Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Veiled Threats? by Martha Nussbaum

World reknowned feminist philosopher, Martha Nussbaum, shares her well-reasoned argument against banning the burqa on the New York Times site today
A third argument, very prominent today, is that the burqa is a symbol of male domination that symbolizes the objectification of women (that they are being seen as mere objects). A Catalonian legislator recently called the burqa a “degrading prison.” The first thing we should say about this argument is that the people who make it typically don’t know much about Islam and would have a hard time saying what symbolizes what in that religion. But the more glaring flaw in the argument is that society is suffused with symbols of male supremacy that treat women as objects. Sex magazines, nude photos, tight jeans — all of these products, arguably, treat women as objects, as do so many aspects of our media culture. And what about the “degrading prison” of plastic surgery? Every time I undress in the locker room of my gym, I see women bearing the scars of liposuction, tummy tucks, breast implants. Isn’t much of this done in order to conform to a male norm of female beauty that casts women as sex objects? Proponents of the burqa ban do not propose to ban all these objectifying practices. Indeed, they often participate in them. And banning all such practices on a basis of equality would be an intolerable invasion of liberty. Once again, then, the opponents of the burqa are utterly inconsistent, betraying a fear of the different that is discriminatory and unworthy of a liberal democracy. The way to deal with sexism, in this case as in all, is by persuasion and example, not by removing liberty.


  1. Hey Tobi,

    You’ve given some interesting critique on the (in)compatibility of feminism with western intervention on third world cultures, here and in other blog posts. I want to recap a bit of what I’d mentioned off-blog, and make the argument that imposing some of our western values on other cultures is not only compatible with feminism, but ought to be an imperative.

    To restate the context of my argument:

    As an atheist, I reject the epistemological basis underlying traditional notions of absolute, objective morality. Without the belief in a creator, there can be no logically consistent set of beliefs that allow for us to carve out absolute notions of moral "right" and "wrong."

    So, when I say I reject the notion objective morality, what I am really saying is that I recognize that morality is itself a human creation. What we consider to be "right" and "wrong" is really dependent upon our reasoning as intelligent creatures living in society with other intelligent creatures. To that end, it's quite subjective. Clearly this is the case, or we wouldn’t see such deep differences between the ethics of human cultures, geographically or temporally.

    However, recognizing that morality is subjective does not in any way diminish the importance of developing and living according to ethical maxims (my preferred term for "morality," since it doesn't imply religion).

    To get back to my main point of how it can be "good" to impose western values on other cultures....what I am really saying is that I believe strongly enough in my own construction of ethics based on my experiences as a human that I am comfortable imposing them on other cultures. Yeah, I can see how this reeks of paternalism at first pass. But realistically, since there's no objective "right" and "wrong," we have to pick the set of ethics that are most conducive to living in a fruitful and productive society.

    If we have to pick the ethics that are most conducive to living in a fruitful and productive society, we have to pick the ones that don't arbitrarily discriminate or deny groups of people access to the cornucopia of goods, services, and freedoms we have developed for ourselves as members in various societies. That is why racism, sexism, etc. are "wrong" by my calculations. Any of these things and their penumbras have the effect of subduing artistic, scientific, agricultural, political, social growth. This would be, by my way of viewing things, counterproductive, and ethically "bad." imposing a liberal western cultural agenda of freedom of access to the public life (among other things) to women in some third world countries that are presently denied that access whilst hidden under veils, or in the home, or in the public square being stoned to death is somehow unfeminist, or ethically wrong? No. I would even argue that opposite. It is unfeminist to allow our own discomfort with "power" to stop us from not speaking out or acting to change certain sexist/racist/classist traditions and customs in other cultures. Ultimately, I believe it's our duty to do so.

    To be clear…when I say that imposing western values on other cultures ought to be an imperative, I’m not referring to the western values of pure capitalism, or corporate-pedophilia (e.g. Miley Cyrus…bikini waxes…ideals for female beauty that mirror pre-adolescent boys, etc)…

    When you have the time and/or inclination, I would be interested in hearing you response to this argument, especially if you could incorporate in it an explanation of the epistemological basis of the particular sort of cultural relativism you’ve alluded to preferring, here and off-blog. As always, I look forward to hearing your thoughts.

