So apparently, France is thinking about banning burqas (see the Economist). I think this is a fascinating issue. On the one hand, I’m sympathetic to the argument that the burqas are oppressive to women, and personally I find them more than a little creepy. On the other hand, my inner libertarian is yelling that the government shouldn’t be forcing people to dress a certain way. But what’s really fascinating to me is an issue that I think is being neglected: the relationship between burqas and the ability of the “system” to regulate and control individuals and public life.
By the “system” I mean not only the apparatus of the government, like the police, and not only various institutions, like public corporations, but also normal social interactions between individuals. Andrew Sullivan quotes one of his readers:
“Last week I encountered a person in a burqa in my crowded suburban Baltimore supermarket. I hadn’t realized how much of our public interactions require “feedback” of one sort or another. Even the minor “excuse me” requires some sort of feedback to properly “read” the other. When I moved closer, I was able to make eye contact and so complete the social dance.”
Think about how much we rely on recognition of other people’s faces and body language to predict and control them. Let’s say you are a traffic cop who pulls over a car. The woman driver is wearing a burqa, and you ask for her license. How do you even know that the person driving is the person on the license? Or what if you are a teacher and you want to ensure that your students aren’t cheating on a test — do you compel your students to take off their burqas so that you can be sure that someone else isn’t taking the test for them? Or if you are merely engaging with such a person in an informal social interaction – how do you figure out what emotion they are expressing, or whether they are being honest? It seems to me that in a significant sense, the Western standard is not so much about your right to express yourself as it is about other people’s right have access to the information about you that they need to predict and control your behavior. I really don’t know that much about Foucault, but I have a rough sense that this is the kind of thing he was talking about. This seems to deal with various Foucauldian issues that I could bullshit about, such as the Panopticon, knowledge-power, and the creation of the individual subject as a means of controlling people.
Here’s an interesting question: how do majority Muslim countries deal with this problem? I see two possible answers. One is that men don’t wear burqas, and in these countries men dominate public life and women are marginal — in fact, they are usually connected to men who exercise control over them and who in turn can be controlled. The other possibility is that industrialized Western democracies require more regulatory apparatus (whether formal or informal) to function adequately.
I don’t want to give the impression that I think this is on net a bad thing. My intuition is that the benefits of this regulatory system hugely outweigh the costs. But I think it is interesting how often we ignore the fact that there are any costs at all, or that such regulatory power even exists.