Philosophy, Film, Politics, Etc.

Friday, July 16, 2010

Martha Nussbaum, Sexuality, And The Right To Veil

In "Veiled Threats?" and again in "Beyond The Veil: A Response," Martha Nussbaum defends the right to cover one's face in public. Laws against veils are a hot topic in Europe, with several EU countries pushing for legislation which would prevent many Muslim women from wearing full-face Islamic veils. Nussbaum goes over and rejects several arguments which are commonly made in support of such a ban. Though I'm not quite sure where my mind is on the issue, I have some problems with what she says.

One of the arguments she rejects is that the full-face veil depersonalizes women. To counter this argument, Nussbaum begins by suggesting that Muslim women may not be degraded or depersonalized by this tradition. This suggestion is not persuasive, however, because some Muslim women have spoken out against the full-face veil for just that reason. More importantly, we have reason to be suspicious of reports by women who say they like the full-face veil. These are women who have been raised their whole lives to think that their only role in adult public life is to be had in anonymity, and that their acceptance of the veil is required by their family, community, and Allah. These women might say the veil is not degrading, but maybe they mean that it's not degrading to Allah. If they don't see themselves as having dignity in the first place, then they cannot conceive of being degraded by the veil. That is the final effect of depersonalization--the inability to conceive of one's own dignity.

Nussbaum isn't satisfied with her suggestion that the full-face veil might not hurt women (maybe she realizes the suggestion isn't persuasive). She tries to defend the right to veil another way, by pointing out that many degrading cultural institutions are and should be legal. Thus, the fact that the full-face veil objectifies women is no reason to make it illegal. To make this argument, she compares the full-face veil to "sex magazines, nude photos, tight jeans — all of these products, arguably, treat women as objects, as do so many aspects of our media culture."

The comparison is hard to fathom. First of all, why are nude photos degrading? Why are sex magazines degrading? Of course, these things can be degrading and objectifying. However, I wouldn't say they necessarily, or even generally, are. Perhaps Nussbaum's world is one in which any attempt a woman makes to be sexually appealing is an act of self-subjugation to a culturally imposed masculine ideal. She says, "Every time I undress in the locker room of my gym, I see women bearing the scars of liposuction, tummy tucks, breast implants. Isn’t much of this done in order to conform to a male norm of female beauty that casts women as sex objects?"

No, I wouldn't say it is. Women are key agents in the construction of ideals of femininity and beauty, and I don't think it is degrading or depersonalizing for a woman to want to be sexy. Perhaps Nussbaum feels degraded by her own sexuality, and would prefer a world in which sex was never sought after or advertised and in which erotica was absent. (Edit:  I must apologize for the crossed-out portion of that last sentence.  It might not technically be ad hominem, but I think it was in poor taste and potentially offensive.)  In any case, I think it's obvious that there is a profound difference between (1) a religious tradition which designed to limit the power of female identity and (2) cultural traditions which enable or even encourage women to express, advertise, or sell their sexuality.

Of course, both (1) and (2) are dangerous. I don't think the sex industry is harmless, but not primarily because it depersonalizes women. Rather, the sex industry often promotes self-destructive behavior and, in the worst cases, a form of indentured servitude. It can be depersonalizing, but that is an unfortunate consequence and not an essential feature.  Treating a woman as a sexual object is not necessarily depersonalizing. In contrast, the full-face veil does seem to be depersonalizing, because it effectively denies a woman a self-created public identity.

The question is not whether we should ban all industries or traditions which can, in the worst scenarios, lead women to pain and suffering; rather, the question is whether or not we should ban traditions which are designed and implemented to deny a public identity to women. The verdict may still be out on whether or not the full-face veil does intrinsically harm women or society. I'm not saying I've made up my mind on the point, but I do think the point needs to be made a bit more clearly than Nussbaum makes it.

Update, July 16, 2010 22:29 GMT: Though my point here was to focus on the issue of depersonalization, I should mention that I do find other faults with Nussbaum's arguments. There's one point worth bringing to attention, as one commenter at The Stone put it: "[In "Beyond The Veil: A Response," Nussbaum] failed completely to adequately respond to the many readers who pointed out that, in spite of her insistence that ski masks and heavy coats are the equivalent of burkas, almost any person dressed for protection in winter weather would indeed be asked to uncover inside when interacting with other people."