interesting to note that this is practically the same reasoning that is applied to sects: the most prominent explanation is the influence of a guru and mental manipulation. A young girl wearing a veil is necessarily manipulated, and the paradox is that we repress her the better to liberate her: since the veil is a sign of enslavement, a woman could not possibly choose it voluntarily. The same reasoning drove the French Revolution to prohibit religious orders, because a free person could not voluntarily alienate his own freedom. And yet God knows (He especially) that voluntary slavery exists. Emancipating people despite themselves is another paradox. (Emphasis added.)

    Olivier Roy is research director at the French National Center for Scientific Research (CNRS) and lectures at the Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales (EHESS) and the Institut d’Etudes Politiques (IEP) in Paris. His books include “Secularism Confronts Islam”, “Globalized Islam”, “The Politics of Chaos in the Middle East”, “The Search for a New Ummah” (Columbia University Press) “The Afghan-Pakistan Connection” (Mariam Abou Zahab).

    • Vinod Says:

      SA, I’m unable to follow the extract, especially the bolded parts. Unless you can put it in simpler words for me, I cannot participate in this discussion

  131. SouthAsian Says:

    Vinod: This is what I understood from the argument of the author:

    We should look at societal issues in their concrete manifestations and not transform them into a debate about abstract ideas. Thus the issue of the burqa should not become a discussion about liberty, human rights, etc.

    The author is making the point that religion is not all supply with some imam or guru or patriarch pushing their views on unwilling subjects. There can be a demand side also which should also be examined. Thus it is possible that there can be some women who voluntarily desire in some circumstances to wear the burqa. What are we going to do about them? Are we forcibly going to liberate them because we know more than them what is good for them?

    He then mocks the anti-burqa argument that nobody can wish to voluntarily enslave themselves. He asks: what about all the people who voluntarily become the slaves of God? Doesn’t God ask people to submit themselves to him and people take pride in doing so?

    • Vinod Says:

      SA thanks for the simplification. I understand better. My thoughts –

      Nobody can prevent voluntary enslavement. The anti-burqa movement is really not about that, although it can and often has gone beyond prudent limits to become that. It is about preventing coercion in the wearing of the burqa and associated practices about female behaviour and the supporting unhealthy ideas behind these practices. There is something to be said for taking a more holistic view of the matter. There is also an ignoble angle to the anti-burqa movement – prejudice against muslims.

      (I personally think the burqa issue is not an issue at all. There are more important matters to worry about in society)

      The comparison with belief in God is also not very sound. But I don’t want to get into that.

  132. SouthAsian Says:

    Vinod: A recent issue of The Humanist magazine is a special on the subject of the burqa. All the articles are worth reading and enrich the discussion. I found particularly innovative the one that puts the burqa in an evolutionary framework.

    The issue also contains an interview with a woman who chose to act in adult films. This really poses the issue in the starkest way possible: What position do we take on a voluntary choice that personally we may find very difficult to accept?

    This is her position: “In a nutshell: my body, my rules. Other women don’t get to tell me what’s “right” for me, just as no imam, rabbi, priest or minister gets to tell me what to do with my body. You don’t know better than I do what I need, so don’t presume to. If I need your help, I’ll ask for it, thank you very much.”

    Is it possible to argue against this position?


    • Vinod Says:

      Human beings are both individuals and social beings. We do have an individuality and we do need a social circle. THe trick is to find the balance. Traditional societies, including pre-1960s America, were largely about the society as a whole compromising individuality. The individualism in the feminist statement above is overdone. Individual’s actions set examples and cause impressions on others. To some extent, we as individuals cannot abdicate our responsibilities towards the effects of our actions on the society. That is the other side of asserting individual rights, of which there is no hint in the quotation.

      In a nutshell the statement is a partial position still echoing the struggle against traditional societal norms. I am sympathetic though. In arguing with traditional folks it is very hard to stay calm in the face of their stubbornness. But then frustration is not a reason to close eyes to the full picture of rights.

      • SouthAsian Says:

        Vinod: I am not convinced that the notion of balance has utility in this discussion. Every society is characterized by conservatives, liberals and radicals and the right balance differs for each. All we can be sure of is that there is a constant tension between social control and individual freedom. In this tension there is bound to be an overshoot on either side. But given what we know of the history of social control, I would rather err on the side of individualism. It is individualism that has striven against great odds to give us many of the freedoms we take for granted today.

      • Vinod Says:

        I think you can tell that for all the individualistic bluster in my speech I err, in conduct, on the side of the conservatives and traditional folks.

  133. Arun Pillai Says:

    No society allows people to commit suicide, the logical culmination of this extreme individualist viewpoint. It is not true that a person can do what they like with their bodies and their lives and that the person knows best. There are often self-destructive behaviors. This is now well understood even in studies of rationality where this egotistical view predominates.

    We live in society and are social beings. There is a kind of implicit social contract between and among us. So we are not radically free, irrespective of the polity and ideology we live under.

    • SouthAsian Says:

      Arun: There is an open discussion on euthanasia and from what I understand voluntary euthanasia is already legal in some places. Beyond that, this has a dimension of place, time and context so a seemingly universal statement like “we live in a society and are social beings” is not too helpful. Sati was considered normal and acceptable for an extended period till the British outlawed it because they knew better. And the subject is also open to nuance. Many people are ready to court certain death for various causes or are sent to face certain death. That variant of suicide is not only allowed, it is encouraged, lauded and glorified as martyrdom.

  134. Arun Pillai Says:

    South Asian,

    I wasn’t trying to suggest that suicide in all its forms was unacceptable. Certainly willed euthanasia in the right circumstances is fine. And other cases where someone may have to defend his country etc. may be acceptable. I don’t want to get into a game of defining precisely what kind of suicide is unacceptable. It is enough for my argument that in every society there are many forms of suicide that are unacceptable. And that is all that I mean by saying that we are social beings irrespective of place, time, and context.

    • Vinod Says:

      SA, I’m with Arun on this. Any act that resembles suicide will have to be justified by the person embarking on it. It is a reasonable position for the society to presume that the act is to be stopped.

      However, I don’t know whether something similar can be said about women’s dressing. What can be done is that society as a whole has to experiment with the various competing ideas on it and figure their way out. Such conscious and planned experimentation, however, is not the strength of human societies but of individuals in it.

      • SouthAsian Says:

        Vinod: I am keeping an open mind on suicide. I don’t believe that the social attitude to suicide or voluntary death has been the same throughout human history. Nor has the concept had the negative connotation that we now assign automatically to the word suicide. I think that as the human life span extends further, social attitudes to voluntary death would change. There is precedent for that. In tribal societies that were resource constrained, voluntary death was looked upon with favor and encouraged by the assignment of positive labels to the same act. If you click on this link to the Encyclopedia of Religion and Ethics, it should open on Section 7 (p. 465) which describes the attitudes to voluntary death in earlier times.

  135. Arun Pillai Says:

    I don’t understand why the discussion has gotten sidetracked on the nuances of suicide. Even in earlier times when suicide may have been encouraged, it was done to preserve society. My point was merely to observe that society does have a right to intervene in an individual’s decision that concerns his or her own life if that decision is of sufficient moment. The case of the burqa is similar. In my view and in many societies’ view, it is oppressive even if it is chosen voluntarily. As I have tried to explain above, a person’s individual desires are in part socially constructed.

    No one is against individualism. It is that society recognizes that an individual may decide on a course of action because there is what might be called “soft” coercion.

  136. SouthAsian Says:

    I have the following tentative conclusions from this segment of the discussion:

    1. Practices are not constant; they change to adapt to the needs of society to preserve itself.
    2. Social norms lag behind the changes that impact on everyday life (technology, politics, economics, etc.)
    3. Therefore there is a continuous tension between social norms and individual expression; society is characterized by conservatives, liberals and radicals.
    4. Without this tension and evolution society would either be rent apart or rendered static.
    5. There can be no blanket judgment on whether conservatism or liberalism is better.
    6. Adolescents are often the vanguard of change rebelling against authority to assert themselves, be noticed, affirm their authenticity or make political statements.
    7. It is hard to accept change when it runs counter to deeply held personal opinions.
    8. It is easy to dismiss many such expressions of rebellion as being the result of indoctrination and manipulation. Sometimes they are and sometimes not.
    9. If manipulation is suspected, a blanket ban on expression is not the optimal strategy. The focus of reform should be the manipulation.
    10. Analysis not ideology should guide policy interventions.

    Some of these conclusions are reflected in the recommendation of an article by Amanda Knief on the burqa in the issue of The Humanist that I had linked earlier:

    “The laws banning the burqa and niqab are wholesale laws restricting expressions of religion and culture without proof of harm and are the antithesis of a free and open secular society.

    If the goal of Western European countries and all Western governments is truly to fight the oppression of women and encourage cultural and societal integration, there are more positive alternatives to explore than banning the burqa and niqab. Instead these governments should create an outreach network, including a hotline, emergency services, and counseling, with education and work programs so that if and when Muslim women who are truly oppressed by their religion, culture, or relatives—whether or not they wear a burqa or niqab—choose to leave their families, their religion, their culture, their entire lives, they will have the resources to move on and start a new life, and, importantly, a society that will welcome them instead of shying away.”

  137. mazhur Says:

    The crux of the discussion is that No perfect secular society exists in the world. Religion was and religion is still overshadowing the societal minds to more or less extent and from time to time and continues to play its role in the lives of people..

    • SouthAsian Says:

      Mazhur: The crux of the discussion was not to determine if a perfect secular society exists anywhere in the world. There is nothing perfect in this world. Rather, one of the issues being discussed was how an avowedly secular society like France which has made religion a private matter should deal with the revival of religion that wants to affirm its religiosity in the public space. The secondary question is whether this tension is generic to the revival of religion in general or specific to Islam.

  138. mazhur Says:

    ,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,The secondary question is whether this tension is generic to the revival of religion in general or specific to Islam.,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,

    I think it’s both. It also reflects upon the intrinsic bias found in secular societies.

  139. Arun Pillai Says:

    South Asian,

    You have put the issue very succinctly. Surprisingly, I don’t recall this point being made earlier in this whole discussion but it has been a while and I have probably forgotten it.

    I think there are two justifications for France’s wanting to ban the burqa. One is, as you have said, it violates its principle of secularism since it wants to keep religious matters private and the burqa is egregiously public. The second is its principle of equal rights because the burqa to most modern sensibilities violates women’s rights even when worn apparently voluntarily.

    • SouthAsian Says:

      Arun: Perhaps it is because the issue is now clearer in my mind. I have completed reading Secularism Confronts Islam by Olivier Roy. It is only 100 pages but a penetrating analysis by an incisive social scientist. It is worth a read if only to observe how social science ought to be approached. Olivier is making a more wide-ranging case:

      “The redefinition of the relations between religion and politics is a new challenge for the West, and not only because of Islam. Islam is a mirror in which the West projects its own identity crisis. We live in a postculturalist society, and this postculturalism is the very foundation of the contemporary religious revival. Managing these new forms of religiosity [represented by faith communities with communitarian values but divorced from specific cultures] is a challenge for the West as a whole. It is also a task to which this book intends to contribute, by drawing lessons from the French debate, but only to resituate it in the general context of the relations between Islam and the West.”

