The ethics behind banning the burqa

Joseph Raz’s article “Autonomy, toleration and the harm principle” is primarily concerned with the relationship between autonomy and toleration and to what extent the government can intervene in a perfectionist manner. This relates to the issue of the burqa because one contentious issue in the debate is whether the government should dictate what its people can and cannot wear. One of the key points that Raz makes in the opening of his article is that a person cannot be autonomous if they are forced or manipulated into making a specific choice and aren’t given a range of choices with which they can develop their abilities.[1] I think Raz is correct in highlighting the importance of autonomy as necessary for a fulfilling life because a life constrained with limited opportunity is never going to be as fulfilling. If a Muslim woman is forced by her husband to wear the burqa everyday then Raz would agree that the woman’s autonomy is being limited because there isn’t a range of ‘good’ options for her to choose from. One could also argue that the limitation of human expression and interaction between people is limiting the fulfilment of the woman’s life. As a result of this toleration might acceptably be rescinded in the case where autonomy and the opportunity for a fulfilling life are threatened.

Raz is somewhat of a perfectionist and argues against the idea that in order for autonomy to be respected, the government should avoid pursuing a certain conception of what the good life is.[2] On this point, I agree with Raz because even if, according to Mill’s harm principle[3], the only role of the state is to prevent harm to others, the state needs some standard against which to base what harm is and in what cases it is appropriate to intervene to prevent harm. In this regard, the case for banning the burqa is less concrete because it is arguable that no harm is being caused by wearing the burqa and regardless of the oppression she might feel, she is not being harmed.

In relation to Okin’s article, I’m going to assume for the sake of clarity time that the wearing of the burqa and other Muslim headscarves is oppressive and discriminatory towards women. This is because the wearing of the burqa isn’t strictly mentioned in the Qur’an and is, therefore, a cultural decision made over time by predominantly male Muslims. Okin’s opening paragraph neatly surmises her intentions, to find out what one must do when a subculture’s claims about gender equality clash with those of the majority and whether the state has the right to enforce its more liberal position onto the subculture if the subculture displays sign of gender discrimination. I think that the tone of Okin’s article in general and the examples that Okin gives suggests a certain adversary to the burqa if not a change in the law. One theme throughout the article is consent and the extent to which women possess it or to which it is repressed by men. Her discussion about polygamy and the examples of immigrants who believe that the role of the woman in a polygamous marriage is to care for the husband in a general sense.

Okin clearly sees this in a negative light in relation to her original query about group rights and individual rights. Bruckner makes a very important point when he says that the people should hold complete rights to be part of all affiliations that they want to “provided that these associations are not seen as superior to the common law and do not become the pretext for one group or another to call for separate rights in the name of their convictions.”[4] Bruckner and Okin’s points coincide because they both highlight the limits that a minority or special group has in terms of being superior to the common law.

Okin, in clarifying the definitions of feminism and multiculturalism identifies a tension between them. The idea of multiculturalism isn’t inherently feminist, shown in the numerous examples of gender discrimination and oppression Okin gives in relation to women in Islam such as honour killings, the obligation for a rapist to marry the woman he raped and child marriages. I think Okin is right to distinguish the tension between the two because as she rightly argues, multiculturalism shouldn’t be about letting a subculture do whatever they want on merit of simply being a subculture and since we have assumed that wearing the burqa is oppressive, Okin would want to take steps to change the situation of the women so they are not oppressed which might mean banning the burqa.

Okin’s position on banning the burqa is complicated more by the tension she highlights between personal freedoms and the state tackling oppression and discrimination. Most people would agree that wearing a burqa is not comparable as child marriage and abuse and while in the latter case Okin would agree on state intervention to protect the child, I think Okin would take more persuading to sanction intervention on part of the burqa, perhaps being more in favour of disapproval of the burqa but no active intervention to ban it. On the other hand towards the end of her essay she stresses how much of the discrimination against women is in the private sphere and unlikely to be made public which suggests that public disapproval will only do so much to highlight the issue. I think therefore that Okin would tentatively agree with some form of ban on the burqa although much more would need to be done to empower women in the private sphere to allow them to reclaim some of their autonomy in life.

Personally I think that the intention behind banning the burqa is crucial in agreeing or disagreeing with the ethics behind it. One intention is public safety; not being able to see who is behind a veil, and the other intention is to prevent religious discrimination against women. On the former intention, I would agree with the ethics behind the ban because it is clear that being able to hide your face in public is a safety risk since anyone, dangerous or safe, could conceal themselves behind the veil. The French ban on the burqa in 2010 made clear that banning of masks, helmets and balaclavas in public that it was a public safety law. The European Court said that the ban “was not expressly based on the religious connotation of the clothing in question but solely on the fact that it concealed the face”[5] The proponents of the bill also argued that the burqa was a social hindrance that undermines facial expressions and recognitions that are central to the way in which humans communicate.

In a debate with Pascal Bruckner, Tariq Ramadam argued that the French ban on the burqa failed to take into account “innate feminine modesty”[6] which I think displays all one needs to know about Muslim attitudes towards women and their autonomy. This sort of argument lends a lot of weight to the religious discrimination argument against the burqa because from this it is clear that the burqa is a symbol of men’s power over women and the lack of interest on the part of the women’s desires and wishes. This is clear in Okin’s article where she gives the example of the protection of a FGM law in Egypt saying that it “curbs a girl’s sexual appetite and makes her more marriageable.”[7] This is a rule conceived by men, focusing on the wishes of men and the dehumanising of women. In this respect, the Burqa is a similar form of oppression and women would benefit from state intervention into the matter. Craig Considine argues the opposite and wrote that for some Muslim women the burqa helps ward off the excesses behaviour of western women and as freedom from male harassment.[8] The late Christopher Hitchens often said of religion that it is the psychology of servitude, the wish to be a slave and I think there is no better example than the burqa to show how religion and Islam, in particular, have brainwashed women into accepting servility and patriarchy, in most cases, without question. In summation while I am a supporter of toleration towards religion, in general, I think that steps need to be taken to make sure religion doesn’t have a monopoly on bypassing the common law and using culture and tradition as an excuse for oppression and discrimination, one way being banning the burqa.


Craig Considine. (2014) The Problem with Banning the Burqa. [Online] Available from:

BBC News. (2014) European Court upholds French full veil ban. [Online] Available from:

New York Times. (1997)

Raz, J. (1900) Autonomy, toleration and the Harm Principle. Justifying toleration, Cambridge University Press. pp, 155-175. p, 157

Mill, J.S (1859). On Liberty. Oxford University. pp. 21–22

Bruckner, P. (2010) A case for France’s Burqa Ban. World Affairs, Vol. 173, No. 4, pp. 61-65, p. 62

[1] Raz, J. (1900) Autonomy, toleration and the Harm Principle. Justifying toleration, Cambridge University Press. pp, 155-175. p, 157

[2] Raz, p. 155

[3] Mill, J.S (1859). On Liberty. Oxford University. pp. 21–22

[4] Bruckner, P. (2010) A case for France’s Burqa Ban. World Affairs, Vol. 173, No. 4, pp. 61-65, p. 62

BBC News. (2014) European Court upholds French full veil ban. [Online] Available from:

[6] Bruckner, p. 62

[7] New York Times. (1997)

[8] Craig Considine. (2014) The Problem with Banning the Burqa. [Online] Available from:


One thought on “The ethics behind banning the burqa

  1. Pingback: The Dress Code for Women in the Quran | Stepping Toes

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