Yorick Wilks is a Senior Research Fellow at the Oxford Internet Insitute and professor of Artificial Intelligence (Emeritus) at the University of Sheffield.
Melbourne’s old gaol is a melancholy place: a chilling reminder of early colonial times is a set of rough canvas hoods with eye holes that prisoners had to wear whenever they were out of their cells. The point of them was a total loss of identity and personality for the prisoners because their faces could never be seen by anyone in public, not even fellow prisoners. The burqa, the all enveloping Islamic gown, or “woman in a bag” as some commentators are now calling it, seems to westerners to have the same features; it removes a woman’s face and so her identity and personality. Its defenders, of course, see it differently: for them, men and some women, it removes the woman from the male’s examining looks, neutralises the male’s public exercise of lust and so, they argue, frees the woman in public places.
These totally opposite values - the extinction of the woman’s personality in public, as expressed by her face, versus the removal of her as a public sexual object - make it hard for the two sides to debate because they do not share or even recognise each other’s values. For any western social liberal, of whatever political persuasion, the protection of a woman in public from male concupiscence is not a real issue: we have no notion, as some cultures do, of “assault by looking” beyond the use of words like “leer”, and it is now believed women can largely look after themselves.
On the other hand, the public “extinction” of a woman’s personality is not a problem in most Islamic theology and law: women simply have less personality to lose. By convention, their evidence in court is worth less than a man’s - there must be two female witnesses to an act where one man will do - and not for them the seventy two virgins awaiting a martyr in heaven. Islamic thought still owes much to Aristotle, for whom women had a weaker form of soul.
If that last bit sounds familiar it may be because another institution with much Aristotelean baggage is the Catholic Church and, there too, women still count for less , certainly as regards the priesthood. But that is also the main institution, save for a handful of Anglican nuns, where women can still be found heavily wrapped up as a defence against overt sexuality in public: the nun’s habit is still part of our culture, just, even though most American nuns have been in mufti for some time. The wimple may not hide the face, but it certainly shields it.
And the extinction, or at least the deemphasising, of the individual woman’s personality is precisely what a nun would accept or even embrace. So, a member, or at least an advocate, of the traditional western female religious, might be someone who could share to some degree the assumptions behind the burqa: the shielding of the woman’s face or body from public exposure, chiefly to men, and an acceptance of the deemphasising of the woman’s individuality or personality in public. A westerner like that could have a debate with a burqaist because they share enough to debate the details: perhaps the precise degree of exposure of the face or the outline of the body by such garments, or exactly which women should wear them. Perhaps, too, behind the scenes they already are talking: certainly articles are appearing in American Catholic publications along the lines of ‘Muslims as the new Catholics’, based on certain shared attitudes to abortion and homosexuality, and anticipating their eventual acceptance in the public space. It may be no coincidence that it is France, with its strong tradition of laicité, that has banned the burqa in public, the same country that banned Catholic clerical dress after the Revolution. One must be clear here that that discussion could only be about the voluntary wearing of the burqa, as the nun’s habit is voluntary; no such discussion is possible about the enforced wearing of the garment, which no westerner defends.
It is often said that Islam has no monks or nuns, but one response is that burqaists would make all women nuns, and one possible further step, beyond the issues of the effect of such dress on the wearer and on its male observers in public, is to consider the sexuality of the wearer herself. The Islamic world has been the main home, along with some non-Islamic parts of Africa, of female circumcision, which has also provoked both outrage and, in consequence, the recent laws against the practice in much of modern Europe; the 2003 act in England and Wales was directed largely at practising doctors performing such operations on Islamic women in this country. Female circumcision is the extreme form of the negation of the sexuality of a woman by removing from her, not sex itself , but any pleasure in it. It goes far beyond any practice related to celibacy among western religious, which is a voluntary renunciation and applies to both sexes in the Catholic church, at least in principle.
The parallels between the wearing of the burqa , and associated restrictions on the sexuality and personality of the wearer, certainly do have resonances in western religious traditions: both make strong public statements about sex, lust, and the identity of the wearer. Yet one we tend to accept , at least now in the Twenty-first century, as quaint and old-fashioned, but the other is seen as rejectionist and threatening, just as the British once found Catholic priests, monks and nuns as threat to the state. There remains, too, the faintest analogy with prisoners, hooded into anonymity, uniformed, threatening and hidden from public view in a secular monastery. Nowadays, in the modern prison world of what the Americans call “Club Fed”, the world of the conjugal visit and the distribution of condoms “inside”, we can easily forget that the extinction of sex, as well as personality, was once a crucial part of being a prisoner. In that same Melbourne gaol is a gruesome reminder: thick canvas paddles, locked onto a prisoner’s hands at night, to prevent masturbation, much more brutal than the old, and probably legendary, bromide in the bedtime cocoa.