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 * 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 . 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 * 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) . Granted, the life expectancy of the native people will usually take time to catch up with the life expectancy of the colonial invaders* 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 , but if compared to pre-invasion periods, post-invasion periods natives generally have higher life expectancy * 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 .

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* 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 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 * We’ll leave the “my way or the highway” thinking to people who believe in religions and the Sith – 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* 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 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* For the moment we will ignore information overload, and options overload, because let’s face it, that’s pretty much a first world problem . With these freedoms comes rights – essentially freedoms enshrined in some quasi-legal, quasi-philosophical.. thing * I’d use the word ‘construct’ .

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* I must stress the word “recent” because all humans came out of Africa . 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* There is one Universal Aggregation Method that I hope to invent one day though, that would fulfil the demands of aggregating group dynamic stuffs .

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* please don’t play the No True Scotsman game here – i.e. “no true Muslim thinks this way” may think this as a modesty* Personally I think modesty is an outmoded concept 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?

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