However, I think the real thing at issue here is whether Muslim women should be compelled to wear the veil against their wishes. This is the reality for many women in Islamic countries and, to a much lesser extent, in the West too. In these cases, women are being actively oppressed and subjugated by other members of their culture and religion (usually males). They are often ignorant, in that they don’t realise that not wearing a veil is a possibility at all. For those that do know this, they do not usually dare flout this rule, for fear of being ostracised, or even death. Of course, this is just the tip of the iceberg, as the reality goes far beyond women merely being forced to wear a veil. In parts of the Islamic world, women are generally regarded as being inferior to men (of course, Christianity also preaches this, but the situation for women in the West has improved considerably due to the spread of secular morality following the Reformation and Enlightenment).
The Koran is quite explicit on such matters. For example:
“Men are in charge of women, because Allah hath made the one of them to excel the other, and because they spend of their property (for the support of women). So good women are the obedient, guarding in secret that which Allah hath guarded. As for those from whom ye fear rebellion, admonish them and banish them to beds apart, and scourge them.” (4:34)
Such teachings result in often deplorable conditions for women in the Islamic world, with immoral patriarchal and sexist practices such as female genital mutilation, forced marriages, and honour killings being endemic. This is not to mention the fact that women are given fewer rights in general than men, and are often kept uneducated and in a state of servitude to their husbands.
Some may say that this is their culture, and for us to criticise it would be to act as cultural imperialists, and anyway who is to say that our morality is objectively better than theirs? However, I believe that those who would argue this way are blinded by their adherence to the flawed ideas of cultural relativism that they refuse to acknowledge the terrible injustices perpetrated on women in some Islamic cultures.
Such thinking is, I believe, profoundly mistaken for a number of reasons. Firstly, even though we have yet to reach a universal consensus on the best possible morality, no justifiable candidate based upon reason and actual facts will include such aspects as overt sexism, homophobia, oppression, subjugation, and inequality – as these are inimical to human happiness and flourishing. In fact, they will regard such things as being actually immoral. And yet these constituents feature heavily in the approved religious morality of some Islamic countries (as enshrined in the Koran and Hadith). Hence, I think that we are entirely justified in judging such moral systems to be deeply flawed, and, in places, actually immoral by any reasonable standard. By any reasonable lights, systems of morality can be objectively better or worse. I have more to say about morality here.
The United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights is a commendable attempt to formally codify basic concepts of human rights. The treatment of citizens (women in particular) in many Muslim countries routinely breaches their human rights, as defined in this document. For human rights to be universal, they need to be applied universally. Therefore, if we subscribe to the Declaration, and are happy to criticise any breaches of human rights in the Western world, then we should be equally prepared to criticise them when they occur elsewhere.
It should be remembered that culture and state is a transient and mutable thing – a set of traditions, religious and political ideologies, and individual, tribal and group power struggles. If a culture or state is oppressive, patriarchal, or tyrannical, there is no reason why its citizens should be forced to endure it. And if ignorance of the true facts of the world, or failures of reasoning mean that its citizens do consider such a state to be good, then we should probably attempt by peaceful educational means to correct such failures and to encourage them to re-engineer their state for the better. And, in extremis, if there is proper just cause and if it could be executed justly, then there might be persuasive reasons to use military force to encourage such change. However, previous attempts at this have shown how unintended consequences can leave such states in a worse condition than they were before (at least in the short-term), and so any such action would first require a proper legal mandate, and overwhelming evidence that the end result would most probably be a society that is more free, happy, and flourishing.
It should be further borne in mind that nobody chose to be born into a particular culture and state. The misfortune of being born a woman into a repressive, misogynist society should not condemn one to eke out a miserable life under the rule of one’s father, brothers, and husband (arranged), and to have no freedom of dress, movement, and speech. Such women live under the threat of being beaten, or even killed, if they transgress one of the many religious and cultural rules that govern their existence.
Such cultural relativism is often born out of misplaced feelings of guilt for being (white) middle-class citizens of countries that are seen as being part of the ‘imperialist’ West. In such a worldview, Muslim states are seen as being victims of the West’s imperialist aggression, and can thus be excused anything. However, it should be remembered that aggression, intolerance, and lust for power are universal human traits, and are not unique to the West. Where we find abuses of human rights, we should condemn them consistently – whether they occur here, or in Muslim counties (or, for that matter, in communist countries). Whilst the West has its own problems with human rights issues, there is no moral equivalency between these and the problems in many Islamic countries. The residual problems of sexism, racism, homophobia and suchlike still present in our western democratic societies are in no way comparable to that in some Muslim countries, where one can be stoned to death for being gay, acting 'inappropriately' as a women, or the imaginary crimes of blasphemy and apostasy.
Moral and cultural relativism is a stance that is popular in some (particularly academic) circles, but a little thought demonstrates how problematic a position it is to defend. According to moral relativists, there is no objective moral truth, only truths relative to social, cultural, historical, or person circumstances. However, the moral relativist now has to swallow some pretty unpalatable conclusions, or else explain why they cannot legitimately be deduced from the premises of moral relativism. For example: slavery was morally right in the American Deep South; killing Jews was morally right in Nazi Germany; the Stalinist purges were morally right in Communist Russia; the inclinations of certain US leaders to impose their views upon other countries by force is morally right for them; oppression of women in Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Afghanistan is morally right for them.
In fact, if we dig a little deeper here, we can expose some more problems with moral relativism. Firstly, how exactly do we determine the society, culture, or group that the morality is true for? For example, we might suppose that oppression of women is moral in Saudi Arabia; but how about the women being oppressed – don’t they count in our calculations? By such means we are defining the correct morality for that society based upon what the powerful wish to impose upon the less powerful. It is truly mind-boggling that some sections of the liberal-left, which should be the supporter of such worthy aims as universal freedom and equality, have managed to re-engineer their worldview to such an extent that it now condones repressive, patriarchal, racist, and homophobic societies.
Getting back to the specific subject of the veil, I also believe that a very good case can be made for saying that parents should not be free to compel their female children to wear the veil - even in the West. We should recognise that children do not belong to their parents, and that they should be accorded rights of their own. In a liberal society, parents are not free to physically, mentally, or sexually abuse their children, or to take away their basic freedoms. Accordingly, I think that a very good argument can be offered for saying that forcing children to wear the veil amounts to abusing their basic human rights, in the same way that those men who force women to wear the veil are abuses their human rights. See this article for more discussion of this point.
If Muslim women in the West freely choose to wear the veil, then that is largely their concern – however irrational it might be to voluntarily impose such a restriction upon one’s freedom. There is every reason to believe that if such people knew the true facts of the world, and reasoned correctly based upon these facts, then they would eschew the veil. Nevertheless, respect for personal autonomy dictates that we should generally accord people the freedom to act irrationally, so long as it doesn’t cause significant harm to others. However, such people might pause to remember that it is only because they have the good fortune to live in an enlightened secular country that they have such a freedom to make this choice at all. Countless millions of women in the Islamic world do not have the luxury of being free to make such choices. These are the women for whom we should speak, as they are usually not free to speak for themselves.