The Muslim veil argument rumbles on, with some good articles in the Guardian (see e.g. David Edgar: http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/story/0,,1892543,00.html). However there are also some articles that confirm David Edgar’s view that some liberals’ tolerance is limited to what they approve of. Take the article by Catherine Bennett (http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/story/0,,1920279,00.html). Bennett’s main comparison is with the Victorian movement for dress reform, which complained about such irrational dress for women as corsets. This is certainly one argument against the niqab and burka; that its restrictions limit what women can do. The problem is, that if rationality in dress is the main thing, more British women ought to be going round wearing the shalwar kameez. (south Asian dress of loose trousers and long shirt). By any reckoning this is a far more practical and less restrictive garment than e.g. miniskirt and high heels, and if global warming continues, might prevent a lot of skin cancer cases.
Bennett’s discussion of Victorian views on dress lead her into her main point: the problem of false consciousness (though she doesn’t specifically use this phrase, the implication is clear):
In common with today's critics of the veil, Gerrit Smith, his daughter Elizabeth and their fellow clothing reformers had to contend with the fact that most of the women constricted by laced-up whalebone and petticoats insisted that they wore their absurd skirts and corsets gladly, just as readily as they embraced dependency on men as their own free choice. Most women, Smith noted, "are content in their helplessness and poverty and destitution of rights. Nay, they are so deeply deluded, as to believe, that all this belongs to their natural and unavoidable lot".
This, according to Bennett, is why religious restrictions on clothing must be rejected:
All this free choosing, according to Straw's critics, we should accept, uncritically, at face value, because - here's their trumping argument - what does freedom mean, if it doesn't mean being free to oppress yourself? What does freedom mean if you can't feel comfy in a niqab? Or happy to shave off your hair and wear a wig instead? Or comfortable - if you so choose - with footbinding? Or keen - if that's what you want - to have a clitoridectomy?
As David Edgar wrote in this paper yesterday, true tolerance requires that we defend to the death people's right to oppress themselves. In all kinds of unappealing, even - you might think - barbaric ways.
Bennett doesn’t make clear what she wants to do on these issues; I’ll take the generous view and presume that she doesn’t actually want wearing the niqab or sheitel (the wig worn by some married Othodox Jewish women) banned. [Footbinding and clitoridectomy are a) permanent procedures and b) normally performed on children, so these are very different issues]. If she wants to argue against them and try and convince women not to wear them, she’s free to. But it is patronising to assume that women in the UK who adopt religious restrictions or other behaviour seen as ‘oppressed’ by some liberals are necessarily doing it because they are deluded. For example, it seems to be the case that the niqab (which is rare in Britain) is being adopted by some young Muslim women as a deliberate religious statement (see e.g. http://www.guardian.co.uk/religion/Story/0,,1889871,00.html).
I think there is a problem here for some liberals (and particularly some ‘missionary atheists’); they possess no adequate framework for dealing with those who choose not to accept liberal views. The opposite of the Enlightenment must (by definition) be the unenlightened. If those who do not accept liberal views do not respond in the correct way when properly informed, they must either have particularly acute forms of false consciousness or be mad (or evil). It is noticeable how often the idea of ‘brainwashing’ comes up in discussions by atheists of child-raising by the religious, as if seeking to inculcate one’s beliefs and values into one’s child was not common practice by all parents. Many religions, of course, have a long tradition of poor treatment (and sometimes immense cruelty) to unbelievers. But, at least in Anglicanism, there is, I think, now an acceptance that people can reject religion without necessarily being evil or deluded. There needs to be some thought among liberals about how they (we) treat the non-believers in liberalism.