  140. SouthAsian Says:

    In light of the discussion on this topic what should be the position on the following issue in the Michigan School District? How should the conclusions be applied to a new case?

    SALDEF (Sikh American Legal Defense Education Fund) Working for Kirpan Accommodation in Michigan School District

    SALDEF is deeply concerned over the temporary ban of the kirpan from Plymouth-Canton Community Schools (P-CSS) in Michigan, which was prompted by a young Sikh boy wearing his kirpan to Bentley Elementary School. The Principal of the school recognized the religious significance of the kirpan and was inclined to allow the young Sikh boy to continue wearing his kirpan until the District convened a meeting to discuss a proper resolution.

    Deputy Superintendent Kenneth J. Jacobs issued a memo that stated, “until such time as a compromise is reached, any and all religious emblems that resemble a weapon are strictly prohibited.”

    SALDEF and UNITED SIKHS wrote to the Superintendent last month to allow the student to continue practicing his faith while the District worked with civil rights advocates to fashion an appropriate resolution. SALDEF is optimistic for a positive outcome given the Superintendent’s statement that the District respects the “right of all students to practice their religion and wear religious symbols.”

    The local Sikh community has worked to educate their neighbors about the Sikh faith and the kirpan. At a Community Forum on January 6, 2011, at St. Thomas a’Becket Catholic Church in Canton, Michigan, concerned parents, representatives from the school system, and local community members learned about Sikhs, their beliefs, and their values through a presentation developed and delivered by Jaspal Kaur in conjunction with SALDEF.

  141. Arun Pillai Says:

    I don’t mean to be disrespectful to the Sikh religion or to Sikhs, but practicing Sikhs should recognize that, like many other world religions, certain practices in their religion date to earlier medieval (or, in other cases, even to classical) times, and, as a result, they may conflict with modern life and society.

    It is obvious today that a kirpan is unnecessary for one’s protection. Like everyone else, Sikhs should realize that following a religion does not require literalism but following the spirit of the religion, its basic intent.

    In these circumstances, I would be in favor of banning kirpans from certain types of public places like schools as they could be misused, either by the wearer or by someone else.

  142. Vinod Says:

    I’ve never seen a kirpan before. I assumed that they’d not be a real sword and would be merely symbolic, blunt, small sword shaped objects. When I saw the images I was a bit startled. They are sharp and dangerous objects and can definitely be misused. Should it be banned? I thought about my school days where we carried shaving blades as pencil sharpeners. Shaving razors can be misused too to hurt others although the main concerns were about injuring oneself while sharpening pencils with them. But they were not banned. They were discouraged in favour of the pencil sharpener.

    The difficulty in such matters is obvious – freedom of religion versus safety of others. It is hard to decide but I’m inclined to ban the kirpan.

    But I don’t think this case is similar to the burqa ban issue. The burqa ban comes from a patronizing view of the burqa-wearing women. The main argument for the ban is not about safety of those not wearing the burqa. I think it is coherent to take different approaches on the burqa and the kirpan issue although both have to do with freedom of religion. I find no inconsistency in permitting the burqa and banning the kirpan.

    • SouthAsian Says:

      Vinod: Regarding the burqa and the kirpan, the issue is the same in France but different in the US (this is the reason the original post began with the positions of Sarkozy and Obama on the headscarf). France does not allow the expression of religion in public spaces; the US does. In the US the separation of church and state is limited to neutrality towards all religions – hence no prayer in schools. Therefore, in the case of the burqa and the kirpan, in France the issue is the public expression of religious symbols while in the US it is one of public safety.

      This discussion made me curious about the position regarding the turban in France. Sure enough, it has been disallowed (http://www.examiner.com/europe-policy-in-national/european-court-rules-against-the-sikh-turban-french-schools).

    • Vinod Says:

      SA, principle always has to be balanced again pragmatism lest it goes to ridiculous extents. The question in my mind to France in separating religion from state is – are you weighing the real pragmatic benefits of drawing the line where you are in the case of each religious symbol and the state or are you just whipping up emotions to ban certain religious symbols. Are the risks being emprically ascertained?

      • SouthAsian Says:

        Vinod: It is very hard to ascertain the risks empirically but this is one strain in the debate in France and Olivier Roy argues it quite well. Something that worked well enough when France was a relatively homogeneous society is falling apart in an environment characterized by much greater diversity. Earlier application was also pragmatic with yarmulkes, cassocks and crosses being allowed but the very visible attempt to stop the head scarf has forced a much more stringent application in order to maintain the appearance that it is principle and not prejudice or fear that is the driving force behind the renewed focus on the law.

  143. mazhur Says:

    Kirpan is a dagger mainly used during the wars during Moghul period. The Five ”K’s” that were recommended to Sikh followers by their Guru’s aimed at preparing them as ”soldiers’ who were always ready to fight against the Moghuls or the Muslims, being their bitter enemies. Since the Moghuls have long gone and society has changed over the centuries the 5 K’s (Kirpan (dagger), Kachha (a sort of short underwear), Kara (bangle), Kangha (comb), Kais ( hair on head) are no more a necessity for the Sikhs to go on for the original purpose those were meant for. However, some Sikhs do observe some traditions such as Kara (a metal bangle which could also assist during fist to fist battle), Kanghi and Kais. Wearing the turban is perhaps mandatory for the Sikhs for religious reasons?

    Kirpan is a dangerous weapon and if allowed will surely tend to discomfort the safety of others. It may be compared to someone carrying a pistol and roaming about in public all the time. However, if at all the Sikhs want to preserve their tradition or culture they might opt for a miniature Kirpan the same way cross is worn by the Christians.

    One more thing comes to my mind: It is a custom or rather religious beliefs of some religious minded Muslim men to wear their pants, shalwars or pajamas above their Takhna’s (I don’t remember the right word for the bones protruding on either side on top of feet and at the lowest point of calves!!)….Maybe in future this may also show up as yet another issue in the Western world but since it is related to men and doesn’t fall in any objectionable category of their rule will not be much cared for.

    • SouthAsian Says:

      Mazhur: The example of wearing trousers above the ankles is interesting. It shows how a situation can tend to absurdity if the letter is allowed to dominate the spirit of a principle. It would be quite possible for a non-Muslim Frenchman to wear an exactly similar item designed by Yves St. Laurent. He would not be challenged under the law because the trouser would not be a symbol of religious expression for him. Ditto for headscarves and turbans – they would mean different things on different heads.

  144. mazhur Says:

    Hehe!! See how Men have made a joke of religion!! Whenever I see a religion-hit man dressed up with pants just above his feet I am filled with awe! That guy just seems to me like someone ready to lunge into the Indian Ocean or the WWF arena!!

    Then there is strong controversy over how long the beard should be to be a good Muslim??? Some say the beard should be not longer than one that fitted the fist whereas some vie for a free-falling beard like the Sikhs. All this seems to me like a joke of religion, a great religion like Islam got sunk in the trifling rituals of unnecessary self-inflicted or over-drawn do’s and don’ts.

    Personally I am not against Muslim women covering up their bodily adornments but covering up from head to toe is something disturbing!

    • SouthAsian Says:

      Mazhur: We are at the stage in this discussion where personal opinions have ceased to be the issue at hand – your, mine or anybody’s like or dislike for the attire is just that, a personal opinion. What is of greater interest is the issue that is posed for the French system – how to deal with the expression of religiosity in the public space? And, the conundrum that results from attempting to keep it out – how can the same attire worn by one set of people be acceptable and by another be unacceptable? Are we going the tell people’s religion by their attire? If so, would this not lead to new types of distortions in behavior?

  145. mazhur Says:

    @ SouthAsian

    My personal comment is on the basis of Quranic tenets as I understand them and many may agree of disagree with me to take it as a ‘religious’ requisite or cultural?

    During my trips to NYC I noticed that in a certain area known for ‘cheap prices’ most of the shopkeepers there wore Kippah and it was easy to know that they were Jews! I did not feel any repugnace for that nor for the large Sikh community I once found running their shops at Jackson Heights, Long Island. The French are just over-touchy and want to make a mountain out of mole hill by interfering in the religious or cultural parameters of other religions which are not posing them any ‘epidemic’ problem. It may not be out of place to state that the French do seem to suffer some ”religiophobia’ and apprehend that by allowing other religious communities religious liberties they might get their own culture affected in some way or the other.

    India is also a secular democracy, the largest in the world, yet it doesn’t level stupid laws to strip down minorities from their religious or human rights.So which country can be termed rightly secular, India or France, for that matter?? The French and others who lay discrimination against different religious or cultural communities are clearly violating human rights and off the secular imperative.

    • Anjum Altaf Says:

      Mazhur: The issue is more complex than this and its best description is to be found in the book (Secularism Confronts Islam) by Olivier Roy which I have mentioned earlier. Let me excerpt the underlying issues as presented in the book:

      1. While a Muslim population has taken root in the West, the question of its integration remains open, especially in Western Europe, where there is an overlap between Islam and work-driven immigration – an overlap that is not to be found in the United States.

      2. So far, the West has managed its Muslim population by mobilizing two models: multiculturalism, usually associated with English-speaking countries and northern Europe; and the assimilationist model, specific to France.

      3. Nothing can be more opposed than these two models: the French consider Anglo-Saxon multiculturalism either as the destruction of national unity or as an instrument of ghettoization, while assimilationism is perceived abroad as the expression of an authoritarian, centralized state that refuses to recognize minority rights, when it does not infringe on minority rights.

      4. Since 9/11 both these models are in crisis. The intellectual and practical question has opened up again of how best to handle the articulation of religious identity in the public sphere in secular societies.

      5. Olivier concludes that Islam is just a digression – “a mirror in which the West projects its own identity crisis.” The real issue is the redefinition between religion and politics in a changed context. “We live in a postculturalist society, and this postculturalism is the very foundation of the contemporary religious revival.”

      6. The conclusion is that the earlier models worked well enough but are now outdated. Because of globalization, there is a religious revival and new expressions of religiosity for many reasons. New models of integration are needed in secular societies to integrate this change. The discussion, and the re-examination of the old models, relates to this phenomenon.

  146. Arun Pillai Says:


    From the article:

    “For the first time in the month of protests, large numbers of young women joined the crowd, almost none wearing any form of Islamic veil.

    Many, accustomed to living under one of the region’s most repressive governments, were both excited and uneasy about their new sense of freedom. “We are too many now, we are too big, it is more difficult to silence us,” one woman said, grinning. “But for us it is new to talk. We are still a little bit scared,” she added, declining to give her name.”

    • Anjum Altaf Says:

      Arun: Both phenomena are occurring at the same time. In places, women are throwing of the veil in the name of liberation. In others, they are adopting it in the name of protest. We have to explain both as well as we can. The trend that your link points to is much the more familiar one. Naturally, we have individual value judgments but they need not come in the way of analysis.

