Martha Nussbaum Calls for End to Burqa Bans

The famed professor cites everyone from Locke to Scalia

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Prominent American philosopher and author Martha Nussbaum has weighed in on the controversy over European bans on the burqa and veil. France and other European countries, responding to rising immigration of Muslims from Turkey, North Africa, and the Middle East, have considered banning the restrictive clothing prescribed for women by some conservative forms of Islam. Writing in The New York Times, Nussbaum asks, "What does political philosophy have to say about these developments?"

She examines enlightenment philosophy, ethics, the history of the U.S. Constitution, and the law to form her answer: Don't ban the burqa. Nussbaum explores what she says are the five arguments to ban the veil and burqa, carefully dismantling each, explaining the philosophy behind the argument and citing everyone from John Locke to Antonin Scalia. Here are the five arguments, and her responses to each:

(1) Security "It gets very cold in Chicago - as, indeed, in many parts of Europe. Along the streets we walk, hats pulled down over ears and brows, scarves wound tightly around noses and mouths. No problem of either transparency or security is thought to exist, nor are we forbidden to enter public buildings so insulated."

(2) Social Cohesion Nussbaum disputes that "the kind of transparency and reciprocity proper to relations between citizens is impeded by covering part of the face." Just look at dentists.

(3) Feminism "Sex magazines, nude photos, tight jeans -- all of these products, arguably, treat women as objects, as do so many aspects of our media culture. ... Proponents of the burqa ban do not propose to ban all these objectifying practices. ... banning all such practices on a basis of equality would be an intolerable invasion of liberty."

(4) Protection Against Coerced Veiling "All forms of violence and physical coercion in the home are illegal already, and laws against domestic violence and abuse should be enforced much more zealously than they are. Do the arguers really believe that domestic violence is a peculiarly Muslim problem? If they do, they are dead wrong."

(5) Health "Would the arguer really seek to ban all uncomfortable and possibly unhealthy female clothing? Wouldn't we have to begin with high heels, delicious as they are?"

She concludes:

All five arguments are discriminatory. We don't even need to reach the delicate issue of religiously grounded accommodation to see that they are utterly unacceptable in a society committed to equal liberty. Equal respect for conscience requires us to reject them.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.