Freedom of conscience and Muslim women – the illogic of it all

by Tom Miller

People who want to ban the veil are interesting, not least because many of them argue that they wish to do this not because they are specifically Islamophobic or sexist, but because they are against compulsion and they believe this to be rife. 

This is, of course, despite women wearing the veil when out on their own and free of their fellers, for example. And what seems to be a general lack of an evidence base for an assumption we are all supposed to unquestioningly accept.

Given that the proposed remedy can include fines, prosecution or deprivation of liberty, I’m often surprised when normally sober minded people are willing to propose things which impact so fundamentally on people’s lives when their working seems to be based more on hunches, preconceptions or anecdotes than any serious or credible stats or research I am aware of.

The choice of ‘remedy’ (or less charitably put, the means of coercion) selected by proponents to be used by the state to ‘save’ Muslim women is also interesting. It is curious that they propose a law which targets the women they argue are the victims, rather than proposing a law against religious compulsion, for example.

The subject matter also seems a strange choice. In Islam and Judaism, in fact males are circumcised at an age when they are far young to be able to meaningfully consent. I’ll leave the ethics of that practice open, but put into comparison, it makes a proposal targeting of adult women who may well be out and about on their own all the more difficult to explain or fathom. How can you target this on the basis of religious compulsion whilst the practice of circumcision goes unexamined? 

The most obvious answer I can reach to explain this question is that it would also affect Jewish communities. Perhaps a measure which restricts faiths other than Islam is less acceptable to argue for in the polite company of our media and political circles?

The same argument also seems to apply to calls to ‘ban Sharia courts’, where (anecdotally of course) the similar practice of the Beth Din does not seem to get the same level of attention. 

Firstly, again it seems that some find religious freedom an issue of little concern unless said freedom of conscience and action is used by Muslims. 

Secondly, in the case of Sharia courts, much of their function concerns the legal administration of Islamic finance. Can proponents of banning them imagine the level of financial difficulty and restriction this would then place upon people seeking to follow Islamic principles? Again, this would amount to a massively unforeseen restriction of liberty which, again, starts with denying religious choice – but also then ends up highly restricting financial freedom for individuals.

Thirdly, why do people who want to buy them believe that Muslim women are uniquely defenceless? Like any other contract in English law, decisions to enter contractual decisions like marriage or divorce in either a Beth Din or a Sharia court are subject to the protections of English contract law. This means that if there is evidence of duress which looks more probable than not, then the Sharia arrangement becomes non-actionable as a voluntary contract under law.

Are women more likely to be under duress than if they enter a Beth Din? Are they more likely to be under duress than if they enter any other kind of contract under English law? Would it be uniquely difficult to evidence this across a substantial number of cases? I see no evidence to support any of these three assumptions.

I see little evidence to suggest that there is a hugely widespread problem of compulsion in dress. I don’t discount it, but I’m not the one who has reached conclusions about the matter.

I see little evidence that Muslim women have unique problems compared to a Jewish women in some highly analogous situations, but I have a lot of experience of a ‘Muslim issues’ being raised by non-Muslims in a way which really doesn’t appear to happen if it would mean imposing restrictive rules affecting Jewish women.

Last of all, if all these issues are about male compulsion, I see little evidence or logic which suggests that it should be the women who bear the brunt of legal restrictions to their religious practices, or punishment measures.

It seems therefore that ere is very little about this which I can logically understand.

Unless of course we have some sort of problem with Muslims and Muslim women among polite commentators in this country, perhaps one which sits more quietly alongside he open tabloid racism and islamophobia to which they are routinely subjected. Perhaps one in which many well intentioned and intelligent people actually have some pretty bad underlying prejudices about people of one select faith which they haven’t really taken the time to examine or challenge. Perhaps because this stuff doesn’t affect their own financial situation, cultural heritage, or freedom to dress how they like, they don’t rate freedom of conscience and religion with other freedoms they are more used to using. I dunno.

I really wouldn’t want any of that to be true, you know. If it was true of course, all of the logic-free arguments above would suddenly start to make sense in a way that they otherwise don’t.

In a smart and tolerant country like ours, with principled and equally applied liberal freedoms, our enlightened chattering classes – having underlying horrors like this to acknowledge… well that really would be a shame, wouldn’t it?

By the way. Before I’m accused of simply dismissing everyone as a massive racist. The point I’m making here is not about blame or trying to exclude or dismiss you. It’s just that I’ve yet to see a case made that the only people who can have prejudiced views also believe these views to be prejudiced when they argue them. Pretty likely then that a lot of people with some prejudiced views are well intentioned and just not critical or open-minded enough, isn’t it. We have problems with faith and ethnicity based bigotry at the moment, not least the scourge of anti-Semitism. 

Muslims in particular take a lot of shit in the press these days. It’s not a competition, but I cannot deny that this is generally at a volume and level of viciousness viciousness which other groups don’t suffer. 

The voices of the affected communities, insofar as they get attention at all, are often those of men from community groups, or male religious leaders, with Muslim women not getting the hearing they deserve, in my opinion. 

If you’re not a Muslim woman it might be worth thinking about whether your views of veils and Islamic marriages is influenced more by this than you are influenced by Muslim women themselves.