Telling women what they can wear is a sign of weakness

Just when the niqab issue was starting to fade, Stephen Harper brought it up again, with his rather surprising announcement that a Conservative government would consider banning them in the public service (a position that was, not that long ago, ruled out by Tony Clement). So apparently this represents a concerted strategy, of ensuring that the election debate remain focused on the pressing issue of women wearing niqabs.

Globally, I’m not very impressed with this strategy. I think that encouraging hatred and distrust towards minority groups is not an acceptable electoral strategy. Imagine if a principal decided to promote school spirit by picking out a few kids and encouraging everyone in the school to bully them. Harper is basically doing the same thing, at the level of the entire country. As far as I am concerned, it shows him to be unfit for public office. (But hey, so does smoking crack, yet 30% of Torontonians were willing to vote for Rob Ford…) Anyhow, I’ve explained my views on that elsewhere.

That having been said, I’m happy to talk about niqabs, because I think they are fascinating in various ways.

First of all, while I also find niqabs quite disturbing, I don’t understand why people have so much difficulty sympathizing with the women in Canada who want to wear them. Some are no doubt victims of patriarchal oppression, but some quite obviously are not. Personally, I can see how a woman who grew up in a country where this sort of dress is normal might become quite used to it, to the point of being uncomfortable appearing in public uncovered. Consider, for example: there are some societies in the world in which women do not cover their breasts in public, others in which they do. So in Canada, there is no particular stigma around girls running around without shirts on (in public wading pools, and so forth), but after about age 8 the expectation is that they will cover up. (It’s not legally required, but as a parent you will certainly get a lot of pushback from people if you let your age 8+ daughter run around in the park or the wading pool without a top on.)

Women who grow up in societies in which it is normal to cover their breasts might feel rather awkward being told that they have to expose their breasts in public, and especially in front of men. Indeed, even if they moved to a country in which women did not routinely cover their breasts, they might never adapt to the local custom. I don’t find it so difficult to imagine that some women might feel the same way about having their faces covered. There are, of course, lots of other reasons why women might wear a niqab – some teenagers do it just to get a rise out of their parents – but if a woman feels genuinely exposed not wearing one, forcing her to take it off in a citizenship ceremony, or as a condition of employment, seems to me just unnecessary.

One can see a somewhat similar phenomenon with Chinese and Japanese women (mainly women) who have taken to wearing surgical face-masks. This has something to do with not wanting to catch or communicate diseases, but also involves a strong desire, which easily becomes habitual, to cover one’s face in public. The cultural habit of concealing one’s mouth, when laughing for instance, long predates that, but reflects a similar impulse. It’s easy to develop the habit, to the point where people become simply uncomfortable with having their mouth and teeth seen in public. Of course, there is nothing sexist about the institution in this case (parents do not instruct their daughters to put on a face-mask), and so it is not controversial, but it does serve as a useful illustration of how people can develop an aversion to having their face seen in public.

As a result, the question of whether a woman can cover her face in public strikes me as an area of reasonable disagreement. The way that liberal-democratic societies have traditionally responded to these sorts of disagreements is by granting individuals the freedom to choose, rather than just imposing the preferences of the majority.

In any case, how women feel about covering their faces is, to me, just speculation. What I have somewhat greater intuitive understanding of are the motivations of men – both those who force women to wear niqabs, as well as those who force them not to wear them.

Men who force women to wear niqabs

Let’s start with the former. It’s always seemed obvious to me that the social practice of making women “cover up” — shapeless clothing, facial veiling, etc. — is a sign of male weakness. The reason is rather straightforward: men find women, especially beautiful women, extremely distracting. This forces men to exercise self-control, in order to stay on task. Some men don’t like this, or aren’t up to the challenge, and so instead try to shift the problem onto women, by forcing them to be less distracting.

The fact that men are more distracted by women than women are by men is obvious to anyone who lives a normal life in the real world, but because some academics don’t, let me cite some literature. Here’s the abstract of a recent paper on the topic, called “Interacting with women can impair men’s cognitive functioning”:

The present research tested the prediction that mixed-sex interactions may temporarily impair cognitive functioning. Two studies, in which participants interacted either with a same-sex or opposite-sex other, demonstrated that men’s (but not women’s) cognitive performance declined following a mixed-sex encounter. In line with our theoretical reasoning, this effect occurred more strongly to the extent that the opposite-sex other was perceived as more attractive (Study 1), and to the extent that participants reported higher levels of impression management motivation (Study 2).