  147. Arun Pillai Says:

    Roy’s analysis is typical of the deracinated French left where all problems are turned back onto the society. Jacques Ranciere is a similar writer. They write partly to shock and glamorize and go against commonsense observation. This is not the case with English intellectuals like Tony Judt, for example, who will start by calling a spade a spade.

    There is a serious problem in France of finding employment for the foreign underclass, which is what led to the riots some years ago. If that problem had been solved, there would be no serious problem with the burqa in France.

    France’s model of secularism is geared more to an atheistic public sphere compared with other Western democracies. This model is more suited to more advanced social thinking and to relative prosperity. Because certain parts of the global population have been “left behind” by modernity, there is a resurgence of the most retrogressive practices that are present in all societies and religions. Should these literalist retrogressive practices from medieval and pre-medieval times (e.g. Hindu dowry killings) be encouraged by doing fancy things with ideas as Roy tries to do or should one simply call a spade a spade and figure out practical policies to integrate the underclass?

    • Anjum Altaf Says:

      Arun: We are more comfortable with the English way of thinking. The French approach issues somewhat differently but in this case Roy is saying more or less what you have indicated. The French approach worked but the context and reality have changed now. Islam is not at the bottom of this crisis. There are structural reasons that need to be grasped. The problem is more likely my attempt to compress his ideas too much. Also, he is conducting an argument with other French commentators which leads to some parochialism. Still, I think he does a great job in 100 pages and offers many new angles that we can pursue on our own. I don’t think we can ask much more of a public intellectual.

  148. Arun Pillai Says:


    I agree that both contradictory things are happening simultaneously and both need to be explained. In the Tunisian case, it is clearly an action against an oppressive regime and against the oppressive burqa. In the French case, it appears to be a sign of solidarity with the underemployed underclass and not really an argument for the burqa as such.

    Regarding the related point you made earlier about two identical physical objects worn for different reasons, one religious, the other to be fashionable, the fact is that physical objects by themselves seldom carry any meaning. It is the context of use that confers meaning. So it seems perfectly reasonable to ban and allow the same physical object. Occasionally, with something like the burqa, one may want to ban it whether it is religious or not because it comes in the way of public professionals performing their duties.

    • Anjum Altaf Says:

      Arun: Yes, it is the context that conveys meaning. My query pertains to the implementation required in unveiling the context. Suppose two girls with headscarves arrive together at school. Will they be asked to declare their religion and the Muslim girl’s scarf would be removed? This asking of religion would itself be a violation of laicite. This could also lead to dissimulation – the Muslim girl could try and pass herself off as a non-Muslim much like persecuted Jews pretended to be Christian in Spain.

      Work related restrictions are the norm and exception cannot be taken to them – for example, chefs are required to cover their hair even if they are non-Muslim. But a blanket ban extends to non-work environments as well and a justification for that is harder to come up with.

  149. Arun Pillai Says:


    If Roy is saying roughly what I have said, then of course I have no disagreement. However, he seems to asking for a different model of secularism which is disturbing.

    • Anjum Altaf Says:

      Arun: No, In my reading Roy is not asking for a different model of secularism. What kind of model did you interpret him as asking?

  150. mazhur Says:

    @ Arun Pillai :

    1. <<<<<<<<<<It is the context of use that confers meaning.>>>>>

    2. >>>>>because it comes in the way of public professionals performing their duties.>>>>>>>>>

    No.1 reminds me of a Muslims Tradition attributed to the Holy Prophet Muhammad and unanimously accepted by all Muslim sects which goes to say that once the holy Prophet saw her beloved daughter, Fatima, unveiled before a visitor male in her house. The Prophet became unhappy at that and when the visitor had gone he asked his daughter why didn’t she cover her up properly before the visitor?? To this Bibi Fatima replied,” My dear father, that visitor was blind”. At this the holy Prophet remarked: ” He was blind but not you”!

    So, the moral of the Hadith is that Muslim women are bound to cover themselves up decently under all circumstances.

    2. The hypothesis is fallacious and cannot be applied generally to all places, times and circumstances. Muslim women had been attending wounded Muslim soldiers during early war times and even today Burqa clad or decently covered up Muslim women are attending to most sophisticated professional jobs such as flying, etc. For an example , even a modernized ex-Prime minister of Pakistan, Benazir, fully covered up her body in decent dress and never let go her head gear off in public. Burqa is just a costume design/fashion considered by some women as a better form of veiling to hide their bodily adornments from the public eye and perhaps most women seem to feel more comfortable wearing it.

    • Anjum Altaf Says:

      Mazhur: The argument from religion is well known but that is not what will resolve the debate in France (or in the case of the kirpan in the US). Most Muslims in the West have adjusted their lifestyle to the requirements of secular societies and secular societies have made the adjustment to foreign practices (e.g., Sikh policemen wearing the turban in UK). It is only a very tiny minority (in France it is estimated that about 80 women wear the burka) that represents the challenge to the system and the interest is in following the arguments that are being aired to deal with the situation.

      There are of course contradictions that come into play as was apparent in the article on the turban in France. The accompanying photograph showed Dr. Manmohan Singh wearing a turban in a very public place in Paris.

  151. Arun Pillai Says:


    In #5 above, you wrote, “The real issue is the redefinition between religion and politics in a changed context.” Is this not asking for a new definition of secularism?

  152. Arun Pillai Says:


    I love your phrase, “bodily adornments.” Perhaps you are right: when I see an attractive woman, I certainly wish I could see her bodily adornments as fully as possible, and I’m sure many other men are like me in this regard. Perhaps you are too. Should women mind if they do? That is for women to answer.

    • Vinod Says:

      Arun, if you read the literature of orthodox Islam translated into English ‘bodily adornments’ is a very common phrase.

  153. Arun Pillai Says:


    Thanks for letting me know. I meant no offense: it has an old-fashioned ring to it, that is all.

    Seeing is very important to humanity but I think the Islamic tradition gives it more power than it has. All traditions try to protect women from the eyes of strangers – the sari is also a difficult type of dress to manage in professional situations and most women have abandoned it – but I think with the increasing emancipation of women in modern times, they have come to take that power into their own hands. No corporate CEO like Indra Nooyi is afraid of the male gaze. It is generally because women are not allowed to be fully educated and participate fully in professional life and are kept confined in homes that they have been slow to acquire this power.

  154. Arun Pillai Says:


    In theory, you are right, everything should be constantly reexamined in the light of changed circumstances. And, in a sense, that is what we have been doing in this discussion. But I think I have pointed out enough reasons why I think the burqa is bad for young women anywhere. There is no point in revisiting this. Reexamination is fine; what Roy seems to be recommending is a *redefinition*. I see absolutely no reason for a redefinition of secularism. At worst, if eighty women have to suffer, then so be it. No theoretical principle can accommodate every human being.

    • Anjum Altaf Says:

      Arun: This discussion has moved on. Let me reiterate the road we have travelled.

      The discussion is not or no longer about prejudices or preferences:

      1. It is not a poll on the popularity of the burka.
      2. It is not to ascertain the personal likes and dislikes of the participants. These have been stated often enough and, as you say, don’t need to be revisited.

      This discussion was about looking for a principle that could help provide an answer to the controversy over the burka in France. We thought we had found one based on free and voluntary choice that did not harm others. But as we delved further we discovered that in France laicite has a higher priority than liberte which is difficult for outsiders to reconcile with. Roy notes in his book: “Outside France, this very offensive and militant laicite is perceived as excessive, and even undemocratic, since it violates individual freedom. It is regularly denounced in the annual report of the State Department on religious freedom in the world (not only because of the prohibition of the Muslim veil but also because of the restrictions placed on the activities of sects such as Jevohah’s Witnesses and the Scientologists). So, our principle cuts no ice in France.

      So the issue is no longer about 80 burka preferring women and it is not even about Islam. Roy captures this in a rhetorical comment: “Is Islam such a threat, or has the French identity reached such a crisis point that a few hundred veiled girls and bearded preachers can overwhelm it?”

      It is the broader issue of how the state in France wanting to adhere to laicite adjusts to the revival of religion in society. To some extent this is also the issue with the Christian Right in the US, the Taliban in Pakistan, and Hindutva in India. As Roy concludes, Islam and the veil only serve as the mirror to highlight this larger issue of our times. And if this is the issue then a “so be it” answer doesn’t help. So be what?

      And no, Roy does not advocate a redefinition of secularism. The failure to explain his position adequately is mine. You will have to read his book to see what he is saying.

  155. Arun Pillai Says:


    From Wikipedia:

    “The word has been used, from the end of the 19th century on, to mean the freedom of public institutions, especially primary schools, from the influence of the Catholic Church in countries where it had retained its influence, in the context of a secularization process. Today, the concept covers other religious movements.

    Proponents assert laïcité is based on respect for freedom of thought and freedom of religion. Thus the absence of a state religion, and the subsequent separation of the state and Church, is considered a prerequisite for such freedom of thought. Proponents maintain that laïcité is thus distinct from anti-clericalism, which actively opposes the influence of religion and the clergy.

    Laïcité relies on the division between private life, where adherents believe religion belongs, and the public sphere, in which each individual, adherents believe, should appear as a simple citizen equal to all other citizens, devoid of ethnic, religious or other particularities. According to this conception, the government must refrain from taking positions on religious doctrine and only consider religious subjects for their practical consequences on inhabitants’ lives.

    Supporters argue that Laïcité by itself does not necessarily imply any hostility of the government with respect to religion. It is best described as a belief that government and political issues should be kept separate from religious organizations and religious issues (as long as the latter do not have notable social consequences). This is meant to protect both the government from any possible interference from religious organizations, and to protect the religious organization from political quarrels and controversies.

    Critics of laïcité argue that it is a disguised form of anti-clericalism and individual right to religious expression, and that, instead of promoting freedom of thought and freedom of religion, it prevents the believer from observing his or her religion.

    In Europe today, the controversy often centers around banning of wearing hijab, taxpayers’ rights to religious choice in education services and restrictions placed on the construction of new mosques. In the United States, it centers around school prayer, creationism and related issues.”

    Roy’s interpretation that laïcité violates freedom is precisely where the conflict lies since the supporters of laïcité claim that it promotes freedom. It is not that French identity is overwhelmed by a few veiled girls and a few bearded clerics. Far from it. The same thing would have happened if French Catholics were to suddenly insist on teaching Creationism in school.

    I think it is right to restrict the freedom of citizens in certain ways for the benefit of the whole society. In my view, laïcité does promote freedom in more important ways because it keeps the public sphere open for non-distorted communication of the type Habermas has so forcefully argued for.

    • Anjum Altaf Says:

      Arun: But what is to be done if the institution of laïcité is under stress and unable to handle the strain of new developments? A vote of confidence does not help to resolve that question.

      I regret if I conveyed the impression that Roy believes laïcité violates freedom. In this case, he was reporting the US State Department’s perspective on laïcité. I will refrain from further attempts to summarize Roy to prevent misunderstandings. If you are interested you should read the book which I recommend strongly.

