Contrary to the standard retort in public discourse when it comes to restrictions on veiling by Muslim women, it has been previously argued that such restrictions would, in fact, be justified interference by the state and in accordance with liberalism. Ban on Muslim veiling would not, in fact, be inconsistent with liberalism. John Stuart Mill’s (19th century England) presented a different set of religious issues to those of multicultural Britain today, but Mill considered three cases contemporaneous to his writing that offer a prism through which we can discern how he might have responded to the question of a state ban on Muslim veiling.
First, he considers whether a ban on eating pork would be acceptable in a Muslim minority country like his own. He concludes that the ban on pork-eating would be unacceptable since many would want to resist the ban because they do not accept Muslim disgust as legitimate grounds for preventing other people from eating pork.
Next, Mill looked at the Christian Puritans’ ban on various forms of recreation, such as music and dance. Mill remarked that the moral and religious sentiments of Puritans were inadequate grounds to restrict other peoples’ leisure activities.
Finally, he considered the Mormon minority in the United States, who practised (male only) polygamy and were persecuted for it. Mill’s response was that interference in the Mormon way of life would be unjustified on the condition that the practice is undertaken with the full consent of all participants. He also stipulated that it should be permitted only if people living in Mormon communities were free to leave.
The Mormon example can be extended to any case in which a host society seeks to change the practices of a minority when those practices are not enforced on people against their will. If we accept – as most people do – that religious dress codes are sometimes forced on people against their will, then, to that extent, according to Mill’s reasoning, the state would be justified in interfering with the practice, just as it would be in cases where the practice of male polygamy did not have the full consent of those impacted by it. This conclusion is consistent with the rationale of Mill’s conditional ban on male polygamy, since the only condition that he thought would make state interference in the practice acceptable was if women had not fully consented to the practice and were not fully free to leave the practising community. If these conditions are met in the case of the veil, for instance, then it is consistent with liberal political philosophy to ban it.
No one should be made, by legal or political force, to conform to ideological values that are not his or her own. So, while well-meaning British citizens may argue that it isn’t OK to tell people what to wear (or not to wear), that goes for Salafi-Wahhabists and fundamentalists as well as for our government. A restriction on veiling would ensure that we are consistent when we say that nobody should tell women what they can wear (or not wear). Many women wear the veil because someone has told them that they cannot wear Western dress, or that not to do so would be in contravention of religious values. If we really want women to be free to “wear whatever they want,” then we must argue against religious authoritarians who tell women exactly what they must wear.
Mill’s various responses to these cases illustrate that mere offence is not a good reason for society to constrain what people do. Liberals have never favoured state interference with self-regarding behaviours that others merely find distasteful. Liberals have only accepted state interference when the behaviour in question is regarding ‘others’ (i.e. when they impact others in some significant way) and harmful.
While it is debatable as to what is or is not harmful, liberals have interpreted harm in a narrow sense, such that merely insulting the feelings or offending other people’s tastes or beliefs is not ‘harmful’ in any significant way, since it does not harm their permanent interests as progressive beings. On the other hand, denying people access to education or information, or limiting their freedom of movement or their liberty to pursue their own goals, are acts that do harm other people’s permanent interests as progressive and well-rounded beings.
Offence, far from injuring my development and growth, may actually stimulate my thought, provoke new ideas, or lead me to challenge my own assumptions or defend existing ones with better reasons. On the other hand, customs, when they are coerced or enforced through family and community pressure (sometimes violent pressure) do harm peoples’ permanent interests as progressive and free human beings, capable of exploring their own physical, emotional and intellectual growth.