The world of bans

Recently, a ban on the muslim veil, burqua, came into force in France. This means that Muslim women in France can no longer wear the burqua.
My first reaction to this news, last year when the legislation was passed, was of disagreement. An average Bhutanese like me is already averse to bans in all its forms, I suppose. We have had our fill, with plastic and meat and now tobacco and perhaps, soon, alcohol.
So without a second thought, I made up my mind that this ban was wrong. Then I watched on TV a muslim woman who had this to say, “What kind of woman will want to cover her face at all times? It is hard to get by in a modern city with a thick cloth covering your face. No woman actually wants it, it is the men in their families who want them to cover their faces. This law liberates the women who want to lead normal lives but cannot, because of the dominating men in their family who force them to wear these veils. I welcome this legislation.”
Well, that’s a new way of thinking about it. I wondered if it was true- did women really not want to wear these veils, in cities like Paris, but were forced by the orthodox and dominating fathers, brothers, husbands and sons to do so? It sounded plausible to me, after all, like the woman said, why would anyone want to cover their faces at all times? If that was true, then all these women who never had the courage to fight back were now freed from wearing a veil, thanks to this law.
I was wondering about this, but still uncomfortable that this conculsion was not the right one. In my head I was drawing comparisions to the suttee system in India long back- How widows had to sit on their husband’s funeral pyre and die. That was wrong, and it was outlawed, rightly. Was this the same?
Perhaps there are women who want to be freed of wearing a veil at all times throughout their lives- and are secretly happy that now they can.
But on thinking about this for a while, I come to the conclusion that this law is still wrong. Because my leaning towards this law is based on the assumption that the women actually don’t want the veil, but are being forced into wearing it by their men. But this is an assumption. I am sure there are a lot of muslim women in France. Some may not want to wear the veil, but are being forced to by their family. Some, however inconceivable it may seem to us, may want to wear it! And if a single woman in France wants to wear a veil, she has every right to do so. Having a law that denies her this right is wrong.
We may not agree with this woman, we may think she is pushing back women’s rights and feminism, we may wonder why she would want to cover her face at all times in public. But we cannot deny that she has every right to wear whatever she wants to.
And if what the woman said was true, it is indeed sad for many women who are being opressed. We can hope that they become braver. Or perhaps the law can be tweaked to say that no one can force another to wear a veil. And hope that these women who don’t want the veil can stand up to those who opress them, when backed by the law. Because no one can tell someone else what to wear or what not to wear. Not the men, not the social circle, and not the government.
And of course this conclusion also underscores the wrong of our own bans. Ban on something personal as clothing, or smoking, is wrong.
Our legislators know this, which is why smoking, or consumption of tobacco per se is not illegal in Bhutan, they will argue. As long as you buy your cigarettes or khaini legally, you can continue with your vice. True.
But Tobacco is a habit that people cannot just shake off easily, and when it is too hard to do something legally, then people tend to turn to the illegal. Some laws encourage criminal behaviour, just by making everyday things people do a criminal activity. People have their own moral compass. And although we see a lot of crimes being committed, these are only a small percentage of the society. When a large section of the society are breaking laws, when otherwise straight people are committing crimes, then we know the problem is with the law.
Getting cigarettes or khaini legally is just too hard in Bhutan. So the people, bound to their habits, break the law. And then the punishment is just too harsh, way off balance when compared to the crime. And worse, only a small percentage of those who break the law are punished, perhaps because of the incompetence of the enforcers, perhaps because the law is so twisted it’s impossible to enforce fairly anyway.
I have heard people speak about making sacrifices for the greater good. they sympathise with those who are caught and face 3 years of jail time, but say that this law needs to be there ‘for the greater good’.
But sacrifices are never justified, unless they are voluntary. God is in the details, they say. And when the details are wrong there can never be a greater good.
All bans are wrong when they tread on your personal freedom. The ban on veils in France, and the ban on sale of tobacco in Bhutan.


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