  156. SouthAsian Says:

    By coincidence I came across this dialogue today on the failure of multicultuarlism in Europe. Because of its format, it enables the reader to follow the arguments better and infer one’s own conclusions for further discussion:

    Multiculturalism at its limits? Managing diversity in the new Europe

    “The very thing that diversity is good for is the very thing that multiculturalism as a political process undermines.” Continuing the Eurozine debate series “Europe talks to Europe”, critic of multiculturalism and free speech advocate Kenan Malik met Slovak Civic Conservative politician Fero Sebej to discuss where multiculturalism went wrong and what the alternatives are for Europe. Moderated by Samual Abrahám, editor of the journal Kritika & Kontext.


  157. SouthAsian Says:

    This speech by Prime Minister Cameron signals the end of the experiment in multiculturalism that was the principal mechanism adopted in the UK for the integration of immigrants. Recall that multiculturalism has already been declared a failure by other analysts cited earlier in this discussion. What is the alternative given that the French model, seemingly the only alternative, is also in trouble:


    • Vinod Says:

      Singapore’s former prime minister who made Singapore what it is today and who currently holds the position of Minister Mentor, Lee Kuan Yew, created a political controversy when he said that muslims in Singapore no longer integrated well enough as they used to during the 60s. He pointed to their demand and creation of separate halal food spaces and their practice of not drinking alcohol along with the non-muslims during gatherings.

      Singapore has since the time of its independence adopted a policy where the state is entirely secular and devoid of religion. That is closer to France, I think. It allowed the different ethnicities to pursue their cultural aspirations on their own initiative without the help of the state in anyway as long as the state had an overlordship over any such institutions. The chinese set up Mandatin schools, the malays setup Malay cultural and religious (muslim) schools. The indians their own.

      Lee Kuan Yew warned recently that the greatest threat to Singapore is to make language and religion political issues. He warned that the state should stay out of these matters.

      Grassroot leaders in Singapore organize visits to the places of worship of each commuity. They ensure that all festivals, whether they be of the Buddshists, Hindus, Taoists, Christians or the Muslims, get celebrated pubclicly with the participation of one and all. I don’t know how effect this is. But it has prevented the corruption of the political process through parochial demands.

      • SouthAsian Says:

        Vinod: I can believe that Muslims in Singapore do not integrate as well as they did in the 1960s but LKY must be referring to something more than what you have stated. There seems nothing amiss in asking for halal food spaces and not choosing to drink. Everywhere in the world vegetarians ask for separate meal counters and are accommodated and teetotalers choose to not drink in gatherings where others are drinking. It seems to me that the first generation of immigrants were too scared to ask for their rights and the new generations are not. As long as people are not breaking the law they can articulate their rights as they see them.

        The Singapore policy towards religion, as you describe it, seems unobjectionable as is the attempt to prevent language and religion from becoming political issues. But does this mean that the government’s positions on language and religion are not open for discussion? If so, that is an authoritarian position in which stability is given precedence over democratic rights.

        • Vinod Says:


          (i) Here’s what LKY said –

          Mr Lee, when asked to assess the progress of multiracialism in Singapore, said: “I have to speak candidly to be of value, but I do not wish to offend the Muslim community.

          “I think we were progressing very nicely until the surge of Islam came, and if you asked me for my observations, the other communities have easier integration – friends, intermarriages and so on, Indians with Chinese, Chinese with Indians – than Muslims. That’s the result of the surge from the Arab states.”

          He added: “I would say today, we can integrate all religions and races except Islam.”

          He also said: “I think the Muslims socially do not cause any trouble, but they are distinct and separate.”

          Mr lee then went on to speak of how his own generation of politicians who worked with him had integrated well, including sitting down and eating together. He said: “But now, you go to schools with Malay and Chinese, there’s a halal and non-halal segment and so too, the universities. And they tend to sit separately so as not to be contaminated. All that becomes a social divide.”

          He added that the result was a “veil” across peoples. Asked what Muslims in Singapore needed to do to integrate, he replied: “Be less strict on Islamic observances and say ‘Okay, I’ll eat with you.’”

          (ii) You are very accurate in saying that Singapore prefers orderliness to democratic rights. LKY’s experience of racial riots of the 60s shaped him irreversibly.

          • SouthAsian Says:

            Vinod: Thanks, this helps clarify the situation. LKY’s observations seem to reflect the reality but I would interpret them as follows. The real issue is not Islam but the the recent surge from the Arab states. For reasons we need not go into here, this is a period of fundamentalist upsurge in Islam which is reflected in the assertion of identity, the practice of rituals, the demonstration of purity, etc. But such a surge is possible in every religion. It is quite possible that if the ongoing popular changes in the Arab world are consolidated, the particular surge that LKY mentions would fade away and Muslims would become as relaxed as they were prior to the surge.

  158. mazhur Says:

    Prime Minister David Cameron is not totally incorrect in his observations. But it’s not the ‘policy’ as stated by him but democracy itself which gives leeway to ethnic groups to ask for more and more as their number increases. For them the democratic principles self-imposed by the advanced democratic governments serves as a ‘tool’ to raise their voice and assert their identity. Multiculturism is a merely wishful thinking of the democratic elements in a society. It fizzles out when minorities succeed in getting a foothold in a place by virtue of their increased number. However, this is not the case in Imperial democracies such as found in Saudia or UAE where freedom is not allowed to cross a certain line fixed by the govt. depite increasing number of expats there. But the situation in developed countries like the UAE and USA is just on the contrary.
    As far as ethnic and linguistic bias is concerned a not very old example of its effect can be found in the creation of Bangla Desh. Ethnic and liguistic bias is strongly embedded in the hearts and minds of people and they would mutiny for a separated homeland no sooner they get stronger in number. As regards religion, it comes second.
    Another example of ethnic and linguistic prejudices can be found in defferent provinces of Pakistan…..so much so that its largest city Karachi is predominantly held by an Urdu-speaking geneeration whose elders had migrated from India into Pakistan in or soon after 1947. Similarly, the Seraiki speaking people of Punjab are asking for a separate province for themselves based on linguistic and cultural differences. The North Frontier Province of Pakistan has recently changed its name to PakhtunKhwah to establish its ethnic and liguistic identity…Same goes on in other provinces —but nothing appears to do with religion which is the same in all cases.

    • SouthAsian Says:

      Mazhur: You are stating in different words that point that I had made earlier – human beings find it difficult to co-exist with those whom they consider different from themselves. The differences can arise from race, ethnicity, religion, caste or color. Having said that, I feel your generalization is too sweeping when you state that people mutiny for a separate homeland simply based on numbers. In the US, African-Americans did not mutiny for a separate homeland but fought to be integrated. Nor do the various ethnic groups (italians, Poles, Greeks, Chinese, Latinos, etc.) assert their identities in ways that would destabilize a democratic society.

      There were specific problems in the multiculturalism as practiced in the UK because it ended up in the ghettoization of immigrant communities and, contrary to expectations, furthered racist prejudice on both sides. This has been mentioned by the retrospective analyses of the policy referred to earlier in this discussion.

      Your examples of Bangladesh and Pakistan fail to mention that most of the conflicts were deliberately engineered by political forces for opportunistic ends. India, with far greater diversity, has managed the situation much better – the one case that sticks out and proves that conflicts are politically engineered was the encouragement of militancy amongst the Sikhs by Indira Gandhi, a parallel to the encouragement of the MQM by Zia ul Haq. Malaysia too has managed large non-Malay populations with a lot more success. There is nothing automatic that triggers assertion of identity or secessionist intentions simply based on numbers.

  159. mazhur Says:

    @ SouthAsian

    I agree with you but I feel it pertinent to mention that those ethnic you have mentioned have almost the same culture…in particular, outlook about sex and living whereas Muslim or Sikhs don’t. The failure of the Sikhs to secede from India failed mainly due to their weak numerical strength and lack of leadership.

    I do not think any Muslim would ever assimilate himself in the Western culture because he’s held back to do so by his faith and unless he denounces his faith he can never never adopt the Western culture, especially in matters of sexual liberties. The same problem may be with Sikhs as well because certain things are forbidden by their faith, such as abstinent from tobacco, remaining loyal to their language (Punjabi) , turban, hair, etc…

    Their is strong sentiment among ethnic and linguistic elements in Pakistan who want to have their provinces raised accordingly.Religion to them is secondary matter in the case. But, there is one interesting example of a peaceful hetero-linguistic culture in Switzerland where many languages are spoken in their ‘cantons’ but I think this is due to socio-political and population balance of some sort I am not sure about.

    But I am sure about one thing: that is when a certain ethnic or linguistic group in a place multiplies to good population strength it sooner or later begins to come up with ‘demands’ taking advantage of the ‘lacunas’ found in that place’s laws or constitution. Thus law tends to serve as a shelter for these people to further raise their voice and, if suppressed, makes them unhappy but if let go they become more aggressive in their demands.

    India is a different story. the two main religions, viz Hinduism and Islam are co-existing side by side for hundreds of years…and they ARE the same people with different faiths only. Yet there is a lot of difference between the cultures of them too…I don’t think Hindu-Muslim marriages have come common in India even after passage of centuries!

    You can also find examples of states created on ethnic basis in Central Asia… the Chechans are still fighting though.

    • SouthAsian Says:

      Mazhur: I am not able to follow the point you wish to make. From what I have understood I have the following responses and comments:

      1. I disagree with you about the Sikhs. I think it was good leadership that kept them a part of India.
      2. I also disagree that the ethnic groups I mentioned have almost the same culture. It appears so from a distance but to the groups themselves the differences are very important.
      3. Integration does not mean becoming exactly like someone else in every way. It means becoming part of society as a citizen. There is great diversity in the beliefs and behaviors even of those whom you would call “Westerners.” Just see the fierce debates and conflicts surrounding abortion, same-sex marriage, feminism, etc. All these groups disagree but are integrated in the sense that they do not wish to set up their separate states.
      4. We need to examine political demands for separation and the reasons for which they arise. They don’t arise automatically because of a size factor. If different groups don’t gain from living together or are kept together against their wishes or are instigated by outsiders such political demands will arise.
      5. A democratic polity has to keep its constituent units satisfied. The solution is to let democracy work, not to prevent the units from articulating their demands. If power had been transferred to the Awami League in 1971, as faithfulness to democracy demanded, there might have been no Bangladesh today.

  160. mazhur Says:


    What I gather from the quotes by LKY that you have posted is that Muslims wouldn’t mix up with people of other cultures because they feel they would be ‘contamination’. Not exactly. It’s the Muslim faith, ie Islam, which forbids them eating pork , drinking wine and to maintain gender separation. Since he doesn’t find these elements in the Western or Chinese Societies his Muslim identity shows up when he confronts these. Otherwise Muslims have no problem or prejudice against anyone. However, they are also at loggerheads among themselves for different sectarian beliefs….

  161. mazhur Says:


    As regards Sikhs, I am reproducing a comment from http://www.pixelsandpolicy.com/pixels_and_policy/2010/02/khalistan-virtual-country.html the contents of which are quite self-explanatory.

    ”’The Khalistan movement was declared defeated in 1993 /1994. The internet did not come into mass usage until about roughly 2000. For nearly 6 to 7 years the ideology was able to survive without the virtual world. Within those years of no internet and no movement, anyone who associated themselves with the movement was is great danger, yet people still held onto the belief, why?

