Religious accessories bans are wrong: Faux feminism

The religious accessories most often at issue in ban discussions are modesty garments worn by women. They are usually condemned by feminists, and thus, the “logic” goes, banning them would be a feminist action. That’s not how feminism works, though.

As usual, when we pull away the dissembling and the evasive language, it’s about Islam. It’s always about Islam. (It’s a similar phenomenon as with white nationalists: if they’re using a term you’re not familiar with, it means “Jews”. Always.) There are religious accessories that aren’t worn by women – the Jewish kippah, the Sikh dastar – but they’re usually almost collateral damage in religious accessories bans (although enthusiastically-welcomed collateral damage, because they’re also non-European and non-Christian). And there are non-Islamic modesty accessories worn specifically by women – such as the Catholic nun’s habit – but those are rarely considered, and sometimes even excused (because, the “logic” goes, the nuns choose to wear them by joining specific orders, while the Islamic veil is supposedly usually forced).

But today, we’re going to take the claims at face value, and pretend it’s about feminism.

Which means we’re going to have to focus specifically on Islamic veils, because that’s really the only thing the feminism argument applies to. You could stretch it to cover nuns’ habits, but to wear those, a woman has to go out of her way to join an exclusive, private club. That weakens the argument so much, it’s best ignored if we’re going to give the argument its best chance.

So let’s start with the obvious question: Are Islamic veils feminist?

Are religious modesty garments feminist?

It’s complicated. Very complicated.

It has nothing to do with Islam or the veil either. The question is just as complicated for any garment.

There are huge, long-running debates in feminism about whether brassieres, miniskirts, corsets, and high heels are feminist. There is nothing even remotely approaching a consensus on any of them.

I don’t know why anyone would figure that if the debate hasn’t been concluded on any of those articles of clothing despite decades of wrangling, that it would be “solved” for Islamic veils.

Nor is it going to be solved here. There is no answer, not even a consensus opinion, on whether Islamic veils are feminist or not.

Do you want my opinion? I don’t know why it would matter, but here it is: They are absolutely not feminist, and attempts to argue they are are tortured and disingenuous.

So if I believe they are contrary to feminism, how can I – a self-described feminist – possibly oppose banning them? The answer is simple, and I would have thought painfully obvious: It would be far more contrary to feminism for me, a man, to tell women what they can and can’t wear based on my opinions of their choices.

And you don’t wiggle out of that if you’re a woman: Whether the Islamic veil is contrary to feminism or not, it would also be far more contrary for even women to tell other women what they can or can’t wear based on their opinions.

This has nothing to do with differing conceptions of feminism based on the weight of personal agency versus social responsibility. That would be a factor in deciding whether the veil is feminist or not. It is not a factor in deciding whether “there oughta be a law” dictating what women can and can’t wear. That is undeniably contrary to feminism, in every wave and variant that feminism comes in. But we’ll get back to that.

So there is no objective or even widely agreed-upon intersubjective conclusion that Islamic veils are either feminist or contrary feminist principles. Oh, you have an opinion? Good for you! No-one cares.

And by extension, there is no objective or even widely agreed-upon intersubjective conclusion that any religious accessories – or even religious accessories in general – are either feminist or contrary feminist principles.

But even if they were objectively contrary to feminist principles, imposing a ban would be a far greater violation of feminist principles than allowing women to wear “unfeminist” clothing could ever be.

Now, to be more than fair to most of the people who try the feminist gambit: You could argue that you’re not calling for a RAB because of feminism. You could say that you have other, good reasons for the ban (then, please, share them!), and the fact that it jibes with your interpretation of feminism is just a bonus feature.

But even that doesn’t work, because you’d still be stuck with the problem that a RAB is a law dictating women’s clothing – it doesn’t matter here that it also dictates men’s clothing – which doesn’t square with any interpretation of feminism. So it’s still wrong, even as an add-on, bonus feature.

So, that’s that. The “feminist” justification for banning religious accessories – or even just the Islamic veil – is wrong.

But I’m going to dig a little deeper. Because there’s a whole sewer of wrongness here, and we’ve barely just scratched the surface.

Kettle logic

Have you heard of kettle logic? It’s one of the more amusing types of informal fallacy. The name goes back to Freud, who described it roughly thus:

A person is accused of returning a kettle in damaged condition. In their defence, the accused offers these arguments:

  • “I returned the kettle undamaged!”
  • “Also, it was damaged when I borrowed it!”; and
  • “But I never borrowed it anyway in the first place!”

