Should a Liberal State Ban the Burqa?

Robshaw, Brandon Glyn David (2019). Should a Liberal State Ban the Burqa? PhD thesis The Open University.



This thesis concerns the problem of whether a liberal state should – for liberal reasons – ban the wearing of the burqa in public. The core of the problem is that liberalism appears to pull in two opposed directions on this question. On the one hand, liberals strongly support religious tolerance and the burqa is seen by many, including most of those who wear it, as a religious commitment; and even if it is not a religious commitment it may still be a personal choice, and liberals strongly support enabling personal choice. On the other hand, liberals are committed to supporting equal rights and freedoms for both sexes, and the gender asymmetry of the burqa (women wear it, men don’t) combined with the fact that habitually covering one’s face in public is liable to cause disadvantages in personal, social and professional life, look like good reasons for opposing it; moreover liberals value personal autonomy, which may be compromised if the burqa is worn in response to cultural pressure. The issue thus exposes a tension within liberalism.

A central element of my approach is the disentangling of a number of connected but separate strands of the problem. Thus I consider: different conceptions of liberalism and how they affect the response to the question; whether paternalism on grounds of welfare can be justified within liberalism and if so whether it would justify intervention in the specific case of the burqa; the value of personal autonomy within liberalism and whether a concern to safeguard or promote it could justify a burqa ban; the problem of adaptive preference and whether a socially influenced choice counts as a genuine preference; the role of multiculturalism in liberalism and to what extent it could justify exemptions; gender issues and feminism; the problem of coerced wearing of the burqa; and the problem of how likely it would be that a ban, even if justified in principle, would prove efficacious in achieving its end.

The conclusion to the thesis is that banning the burqa in a liberal state is unlikely to be justified. It could not be justified in terms of the welfare or autonomy of the individual who voluntarily wears it. It could only be justified on the grounds of harm to others. It might, for example, theoretically be justified if coerced wearing of the burqa were widespread. This would be regrettable, however, as it would override the free choice of those who wore it voluntarily. Empirical evidence that such coercion was occurring would be necessary; and such a ban could only be justified if there were no other, equally efficacious and better targeted means of preventing coercion.

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