One of the basic coping skills that adult men acquire (with greater and lesser degrees of success) is the ability to work and interact with women without suffering this sort of cognitive impairment (loss of concentration, etc.) Women, in my experience, greatly underestimate how much self-control this involves, although they are all familiar with the consequences of the loss of self-control then men frequently experience – again, some more than others. Furthermore, there is a division of labour between men and women, when it comes to the self-control problem that men experience. There are very few circumstances in which the onus is put entirely upon men to remain calm. Women share in the burden, largely through the norms governing dress – specifically, what we define as “professional” attire. Because most people in our society are uncomfortable acknowledging this, the norms are largely tacit and enforced quite informally. Violation of tacit norms is one of the most reliable sources of comedy, like this:

Abstractly, one might think it unfair that women need to shoulder any of this burden – of not dressing in a way that will be overly distracting to men – but at some point pragmatism intervenes. After all, people need to find ways of working together effectively, and sometimes a purely just allocation of the burdens of cooperation is not compatible with an efficient organization of effort.

Anyhow, the tendency in Western countries over the past 50 years has been to shift more of the burden of self-control onto men. There are, however, many ways of organizing things that put much more of the burden onto women, and historically these have been the norm. One of them is physical segregation of the sexes. This is primarily to the benefit of men, and it was, for instance, the norm in our school system until recently. The primary thought was that adolescent boys, having still deficient self-control, would be able to concentrate better without girls around. Another approach is to control women’s dress, in order to conceal their form. This is, it should be noted, something that we do in our society as well (as the 30 Rock scene reminds us), it is just that the approach as not nearly as extreme as the rule that prevails in certain Islamic countries. The burqa obviously represents the extreme of the tendency, in that it puts the onus almost 100% on women, while freeing men of pretty much any responsibility to exercise any sort of self-control.

So when I consider societies in which women are obliged to wear a niqab or burka, I feel sorry for the women, and I feel that it is unfair. But I think it is also important to pity the poor, weak men, so lacking in self-control that they cannot concentrate, cannot make it through the day, without eliminating all forms of female distraction from their environment. Their lack of self-mastery strikes me as positively unmanly.

Men who force women to remove niqabs

Calgary mayor Naheed Nenshi hit the nail on the head the other day on CBC, when he said that, while he is not comfortable with husbands telling their wives and fathers telling their daughters that they must wear a niqab, he’s not much more comfortable with Jason Kenney telling them that they can’t wear one. His suggestion is that women should be left free to make up their own minds about what to wear.

Now of course the reason that Kenney – and now Harper – wants to tell women what they can and cannot wear is that they regard the niqab as a symbolic rejection of Western values, and they don’t see any particular reason why Canadians should tolerate that. Wearing a niqab at a citizenship ceremony, in their view, shows disrespect for the institution. Of course, Christians have also been known to adopt modes of dress that involve symbolic disrespect for Canadian institutions. Here, for example, is Justin Beiber disrespecting the Prime Minister to his face:

Prime Minister Stephen Harper was happy to present Justin Bieber with a Diamond Jubilee Medal on Friday, November 23, 2012 (PM Stephen Harper's Photostream/Flickr)

Incidentally, I happen to agree that some women who wear a niqab are doing it in order to engage in some kind of symbolic rejection or resistance to Western values. But here’s the thing… I don’t care. I am completely unperturbed. I have lots of colleagues who go railing against “the West” and its values all the time. That doesn’t bother me either. Why? Because of my serene self-confidence as a Westerner. Simply put, I believe that the basic structure of liberal-democratic societies, which includes a market economy, welfare state, individual rights, electoral democracy, and separation of church and state, obviously and self-evidently dominates all known alternatives (“dominates” in this context means “is better in every respect”). The fact that people want to flail around a bit before accepting the inevitable is not something that troubles me very deeply. The ability to tolerate niqabs, hijabs, turbans, or whatever else people want to wear, is a sign of the profound strength of liberal democratic societies.

