Saturday, September 4, 2010

Burqas, Pornography, and the Right to Choose

      The most recent issue of The Humanist magazine has a picture of a woman wearing a niqab and little else in a sexy pose on the cover. Within the pages of the magazine were several articles from both sides of the issues of the rights of women to wear a niqab or burqa and work in the pornography industry. Although very different topics, they involve the same essential question: can women engage in conduct or activities that others believe is harmful to the women who participate in that conduct or activity.
     There are several countries in Europe, France most prominently, that have pending or passed legislation that will ban women from wearing burqas in public. There are two main arguments for this legislation. The first is that of security, that concealed identity is a public safety risk. The second is that the wearing of the burqa subjects women to a loss of identity, and therefore a loss of political power, and women are forced to wear the garment by men, subjugating them to second class citizenship. Proponents argue that women don't have a real choice about wearing the burqa, and therefore the law is necessary to help them break free from their oppressed lives. The penalties of the laws do generally reflect that position; fines for women cited for wearing the burqa are low, a couple hundred dollars, but fines for anyone forcing or requiring women to wear them are high, in the thousands of dollars.
     Opponents of the law argue primarily that the laws violate their religious freedoms, arguing that the wearing of the burqa is a requirement of their Islamic faith; the Koran requires women be dressed modestly, and that includes the covering up of their bodies, including their faces. Opponents also cite an intolerance and or hatred against Muslims, and argue that the law unfairly targets them and their lifestyle.
     Pornography is another controversial topic. In fairness, it must be mentioned that not all pornography is made by consenting adult actors. The illegal sex trade and human trafficking is a growing industry worldwide, and includes forced prostitution, sexual slavery, sex tourism, kidnapping, and the rape of young children, both girls and boys. Those behaviors should never be legal, and those engaging in them should be punished as the law allows. For this purpose, however, I am referring to legal pornography and adult entertainment.
Pornography in the United States is a multi-billion dollar industry. Despite that, there is significant opposition to it. Opponents argue that the adult entertainment industry objectifies women, regardless of the reasons women offer for getting into the it and the voluntariness of those decisions. According to this view, women who freely and knowingly decide to go into the adult entertainment industry for all the right reasons are harming other women by doing so, because it furthers the belief by men that women are sex objects and nothing more, that the behavior of men in the adult industry is acceptable, and that all women want to be treated as they are depicted in pornography. 

     I agree in part with all the arguments just summarized. But agreeing with some of both sides of an argument and perching myself on a fence is not something I often do. So I had to sort it out and pick what side of the fence to land on.
     Women who wear the burqa are likely forced to by a religion or culture that systematically subjugates women. They lose their identity and with it their political power. They likely don't have the real ability to choose to wear the burqa or not, and that is disturbing.
Women who work in the adult industry may do so for the wrong reasons. They may be objectified by the people they are working to entertain and the people they are working for. Some women may be forced into the industry either by force, threats, coercion, or maybe just by the fact that they have no other way to earn a living to support themselves and their families.
     But there are other considerations before laws are passed to ban the burqa or pornography. First, would passing those laws really work to solve the problem? Would women remove their burqas in public, or just no longer go out? If the law had the desired effect, and thousands of Muslim women were out uncovered, does that mean those women are suddenly liberated? There are lots of ways to repress women, the burqa is just one of them. Many women, Muslim, Christian, and agnostic alike, are treated poorly by the men in their lives without having to cover up.
     If laws were passed that outlawed the adult entertainment industry, would women suddenly be free from objectification by men? Would the demand for the adult entertainment products disappear? Or would the illegal sex industry fill the void, without regulations and organization that are currently in place?

     In addition to doubting the effectiveness of banning burqas or criminalizing pornography, I don't believe the motivation for those changes are altruistic. Do people really want to protect Muslim women from oppression? Will security really be stronger because of the burqa ban? Or are these convenient excuses for religious intolerance? Will banning pornography really improve the lives of women? Or will it satisfy those that have religious objections to pornography, scoring points with the self-rightous?

     Is it possible to freely and rationally choose to engage in the behaviors these laws would prohibit? Do women really need to be protected from their own decisions? In a free society, this is really the most important question. If one percent of women who wear burqas or work as an adult entertainer are doing so freely and voluntarily after careful consideration, should they be told they can't to protect the other ninety-nine percent? What if the number is five percent? Or twenty-five percent? At what point is their freedom to make an informed decision important enough to protect?

     To say that women can't make informed decisions about their lives and need protection of laws (written mostly by men) is sexist.

     The United States, like all free societies, has a history of protecting the rights of everyone, including people whose views and lifestyles are not popular. That is what freedom is. It is supposed to be what our soldiers fight to protect. Therefore, the only conclusion I can come to is that wearing a burqa or working in the adult entertainment industry must remain a legal choice.

     That is not to say that nothing should be done to help the women who need it. We should work to ensure that all women have access to quality education and lots of options for their lives so they can live free from abuse and violence. Women should have counseling, support, and legal and physical protection when they choose to leave any abusive or repressive situation.

     I know these topics are controversial. The objectification of women is a very real problem in the United States the world. But we all have the right to make decisions in our lives, and sometimes we make harmful ones, or ones that do not meet the approval of others.
That is Freedom.

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