In June London Mayor Sadiq Khan realised his election manifesto promise to ban ads that encouraged “unhealthy or unrealistic” body images. His sweeping new policy bans all ads promoting “a negative body image” across the Transport for London (TfL) network. He partnered with TfL to set up a steering group to implement his new policy alongside existing ASA regulations.
The mayor’s announcement came at an opportune moment, in the wake of a social media controversy over a Protein World ad featuring a sexy slender blonde in a bikini alongside a text reading “Are you beach body ready?” The ad resulted in 378 complaints to the ASA (Advertising Standards Agency), an online petition calling for the ad to be banned, as well as some comical graffiti defacing the billboards with feminist comments. The ASA ruled that the Protein ads were neither offensive nor irresponsible. But Khan, citing his paternal role as a father of two teenaged girls, disagreed, stating, “Nobody should feel pressurized, while they travel on the Tube or bus, into unrealistic expectations surrounding their bodies . . .” The mayor said ads like this (Protein ad) can demean women and “make them ashamed of their bodies.”
Last week the London Mayor was again at the centre of a row over womens’ bodies in France. At the height of the burkini controversy, he added his voice to the chorus of protests against the French ban at yet another opportune political moment, stating: “I don’t think anyone should tell women what they can and can’t wear. Full stop. It’s as simple as that.”
The French ban that Khan equivocally denounced is not only comparable to the London mayor’s TfL ban; it is arguably less illiberal than his. First, we do not know simply from the fact that there were a number of complaints to the ASA against the Protein ad, who or what beliefs motivated those complaints. Presumably many of them came from feminists. Yet not everyone, let alone all feminists, agree with Khan (or the online SJWs) that a physically fit woman in a bikini promotes an “unhealthy” or “unrealistic” image of womens’ bodies, “demeans” women, promotes a “negative” body image, or makes women and girls “ashamed of their bodies”. For one, the ASA, which was in charge of fielding complaints and applying the law, disagreed with Khan’s opinion. Many feminists (not all of them Western) disagree with the idea that their bodies connote shame. They view their bodies with pride and see sexually suggestive ads about women as celebrating female sexual agency and empowerment long suppressed by patriarchal cultures whose religions have constrained female sexuality to virginity, marriage and motherhood.
But even if some people agree that the Protein ad exerted sexist pressures on women, there are plenty of ways to voice protest short of imposing TfL-wide censorship of all ads that allegedly “promote a negative body image”. In a liberal secular society, people can and do voice their objections to forms of cultural sexism. They push back against social pressure to conform to gender stereotypes via the legal channels available, as the creative variety of protests (mentioned above) against the Protein ad showed.
If equivalent forms of robust dissent from religious pressure to adopt gender-based religious dress are absent among Muslim women, this is not necessarily a sign of their universal consent. Lack of integration into the secular liberal state (made worse by veiling) makes it impossible to read their silence as a symptom of consent, as it could just as easily be symptomatic of tyrannical community coercion.
Both Western women and Muslim women face various forms of pressure to conform to the gender norms of their cultures. Yet, in the present context, the pressure faced by Muslim women to adopt religious dress is arguably much more extreme than the pressure on women to conform to Western ideals of beauty. The penalties are certainly not equivalent. Western women can buck social conventions, and some Muslim women do the same vis-à-vis religious ones. But many Muslim women do so at their peril. In strict religious families and communities, resistance to legal forms of pressure can quickly transform into illegal forms of violence, making resistance a much more dangerous risk to take for Muslim women. According to strict Islamic belief, ‘dishonour’ includes a wide range of specific behaviours which can include: reporting domestic abuse, perceived inappropriate make-up or dress, running away from home and rejecting a forced or arranged marriage, leaving a spouse and/or children, and seeking a divorce. For many Muslim women religious dress is mandatory, not voluntary. The Iranian and Kurdish Women’s Rights Organisation (Ikwro) found that police forces across the UK had recorded at least 2,823 “honour” attacks over 2010. Some forces showed a jump of nearly 50 per cent in such cases from 2009. As recently as 2015, London’s Crown Prosecution Service reported the highest ever number of cases of violence against women and girls (VaWG) being prosecuted and convicted in England and Wales. Despite this, a 2015 review conducted by the HMIC into the effectiveness of police responses to “honour” – based violence (HBV) found that only three out of the 43 forces across England and Wales are prepared in all essential areas to deal with such crimes. This is the backdrop against which we must read the claim that wearing the burqa is a “choice”.
