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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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’.
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.
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.
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.
Khair is an Indian novelist and academic who works in Denmark
Source: The Hindu