Friday, June 26, 2009

Real freedom

Commenting on Sarkozy’s remark on the burkha being a symbol of subservience and calling for its ban, Amit Varma says that it is colossally wrong-headed, and goes against the very principles Sarkozy claims to uphold.

"Classical liberals who believe in individual freedom, as I do, are appalled by some societies for the way they treat their women. The burkha is a symbol of this oppression, and obviously our hearts go out to women forced to spend their lives hiding their faces and their bodies from the world. But the operative word here is ‘forced’.

We are troubled by burkhas because they represent coercion. But not all women who wear burkhas, especially in the West, do so because they are being forced into it. Many women wear them out of choice, and we should respect that choice. We may disagree with their reasons for it—but really, once that choice is established, those reasons are none of our business. They have as much of a right to wear a burkha as to not wear a burkha, and to outlaw that option amounts to the same kind of coercion that Sarkozy is trying to position himself against."

In his column in The Guardian, Stuart Jeffries is critical too, but provides a different perspective:
When the French president told a special session of parliament in Versailles earlier this week, "We cannot accept to have in our country women who are prisoners behind netting, cut off from all social life, deprived of identity", he would have done better to hold his tongue, and instead reflect on that passage in the Philosophy of Right in which Hegel distinguishes between abstract and concrete freedom.

The former means the freedom to do whatever you want, which, as you know, is the basis of western civilisation and why you can choose between 23 different kinds of coffee in your local cafe, or 32 different kinds of four-inch wedges the glossies tell you look sexy this summer but in none of which you can walk comfortably. Such is the freedom of late capitalism, which seems to systematically strive to deprive us of an identity that we might construct ourselves.

For Hegel this isn't real freedom, because our wants and desires are determined by society. By those lights, a western fashion victim is as much a sartorial prisoner as a woman in a burka.Neither is really free. Those that must buy what someone else tells them are this season's must-haves are as much in mental chains as those who put on head-to-toe garment with netting for the eyes because of the strictures of the society to which they belong.

So, by this reasoning, none of us is really free, in the true sense. When you are lured by advertisers and fashion designers into believing that the body-hugging clothes in synthetic material and tight-fitting, toe-crushing, pointed shoes are what you ought to wear for the party tonight, then you are as much ‘subservient’ as a woman who you believe is forced to wear a burkha.

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