So the question then becomes, why are some Canadians so lacking in confidence, with respect to the country and its institutions, that they feel the need to declare a “state of exception” in this regard, and use state power to coerce these women (in contravention of liberal-democratic principles). “Liberal institutions are not sufficiently robust to confront this threat, we must resort to illiberal measures,” is essentially what they are saying. Why are they so worried?

In the case of Quebec, the source of this insecurity is clear. Francophones, being a somewhat precarious and endangered minority in North America, have good reason to worry that their society does not provide a powerful enough “basin of attraction” for immigrants. This is the insecurity that motivated Bill 101 and its successors. Furthermore, it is hardly unreasonable for Quebecers to worry, at least more than other Canadians, that immigrants will show up, fail to learn the language, and thus not be able to integrate into the society. Unfortunately, rather than focusing just on language, which is the real issue, the insecurity tends to become more generalized, resulting in the widespread feeling that “unless we force newcomers to integrate, they will not voluntarily choose to do so.”

So in Quebec, the connection between cultural insecurity and the intolerance shown to the niqab is obvious. It doesn’t make it justifiable, but at least the explanation is right there. But what about conservatives? Why are they feeling so insecure?

There are I think several different strands in conservative thinking that tend to promote insecurity, by encouraging them to underestimate the robustness of liberal institutions:

1. The grand narrative of decline. The way that political liberals like myself see things, Western history post-WWII is pretty much entirely a history of progress. From the introduction of social insurance programs and the development of the welfare state, the sexual revolution and the movement for gender equality, the U.S. civil rights movement and the development of official multiculturalism, all of this has tended to expand the realm of individual freedom while simultaneously increasing social welfare. Furthermore, we see it as the unfolding, or the development, of the essential logic of Western liberalism. Conservatives, by contrast, have been strongly influenced by a narrative that considers the 1960s to have brought about an important rupture with the past, with society having gone “to hell in a handbasket” since. Thus the tendency is to regard the rise of the welfare state, feminism, and multiculturalism as essentially illiberal developments. Thus, for example, conservatives regard the hordes of “political correct” intellectuals, not as the shock troops of Western liberalism, but as its enemies. This is, as far as I am concerned, a complete misreading of the situation. Nevertheless, once you realize that conservatives regard liberal societies as having been already weakened by internal enemies, then it is not so difficult to understand why they overreact to the threat posed by “external” enemies.

2. Misunderstanding the role of Christianity. The second major source of insecurity comes from a widespread confusion about the origins and foundations of Western liberalism. Liberal institutions arose primarily as a reaction against political Christianity. It was precisely because post-Reformation Christians were unable to rule without becoming embroiled in interminable civil wars that secular institutions began to seem like an attractive alternative. Unfortunately, within the conservative movement, this history has been rewritten, in such a way as to suggest that ideas like “individual rights” and “limited government” arose out of the Christian tradition (as opposed to being an attempt to limit the role that Christianity had played in politics). From this perspective, then, the presence of non-Christians poses a threat to liberal institutions, which is one of the reasons that there is so much insecurity about Islam. (From my perspective, by contrast, religious pluralism strengthens liberal institutions, by making their indispensability obvious to all.)

3. Overestimating the importance of the family. Many conservatives subscribe to a “folk sociological” view, according to which the family is the “bedrock” of society. Families, they claim, make an essential contribution to social order to providing appropriate socialization for children – making sure they grow up with the right “values.” This gets repeated ad nauseam (“strong families make for strong communities,” etc.) despite the fact that none of it has a very strong empirical basis. There is lots of sociological research showing that “strong families” are not particularly prophylactic against various social pathologies. Peer groups, by contrast, are far more important than our folk-sociological theories suggest. Conservative thought, however, has been peculiarly resistant to this evidence. Nevertheless, because of it, conservatives tend to be rather pessimistic about the possibility of achieving social integration in multicultural societies, because they assume that children who grow up in families with illiberal values will almost inevitably come to share those values. Thus they underestimate the integrative power of liberal institutions, and of Western culture more generally.

There may be more, but those are three that occur to me. In short, I think that the conservative misreading the current situation is based on deeper misunderstanding of Western institutions and political traditions. This is what is leading them to panic, and to betray the core principles of the Western political tradition, at a time when we should rather be reaffirming them.


