Veils of Ignorance

by A. Jay Adler on April 13, 2010

Over at Normblog today, Norm considers the situation of a Quebec Muslim woman ordered to unveil or leave French course, as the Globe and Mail headlined it. Norm thinks the order of the Quebec (? – this was unclear from the G&M story) Immigration Department an instance of “rank, crass illiberalism.” Norm has written about this issue before and has been consistent in his view. I have written about it, too. I agree with Norm only in part because I believe the context of any reaction to the niqab, or burqa, is crucial. Links beneath the G&M story lead to other recent stories.

If the issue is banning the burqa, in general, I am opposed – in the United States, where I live. In the U.S., such a ban would contradict a long, well established tradition of tolerance for religious expression in the public place, as well as much legal precedent clarifying constitutional protections. As I argued earlier, however, there isn’t necessarily only one correct approach to these conflicts of expression and values, and I think the current French approach – a prohibition in public schools against all conspicuous religious symbols – to be a legitimate alternative. In certain contexts, secular, civil society is right to empower itself against the demands that varied religious persuasions try to make of it.

What points to a more nuanced consideration of the issue, in this instance, is the fact that the teacher and other students in the Quebec case had come to appreciate and like the young woman, who was a good student. They were willing to accommodate her. In fact, when I began to read Norm’s post, I incorrectly anticipated that the controversy was going to have arisen from a position of opposition to the woman’s niqab that the teacher took. That turned out not to be so. However, I, like Norm, am a teacher, and the last time I wrote on the subject, I made, among other distinctions, that based upon standards people are entitled to require for other people’s intercourse with them. I looked at the matter, in fact, from both perspectives.

I find the burqa objectionable in every way I consider it. On the most general level, I think it an obnoxious public imposition on the sensibilities and the environment of others, not less, visually, than is, aurally, the power car of your choice offering its musical library to the non-assenting world around it. That the wearer simultaneously withdraws, declines to present her identity, though in public, to the others that present themselves to her, leaves her no more elevated in my regard than the, no doubt, shaded musicologist invisible behind the tinted windows. Much more significantly, I object to the burqa’s literal effacement of female personality and its overall representation of female servility and oppression. I could go on, but I think that should be sufficient for now.

I added

I lived most of my life in New York City. I am so accustomed to being accosted by beggars for change and seers in their own minds, proffered flyers for pizza and puntang patronage, and retailed stories of lost-Greyhound-ticket woe, that I am ready to opine… on human interactions that begin in the absence of mutual openness and trust. Anyone wishing to communicate with me wearing a mask and a cape, or any simulacrum thereof, might, on my sunnier days, get the day, but surely not the time.

I then considered the matter from an opposing, non-religious, moodier perspective, viewing the matter in a very particular application of John Rawls’ veil of ignorance.

I might well wish, feeling so out of fortune and sorts, to venture into the world and affirm myself by nullifying myself, and dis-appear before the world as a nearly featureless blob. Who are you to say to me I cannot? Or, of course, I to you. If my essential, self-evident human rights begin anywhere, it is in the right to be, or not to be – to be present in my absence, as in writing I am now, or absent in my presence, as a mask makes me – as I will.

Everyone else, however, is free to respond to and reject this behavior as they will. And in most cases, as I see it, should.

In this instance, what arose in my mind was any entitlement on the teacher’s part. What if the teacher is personally uncomfortable, finds this manner of presentation before him, to him, objectionable. Teachers always, even more so today – even in college – confront representations in the classroom that they are required to control by prohibiting. These days, of course, there are cell phone ringtones – and students, even, who will answer the phone. (The escalation from a misdemeanor to the felonious offense.) There are students who will attempt to wear headphones, or single ear headsets; students, for sure, heads down, who text message. There are the variant, higher degrees of disrespectful behavior. Almost surely, all of these behaviors are institutionally banned, but instructors have their own varying degree of temperamental willingness to combat the upswell of incivility. Some will abide what others will not tolerate.

Whatever religious, philosophical, or psychic justification the wearer of the niqab may offer for the dress, another individual, even a teacher, is within her own human integrity to find the obscured human face, the withholding of what others openly present – an affront. Legal restriction, it may be, should not be founded on an affront, but neither should an individual be compelled to accept it.

I raise the issue of compulsion because I speak here of teachers, who, whether publicly or privately employed, have legal, public obligations of service. In the weighing of individual conscience and integrity versus public obligation, there is a long line of thought, and people may, and do, claim too much under the banners of conscience or offense. On the other hand, resolution might often be found in other teachers who are willing. However, symbolic religious expression is not inherent in the self. It is a choice. Others may have reasonable responses to our choices. If the choice does no harm, it will be wrong to punish, but in the absence of any spirit of accommodation to the world around, there should be no obligation to serve either.



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