    Recently the state of Punjab has requested 5 additional battalions be created for security reasons within Punjab. Last month, Sikhs protesting the killing of a fellow Sikh started yelling slogans of Khalistan in front of Punjab Police, an act unthinkable 10 years ago (Youtube video available). And as the days go by, the Indian government adds more and more Western Sikhs to their Black List (those Sikhs not allowed into India), and continuously complaints to Western governments about Sikh activities. Within the past few months, anti-Khalistan videos have started to appear on Youtube. These videos are done in a very professional manner, with narration and interviews. It is clear that this “virtual threat” is indeed being perceived as a real threat by the nation of India and rightfully so.

    To understand the true nature, strength and justification for Khalistan, one must first understand the root causes for and the methods used to end the last Khalistan movement. It is clear that no mainstream paper will be able to address these issues as it will simply add more fuel to fire. How can well respected author write that the Indian government used horrific methods to subdue a movement that was rooted in justifiable arguments? It is because of these facts that the movement is now reviving across the world.

    Revolutions are not easy to categorize and label. To attempt to do so will only limit the writers and readers understanding of that movement. Soviet Russia may never have come into existence had it not been for WW1 and the help of German government, yet a global war and the assistance of foreign governments is not a mandatory requirements for revolution. Cuba embraced its revolution, yet Bolivia failed.

    A revolution is like a virus to the host nation. Each virus has its own methods of infecting the host and spreading. Some may show extreme sign while others may lay dormant. To say one can analyze and conclude the end result of a host infected with Ebola with the knowledge and expectations of HIV is indeed shortsighted.”

    As regards the Western culture,

    European culture is largely rooted in what is often referred to as its “common cultural heritage”.[47] Due to the great number of perspectives which can be taken on the subject, it is impossible to form a single, all-embracing conception of European culture.[48] Nonetheless, there are core elements which are generally agreed upon as forming the cultural foundation of modern Europe.

    As regards Bangla Desh, yes, you are right. A country which has stayed more than half of its life under martial rule and is still indirectly ruled by the martial clout cannot be said to qualify for democracy at any time, neither now nor in 1971. This fact was well known to the Bengali’s then……and they realized it at the first opportune time!
    Had they been given the charge the situation would have been just the opposite as, within even the same religion, ethnic and linguistic factors are too difficult to hold on for an indefinite time ….

    Political demands raise their heads with awareness. As soon as people gain awareness and strength they are bound to create a row for establishing their own identity. MQM of Karachi is such a glaring example.

    • SouthAsian Says:


      1. We disagree on the situation regarding the Sikhs. Let someone else provide another perspective. The Internet is a dangerous medium because anyone can post a video and pretend there is a revolution going on. I see no evidence on the ground in Punjab.
      2. We disagree on Western culture. Let someone else provide another perspective. You counterpose a uniform Western culture to an incredibly fractured Eastern culture. In my view this is just because you know the latter in much more detail than the former.
      3. It is not clear to me what solution you are proposing for situations where groups differing by ethnicity or language find themselves living within the same borders. Should people be kept in ignorance because as soon as the gain awareness they are bound to create a row?

  162. mazhur Says:


    1. Despite all the privileges the Sikhs are enjoying in India, it is quite a reality that they still aspire for a homeland of their own. Apparently they are not ”’active” but they do live in their Khalistan, though virtually, in their dreams. Who knows about future…? Once a spark subsists within the ashes there is always risk of fire sooner or later.

    2. Look at the formation of EU?? What does it denote?? At least European outlook towards gender association is the same or similar and is very unlike the East. I don’t think this is the case even in a secular state like India….which may be a bit liberal but not as scot free in sexual norms as the West. Since America is greatly a hotch potch of people from different parts of Europe, I have to reason to believe that American culture is predominantly like that of Europe in many respect. Muslims, in the other hand, may have different cultures but ALL Muslims believe in the Quran and their conduct in any culture is predominantly governed by its tenets. This may not be totally true in practice but in theory it is. Consequently I doubt if Muslims can ever get assimilated into other cultures. Indian Muslims are yet another glaring example of how religion has prevented them from adopting the Hindu culture for most of its parts that conflict with Islam.

    3. In my opinion, I think that the solution to this problem is to have smaller countries or redefining their territories into several provinces or ”cantons’ on the basis of ethnicity and language and allow them the freedom for self-rule. This can also be achieved without ‘splitting” a country such as the US…or even Swiss model could serve as a model.

    • SouthAsian Says:

      Mazhur: Let us set aside the minor issue and focus on those of greater significance (I have switched the order to keep the most important issue for the end):

      1. Let us leave the issue of the Sikhs for the future to reveal since we are now interpreting dreams which is a very imprecise venture.

      3. How would you apply your prescription to a place like Karachi? It has a population of 16 million, bigger than many countries, and comprises a mix of many ethnicities and languages. How would you propose it be reorganized to conform to your proposed solution?

      2. In my view the issue of culture is the central one. We will not make progress on this till we agree on a definition of culture. It seems to me that you are reducing culture almost entirely to sexual norms – there is one culture in which sex is ‘scot free’ and another in which it is governed by strict tenets. Not only is this extremely simplistic, in my view, it also makes the mistake of comparing the practice of the former with the theory of the latter. So, let us begin with a definition of culture and then resume this discussion.

    • Vinod Says:

      mazhur, an additional point to bolster SA is that the EU is not as secure among Europeans as you think. In fact it is far more openly being challenged in UK in the political arena than the Khalistan movement, which as you have said is only an unexpressed aspiration till now.

  163. mazhur Says:


    1. Right…the Sikh issue is yet a distant cry! I don’t think the dream of a Greater Punjab will ever see the light of the day.

    2. Culture is a relative phenomenon. Many factors such as geography, climate, economics, resources, environment,religion, sociological factors, etc govern the ‘culture’ of a place and its people. Sex is all important in every society but every society doesn’t seem to have the same or similar outlook towards it as for example, it has towards food or perhaps clothing. People living near oceans are accustomed to a maritime living..ie they would be ‘fish-minded’ whereas those living in the plains or mountains would avoid water or relishing fish regularly. Some African tribes will do well with whatever little clothing and periphernalia available to them whereas others living in places where better amenities are available would go for better things.Customs and habits tend to form an essential ingredient of a culture and a value which is termed as good in one culture doesn’t seem to fit well in the other. Compare the American or Western culture with Japan….despite that both are developed nations yet you will note various differences in them both.

    3. The problem of Karachi is very complex and I don’t see any solution to it in the near future. When an ethnic majority takes hold of a town overwhelmingly it becomes very difficult for the central govt to suppress their voice or rights. Such an ethnic majority forcefully tends to become the ”owner” of the town and can paralyze it by waging a strike.

    On the other hand, some people are threatened by the settlement of other ethnic races on their land. This is evident in the mutinous tendency prevalent in the thinly populated but the biggest land-held province of Baluchistan.

    Both these situations are dangerous for the existence of a country and I think democracy is NOT a suitable way to run a country befacing such hostile and high-handed conduct of its citizens. You need something better than the Western democracy to overcome these kinds of situations…where the use of force by the Federation becomes necessary. Don’t you think a similar situation prevails in the Indian-Occupied Kashmir???

  164. SouthAsian Says:


    3. Your comment on Karachi should suggest that the solution you proposed was too theoretical and cannot be implemented in practice. Every situation, when you examine it carefully, would be fraught with similar complexities. Within 50 years South Asian countries would be more than three-fourths urban and if a the solution is not possible in cities, it is not possible in countries.

    The solution is not to divide places into smaller and smaller units in the hope of finding some mythical homogeneity or to coerce people to live together by means of force. Rather, it is to find ways to learn to live with diversity. Bombay had similar issues with the Shiv Sena as Karachi but things have been getting better there which suggests that compromises are possible and the democratic process is one way of facilitating them.

    2. Perhaps a more accurate way to characterize culture is to say that it is very concrete but that it can change. Culture is the way of living and thinking of a people that is shaped by all the factors you have mentioned – geography, climate, etc. Therefore the culture of the rural Italian south is very different from that of the urban Scandinavian north. Speaking of a composite ‘Western’ culture does not help in this framework.

    Religion is not the same as culture – the same religion can be embedded in many different cultures and get interpreted in ways that are peculiar to that culture. Thus the fact that Islam is common amongst African-Americans, Bosnians and Afghans does not make them culturally alike nor does it make the attitude towards women same in all three cases.

    It is easier to get a grasp of culture if we keep the emotive aspect of religion out of the picture. For example, it is part of Pakistani culture for people to turn up hours late for events, to relieve themselves in the street if rushed, and to invite individuals they meet for the first time to their homes to share a meal. There is no difference in the behavior of Muslims and Christians – Pakistani culture overrides differences in religious beliefs.

    When a Pakistani migrates to the US, he/she does none of these things because they are not a part of the host culture. People adapt to the new culture and after a couple of generations it is hard to believe how different the culture was from which the immigrants had come to the US.

    Many different cultures exist in the world and within countries and there needs to be a non-judgmental appreciation of the diversity of the cultures and of the need for dialogue amongst them if we are to live together in the kinds of cities and countries where it is not possible to quarantine people into culturally homogeneous Bantustans and where the use of force can only lead to tragedy.

    Both the points I am trying to make are articulated much better in a short essay on cultural pluralism. The central message of the essay is the following:

    “At the social and political level, cultural pluralism implies that public discourse cannot be conducted in a single conceptual or moral language and must allow for a diversity of idioms and languages. This puts into question the dominant and dubious view that a society cannot be stable unless all its members share a substantive vision of the good life.”


  165. mazhur Says:


    Multi-culturism sounds like the failed Deen-e-Elaahi of the Mogul Emperor, Akbar the Great….He succeeded in ruling India for about 50 years on the basis of his ‘liberal’ views about his own religion, Islam, and respect (political though) for other local religions, particularly the Hindu’s. Akbar’s views were not appreciated by his own son, King Jehangir, who finally revolted against him and reverted to his own culture again!
    At the same time, the Hindu’s or Sikhs, for example, could never accept Muslim culture despite living for hundreds of years together. However, many cultural Hindu elements do seem to have been adopted by the Muslims but those are merely limited to Islamacized rituals.A Muslim won’t eat pig nor a Hindu slaughter a cow! Not only this but there are many superimposing factors governed by each others religions which are not acceptable to both the parties.
    Given this, how can one expect to reach a ”multi-culturistic’ society without sacrificing most of his aspirations and liberties allowed him by democracy or any secular governance??? The ban on burqa is just one example how ”multi-culturism’ is frustrated and victimized in the West for any reason, whatsoever.
    Similarly, every country or nation has its culture of its own and they, rightly or wrongly, think it’s the best. They are not inclined to accept any change in it or allow others to act otherwise without awe or even bias. For example, Muslims and Mormons are allowed to take 4 wives at a time but polygamy is not permitted in many cultures for their own reasons. Likewise, premarital or extra-marital sex is common practice in the Western countries and some Eastern blocks and bastards born are patronized by their states. Doesn’t all this reflect serious bias against the essence of multi-pluralism?? Though the fundamental truths may be the same in every culture but outlook towards them completely depends on the conditions prevailing in those societies. In countries where populations ,resources and incomes are not even properly documented, economy is bad and where corruption is rampant I think it would be a far cry to even think of a pluralistic society which may seem to exist there but only on the surface…like snow covering the peak of a volcano!

