I have been a daily reader of the Deseret News for almost a quarter century. To say I was surprised at Sunday's editorial questioning the recent French legislation banning the wearing of the burqa or niqab in public would be an understatement. I was stunned.
The legislation would ban dress that covers the face but does not ban any other types of coverings. Turbans, abayas, chadors, turongs and so forth to remain completely legal. Masking of the face, whether by a Halloween mask or the burqa or niqab, would be prohibited. Aside from obvious security concerns, which are echoed in U.S. legislation that also bans the wearing of Halloween-type masks except for special holidays, are there any good reasons to support this ban?
Absolutely. In a democracy, citizens stand as equal members of society, and democracies such as France have rightly extended that equal standing to women, though only in the last century. This was a hard-fought battle waged by our foremothers, and we honor their victory on behalf of all their daughters and granddaughters. Democracy now means that women are no longer ciphers without a voice; the human collective views them as full partners in the human enterprise. My own research has demonstrated that most of the benefits we ascribe to democracy — greater peace and stability, for example — are actually rooted in the greater security and status of women in those societies. The security of women is in fact a better predictor of state peacefulness than level of procedural democracy or level of wealth.
My research also shows that countries that tolerate enclaves of inequitable treatment of women are far more unstable and far less peaceful than states that do not tolerate such enclaves. Why should this be so? Because when you undermine the security and situation of women, you undermine the very foundation of your society. The burqa and niqab literally obscure a woman's face and muffle her voice. However, it is vital that human societies be able to hear the voices of women and see if their faces express happiness and satisfaction, or whether their faces express fear, disgust, terror or even bruises and welts. Women's situations must be visible to all within society, lest the harm done to them be as invisible as their faces. Democracies worthy of that name would not permit women to once again become silent ciphers in our midst.
To suggest that the cause of religious liberty is of overriding importance is to flirt with both social and spiritual disaster. It is in the first place the invisibility and voicelessness of women that has permitted grosser abuses to be visited upon them. The U.S. has banned female genital mutilation, though some religious adherents view that as an infringement on their freedom of religion. The U.S. insists that girls be educated, though some sects decry that. The U.S. requires that girls be older than 16 to enter into marriage, though many religions countenance the marriage of girls far younger than that. The U.S. proclaims that wife beating is domestic violence, which is a prosecutable offense, even though some religions claim a man has a God-given right to beat his wife. How many of these practices would the Deseret News tolerate in the name of religious liberty? I would presume none. That means there are indeed natural law limits on the freedom of religion, especially as concerns the treatment of women. And I would argue that the place to draw the line must be the place where it all starts: women's invisibility in society. To ban the burqa and niqab is to stand up and say that we refuse to take the road of women's invisibility, with all of the negative secondary consequences that would surely follow.
That it was the Deseret News that questioned the ban strikes this reader as ironic, given the newspaper's ownership by a church that preaches a revolutionary doctrine concerning women and their equal standing with men in the sight of God. One authority of that church memorably stated, "The [LDS] Church will never bow down before any traditions that demean or devalue the daughters of God," and other general authorities have inveighed against cultural and religious traditions of male dominance over women, such as brideprice. Members of that church should be in the forefront of efforts to improve the visibility and voice of women, not in the rear guard, muttering against such efforts.
Some might believe that questioning the French bill is striking a blow for religious freedom. While there may be a tactical element to it, this stance is, in my opinion, a strategic disaster. Both the state and the society are undermined when women are undermined. It is a grave mistake to posit religious freedom as a principle capable of overriding a society's concern for women. Let us not aspire to secure religious freedom by betraying our sisters. After all, what profiteth it a man to gain unconstrained religious liberty and lose his soul in the process?
Valerie M. Hudson is a political scientist who lives in Orem. She was named as one of Foreign Policy Magazine's Top 100 Global Thinkers for 2009.