Women have always been in this catch-22: the physical evidence needed to prove the degree of pressure on them can only be obtained in ways that are worse than the pressure itself. Women first have to be subjected to violence in order to be protected from it. Even if European states were to stop focusing all of the attention on women and instead enforce a mandatory prison sentence for anyone forcing a woman to wear religious dress, she would have to prove that she was forced. The only way she could do that would be to exhibit physical injuries. French citizens, including many French Muslims and ex-Muslims, acknowledge this kind of religious intolerance and give it importance.
While the French were arguably stretching an existing (if controversial) law beyond its remit, Khan was not respecting the existing law, but changing it to reflect his own ideological agenda. The fact that he and the ASA disagreed over the criteria for a ban shows that he is not only narrowing their existing definition of what counts as acceptable, but doing so based on his own assumptions and prejudices about gender, while presuming to speak for all women. Moreover, the stated criterion for his ban is so broad as to capture any ads depicting women’s bodies in revealing or “immodest” attire. Who needs Shari’a law when you have a liberal mayor like this? Anyone who had ever associated (even once) with far right nationalists could never have been elected Mayor of London, but Khan, who had a reputation for associating with Islamists (the religious right) on multiple occasions, got an easy pass. The double standards here do not stop at the Mayor himself.
The justification for his TfL ban on ads was the social pressure exerted on individuals and the presumption that the available means of resisting that pressure are inadequate. Yet when the same argument is marshalled in defense of the French ban, Khan blames the French authorities for “telling women what they can and can’t wear”. His differing responses to these two situations implies that the Mayor believes the pressure Western women experience to look fit is more serious than that faced by Muslim women to look ‘modest’.
Liberal feminists have historically protested all patriarchal cultures’ forms of sexist pressure, but they have generally done so without appeal to legal protection from the state. The liberal assumption is that the state should protect offensive speech and all forms of social “pressure” (sexist or otherwise) up to the point that such pressure poses real and imminent harm to the individual.
In European states, there is nothing controversial or illiberal about limiting the freedom of expression of individuals to those behaviours that do not deny it to others. The same would be true of any other form of “expression”. So for example, while you can listen to music of your choice, you cannot listen to it at a volume that makes it difficult for others to enjoy their own. The freedom of one group cannot be so intrusive that it encroaches upon the freedom of others.
In some ways the principle at stake here is similar to that of the smoking ban, which interferes with some people’s right to smoke (self-regarding behaviour) because of the harm their smoking arguably causes to others in their proximity. The liberal state has re-defined smoking as “other-regarding” behaviour because of its impact on others who do not choose to smoke. While a smoking ban does interfere with the individual smoker’s choice and his right to enjoy cigarettes, the restriction of this activity to places where its harm to others can be minimized shows that the principle here is whether one person’s choices will have a harmful effect on others. Arguably non-smokers can avoid smokers (and therefore the harms associated with second-hand smoke) in much the same way that Muslim feminists can allegedly avoid communities that enforce gender-specific religious dress codes. However, the state is willing to ban cigarette smoking and not religious dress, even though arguably non-smokers can avoid second-hand smoke much more easily than Muslims can avoid the tyranny of the majority in their culture of birth.
