The Burqa is Immoral

I had been watching Ten’s latest offering – Can of Worms, and one of today’s questions was “Is the burqa out of place in Australia?”.  And then I tweeted this:

the burqa is dehumanizing, and alienating – the burqa is immoral. But echoing Don Burke, I’d fight for the rights [for women] to wear it. #canofburqas

140 characters, unfortunately is not enough for anyone to expound their thoughts, or even qualify their statements, and so I thought I’d blog about it more.

First things first, let’s get the initial question out of the way – yes, I think the burqa is out of place in Australia, and pretty much any where else in the world, even in Afghanistan.  It is out of place both in Australia and anywhere in the world because what it stands for is immoral.

Morality can be Measured

Why morality as an argument? Why not science and statistics, which I often employ? Because, more often than not, science, statistics and morality are verily intertwined with one another. I recall, in 2007, entering a heated argument with a housemate of mine who is working in the field of aboriginal rights. I had pointed out  that in general, conquerers and invaders have caused a net gain in the quality of life (as measured by life expectancy for example) for the native people [1]. I had been called a imperialist pig (and an assorted varied names too) – despite the fact that I think imperialism is not correct.

If one were looking at numbers, and purely at numbers, it’d be easy to conclude that imperialism does bring some advantage. Life expectancy of the surviving native people usually, after some strife, increases due to economic growth [2]. Granted, the life expectancy of the native people will usually take time to catch up with the life expectancy of the colonial invaders[3], but if compared to pre-invasion periods, post-invasion periods natives generally have higher life expectancy [4].

In 2007, I had not read Sam Harris’ The Moral Landscape – indeed he had not written the book yet. But I had fairly similar ideas to him, and I am sure at one point or another I may have read about using fMRIs to measure people’s responses. Now that I had read The Moral Landscape, I feel any arguments I had been trying to make had been improved so much, and so elegantly laid out, and well cited by Sam Harris.  Life expectancy is just one way to measure the wellbeing of a person. Happiness of a person, which can be sussed out using traditional questionnaires and fMRIs is another method of measuring the wellbeing of person.

If the wellbeing of a personcan be objectively measured, then short of a supernatural deity, we can objectively say something about morality. Morality can simply be defined as a behavioural conduct that seeks to raise the wellbeing of a person or groups of people. It sounds closest to utilitarianism – in fact I like to think of it as Utilitarianism 2.0.

Rights and Freedoms

A very keen concept developed in western civilization is the concept of rights, specifically, the rights of an individual. The concept of rights had been developed in eastern civilizations as well, however, it was mainly concerning the rights of groups[5] It can be used to . It is often thought that eastern societies are more conformist, while western societies are more individualistic. There is no one single way to do things [6] – societies have flourished under both schools of thoughts.

It should be noted though, that rights and freedoms are quintessential, to both the individual, and the group. Just as any individual has the right to kill another individual, the group has the right to peace too. While it is often a trade-off between group rights and individual rights, there are situations where it’s not pareto optimal, and individual rights can be fulfilled without diminishing group rights and vice versa. And there are many of these situations.

Likewise with freedoms. Freedoms however are constrained by group dynamics. For example, if I am a nudist, I gain utility[7] from being in the nude. In a group that frowns on nudity, the freedom of me going around stark naked while still there, would infringe on the group happiness – I would, perhaps out of my conscience for the group, choose not to go naked. In a group that would kill naked people on sight however, my freedom would be severely curtailed – there is a freedom for me to make that choice to go stark naked in the group, but the costs of doing so would too far outweigh any utility/happiness that I may have gained from doing so.

It is often thought that freedom – that is the say the option to do something – correlates with happiness. A person with more freedoms is generally happier than a person with less freedoms[8]. With these freedoms comes rights – essentially freedoms enshrined in some quasi-legal, quasi-philosophical.. thing [9].

Hence the wellbeing of an individual can also be assessed by the amount of freedoms an individual has.

For those curious about groups – the wellbeing of groups/societies can be easily defined: survival.  Groups change their features all the time. Prior to the Civil Rights Movement, American society was pretty intolerant of people of recent African origin[10]. And yet, after the Civil Rights Movement, more people gained more freedoms, and society did not fall apart in a spectacular implosion. Only when a group faces annihilation from an action, can we say that the wellbeing of the group is being threatened. How the group ‘feels’ is irrelevant, because groups are made of individual parts, and cannot feel. More often than not, groups are made of individuals with differing opinions, and most aggregates – are insufficient or inefficient measures for the purpose[11].

The Burqa

And now we come to the sticky part – the burqa. The picture on the left, is a burqa. Notice the lack of eyes – of which the niqab (again another garment I think is immoral) has “generously” allowed. It is faceless, and almost formless.

