The face veil ban in Sri Lanka — which, like a similar ban in France, is aimed at all religious groups, not just orthodox Muslims — has wrong-footed many of my liberal friends once again. They seem to have little choice but to try to oppose the veil ban in the name of free will. This and similar arguments cut very little ice with most non-Muslims, and have actually contributed to the rise of non-Muslim (sometimes anti-Muslim) rightist and reactionary groups all over the world, from the U.S. to India — not to mention the continuing marginalisation of liberals as a political force.
Excuse for the orthodox
If you are not a Muslim (or a generous non-Muslim liberal), you can easily slash the argument of ‘free will’ into shreds with reference to your own inheritance. For instance, a Hindu can take up the old institution of Sati, or widow immolation. Sati was sanctioned by some Hindu religious traditions and it was argued that widows who committed Sati did so of ‘their own free will’. Reactionary Hindus might still make this claim, but most Hindus, even religious ones, would not want to reintroduce Sati.
Or let’s move to Christianity in 19th century Europe, when divorce was mostly impossible for women (and poor men) to obtain. Once again, there was scriptural sanction for this, and it was argued that ‘good wives’ always choose to stay within a ‘heaven-made’ marriage — no matter how uneven or abusive — of ‘their own free will’. Today, almost no European would subscribe to this view.
The list is long. Every people have had, and to some extent still have, various traditions and customs that seem to be the result of ‘free will’ — if seen from a position of privilege, and from positions that do not or cannot question this privilege. After all, even slavery was justified not just by slave-owners but also, on historical evidence, by some slaves as the ‘best of all choices’ for a particular and hugely exploited branch of humanity.
The hard fact remains that if a group of people are under pressure to comport in certain ways, then they cannot be said to choose that particular option. Even if the option is ‘freely’ chosen, it is not a free choice. For a choice to be free, other options need to have equivalent prestige and acceptability, both within the community and around it. This is seldom the case for anyone, and never the case with subaltern groups such as women in a patriarchal set-up.
A wife faced with degradation and starvation as a ‘single woman’ in 19th century Europe had no choice but to ‘freely’ stay within the confines of her marriage. An Indian widow faced with neglect and possible abuse after her husband’s death had no choice but to ‘freely’ become a Sati. If a woman is made to believe that a certain deportment or dress is vital for her well-being in this world and the next, then the choice of that deportment or dress can never be a free one.
There are many orthodox Muslims who do not insist on veils because of ‘free will’. Far from it. Actually, they would argue that the matter of free will does not arise: according to them, God has ordained that women should dress in a certain way and that is that. One could, as Fatima Mernissi does in her scholarly books, question their reading of the scriptures, but that is another matter, and it is a matter I have no desire to raise. What I am saying is that many orthodox Muslims — or reactionary Hindus, for that matter — insist on a certain treatment of women because they consider it God-ordained, religion-based and definitely not a matter of personal choice or ‘free will’.
This also makes the liberal argument of ‘free will’ around such matters rather ludicrous: liberals invoke ‘free will’ to defend practices that are considered obligatory and pre-ordained by their proponents! No wonder liberals fail to cut ice with the vast majority.
Not all bans
There are two good reasons not to ‘ban’ personal matters, whether it is the consumption of food or drink, or the wearing (or not wearing) of a particular kind of dress. First of all, such bans often create a bigger backlash, at least in the future. Second, and more importantly, any such ban introduces the public into the private: there are very good (liberal) reasons to keep governments out of drawing rooms, toilets and kitchens. If liberals want, they can argue along those lines, and they might or might not convince others.
But for God’s sake, it is time for liberals to stop fooling themselves and talking of ‘free will’ in order to justify tradition, custom and other forms of direct or indirect social coercion. It might make them feel good to be so generous and accepting, but it is neither the truth nor politically useful. In the longer run, it is even detrimental to whatever ‘beleaguered’ community liberals choose to champion along these lines, for it provides that community with superfluous febrile crutches to hobble on when it actually needs to put its two feet to the grounds of reality and start walking.
Tabish Khair is an Indian novelist and academic who works in Denmark