Centre Article: The Veiled Threats of Secularism: Are Women Independent Moral Agents?

July 22, 2008

France's highest administrative court has ruled recently that a woman, who speaks fluent French but wears a veil, is not suitable for French citizenship because, in wearing the veil for religious reasons, she is not subscribing to "French values" about equality of the sexes. Her freedom of religion must take a back seat to the French requirement that women should at least be seen if they are not heard. The decision has apparently received wide support right across French society.

The New York Times on July 19, 2008, under the heading "A Veil Closes France's Door to Citizenship" carried an article about the woman in question.

How consistent are the current approaches we take in Western countries to the moral autonomy of women? Not very. In fact, not at all. Let me explain why by using a less controversial example than religion. Let me use the example of abortion.

For the sake of argument, let us imagine a group of women who wish to seek abortions. They want to be protected from the prying eyes of onlookers. They decide the best way to do this is to approach a clinic entrance by wearing a veil similar to the one worn by Mrs. Faiza Silmi in Paris. The difference is that their decision to wear the veil is sparked not by religious views but privacy concerns in relation to the issue of abortion.

In seeking the "right to choose" they are, so the rhetoric of the day has it, exercising the right to privacy which is the essence of the "right to choose" and it is that exercise of "choice" within the emanations of the penumbra of "privacy" that makes abortion a constitutional right (Roe v. Wade, 1973 and subsequent decisions of the U.S. and Canadian courts). The issue of abortion is, as we all know, "between a woman and her doctor." The right to choose is about what exactly?

Well, it is about what the woman chooses, nothing more nothing less—questions of morality are elided because this is, as we all know, about subjective autonomy about the will, about choice. Should anyone attempt to "get inside" the right to choose, one is interfering with the capacity of a woman to be a moral agent. That is precisely how the abortion issue has been argued, successfully, in the courts of most Western countries. This is why women are "free", why "liberation" is advancing, and why people like Dr. Henry Morgentaler, Canada's leading abortionist, obtain, after a life-time of providing "therapeutic abortions", Canada's highest honour (the Order of Canada) as a promoter of this "right to choose."

If she decides that what is in her womb is not a unique human entity since conception, but is something else, then that is her right. She may have it "terminated" and the "therapeutic abortion" might even be performed by, though it is unlikely right now, someone like Dr. Henry Morgentaler. "Every child a wanted child" was the learned doctor's motto. The other way of putting this is, of course, "If I do not want you, you shall never be a child." Medicine, or therapy, uber alles set to the tune of the German national anthem.

So, back to the veil. Back to the women who wish to avoid the peeping Toms of the modern age, who despise abortion and believe it to be killing of innocent human life .

Surely everyone would agree that if a woman wants to walk in public hiding under a veil for the purposes of getting an abortion she should be able to do so. A veil against evil. The moral agency is assumed by the fact that she is a woman and "biology is not destiny" and "every child a wanted child" etc. etc. etc.

But should the same woman on another day (or even the same afternoon) be able to do so if her reasons are religious or cultural or just aesthetic (she likes veils—thinks they are mysterious or even sexy)? Well, those appear to cause a problem to the method of moral agency analysis posed by modern savants.

Let us go back to basics. Her reasons for wanting to have the abortion are that she has the choice to do with her own body what she wants. This must mean not just what goes on inside her body (the abortion) but the less consequential matter of what goes on outside it (the wearing of a veil, make-up, what have you).

Let us take this further.

Assume that her reason for wanting to wear a veil is not due to seeking an abortion but to something else. Say, her understanding and belief about modesty or her belief that she alone can decide (as with abortion) whether another man should view her face (a much less significant thing, some would say, than whether or not she should bring a child to term). Should this decision be protected as a matter of choice and female moral agency?

Does she have the right to wear a veil in public then? Well, she may do so for the time being in a country like France but she may lose a chance at citizenship if she chooses that. She has moral agency to choose an abortion and to wear a veil on the way to an abortion but not the moral agency to choose her religion and to wear a veil on the way to her Mosque. Does this seem reasonable? Does it make sense?

Or does it show that the entire structure of our public moral reasoning is suspect, corrupt, weak and a vast insult to coherence? It is not my place in this short article to do anything but ask questions. It is up to you, the readers, to formulate your own conclusions in light of the questions posed.

In France there are some, apparently, who want to ban the wearing of a veil altogether. Women who chose the Muslim veil are, to them, clearly pawns of men, but if they were to wear a veil for reasons of privacy on the way to have an abortion, then they would be what exactly? Wise? Noble? Strong moral agents asserting inalienable rights? Do people even care about these inconsistencies and absurdities anymore?

So that is where contemporary liberalism has brought us.

We cannot, except by ruling out the moral choices of women and denying their moral agency, tell them that their decision to wear a veil is something we will not stand if we do so on the basis of "the equality of the sexes."

The threats of certain kinds of contemporary "liberalism" are no longer thinly veiled, and it is not just Muslim women who are threatened.

There may be other reasons that a society may wish to insist that its citizens go about with their faces visible, but "equality of the sexes" is not one of them, not if we want the "logic" of abortion to go unchallenged.