Telling women what they can wear is a sign of weakness — 29 Comments

  1. “Western history post-WWII is pretty much entirely a history of progress”
    One clear exception was the increase in crime 1960s-1990s. That was in part at least caused by liberalism and reversed by tough-on-crime conservatism.

    “Liberal institutions arose primarily as a reaction against political Christianity.”
    They arose on earlier foundations of individualism, non-clannishness, exogamy rather than consanguinous marriage, monogamy. Some of those were the result of Christianity. This is why liberal institutions are few and far between in the world of clannism, cousin-marriage, child-brides, polygamy etc.

    “Families, they claim, make an essential contribution to social order to providing appropriate socialization for children”. Yes, conservatives are wrong here. The relevant science is behavioural genetics which shows in general that family socialization (shared environment is the technical term) has little long term effects. But it also shows that heritability (additive genetic effects) has a huge influence on attitudes. Thus “children who grow up in families with illiberal values will almost inevitably come to share those values” not through mysterious socialization but through simple heritability. Many studies have shown that attitudes such as right-wing authoritarianism, social dominance orientation, political ideology and the rest are substantially heritable, on the order of at least 50% of the variance and often more.

  2. “One clear exception was the increase in crime 1960s-1990s. That was in part at least caused by liberalism and reversed by tough-on-crime conservatism.”

    Strong claim, no evidence. In fact many experts think it was caused by low level lead poisoning.

    • Plenty of evidence. The homicide rate in Baltimore has risen significantly this year. Because they started putting lead in the gasoline again? Or because of certain unfortunate events that led the Police there to be less tough?

      • Explaining crime rates is a complex question with many variables (not the least of which is that many crimes go unreported and crime numbers can be distorted by policing practices). To say that rising crime rates were “caused by liberalism” is a risibly simplistic explanation.

        There is a case to be made that the rise of crime rates had a cultural basis, that may be loosely attributed to liberalism; Steve Pinker makes such a case here:–decivilization-in-the-1960s?rgn=main;view=fulltext

        Of course there are other factors – particularly demographic ones: the rise in crime rates coincided exactly with the adolescence of Baby Boomers, and fell as they reached middle age:

        Most statistical studies have shown that “get tough on crime” policies have had little effect on crime rates beyond increasing rates of incarceration.

        On the other hand, there have been numerous recent studies that have demonstrated a statistical correlation between rising crime rates and higher levels of economic equality. So liberal policies – in the sense of policies that redistribute income and promote equality of opportunity – could arguably have the effect of lowering crime rates.

        But you made the assertion: it’s up to you to prove it.

        • “To say that rising crime rates were “caused by liberalism” is a risibly simplistic explanation.”

          You misquoted me. What I said was “in part at least caused by liberalism”. That is not simplistic, risibly or otherwise.

          • You say that the 60s surge “may be loosely attributed to liberalism” along with other factors like the age profile of the population.

            In other words, you are agreeing that the crime surge was “in part at least caused by liberalism”.

  3. “From my perspective, by contrast, religious pluralism strengthens liberal institutions, by making their indispensability obvious to all.”

    By this theory, the high religious pluralism of Iraq and Syria should have led to strong liberal institutions there. The least religiously pluralist places, like Denmark, should have the least liberal institutions in the world.

    Except, we see pretty much the opposite in reality, of course.

    • We used to have a hegemonic Christian society in Canada (Protestant/ROC and Catholic/Quebec), and now we have a hegemonic religiously indifferent society.

      What’s important is the hegemony.

    • It’s kind’ve ironic you picked two regimes famous for having fairly stable secular regimes. Since they’ve been destablized we’ve seen a resurgence of ethno-religious civil warfare, exactly the same kind of conflict that eventuated the acts of toleration between Protestants and Catholics.

      • Neither Syria nor Iraq could have reasonably been described as having secular regimes. Baathism may have originally been secular in orientation, but in order to maintain legitimacy in highly religious countries, significant concessions to religious sensibilities had to be made.

        Nor could those regimes in any sense be called liberal, which was the main point: religious pluralism doesn’t necessarily have to result in liberalism.

  4. I have to note that this whole post is pervaded with macho bravado. Calling men, particularly conservative men, cowards is a time honoured way of getting them to shut up. Unfortunately for left wingers, this re-inforces traditional essentialist ideas about manhood, like, for example, the idea that a man must have courage to be a real man.