    You will note that culture has superimposed religion more than it has in the East, especially India and Pakistan. MEast is mostly Islamic sticking to its own culture…except some deviation in Turkey. Iran is overwhelmed with Shiite version of Islamic culture with strains of Zoroastrian culture…

    Talibans, for example, have a culture of their own and the topi-style burqa their women wear is a part of their culture…

    I have observed that when an Indian or Pakistani goes abroad he atonce adjusts himself to the culture of the host country. Why?? because if he doesn’t he wouldn’t be able to live there without being hit by their laws. Then there are two types of culture 1) general culture 2) personal culture. Those who live in host countries are obliged by ”cultural forces” of the host country to ‘behave’ and only have a limited access to their cultural edicts in the privacy of their homes only..while still remaining under the umbrella of the general culture.

    Culture is changeable with time….but still religious beliefs will always act as a clog in the attainment of a ”multi-culture” as a whole.

    As regards dividing large provinces or countries into smaller units I meant creating more and more smaller administrative units (like the Swiss cantons) within a federation or confedration to manage their affairs effectively and harmoniously without letting the rights of one to be suppressed/oppressed by the others.

  166. SouthAsian Says:


    1. You missed the point in the essay on cultural pluralism. The end objective is not to arrive at some kind of monoculture in which everyone becomes similar to everyone else. The goal is for people who differ from each other to find ways to exist together.

    2. What was Jahangir’s culture?

    3. Switzerland was not one country that was subsequently divided into smaller cantons to ensure homogeneity. Each canton was a fully sovereign state – they joined together in 1848 to form the Swiss Federation.

  167. mazhur Says:


    1. Anything can co-exist but for a price. That’s the law of Nature.
    Diversity is mainly for the purpose of Identification….

    2. Emperor Jehangir was also liberal towards people of other religions and perhaps it was he who allowed concessions to East India Company to establish and operate their business freely at Surat in India. You can read more about him in his autobiography, Tuzk-e-Jehangir….where, inter alia, he states how he used to go and meet a Hindu Sadhu in his small cave for hours on…regardless that the sadhu, be it summers or winters, wore nothing except an underwear (loongi)….unfortunately the Emperor did not write what he used to discuss with him during his meetings spread over hours but he certainly held the sadhu in greatest esteem, obviously for the sadhu’s learning and wisdom.
    Jehangir was also for multi-culturism but at heart he was finally a Muslim. As you might know the Moguls would marry women of any faith but they forbade men of other religions to marry Muslim women…and that was a royal decree!!
    Jehangir was an opiate and a drunkard….his wife Noorjehan looked after the affairs of the state. But Jehangir is famous for his great sense of Justice..

    3.Switzerland is just one example ofcourse. Any student of political science could tell us better.
    Some people are in favor of a Confedration for Pakistan as western democracy is almost a sham in this country where tribal and feudal lords and a few ‘elites’ always win at the polls through their ”dreadful” clout! In case of MQM it’s ethnic bias at work.

    Enjoy reading this interesting article… Social Scientist Sees Bias Within

  168. SouthAsian Says:


    1. Not co-existing also has a price. The rational approach is to make a comparison.

    2. What you have described is Mughal culture. You wish to call it Islamic because somehow you know that at heart Jahangir was finally a Muslim. In an earlier comment you had said that “ALL Muslims believe in the Quran and their conduct in any culture is predominantly governed by its tenets.”

    It is not possible to argue with unverifiable and unobservable claims like the dreams of Sikhs or the inner urgings of Jahangir. If these claims are contrary to the available evidence one has to leap from reason to faith in order to continue holding on to them.

    3. Switzerland was an inapplicable example. Let someone tell us better – in particular how the proposed remedy would be applied to Karachi.

  169. mazhur Says:

    1. Since man is a gregarious animal, the policy of ‘co-existence’ seems necessary but the ”struggle for survival” sometimes makes things difficult, physically as well as psychologically.

    2. Mughal culture was Islamic the same way Pakistani or Saudi culture is. Beliefs also play a great role in the formation of a culture. For example, the so-called Moghul culture was not the same in case of Aurangzeb Alamgir who did away many practices of his ancestors.

    3. Good idea. Let’s wait to hear further thoughts from others. I am not for the Western type of democracy in Pakistan. That is mere exploitation of the ignorant majority by the minority. Only 2 percent of the elite are ruling over 180M Pakistani’s with no mind to leave their seat but to pass it on to their sons and relatives. Something or anything that ensures the rule of law is the basic need of a country like Pakistan.

    Enjoy these thoughts about Multi-culturism in rebuttal to Cameron’s recent speech in the subject

    and this

    // [Cindy] Henderson acknowledged that some parents were upset that their children were learning about the Middle East.

    “We don’t want to discriminate against the entire Middle East,” she said, “but [9/11] is hard to forget. They said they aren’t going to teach religion, but I don’t see ‘how you can teach that culture without going into their beliefs’.”//


    (He defines Western civilization as “a cultural compound of Christian, classical, and the folk traditions of Europe.”)

    Fighting multiculturalism on campus
    Checking in with the youth wing of the anti-immigration wing of the conservative movement at CPAC Video


  170. SouthAsian Says:

    Mazhur: We have to exercise some care here. Culture is not individual specific. Rather, within a given culture there can be great variety of temperaments. Saints and sinners, sages and fools can all be part of the same culture. What you are describing are temperaments and the preference of one temperament over another is not at issue here. Some one else can point out with equal credibility that the Mughal empire attained its zenith with Akbar and commenced its decline with Aurangzeb.

  171. mazhur Says:

    It is true that the Moghul Empire saw its zenith during the reign of Akber and followed decline after the death of Aurengzeb. Both have their own reasons but this is a fact that Aurangzeb held a larger empire than Akber and ruled for more time than him. Often the ”zenith” or ”fall’ of an empire also depends on the ability of its successors. Unfortunately, Aurangzeb had none. In fact he had put all his sons ( who were over 50 years of age) behind bars and who got too long time to live trusting no one.

    Sorry I don’t get your ‘temperament’ issue…though I take your point in that both good and evil persists in a culture but it’s the general tendency of a people that goes in the making of a culture. A sufi or rogue doesn’t represent a ‘culture’, that can at best be called an exception or an oddity. Culture is what is generally believed to be true in a place….in the presence of certain circumstances there, good or bad.

    • SouthAsian Says:

      Mazhur: The point was that individuals can have very different personalities (or temperaments) within the same culture. Each personality is not a distinct culture. I was commenting on your statement that “the so-called Moghul culture was not the same in case of Aurangzeb Alamgir who did away many practices of his ancestors.” Dara Shikoh and Aurangzeb were part of the same culture culture but with very different personalities and ideas.

  172. mazhur Says:

    Right, all of them had different approaches and beliefs but they were not common men, they were kings and could and they did dictate some additions or changes to customs, practices and culture. For example, by setting up Begum Bazaars for their army folks they contributed several new things to the Indian culture which haven’t changed since then. It would also be interesting to note that culture also undergoes changes with the changing situations such as a poor country eventually becoming affluent, such as Arab oil-producing countries, or in case of some places, perhaps in Africa, going further poor or less industrious. It’s also worth noting that King Zahir Shah had changed the ”culture” of Afghanistan during his reign by forbidding Afghan women from wearing burqa’s or Shalwars.
    Consequently, I could find all Afghan women in Kabul moving about in skirt and blouse during my visit there in 1969! Doesn’t this show that regal or statutory laws and decrees can change the culture of a place, temporarily if not permanently??

  173. SouthAsian Says:

    Mazhur: Cultures are rarely static – there has been a discussion on this subject elsewhere on the blog. The vast majority swims along in the culture that exists adapting to it as it evolves; a tiny minority rebels against what it feels are cultural constraints; another, on the other side, wishes to prevent changes; and yet another wishes to go back to some culture that existed in the past. It is the tension amongst all these, often in the form of cultural wars, that yield a given cultural milieu at any given time.

    At the same time, it is rarely one single individual, even a king, who can radically alter the trajectory of a culture, simply because the evolution of values is very gradual. You are right, Aurangzeb did try but note how the Mughal culture reasserted itself with a vengeance with Mohammad Shah Rangeelay and Bahadur Shah Zafar. The Mughal culture was a court culture – it was not the culture of all of India – and it only died out with the demise of the Mughal Empire. As a court culture it was the culture of the aristocracy which was not exclusively Muslim. In fact, if you read Dalrymple’s White Mughals you will see that even the English became part of the Mughal culture.

    In that context, the Mughal culture was not entirely the culture of the people who came with Babar from Fergana – which is also why it was not entirely an Islamic culture. It was an amalgam of Turkish, Persian and Indian cultures – what Dara Shikoh very aptly termed Majma-ul-Bahrain (The Confluence of the Two Seas) – that later filtered down to the people as the Ganga-Jamni culture. Hindostani or Urdu was part of this culture. The earlier term for Urdu was Rekhta, a word that meant ‘mixture’ – an apt description of the culture of India.

    Of course, there are purists who are allergic to the thought of mixing which brings us back to where we started from – conflict or co-existence?

  174. mazhur Says:

    Culture is as complex as the human mind or body! But one thing about it is clear that it is influenced by beliefs. For example, a Hindu or a Muslim would feel at home here as he would in any other place on earth. Reason: they have the same culture!! (religion being a constant between their respective beliefs)

    Moghul had almost given up their culture after Aurangzeb and it was for this reason that Ahmad Shah Durrani remarked at the frailty of his Moghul captive harem sarcastically for their entirely changed ”culture’ and ‘values’ after he over threw the Moghuls.

    It’s true that culture changes with time….or perhaps with the development and progress of technology, economy and many other governing factors!

    I think we have adopted more of the culture of our colonial masters than they did. And they did mostly to make best of their ‘sojourn’ to India otherwise a glimpse of it could also be seen in their own culture…but it is not.

    Dara Shikoh had difference of belief with Aurangzeb….Dara was a kinda pan-religious Sufi prince while Aurangzeb was a staunch Sunni.

    • Vinod Says:

      Mazhur, the interaction between beliefs and behaviour is not one directional, from beliefs to behaviour. It is two directional. It is important to distinguish between beliefs that are articulated and beliefs that are actually at play, especially when, as you say it, a certain culture has been adopted.

      You are labouring under the assumption that as culture changes beliefs don’t change and I believe, if I may be permitted to harard a guess, that you place a lot of weight on articulated beliefs than lived beliefs.

      You are entitled to that premise. But I’m afraid you will find it hard to explain cogently and coherently the connection between behaviour and beliefs as an organic whole. You are going to break up a person’s being into disjunctive psychological compartments.

  175. mazhur Says:


    ”How important are cultural roots for yourself?”