  2. Hi Debb,
    while you make a good point about the objectivity of morality I think that you are missing the bigger point. Banning the burqa can best be compared to our struggle with abortion.It is yet another way for a man to tell a woman what she can do with her body. If she wants to live modestly that is her choice. I think western women can never understand what it feels like or means to be a good Muslim woman, because Unlike you they are not atheist. Unlike a lot of people in my feminist community I've been to Mosque and I have a closer relationship with Islam then other people. Woman don't feel oppressed by there Burqa in America, they feel protected by it. she doesn't have to wear it, she wants to wear it. SO why is it ok to tell her she can't? The Ban is just yet another way that all of western society is imposing its western culture on Islam. Isn't this the big problem that many Islamists have with western culture? The forcing of our ways, our ideas, our laws? I wonder if you've ever talked to a women in America wearing a Burqa? If you do I wonder what she had to say to you because all of the women I know in America who make the choice to be veiled or completely covered are happy with their choice.

  3. Hey Movieparty,

    Thanks for your thoughtful reply.

    I agree with your conclusion regarding the ban: I'm personally not in favor of it. My reasoning is slightly different than yours but it's also rooted in the cardinality of choice. To me, this is a case where the government shouldn't be intervening with private behavior. While I'm comfortable with a greater degree of explicit government involvement in private affairs than many people, I have to, in principle, take a step back when the government involvement only -- or disproportionately -- affects women (and I really like your analogy to the struggle for abortion). I also take issue with the ban because it attempts to regulate a single religion, and historically that's been a convenient excuse for racism perpetuated under the banner of national security, or whatever the raison d'etre of the day.

    Full disclosure though: I am one of those radical atheists who wills that everyone ought to be an atheist. And I have to wonder whether any particular religion is really a choice for most's largely cultural, right? That's why most people born in the US today believe in the Christian mythology, most people born in ancient Greece believed in the Greek mythology, most people born in Scandinavia during the Viking ages believed in the Norse mythology, etc. It would be a lot more surprising if my (hypothetical) child were to be born a follower of Zeus. People are born into a religion that's rooted in their culture, and the vast majority never leave. Religion thrives on, among other things, fear and guilt. So how voluntary really, are the incidents and badges of religion?

    As an aside, I am also not in favor of any of our current war(s). I feel like I should say that outright. The main point of my initial post was to critique cultural relativity. Or at least what I understand to be cultural relativity. I'm still really curious to hear a straight-out explanation of the epistemological basis of it, if anyone's willing to give it a shot?


    1. Assuming religion is cultural is somewhat analogous as assuming numbers are cultural. To some extent they are, roman numerals are different than the modern arabic numbers. However, they depict an objective truth symbolically.

      For instance, Arabic numerals included '0' which is a superior system to understanding the world than a system which has no place holder for 0. Hence, we adopted the numeric systems

      Now, Christianity replaced paganism because it was a superior way of understanding the universe. Before you argue that atheism is the replacement of Christianity, it is worth mentioning that atheism is mentioned in Psalms and other works of antiquity.

      Atheism (while unprovable whether it is older than Judaism) is definitely older than Christianity. Yet, it failed to catch on. It goes through periods of resurgence and then backlash because persons forget how much a society that believes in subjective morality is crappy until it occurs in their lifetime.

      Most support for atheism derives from a person's need to believe that they are justified in whatever they do- some pet sin they want to protect rather than fix. Fair enough, but once everyone indulges society will break down, and then people will find religion again, and Christianity at that because it is the truth.

  4. Deb G. where does cultural "respect" come into play? If a person feels entitled to impose her ethics or cultural mores on another, how is she not exactly the same as (or worse than) the evangelical who won't leave someone alone out of genuine concern for his/her immortal soul?

    & who gets to decide what the "liberal western cultural agenda" is anyway? I don't sense a lot of western cultural support, even from "liberals," for women (for example) who want to take time off during moontime, even though that was a traditional American practice before the Euro-invasion, and is arguably a very healthy one. Who decided that in an ideal world, "equality" means we are all, regardless of our culture, subject to the same treatment and expectations as the European white man?

    And, I actually think that it is just as possible, even more possible, to see deep SIMILARITIES in human cultures, as it is to see deep differences. I mean, what you see (similarities vs differences) really depends an awful lot on what you are looking for, doesn't it?

    Finally, I think that "westerners" tend to spend an awful lot of time talking at, to, and about other cultures. Considering the relative level of global power we now possess, coupled with where we have taken the planet, it seems to me an attitude that is far beyond arrogant.

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