Even critics of the French policy concede that there are plenty of Muslim women who, due to legal, quasi-legal, or illegal-but-hidden forms of familial and/or community pressure, wear the veil involuntarily. Knowing this, can the liberal state be justified in interfering with the practice, since the purpose of the interference is to prevent harm to others and to widen individual liberty where it is threatened? While the state ban on public religious veiling denies those Muslims who do choose to adopt it one means of symbolic religious expression in narrowly defined public spaces, this particular form of religious freedom of expression in turn conflicts with the freedom of expression of other Muslim women to adopt any form of dress they choose (including ‘immodest’ Western dress).
Since its aim was to establish “the nature and limits of the power which can be legitimately exercised by society over the individual,” perhaps now is a good time for professed “liberals” like Sadiq Khan to brush up on J.S. Mill’s famous 1859 essay On Liberty. Mill’s arguments could be used to establish the limits to the power that can rightfully be exercised by society over individual women who wish to adhere to religious dress codes. What is required is that public officials balance some womens’ liberty to adopt a religious dress code against the liberty of others not to do so. In France as in the London Underground, the question before us is whether a liberal state can limit the power exercised by fundamentalist sub-cultures or advertising agencies over women who wish not to dress modestly or immodestly, respectively.
For JS Mill, merely being exposed to viewpoints that one finds distasteful, misguided or even repugnant is not a serious form of harm. Far from harming us, this clash of our own views with other ideas helps us to grow and to become more aware of the relative strengths and weaknesses of our own beliefs. On the other hand, there are forms of real harm that do not help us to grow. What Mill had in mind were forms of intellectual, moral and physical coercion that prevent us from developing our individuality, and stunt our ability to think for ourselves. He interpreted ‘harm’ as that which thwarts our “permanent interests as progressive beings”. Not being permitted to consider alternatives to the way of life of our community, or of the majority in society, was for him as dangerous as living under an authoritarian state.
It need not be this way, but for the present time and in the context of religious cultural repression, veiling is not only a symbol of individual expression, like a t-shirt or a tattoo. Its primary theological significance often makes it exactly the opposite. If veiling were primarily about Islam’s resistance to Western colonialism then Muslim men would also wear it. The veil denies many female individuals self-expression and sexual autonomy and defines them chiefly as a generic group, and in terms of their biological difference to men.
The veil may symbolise many things, but it is without doubt a sign of religious conformity and obedience, since stigma and/or punishment often accompany its rejection. Veiling reinforces a form of sexual apartheid that contributes to denying many other rights to women and girls, such as riding bicycles or playing sports. If interfering with the practice of veiling will prevent harm to a sub-set of Muslim women for whom it is not a choice, then this justifies state interference in the practice.
The same principle would apply to analogous cases such as whether religious liberty ought to extend to allowing a particular religion to sacrifice virgins. Courts in liberal states have traditionally ruled against religious practitioners where their religious freedom is instrumental to harming others or denying others equal freedom under the law. The greater compelling public interest in protecting some individual(s) from harm is the only justification for making exceptions to the general rule of religious freedom.
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 the Godfather of political liberalism 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 practiced (male only) polygamy and were persecuted for it. Mill’s response was that interference in the Mormon way of life would be wrong only if the practice could be shown to have 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.
Together, Mill’s responses to these cases illustrate that he would have regarded mere offence as insufficient justification for the law to constrain what people do. The Mormon example can be extended to any case in which a host society seeks to change the practices of a minority religion when those practices are not enforced on people against their will. If we accept that religious dress codes are sometimes forced on people against their will, then we can safely assume that Mill would have deemed it legitimate for the liberal state to interfere with the practice, just as it would be legitimate in the case where the practice of male polygamy did not have the full consent of those impacted by it.
Khan had a choice whether to spend his energy criticising the French or the intolerant sexist theologians in London. Or both. He chose to limit his criticism exclusively to the French (despite the equivocal language in which his remark was couched, it’s timing and location left but one interpretation of where he stands on the burkini issue). In addition, he implemented his own paternalistic ban on mere images of women immodestly dressed, despite the absence of proof that they even harm women at all, leaving little doubt where his true loyalties lie.
Terri (PhD) is an author, blogger, and has taught philosophy and film studies in Secondary and Adult Education for over ten years