These three defences are contradictory. As Freud notes, the accused would have actually been better off using just one, rather than trying all three.

Kettle logic is symptomatic of someone defending a claim or belief they didn’t acquire rationally and haven’t really given serious, deep thought to. They haven’t really done the intellectual legwork to determine whether any given justification holds water or not, so they just try throwing them all out there, hoping something will stick. Quantity over quality. It’s like a Gish gallop, but done more out of desperation than as a deliberate means to overwhelm an opponent.

Kettle logic is rampant among advocates of religious accessories bans. Very, very few have actually given real, deep, serious thought to the idea. For most, it just… sounds good. And it ticks a number of emotional boxes, depending on the person:

  • They don’t like religion. Well, this sticks it to religion without feeling too oppressive (because taking off an accessory seems like a small thing).

  • They don’t like diversity of thought. Well, this forces everyone to at least look like they are all nonreligious.

  • They don’t like multiculturalism. Well, this forces cultural minorities to (at least appear to) “integrate”, by pressuring them to stifle their personal cultural heritage and conform to the cultural heritage of the host society.

  • They don’t like Islam in particular. Well, this disproportionately targets Islam. That other “foreign” religious traditions are secondary victims is either irrelevant, or a bonus.

But the kettle logic is particularly blatant – hilariously blatant – with the feminism argument. Here’s why:

  • Religious accessories bans do not target the accessories specifically worn by women. Because that would be flagrantly sexist, and obviously contrary to the principles of feminism and quality. Rather, RABs target all religious accessories, worn by all genders.

  • Religious accessories bans are done for feminist reasons, because they target accessories specifically worn by women that have been imposed on them by patriarchal cultures.

So:

  • either RABs are done for feminist reasons, in which case they must be targeting accessories worn specifically by women; or
  • RABs are not aimed at enforcing dress standards on women, in which case there’s no feminist justification for them.

Which is it? Depends on the proponent, and the time of day.

The argument is even dumber than you thought

So your religious accessories ban is being done for the sake of feminism, eh? Cool, cool. Say, ah, so what happens with the religious accessories of feminist religions then?

Crickets.

Fans of religious accessories bans get livid when you accuse them of being narrowly focused on Islam, or even just on religious traditions that look mostly like Islam. They’ll scream until they’re blue in the face that they’re concerned about all religions – or religion in general – and even accuse you of opposing “secularism” or even of slandering them for making the claim. (Oh, it’s happened to me several times.) And yet… when you actually try to suss out their position with things that aren’t Islam, and don’t look like it… everything just falls apart.

Because not all religions look like Islam or its brethren. There are feminist religions out there. There are feminist interpretations of the “standard” religions, but okay, I can understand why you might give them short shrift – they may have feminist trappings but they’re rancidly anti-feminist under the skirts. (Mind you, brushing away the assertions of the female believers in those faiths and inserting your own… nooooooot exactly the best way to practise your putative feminism.) But there are also explicitly feminist religions. One example, just off the top of my head: Dianic Wicca.

So if an explicitly and specifically feminist religion has a religious accessory… what now, genius?

  • If you say, “ban it anyway”, you’ve just exposed that your feminist claim is a lie.

  • If you say, “well, give that accessory an exemption”, you don’t really have a religious accessories ban, you can’t claim it’s “secularism”, and now you’ve put the government in a position where it has to assess religions or the religious justifications for individual accessories and decide which ones are kosher (pun intended) and which aren’t.

What a mess, eh? Hey, you’re the one who brought feminism into this bullshit. Turns out “feminism” is not just a magic incantation that makes stuff acceptable to progressives.

… and then there’s the hypocrisy

I try to avoid pointing to the actual behaviours of discussion opponents, because that would be ad hominem (real ad hominem … not the mistaken conception of ad hominem most Internet “rationalists” have). But I think at this point, I’ve pretty much ravaged every part of their “argument”, so it’s not necessary to make my case, but I want to point it out for larger concerns about the selfish abuse of “feminism” as a tool to argue one’s pet beliefs.

So we have people who claim to be concerned about women’s rights and equality in Québec. They’re so concerned about that principle, they’re willing to take away rights and freedoms from women to protect it.

(Note: it’s always other women they want to take away rights and freedoms from, of course. They never talk about giving up rights or freedoms they themselves use.)

So if that’s really the truth about why they’re calling for bans of “oppressive” accessories that women are “forced” to wear… we should expect to see some consistency, right?

