But a comment I made on another blog, practically in passing,
"I'm totally of the opinion that if you want to live in France (or any foreign country) you should do as the locals do. The French are just as justified in finding burqas offensive, as the Saudis are in finding bikinis offensive."
drew an unexpectedly (to me) hostile response from one commenter, who calls such an attitude "coercive" and "oppressive" (and says much else). But what struck me as curious was this statement:
"A society can contract on any set of rules but a society which doesn't value or protect individual liberty will necessarily be an oppressive and coercive one."
The easy answer to that is, yes, French society is free to choose its rules, and if I find those rules oppressive, I'm free not to live in France.
But there's more to it than that. I have some sympathy for libertarian views, as frequently expressed on Lew Rockwell and other sites, without entirely subscribing to them myself.
Now, the above commenter says:
"Shouldn't a woman living in Saudi Arabia have the right to drive a car is she so pleases or wear a bikini?"
One question is, wear a bikini where? On most Indian beaches, it would be frowned upon. On most western beaches it's normal and expected, but in most western city centres, it would not be much appreciated either, if not actually illegal. On the other hand, complete nudity would be illegal in most places (including most beaches) -- but is not illegal in Barcelona (though not uncontroversial there either). There are smaller resorts where nudity is perfectly acceptable.
Does that mean that these should be the standards all over the world? A consistent libertarian would (or should) say yes. But most of us would not be so sure (even if we are not personally offended by nudity). Every society in the world has conventions that have taken root over hundreds, if not thousands, of years. Before uprooting them, we would want to balance the benefit against the cost of upsetting a large fraction of society. If it's child marriage, or dowry, clearly society benefits from getting rid of such traditions. (Yes, these examples involve imposing bans, but I hope most libertarians will support the bans.) If it's smoking in public places, I'm of the opinion that society benefits from banning it; others disagree. If it is a particular dress code, the benefit of suddenly uprooting it is less clear to me. If we were to allow bikinis, much less nudity, on beaches in Saudi Arabia (or Chennai's Marina!) we will, in the short term, need police protection for the wearers of those bikinis. But libertarians loathe the police. So we will want to allow bikini-wearers to carry weapons for defence. So we will need to relax our gun laws. You see the slippery slope. (I'm not entirely joking. These are often actual libertarian arguments.)
Coming back to the burqa question: if revealing clothing is impolite in many countries, hiding one's face is regarded as impolite in Western societies. I said above, somewhat flippantly, that those who disagree are free not to live in France. But for second-generation immigrants it's not so easy to leave. Isn't there an argument for saying that a community of citizens, however small, has the right to practise its religious customs?
Well, suppose there were a religious community in India that believed in not wearing clothes: would we allow them in our cities? In fact there is precisely such a community, the Jains, a very old community that originally did not wear clothes. Over time they split into two sects, the Digambar (naked) and Swetambar (white-clothed). Today practising Digambars have practically vanished, and most Jains I know don't even object to coloured clothes. Would we tolerate a large community of Digambar monks moving around freely without clothing in our cities, even though their heritage is at least as old as anyone else's in India? If the answer is no, why should we expect other cultures to be accepting of burqas, which are not part of their heritage at all?
Politeness isn't the most serious issue with hiding your face or wearing loose swaddling clothing: there's also the question of security, as jewellers in Pune recently discovered. A consistent libertarian should argue that a jeweller is free to debar burqas from his private shop; but the commenter above called such a ban "bigoted" and "petty" (probably because he misread me as saying the French had done it). And indeed, the jewellers backed down, I believe. In contrast, I don't know of any crimes attributable to nudists: the Digambars are the most non-violent people in the world.
And after all, the burqa ban in France is only in public schools. Women are free to wear burqas elsewhere, and are free to choose a private school.
Perhaps in an ideal world, the French would be happy with burqas and we would be happy with bikinis on public beaches. Neither of us are there yet. But the western world is unquestionably further along the road of religious freedom and individual liberty. Let us catch up before berating them on burqas.