Think of the scariest, creepiest movie monsters, and chances are they have the least human faces. In fact, removing or distorting a face is the easiest way to impart a sense of otherness or alienness, and they teach you this in film school. The most alien of aliens have nonfaces (or at least faces as we humans understand). The human mind has been wired by evolution to recognize faces – and this is not just some Gestalt Psychology thing. Humans do indeed empathize with a face.

Without a face, human empathy is drained. What burqas do is essentially that – it dehumanizes the wearer, it alienates them from the outside world. This fashion coming from a culture which recognizes women as mere chattel, is not surprising.

Does being dehumanized affect the wellbeing of an individual? Undoubtedly and resoundingly, yes! The damage is mostly psychological, although some physical damage (think sunstroke) can happen too.

The burqa alienates these women from the outside world – Muslims[12] may think this as a modesty[13] saving rainment, and protecting these women – but the psychological damage is done.  It is immoral because it deterioriates upon the general (mainly physical and mental) wellbeing of an individual.

As an aside, I had coincidentally found, earlier this morning, this interesting photography project from Aaron Huey on niqabs in Yemen. The responses from the women were very interesting.

It’s Their Choice!

“But it’s their choice to wear the burqa!” as a counter response to my claim that the burqa is immoral. But me proclaiming the burqa is immoral has got nothing to do with choice. Women are free to wear whatever they choose to wear. I am not in the business of dictating what people can or cannot wear. I leave that to the Muslims and the Orthodox Jews. I believe in free choice, and as such, I don’t dictate what people wear. The more apt question to ask, however, is “are these women really free to choose?”

Responses will be mixed. Do we treat cultural entrapment as a prohibition of free choice? In Afghanistan, a woman without a burqa would have been terribly treated by the uber-religious wahabist Muslim society there. Think of all the stories of using steel cables to flog “immodest” women who don’t cover their faces, or the acid splashing on similar women. Are these women free to choose?

On the flipside, consider immigrants who have made it to Australia. Can they just shake off the cultural shackles and suddenly go free? Not if the original culture was brought with them. The environmental pressures have been reduced, not removed. There are other “shackles” that hold back the freedom to choose – religion is one of them too, so is the lack of education and information.

So, yes, while I will support the rights for women to wear the burqa, I will question if they are making a decision based on informed consent or not. The topic of informed consent is rather huge for me too, and I shall leave that for  a future post.

What do you think? What are your stances?

  1. [1]And I shall qualify this statement with the sentence “assuming no genocide was committed”, which is patently and realistically false, since genocides do happen when conquerers invade
  2. [2]Again, I must qualify this statement. I do think that having a massive 20 year life expectancy gap between Australian Aboriginal people and the rest of Australia is tremendously appalling, and it should be fixed as soon as possible)
  3. [3]And this is subject to a lot of other factors, mainly the access the native people have to the economic boom that the colonial invaders had set up; social factors such as racism too play a main part in the rate the life expectancy of native people increases
  4. [4]I must admit that there is a leap in logic here. It goes something like this: there are still tribes of people living in pretty much neolithic conditions. These are the ‘control’ groups – i.e. what would happen if groups of native peoples remain unconquered. It then goes to reason that imperialism brings exposure to economic growth, and hence quality of life improves too. Of course, if anyone wants to do a Jared Diamond and make this their PhD thesis, you’re free to use this idea to prove me either right or wrong, and do get back to me, so I can stand correct
  5. [5]Groups here are amorphous. It can range from a family unit to a whole civilization. I use the word ‘groups’ in the sense of group dynamics
  6. [6]We’ll leave the “my way or the highway” thinking to people who believe in religions and the Sith
  7. [7]utility is a finicky concept to explain, and I am pretty sure I can go on and on – just assume I get happy when I say “I gain utility”. This happiness has a “level” of sorts
  8. [8]For the moment we will ignore information overload, and options overload, because let’s face it, that’s pretty much a first world problem
  9. [9]I’d use the word ‘construct’
  10. [10]I must stress the word “recent” because all humans came out of Africa
  11. [11]There is one Universal Aggregation Method that I hope to invent one day though, that would fulfil the demands of aggregating group dynamic stuffs
  12. [12]please don’t play the No True Scotsman game here – i.e. “no true Muslim thinks this way”
  13. [13]Personally I think modesty is an outmoded concept

4 Comments The Burqa is Immoral

  1. Ben Boyter

    Im going to reply in a few parts.

    Firstly is the Burqa immoral. Neither. I don’t believe that any object has morality attached to it. Lets take the classic case of a Gun. Is a gun immoral? Many would say yes. What if I said that this gun was only used to protect children from dangerous animals. Is the gun still immoral? OK what if I then said it was used to shoot hungry endangered tigers? Same gun, just a different set of circumstances. Its the circumstances that define what is moral.