    ”There are many races in this earth some with more culture, morals, influence, and values than others. That still doesn’t change the fact that we all live in this earth together sharing what ever piece of land we live on. No matter what race we are — we are always influenced to believe in our roots. I am Hispanic, my roots are very strong because in my household I was thought that morals and values and the unity of family will always be part of your life when a family is born. It is important to me that the roots I was thought keep on for generations to come, maybe by influencing my future husband and children. The importance of unity in a household is very complex maybe because everyone has there ups and downs in life. One thing that is also very complex in the Hispanic culture is that most of the time the first language thought is Spanish and that can cause some controversy due to the fact that in the country I live in the main language is English. Many times the culture you have flowing in your bloodstream can create problems like racism and the way you are judged by the color of your skin but that does not change the fact of who we are. Yes I can say that culture is very important to me because that is who I am that is what will stay with me for the rest of my life. Several people have changed the culture they were raised with — one big example in the king of pop Michael Jackson who changed his appearance to become a white person when he was born black. To do that is just disrespecting who your parents are and where you came from but in this world money is more important than any culture, race or background you come from. Culture means everything to me because without culture then what can we say about ourselves. Maybe that we are all the same but we are not all the same culture separates us , ‘the way of thinking separates us and our expressions of what we believe in makes’…”


    • Vinod Says:

      They are important enough to appreciate them for the lovely memories, strong values and stable upbringing given to me. But I have come to realize that the form can change while retaining the good from the kernel. The kernel is not so fragile that it cannot carry itself and needs the protection of the form.

  176. SouthAsian Says:

    The question we need to consider is the following:

    Does it make sense, on the one hand, to collapse all of ‘Western culture’ into one category and, on the other, to claim that two brothers (Aurangzeb and Dara Shikoh) represent different cultures?

    What exactly are we trying to do and are we succeeding in our objective?

  177. Arun Pillai Says:

    Here is a joke that indicates why you can’t collapse Western culture into a single category:

    “Hi. This is Sarah Palin. Is Senator Lieberman in?”
    “No, governor. It’s Yom Kippur.”

    “Well, hello, Yom. Can I leave a message?”

  178. SouthAsian Says:

    Now that the ban on the niqab has gone into force in France, it is time to revisit the issue again. An opening is provided by an article in the NY Times on the proposed ban on nudity in Barcelona.

    In 2004 the Barcelona City Council affirmed categorically that the law “does not contain any article for sanctions against public nudity.” This is set to change now. One of the critics of the ban ‘compares the campaign against nudity to a parallel proposal to ban the wearing of the Muslim women’s veil, often called the burqa, in public places, as several nearby cities in the Catalonia region have done and as the Barcelona City Council is considering. Mr. Roca called both measures forms of segregation. “It’s like ‘No Negroes,’ ” he said. Just as politicians fear that a burqa-clad woman has something to hide, he said, “they imagine an undressed person has something to hide, too.”’

    ‘Joaquim Mestre, 50, a member of the liberal Green Party who is the city councilor for civil rights, said that backers of the new sanctions hoped that they would give the police and courts a legal tool to control abusive behavior by tourists. His party opposes the sanctions, as it does the proposed burqa ban. Just as Barcelona’s undressed are only a handful, the number of women who wore the burqa in neighboring Lleida, the first city in Catalonia to ban it, “are about three,” he said.’

    In both cases, it is the politics and fear (of immigrants in one case and tourists in the other) that seems to be driving the initiatives – there is otherwise little explanation for why something that was fine in 2004 could become unacceptable in 2011.

    ‘“The city’s afraid of the kind of tourists it’s attracting,” said Mr. Reifenberg, a native of Israel who has lived here for six years. These tourists, he said, go for “cheap alcohol, partying, hanging out in the street, and not spending money.” As a result, the city’s business community — hotels, restaurants, bars and retail outlets — has put pressure on the mayor, Jordi Hereu, a Socialist who faces an uphill battle for re-election in May.’


    • Vinod Says:

      I prefer the pragmatic reasons of Joaquim than the ideological reasons of Roca, although both are standing on the same side of the issue.

      I actually find Roca’s uber-liberal ideology against my traditional instincts. I think nudity is a moral issue although I am not sure it is a legal issue. I’m not sure I can define where modesty ends and nudity starts. I prefer leaving that to each culture.

      • SouthAsian Says:

        Vinod: The legality is simple to determine – In Barcelona, it was legal in 2004 and it may cease to be so in 2011. It is whatever the law says it is at a moment in time. The same is the situation with the niqab in France – it became against the law in 2011. The morality is the more difficult issue. I don’t think there is any alternative to leaving it to each culture, perhaps even each subculture – it may be considered moral in one part of a country and not so in another. I suppose the key is to see if this determination is reached via an open, fair and democratic process. The issue that never seems to go away is the one of minority rights. We have not yet found a way to balance the right of a minority and the sensibility of the majority.

      • Vinod Says:

        By legal issue, I meant whether it makes sense to make it into law. My moral instincts want it to be law – that nudity be prohibited by law. But the uncertainty around defining modesty, which is the slippery slope on which the idea of nudity rests, and the imprecise moral justification for nudity makes me uncomfortable with the idea of turning it into law.
        The issue goes deep into the majority’s instincts and it will be painfully hard to have a civil and dispassionate public conversation about it.

        • SouthAsian Says:

          Vinod: Morality precedes legality – whatever is considered immoral is likely to be encoded as illegal. So, the focus of the enquiry should be on morality. In my view morality is really a question of offense to sensibility – if something offends the sensibility of the majority it is likely to be deemed immoral. If we think of morality in this way, it would be clear that it is relative because sensibility is socially constructed, not something we are born with.

          There seems nothing innately immoral about nudity. There is no bar on nudity within the privacy of the home and its adoption depends only on whether all family members are comfortable with it. This is extended to nudist beaches and resorts which are legal because all members are comfortable with being nude. Nudity in unregulated public space is not accepted because it offends the sensibility of some.

          But sensibility is only a function of what one is used to. In the gymnasia of Greece, children used to be naked so boys and girls could get used to the sight of each others bodies. It was thus considered quite normal for the athletes to be naked in the Greek Olympics. In India, people were comfortable with some sadhus clad in very little. So, people can get accustomed to less or more clothing which is obvious from the spectrum of acceptability that ranges from Brazil at one end to Afghanistan at the other. In this context, one should recall that being unclothed was quite normal in many parts of Africa and the Pacific Islands before Christian missionaries covered them up because their sensibility (sense of morality) was offended by the sight of nakedness.

          Therefore, the verdict on the morality of nudity in a place should remain dependent of the social sensibility at that time of the majority of the residents of that place. This is not a problem of any kind. The problem arises only because in recent times groups with different sensibilities have come to live in the same space. This problem we have not figured out how to resolve.

  179. Vinod Says:

    Morality does not translate very easily into legality. Adultery is an example of that.

    Although I am inclined to agree with the idea that nudity as a moral idea derives from sensibility, I wonder whether sensibilities can be changed through rational thinking. I don’t think that is what you are suggesting. Rational thinking can perhaps only go to the extent of coming to tolerate the other. ‘Tolerance’ in Latin means ‘suffering the other’. Many today call for more than mere tolerance; a need to celebrate ‘the other’. I wonder whether that is good in itself. Why can’t tolerance suffice? Why can’t preservation of who we are without attempting to annihilate the other be the best idea? After all what we’re trying to get at is the preservation of diversity. It is diversity that has to be celebrated. Diversity gives us a very real feel for the adaptability and creativity of the human spirit.

    • SouthAsian Says:

      Vinod: I am not clear what point you wish to make with the example of adultery. Wherever adultery is considered immoral, it is also incorporated in the law in some form. For example, a spouse can file for divorce on grounds of adultery.

      No, I am definitely not suggesting that sensibility can be changed through rational thinking. Sensibility is a function of what one is used to or gets used to. For example, South Asians settling in the West get used to much reduced coverage of the human body and after a while don’t associate it with immorality. Clearly the Pacific Islanders did not consider nakedness as immoral simply because they were used to it from birth and not because they had thought rationally about it.

      The problem with tolerance is that it does not eliminate the notion of hierarchy. In effect it says you are not as good as us but we will accommodate you and this can unravel at the slightest sign of stress. We have to get to the point where this notion of ‘better than’ and ‘not as good as’ is replaced by one that just acknowledges that people are different. We don’t need to celebrate the other but we don’t have to engage in the exercise of ranking because that is the first step down the slippery slope of prejudice.

  180. Vinod Says:

    Let’s leave adultery aside. What about prostitution and the places it has got legalized even when the immorality of it is felt widespread ?

    We have to get to the point where this notion of ‘better than’ and ‘not as good as’ is replaced by one that just acknowledges that people are different

    A humanistic set of laws? Interestingly if this exercise gets successful anywhere it would probably lead to a legal system that embodies a universal set of morals!

    The difficulty I have is that it leaves no reason to hold onto one’s identity. Isn’t it a part of holding onto one’s identity that one actually believes it to have some special status over others? You seem to be compelling people to abandon all their cultural identities and reduce the feeling for it. You have to make a case for why then should people hold onto their identities. Why have a unique identity at all, if identities are a mere matter of getting used to and have nothing more to them? Why not all of us just speak one common language, eat one common set of foods and wear one common set of clothes and celebrate common set of festivals?

    • SouthAsian Says:

      Vinod: I can’t figure out how you derived the conclusion about sameness. One can’t acknowledge that people are different unless they are actually different. What I am saying is that If I am a South Asian and somebody else is an East Asian, is there a necessity for either one of us to think ourselves superior to the other? We have our own identities but we are at par as human beings.

      Regarding prostitution, perhaps a different logic applies in this case. This is a phenomenon which, unlike nudity, gets driven underground when it is declared illegal causing more problems (public health and human trafficking come to mind) then are resolved. So, from a public policy perspective, it is better to legalize it as a second-best alternative. The same logic applies to drugs.

  181. Vinod Says:

    We have our own identities but we are at par as human beings.

    SA, there are many ideas within the concept of one’s identity that overlaps with the concept of a human being. Nudity may be an acceptable part of the identity for some and completely anethema not only to what the identity of another is but also to what a human being should be.
    There are some issues of identity, such as nudity, that cannot be limited to a cultural idea. I will extend this to say that this extended idea of identity arguably applies to all aspects of identity that has a moral nature to it. Categorising them under cultural relativism is as good as erasing this aspect of identity and is bound to evoke strong opposition.

    The mere existence and continuation of cultures where nudity was happily practiced is not indicative of the non-moral nature of nudity. Moral depravity does not have to lead to the extermination of a society.

    I hope I am making sense there.

    • SouthAsian Says:

      Vinod: I am afraid I am not being able to follow the argument. In my view the problem is arising because you are using such a wide interpretation of identity that it is losing its power. It might help if we consider separately those characteristics of identity over which we have no control and those customs that can change over time or by choice.

      Suppose I am born a Tutsi and you are born a Hutu; there is nothing we can do about these attributes of our identity. But I would hope that I would not be persuaded by anyone that I as a Tutsi am somehow superior to you as a Hutu. And, in case I am, I hope there would be a law that would prevent me from inflicting harm upon you as a consequence of my belief.

