[original article by Sandra Innamorato]
Defending right and wrong: our online section on Political Philosophy
Can a society which forbids the use of the Islamic veil be called “free”?
Defending Right and Wrong is an online editorial project which, with the cooperation of professor Ian Carter (teacher of the Political Philosophy course in our University) and his students, aims to deal with issues of Political Philosophy by simulating a debate – audience, debaters, timer and final evaluation included: a different way to approach “justice”.
April 11th 2011: France forbids the use of the Islamic veil in public spaces- it is the first European country to make such decision and it does so under Sarkozy’s government. The former French president claimed that “veils suppress women and this is not appreciated in France”. During the summer of 2016 in some seaside resorts the use of burkini, a particular kind of female swimsuit designed in order to cover the entire body, head included, was forbidden as well. This prohibition was later cancelled by a decision of the French supreme administrative court. […] The prohibition was confirmed by the European Supreme court for the Human Rights on 2nd July 2014, when a 24 years old French woman claimed that forbidding the use of the veil was a violation of her freedom, both religious and of expression.
[source: The Post Internazionale]
The French position on this topic is the perfect example for this debate, since it represents a situation in which a liberal country is limiting some specific types of freedom within itself. The motion of the debate suggests the contradiction which might arise between the search for equality and the conservation of individuality- religious individuality in this particular case. The contrast which is represented in this debate is the one between an abstract form of freedom, which removes peculiarity (i.e., forbids the Veil) in order to achieve one kind of equality for everyone, and a more concrete form of freedom, which gives something to everyone (it allows the use of the Veil), thus making people equal but in a different way. In the first case, everyone will be considered equal on the basis of their common features, independently from their faith or any other peculiarity, whereas in the second case people will just maintain their peculiarities and will receive an equalitarian treatment because equality will lie in the behaviour of others towards any possible difference or particular feature. Which kind of freedom and equality can be accepted or sacrificed?
Motion: Should a Liberal Society forbid the use of the Islamic Veil?
Proposer (10 minutes):
“I will start my intervention giving a good definition of liberal society. A society can be labelled as liberal as long as it ensures the right to freedom and equality to all its members. Religious freedom is therefore secured in its status of individual freedom, but only in the private sphere. This is an important point: for in a liberal society the public sphere must be completely devoid of specific references, including, as in this case, religious ones: neutrality is necessary to assure freedom and equality for everyone. The issue with the Islamic veil is particularly complicated because in this case the religious reference triggers difference and creates relational and identity bonds, both for those who wear it and for those who don’t. We speak of identity bonds which create small and strong communities within the larger community, a dangerous phenomenon which, despite making the foreign community feel “at home”, blocks it within its own borders and does not promote integration. If then we want to discuss the issue with further insight, and thus make reference to the Coran itself, we may notice that there is never an explicit hint to the necessity of wearing the veil as a religious duty, but just in sign of respect, both for women and for men. Using the veil is an individual choice, not a collective one, and it must therefore conform to the rules which are at the basis of collective life. Interpreting the use of the veil as something mandatory creates inequality between man and woman and between woman and woman, an inequality which can be tolerated in the private dimension, but not in the public one, in which equality is pursued. Such a level of inequality in front of the law necessarily creates inefficiency within the entire legal system: just think about the difficulties which may arise in recognizing someone in a document.
What should we do then? A liberal society which aims to equality and assures freedom to its members should naturally be secular. Its secularity is a strong one: it doesn’t prohibit only one religious symbol but all those symbols which serve as identity markers.
Society must be secular and, as much as possible, tolerant. When we speak about tolerance we must distinguish between its various degrees: it can be both positive and negative. Positively speaking, tolerance means acceptance and respect towards differences, whereas in negative terms it becomes a synonym of endurance. The problem here lies in the fact that none of these two “types” of tolerance, when applied to the public sphere, assures that equality and that freedom which we want to promote.
Tolerating the veil, even just in negative terms, therefore enduring the veil as a sign of submission, means ignoring an evident injustice. Tolerance is right only when it is applied to the citizens’ private sphere. We cannot accept other possible alternatives: if we did, we would turn our society into an even more unjust one.”
Opposer (10 minutes)
“Every active member of a liberal society is granted inviolable rights by the state. Yet an individual, besides being a citizen, is a person with specific values, which are shaped independently from his faith. What defines an individual as a person are all the actions he performs in his private sphere, and this is a place where there is no space for neutrality or secularity: neutrality contradicts peculiarity, but men are peculiar and this cannot be changed. A liberal society is fueled by diversity but we know that it must also be neutral. It is the state, though, that has to be neutral, and not the people. Seeking secularity does not mean deleting the issue in discussion, the prohibition of the veil, otherwise we would be ironically non-liberal and non-egalitarian. Conforming to a model which is considered “correct” just because it is “neutral” does not make any sense, for the simple reason that it is not neutral at all: it is one single model with its specific features, something we chose among many other possibilities and decided to call neutral. A liberal society’s duty is promoting true freedom: we must be sure that free decisions are truly free, made because someone wants to and not because he or she has to.
The fear that many decisions may not be free is completely understandable since we know that not all women are free, but we will not solve the problem by “skipping” it. We must, on the contrary, go all through it. “Tolerance” is often read as a synonym for “offence”, but we must accept and “go through” the object of our tolerance. This means moving from tolerance to respect of an individual as carrier of rights and in his or her peculiarity as a person. The state does not have to take a stand but to be conscious. Seeking pure neutrality is logically impossible, and will result in homologating those we wanted to make equal: but homologation is not democratic, it eliminates differences and does not protect minorities. We don’t have to think about disagreement as an harsh conflict, but as an important part of society we must learn to live with.