    It’s always interesting to see feminists use realmanspracht.

    • You have a point. Mind you, it remains interesting how badly real-man-centred ideologies tend to do on their own terms if you think about them for a few minutes.

  5. I think there is an important strand of Conservative thinking that is, quite simply, illiberal. They are not worried about infringements on the traditions you’re talking about because they don’t believe in them. They don’t value Christianity because they imagine it as the foundation for liberal institutions, they value Christianity as an end in itself; similarly, they don’t value separation of church and state, and their beef with Islam is not the worry that it might want to merge church and state but simply that if such a merger happens they want it to be their church doing the merging. For such people, Islam is a target of opportunity, a group currently top-of-mind, but all other non-Christian groups and indeed members of Christian groups too moderate in their professed beliefs are in the end also disliked and to be targeted if and when it becomes workable.
    There is a sizable overlap between this group and the group of Conservatives who do not believe in the rule of law or, really, in pluralist democracy. In your earlier post relating to the niqab you talked about the difference between debate on the priority of mutually accepted principles, and approaches that are “beyond the pale”. But to many Conservatives, that distinction does not exist; they do not have political opponents in that pleasant “loyal opposition” sort of sense. Their “pale” ends with their party. Anyone who disagrees is an enemy; there is no distinctive difference for them between nuanced opposition and treason, terrorism and so forth. Loyalty exists only to their own political kin, not to any higher or broader institutions or ideas. And given that, anything which can be done to win or to defeat enemies must be done. This is perhaps why so often the far right will describe people in such extreme and obviously inaccurate ways, such as calling Obama of all people a Socialist–precision is not the point, for them all opposition is the same and the point is that it is all demonic and must all be excoriated.

    Some might object that the approach I’m describing is fascist. Yes, well.

    • The problem here is that I just don’t see how the anathemizing by illiberal conservatives you describe here is any different than the anathemizing by liberals (broadly construed) like Heath. According to Heath and otherslike him, anyone who is not a liberal (again, broadly construed) is beyond the pale, the enemy.

      Liberalism, like all political ideologies, requires a hegemony (which it currently has in Canada). Sure, you can disagree on things like method or how much inequality to allow, but on other things you most certainly cannot disagree.

      • And if you want examples of liberals treating, say, social conservatives as the enemy, lying about them, pathologizing their psychology etc., examples abound.

      • I wasn’t mainly making a claim about equivalence or its lack. Mr. Heath’s article portrays Conservatives as people who are within the broad tent of “liberalism” (defined by adherence to the idea of rule of law, individual human rights, and so forth) but are confused. I’m pointing out that many of them don’t fit that definition, are not within that broad tent. You seem to agree, so thus far we actually have no disagreement.

        I don’t fully fit into either broad tent; Mr. Heath’s definition of “a market economy, welfare state, individual rights, electoral democracy, and separation of church and state” gets a pass from me on the first, while on the second and fourth I feel there are richer conceptions which would be better, do the things they are supposed to do more thoroughly than they actually do. That is, I’m some sort of bottom-up socialist; I prefer my democracy more direct and my social to be more than just a safety net and I’m suspicious at best of the market economy.
        Still, there are babies in the liberal bathwater. So if you want to talk about who’s right, who’s justified in anathematizing whom–yeah, in this the “liberals” are much better than the “illiberal” brand of Conservatives. Conservatives who genuinely break from the broad “liberal” hegemony (many don’t), do so because they would prefer a theocratic authoritarian state with no rule of law in which dissent and difference was suppressed by whatever means necessary and the weak left to suffer and die. For impoverished “electoral” democracy they would substitute no democracy at all, for the rule of law the rule of might, for the welfare state the police state and devil take the hindmost, and for human rights the whims of bigotry and prejudice. This is worthy of anathema.

        • Conservatives who genuinely break from the broad “liberal” hegemony (many don’t), do so because they would prefer a theocratic authoritarian state with no rule of law in which dissent and difference was suppressed by whatever means necessary and the weak left to suffer and die.

          This is a grotesque, almost parodistic example of lying about and pathologizing social conservatives. See above.

          • For example, there is a far too casual equation of illiberalism with totalitarianism here.