The most commonly named “oppressive” accessory – the Muslim burqa or niqab – is worn by only a tiny number of women in Québec. Estimates range from a high of only 300, down to a low of 10. Out of 8 million people. That’s about 0.004%, as an upper estimate. And that estimate is only women who wear the burqa or niqab… the number of women forced to wear it in Québec is probably literally zero.

What if there were an “oppressive” accessory that millions of Québécoises regularly wear? And what if tens of thousands – as a low estimate – are regularly forced to wear it? And what if we’re using “oppressive” here not just in a figurative sense, but in a very literal sense: this accessory is literally harming women’s health, sometimes very seriously? (Yes, I’m aware some people make arguments about niqabs and burqas causing vitamin D deficiency. I’m not going to deal with that here.)

You’d think these brave heroes of feminism would be all over that, right?

Well, I’m not speaking about a hypothetical accessory. I’m talking about high-heeled shoes.

Back in 2016, an Alberta woman made international news when she posted a picture of her bloodied feet after a training session at a restaurant. Her boss had told her she was required to wear heels. She ended up walking away from the job. Painfully.

The photo that led to bans on mandatory high heels in multiple provinces

The story led to the passing of laws in Alberta, BC, Manitoba, and Ontario, banning employers from requiring high heels in their dress codes.

So, good story, happy en― wait… that list of provinces… isn’t there one conspicuously absent?

There have been three attempts since 2014 – one failed, one successful (though currently having a rough time in the courts), one in progress – to pass religious accessories bans in Québec, and each time one of the justifications has explicitly been “feminist” concern about enforced “oppressive” accessories some women have to wear. Remember, somewhere between 10 and 300 women in the entire province wear the only relevant accessory this ban would “save” them from, and it’s very likely none of them are being coerced.

So how many times has Québec attempted to ban the enforced wearing of high heels? Which, remember, millions of women wear them, and many, many thousands are forced to.

A grand total of big, fat, fuckin’ zero. Not even once has this even been attempted so far as I can tell. It’s certainly not being widely discussed. I’m not even close to the first person to notice this strange silence. (And MacPherson even cites previous people!) There wasn’t so much as a peep from the usual suspects who advocate for niqab bans when Doug Ford almost repealed the high heel ban Kathleen Wynne instituted.

And keep in mind that if we were to use the same “logic” as a religious accessories ban, then not only would we have to ban forcing high heels on women… we’d have to ban them completely. Even for women who choose to wear them. Nobody should be allowed out in public in high heels! Public servants should be forbidden to wear them! And hey, if it’s no big deal for a hijabi to remove her veil, then it’s also no big deal for a woman to wear a different pair of shoes. And she’d even be better for it, right? Plus, they’re dangerous! You’re much more likely to trip and fall in high heels, leading to expensive lawsuits against the state. And they damage floors. There’s actually a much stronger case for banning high heels than niqabs!

Nobody is being fooled. They can claim “feminism” until they’re blue in the face, but their behaviour betrays them. They don’t give a fuck about feminism. They don’t give a fuck about women.

If they did, a high heel ban – even just one similar to the bans in Alberta, BC, Manitoba, and Ontario, that just ban employers forcing them on employees – that should be low-hanging fruit. But all they rage about is veils, veils, veils. Veils worn by maybe a dozen people, none of whom appear to be public servants, and that don’t actually cause any real physical harm to the wearer or damage to public property. Unlike high heels: worn by millions, forced on many thousands, doing real physical harm to the women who wear them, risking expensive trip-and-fall lawsuits, and actually damaging the grounds on public property!

Fuck, I’ve almost convinced myself that we should ban high heels. But religious accessories bans? They’re still wrong.

Summary

There are a lot of claims made about religious accessories to justify banning them. They’re “methods of proselytizing”. They’re “symbols of oppression”. They’re “anti-feminist”.

As with most of those assertions, the claim that religious accessories are either “feminist” or “contrary to feminism” are just opinions. They are neither objectively true nor false, and there’s not even an intersubjective consensus among feminists either way. This is also the case for specific religious accessories like the Islamic veil.

But even if it were true that they were objectively contrary to feminism, banning them would be more contrary to feminism. There is no feminist justification, in any variant of feminist theory, for a legal dress code that decides what women can or cannot wear.

The faux “feminist” argument doesn’t work, at any level. It’s a desperation tactic, and a disgusting one at that. It’s people who don’t actually care about real feminist principles, or real women, attempting to ride on the coattails of a legitimate and important ideology for their own smarmy goals. Which, indeed, is a depressingly common way that real feminism gets (ab)used.

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