      One the other side, both Tutsis and Hutus are born naked but that is not part of their identity in the same way even if, for the sake of argument, nakedness is the norm amongst Tutsis. Many societies that preferred nakedness as the norm no longer do so but it is not claimed that they have lost their identity – it is the custom that has changed.

      To extend this further, if a Tutsi migrates for economic reasons to a white country where no one has ever encountered public nudity, he/she would be entitled to expect that there would be no discrimination on the basis of color, religion or language. But it would be beyond a reasonable expectation to think that host society would also accommodate nakedness in public immediately especially if there is danger of public anarchy. Where there are aspects of choice involved, most migrants understand the tradeoffs – one would expect the Tutsi to learn the language of the host country and cover up in public. This common sense wisdom is captured in the aphorism “When in Rome do as Romans do.” If the tradeoff is not acceptable, the Tutsi might seek a more compatible place to migrate to.

      In real life the situations are never completely black and white but this illustrates what I am trying to argue. I am arguing for a world in which Hutus and Tutsis, despite all their differences, have equal rights and equal stature by virtue of being human. They may consider each other odd or peculiar but this should not translate into notions of superiority and inferiority. The sense of oddness and peculiarity is eroded over time if one escapes being biased at the outset.

      • Vinod Says:

        I find no harm in considering norm A to be superior to norm B. But that does not mean that all As are superior to all Bs. I can think that nudity is an inferior norm and still think that nudists are my equal. Judging a community overall has a lot more to do than the judgment over one or two norms of that community.

        • SouthAsian Says:

          Vinod: We are beginning to get some convergence now. What I am suggesting doesn’t at all eliminate personal preferences. I may prefer vanilla to your strawberry but, as you say, that does not make me superior to you. However, regarding the second point, it is very normal for people to form a judgment of a community based on their interaction with one person of that community.

        • Vinod Says:

          And I will continue to take exception to you regarding my norm as a matter of taste :)

          • SouthAsian Says:

            Vinod: That poses no problem. It is what people do based on their beliefs that matters. For example, a Roman Catholic is free to take exception to abortion but not thereby entitled to attack an individual who is pro-abortion. Problems only arise when sentiments of being better or holier or superior are allowed to be acted out. There are two solutions to this danger and both need to be strengthened simultaneously. The public space should be so sacrosanct that people cannot act out their private biases AND there should be dissemination of research on the social origins of private biases in order to contain them. Beyond that one is free to prefer his or her own ways to those of someone else – that is what diversity is all about.

          • Vinod Says:

            From where I stand, even as I believe nudity in the public space to be immoral I am reluctant to compell nudists to cover up by coercion of the law unless there is a demonstrated harm emanating from the practice of nudity. It doesn’t have to be a pure and direct causation chain between the harm and the practice of nudity but a contributory cause will suffice.
            It is difficult to rationalize why I personally prefer a deontic moral system but prefer a consequentialist moral system working within the realm of the law. Many may think that the personal approach to morality then is of no consequence. I think that is incorrect. If I meet a nudist I will strenuously try to convince him to give up the practice without coercing him in anyway. To that extent it does have consequence.

          • SouthAsian Says:

            Vinod: Spain continues to test the boundaries. This news item brings the economic dimension into the picture – how money can drive attitudinal change. I wonder if you have any thoughts: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-13162118

  182. Mariam Says:

    This discussion reminded me of Nussbaum’s “Adaptive preferences”; that is, women (or people in general), adapt their preferences according to what they can get. As it has been pointed out in the discussion here, this makes it difficult to figure out whether the person is being coerced due to societal etc pressures or it really is that person’s preference. But the question is, can this difficulty justify banning veil? I cannot know whether you’re being coerced into it and neither can a ruler know that; but that does not mean a ruler can ban something on the bases of the difficulty of knowing whether it was chosen or not. It would be interesting to consider the example of arranged marriages so common in this part of the World; such marriages could be forced or not. It is easy to imagine how often women can succumb to adaptive preference in this case. However, does this mean the ambiguity surrounding arranged marriages should lead to their ban? But more importantly, there is a grave danger with this line of reasoning-it leads to the denial of the other person’s freedom. Who decides what is my ‘real’ preference? For example, if I wear a veil or I am happy to go along with an arranged marriage, you are telling me hey, you think you are happy and it’s your choice? Actually, no, this is not your real preference; you’re being coerced via some underlying forces and consequently, you are not free. Basically, what is important is the principle behind my actions. If the principles are based on someone else’s command or even a posteriori principles attached to consequences of reward and punishment (in terms of societal unacceptance) then yes, I am not free. But if my principle is a priori, based on my own command, then I am free (something on the lines of Kant’s Categorical Imperative). Thus, if the principle behind my wearing a veil is based on my own reason, then I am free…However, then the question arises whether the command of wearing a veil can come from ‘my own’ law if it’s a religious command but this is a separate topic worthy of further philosophical analysis, beyond the scope of my response here.

    • Anjum Altaf Says:

      Mariam: ‘Adaptive preference’ seems to me a new term for the very old-fashioned process of socialization. There is much written on early childhood socialization and its influence on our preferences and their legitimacy. It really makes it very hard to come to any sensible conclusion about “real” preferences in many cases. You have given a good example of arranged marriages – dress is quite clearly another. These can be contrasted with adult choices like smoking where no such early childhood socialization may be involved. I think the article or the comments do raise these issues.

    • Anjum Altaf Says:

      Mariam: You will find the following article (East and West: The Reach of Reason) useful: https://www.mtholyoke.edu/acad/intrel/senreason.htm

      In particular, the following refers directly to ‘adaptive preferences’:

      “There are implications also for the “communitarian” position, which argues that one’s identity is a matter of “discovery,” not choice. As Michael Sandel presents this conception of community (one of several alternative conceptions he outlines): “Community describes not just what they have as fellow citizens but also what they are, riot a relationship they choose (as in a voluntary association) but an attachment they discover, not merely an attribute but a constituent of their identity.”28 This view-that a person’s identity is something he or she detects rather than determines-would have been resisted by Akbar on the ground that we do have a choice about our beliefs, associations, and attitudes, and must take responsibility for what we actually choose (if only implicitly).

      “The notion that we “discover” our identity is not only epistemologically limiting (we certainly can try to find out what choices-possibly extensive -we actually have), but it may also . have disastrous implications for how we act and behave well illustrated by Jonathan Glover’s account of the role of unquestioning loyalty and belief in precipitating atrocities and horrors). Many of us still have vivid memories of what happened in the pre-Partition riots in India just preceding independence in 1947, when the broadly tolerant subcontinentals of January rapidly and unquestioningly became the ruthless Hindus or the fierce Muslims of June 29 The carnage that followed had much to do with the alleged “discovery” of one’s “true” identity, unhampered by reasoned humanity.”

      And there is something about arranged marriage (at least in the case of children) as well (which we have now come to agree should not be permitted):

      “Akbar was, for example, opposed to child marriage, then a quite conventional custom. He argued that “the object that is intended” in marriage “is still remote, and there is immediate possibility of injury.” He went on to remark that “in a religion that forbids the remarriage of the widow (Hinduism), the hardship is much greater.””

  183. Mariam Says:

    Thank you, Sir, for introducing me to the above mentioned article of Sen. It is enlightening for me; especially the part about Akbar.
    Regarding discovering identities…I was thinking of black enslavement in South America…that could be another example (As Sen points out the disastrous implication of merely discovering one’s identity). We should keep in mind that even if we grant that we merely discover our identities, nevertheless, we always have the choice to give importance to one identity or the other. For example, is it even significant that the color of my skin is dark or fair or what really is important is the fact that we all are human beings..

    • Anjum Altaf Says:

      Mariam: It is important to read such essays because they connect us with aspects of our history and heritage of which we may be unaware and open our minds to questions that we might not have considered.

      Sen himself has written on multiple identities – his book is worth reading. A review and an article might suggest the flavor and provide the incentive to access the book itself.

      Click to access costapintoreview.pdf

      Click to access Sen.pdf

      Recently Professor Harbans Mukhia was at LUMS and in a private conversation he framed the difference between community and communal values in a very simple and persuasive way. Each of us is born in a community and by virtue of that shares the multiple identities of that community – religion, sect, ethnicity, language, etc. All these help to bind members of the community to each other. At the same time, any one of these identities can become a communal identity that aims to divide members of the community from each other. But while we have limited choice over the specifics of our community identities, we have complete choice to reject a communal identity.

      Professor Mukhia’s example from the 1947 violence in the Punjab illustrates these choices very clearly. Thus the onus of choice is very much on ourselves and we have to frustrate those who aim to turn community identities that bind into communal identities that divide. We have the option to not play along, to refuse, and to resist – and we must exercise that option proactively.

      In case you are interested, there is an entire set of posts on the theme of identity on the blog. It would be great if you can contribute to the series: https://thesouthasianidea.wordpress.com/#Identity

  184. sandeep Says:

    In India, strange things are going on. The corporates have taken over the media and they like to use the body of women to be consumer for their products.

    When some actress/model speaks about the right of her to wear anything, do anything, whole media praises her for her coming out in support of women empowerment blab blab… Indirectly through advertisement, serial, movies etc they subconsciously tell women to have western dresses, do office job etc. On the other hand, if somebody speaks about women to wear conservative dresses then whole media question the person of how can he say such thing ? Where is the freedom of speech gone here ? They effectively makes him to get silenced. Because of this many people have conservative world view but fail to speak openly due to fear of backlash by media.

    Have anybody thought of long term consequences of such acts? Europe, Japan, russia population is going down as their family system is destroyed. Couples don’t like to have kids as no one like to raise kids by leaving their career etc. When we speak of women empowerment in terms of women to do job, wear anything she like etc, we have to think of long term consequences. With everything, we have plus minuses. All the customs developed in old religions/culture was precisely to save the community survival and its growth. Those castes/religions/communities adopting the european values will loose in terms of demography.

    • Anjum Altaf Says:

      Sandeep: I am not sure how a demographic argument for how women should dress is any better than a corporate argument. Shouldn’t women decide this for themselves?

      • sandeep Says:

        Our custom and social behaviour should be in line with nature’s survival. Darwin theory is applicable here. That’s why we are striving to change attitudes of people to arrest climate change. We have also in India campaign to save Girl Child for the same reason.

        • Anjum Altaf Says:

          Sandeep: I am afraid I have not understood the point you are trying to make. Which theory of Darwin are you referring to? If Darwin’s theory is applicable why do attitudes of people need to be changed?

          Our customs and social behaviour were much more in line with nature’s survival till the discovery of fossil fuels? What did Darwin’s theory have to do with the discovery of fossil fuels? What does the problem with the Girl Child have to do with Darwin’s theory?

          In any case, what does all this have to do with how women choose to dress? Whether they overdress or underdress has no bearing on climate change.

  185. SouthAsian Says:

    Seema Mustafa from India has reopened this issue. Do read and comment on whether you agree with her argument or not.


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