          • It isn’t, though. It seems to be precisely what that strand of conservatism wants. The ones that don’t want it, still believe to some degree in the rule of law, separation of church and state and other liberal institutions. They are not illiberal, they just don’t like (or understand) the word “liberal”. Conservatives who are genuinely illiberal are just as I’ve described.

            If you don’t believe in separation of church and state, what do you believe in? Theocracy.
            If you don’t believe in electoral democracy, or in direct democracy, if you believe rather that your side’s correctness trumps the false opinions of the majority and so should rule regardless, what do you believe in? Dictatorship, oligarchy, and/or fascism.
            If you don’t believe things like individual rights should stop the government from targeting people it doesn’t approve of, what do you believe in? The police state.
            If you don’t believe in social safety nets for the poor, what do you believe in? Misery and death for anyone left behind, and their children.

            I’m ready to be shown wrong, though. Tell me about the alternative illiberal institutions these Conservatives of yours believe in that don’t come down to what I’ve described. What is the non-theocratic merger of church and state about? In a state that believes in targeting anyone who doesn’t match the Conservative vision of “Canadian culture” or correct political and economic views (eco-freaks, socialists, critics of Israel et cetera), but doesn’t believe in rights that might block their victimization, what is the institution Conservatives would put in place that doesn’t amount to a police state? In the “laissez faire” paradise of high inequality and no social safety net, how do the unemployed or disabled not starve? What is the wonderful source of Conservative legitimacy that replaces and improves on electoral democracy?

          • You seem to think that illiberalism must want to control a large and intrusive state, just like you do.

            What illiberal conservatives most often want is for local and non-governmental organizations and informal customs to take up most of the heavy lifting in these areas, like enforcing traditional morality and looking after social welfare.

            The government can broadly support these things, but they are not created by government.

            This may seem like libertarianism, but it is not. The government is not neutral, it can have a substantive position on the good, but it has it’s own sphere, with limits.

  6. Peer groups, by contrast, are far more important than our folk-sociological theories suggest. Conservative thought, however, has been peculiarly resistant to this evidence.

    This cuts both ways though. Muslims in Canada are currently a small minority. The worry though is that if you get a large enough group of them, they, or at least a subset of them, will be large enough to form a self-perpetuating parrallel society. Once that locks in, peer norms start to work against assimilation.

    • The more I think about it, the less I think overestimating the power of the nuclear family has to do with conservative attitudes on this issue. Conservatives may often overestimate the power of the nuclear family, but this isn’t about that. It’s mostly about fear of allowing particular religious enclaves. This is about the power of larger groups.

    • Usually this happens in proportion to how much you ghettoize them. The French example noted by Hewson below is a case in point. One thing that should be noted about Harper’s immigration policy, Niqab policy, temporary foreign worker policy and so on is that overall, it actually allows quite a lot of people of demonized stripes into Canada, but it heightens the degree to which they are ghettoized once here. This is largely for the purpose of keeping their wages low, but the side effect, about which they don’t actually care, is lack of assimilation, greater discontent, higher likelihood of unrest or even, if that’s your bugbear, terrorism.

      • Nah, mostly it’s just about numbers. Progressive Sweden doesn’t do this any better. Nobody does it well.

        Cherry picking the most educated, and thus most likely to assimilate, does help though.

        • Progressive Sweden is surprisingly racist. I’ve read some articles by Swedish nonwhite commentators; you’d be surprised what goes on. Yes, they have the welfare state and all–but it’s amazing how many regulations get interpreted at the “ordinary bureaucrat” level to somehow mess with people who don’t look right.

          • Canada’s Muslims assimilate well because there are small numbers of them and we cherry pick highly educated people who are already primed for assimilation.

  7. Have you had a look at the progressive movement lately? Particularly third wave feminists and advocates of “safe spaces”. They are quite illiberal and their opponents are not exaggerating. It’s an authoritarian bent.

  8. In Canada we have a tradition of face to face contact. For example, in court an accused has a right to face his/her accuser. I would not want the niqab to be illegal everywhere but there are places I don’t think it should be allowed. For instance, teachers of (especially young) children should expose their faces. Anywhere there is a power imbalance: one’s doctors and caregivers should not be hidden; ditto officers of the court and police officers. These are just off the top of my head. Just because a tradition has not been codified doesn’t make it illegitimate.