    Secondly can you measure morality. I would argue no. Yes you can measure the affects that one regime has on another but to compare what is moral which is totally independent of your circumstances, upbringing, beliefs and culture is an apples to oranges comparison. You can measure, but since one is measured using a yard stick and the other a meter stick you aren’t getting a clear picture.

    What is morality anyway? Its just a set of guidelines that the culture at the time takes as the normal. I wouldn’t consider slavery very moral, yet it was considered the normal state of affair in Ancient Greece, Rome and most classical civilizations. To take something closer to now, I would consider it immoral to not allow women to vote yet even in the west it wasn’t till 1984 that Lichtenstein have women this right. I always said to people that if you take two hypothetical cultures started at the same time, growing up together but one practices infanticide while the other does not which one is wrong? Most instantly side with one (hopefully the right one) but in this situation neither is immoral in their own eyes. They both have had the same beliefs for the same amount of time so both by rights are equally moral. (side note I strongly suspect that it is impossible to be unbiased when it comes to issues of morality.)

    Now taking all this in and applying it to the Burqa. Is the burqa immoral? No, but by my beliefs I believe the practice of forcing women to wear it and indeed a lot of the Islamic ways of treating women are immoral.

    That said I am with you 100% in defending their right to wear it. Just the same as I am 100% for people wanting to smoke if they choose to do so.

    1. Chewxy

      I agree – there is no inherent morality in an object. However, the burqa DOES stand for an immoral act, acted upon by Muslim men forcing their women to wear them.

      WRT to your point that morality cannot be measured, the point is exactly that. With so many views on what is “good” and “bad’, there is no objective way of looking at the morality of actions. However, I argued, as does Sam Harris, that science IS an objective yardstick for measuring morality. We can use the concept of “wellbeing” to make objective judgement about the morality of an action. I have only recently begun to use the word “wellbeing” after reading Sam – I had all along been using the concept of utility, which I now think is insufficient and not objective enough to make moral calls.

    2. Khadijah

      I agree with Ben, in that you cannot place morality on an object. It is neither an object nor symbol of morality/immorality.

      I certainly think that forcing people to wear it is immoral, just as it is to force someone or anyone to wear/not wear something for what you yourself consider is moral/immoral. (As opposed to forcing people to wear something for legal/safety reasons like helmets and seat belts).

      This goes both ways too, I’d tell muslims that wearing a burqa or hijab, does not make you more muslim than others. The clothing does not make your faith or make you a better person.

      On the other hand, is nonclothing/public nudity immoral?

      If you dress like a hooker or gogo dancer, the platform heels and skirt are not immoral in itself, the association with that profession might make it look immoral, but really it isn’t. In addition, if you’re not forced to wear them, it’s not immoral. Therefore, it is the action, not the object.

      Eliminating the object is not going to rectify the situation either. Taking the heels and skirt of a prostitute, won’t eliminate prostitution. Prostitutes in muslim countries cover their faces too.

      Likewise, banning the burqa isn’t going to solve the inherent problem, the law and culture that forced these women to wear them in the first place. It will just manifest itself differently.

      You want to ban the burqa, why? Because it is a symbol of immorality? of oppression? because you want to be a hero and save people? Well banning the burqa isn’t going to do that at all. Therefore all these people want to do is just to be arrogant and correct. Not to be good or kind.

      1. Chewxy

        Yes, you and Ben are correct – there is no inherent morality in objects. I have mentioned this in the reply to Ben above you. And I admit, it was my gaffe – it is the use of language in my opinion, that led to this misunderstanding.

        The premise is as thus: a majority of the people don’t wear the burqa out of informed consent (or they do not have the capacity for informed consent due to lack of education on choice). Therefore it is immoral, because them wearing the burqa is placed upon them will definitely lower their wellbeing, and they are doing so without (or without the capacity for) informed consent.

        Now, if you read my article very carefully, I did not in any where state that I want to ban the burqa. In fact, had you read the last paragraph I had clearly stated:

        So, yes, while I will support the rights for women to wear the burqa, I will question if they are making a decision based on informed consent or not. The topic of informed consent is rather huge for me too, and I shall leave that for a future post.


        In fact, my entire blog post had simply been making a logical case why wearing the burqa for most women is immoral. I’m an economist – I don’t think banning anything will do any good. In fact, if my intent had been to get rid of burqas, it’d be something simpler like “all _____(insert socially dishonourable occupations – like sex workers)____ must cover their faces with the burqa“. In short, I think a social tax would work far better than a ban.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *