Bans on Face Coverings Are a Good Thing

Gary Whittenberger

“No man is an island entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent” (John Donne), and so is every woman, and so is every person a part of the social world.

Some countries have implemented bans against covering one’s face with cloth or other material in public.1,2 Countries with comprehensive bans include France, Belgium, Denmark, Bulgaria, Chad, Cameroon, and Congo-Brazzaville. Countries with partial bans include The Netherlands, Switzerland, Italy, Spain, Germany, Austria, Russia, Turkey, and Niger. These bans are partial in the sense that they are contingent on location or circumstances. Of course, these prohibitions affect some Muslim women more than anyone else, since they claim that their god, husband, fiancé, father, or other family man requires them to cover their face. These women are caught between the ol’ rock and a hard place.

Yes, these bans do restrict freedoms of religion and speech, which irritates civil libertarians such as Sarah Haider (“Burqa Bans and Superficial Integration,” FI, October/November 2018). On the other hand, they reduce harm to the common good for any society that implements them. When persons cover their face in public, they interfere with or obstruct communication, identification, and trust in the social sphere. When persons cover their mouths, others may have difficulty decoding their speech as well. Facial expressions are important signals of emotion,3 and covering the face makes it harder for others to infer emotions. The structure of the face is unique for almost every person, and thus the face is used for identifying persons across time. It is hard to trust persons who cover their faces. What are they hiding? Are they up to no good? Why do they mistrust me? Scientific studies could be performed to show the severe detriment to communication, identification, and trust that covering faces causes, but maybe we don’t need these studies to recognize the obvious. In the opinion of many secular humanists, including me, bans against routine facial covering in public are rational, secular laws that merit our compliance and support. National, state, or local governments that ban facial covering in public deserve our respect and appreciation.

Persons who commit crimes such as robbery, kidnaping, hijacking, or murder often cover their faces. They do this because face covering impedes identification. There is a danger that women, or even men, might cover their faces in the manner that some Muslim women do merely to facilitate crimes and prevent early detection and identification. In fact, the promotion of security is the main reason a few countries have already imposed the bans on face coverings.4,5

Muslim women may claim that Allah requires them to cover their faces in public, but this religious reason should not be allowed as an excuse to defy a rational secular law. There is no good evidence either that Allah exists or that if he exists he has communicated any requirement for women to cover their faces in public. It can be argued that if Allah did exist, he would be perfectly rational and would never issue such a ridiculous and discriminatory command. There are Muslim intellectuals and scholars who assert that women are not required by Islam to cover their faces.6,7

Muslim women may claim that their husband, boyfriend, fiancé, father, brother, or other significant man in their lives requires them to cover their faces in public, but this should also not be allowed as an excuse to defy a rational secular law. In some cases, the claim may be true, but if so, then that man in their life is behaving unethically, and when he establishes such a requirement, this behavior should itself be illegal. In some cases, the claim may be false. The man in the woman’s life may be bluffing and might easily submit to a law against facial covering with regard to the woman he supposedly controls.

From a religious or cultural perspective, when some women cover their faces, the act is supposed to signify modesty with respect to any men they “could theoretically marry.”8 And so, the implicit messages may be “I am unavailable for marriage to you” or “I am unavailable for sex with you” or “Please don’t flirt with me” or even “Please don’t sexually assault me.” But where modesty is the aim, does covering the face even have the intended effects? It probably does discourage flirtation, but does it reduce the risk of sexual assault? Let’s be skeptical. I speculate that the rate of sexual assault of women by men who are strangers to them is not significantly different for Muslim women who cover their faces than for Muslim women who dress the same except that they do not cover their faces. Furthermore, I speculate that the rate of sexual assault of women by men who are their husbands is significantly greater for women who cover their faces in public than for women who do not cover their faces in public. The data would be hard to get, but both of these hypotheses are amenable to scientific testing.

The requirement for women to cover their faces in public is a carryover from a bygone era in which women were not considered persons in their own right but property belonging to men. Under such customs, women were treated worse than second-class citizens. Fortunately, except in a few countries, these customs have mostly disappeared and are now regarded as primitive, obsolete, dehumanizing, and unethical by most people and philosophers of ethics. It is not surprising that the spirit of the Enlightenment has led many European governments to ban face coverings.

Libertarians typically support the idea that people should have the freedom to do anything they want as long as their behavior does not harm others. Covering the face in public, however, does harm others! It is a nuisance behavior, or behavior that interferes, disrupts, distracts, or obstructs others in the pursuit of their daily activities, yet without causing physical injury or immediate risk of such injury. Other examples of these types of behaviors are appearing naked in public, breaking in line, using a cell phone in the movie theater, playing loud music in the car at stop lights, littering, drunken behavior in public establishments, mumbling, interrupting another’s speech, trespassing, and borrowing without permission. All these behaviors are disruptive and unethical, and some of them are already illegal.

The most common objection to bans on routine facial covering seems to go like this: “All human persons should have a right to express themselves through their clothing, jewelry, or other body adornments in any way they see fit.” In any way? Should the right be absolute? I believe the right should be limited and must stop when there is harm to the common good. For example, people should be prohibited from walking around naked in public or wearing T-shirts with commands for aggression such as “Kill all the Jews” to express themselves. In just the same way, they should be prohibited from routinely covering their faces. Freedom is an important value, but when values collide, it doesn’t supersede all other values.

Covering the face in public except for reasons of health is not only disrespectful of other people but also detrimental to the subject her- or himself. It is a self-defeating, maladaptive, and dehumanizing behavior. Human beings are social animals, and covering the face goes against their sociability. Women who cover their faces in public are at a severe disadvantage in the job market, except perhaps in countries where face-covering is already widespread, such as Saudi Arabia. There appear to be no good reasons to support the routine covering of the face in public and several good reasons to oppose it. Thus, I argue that governments are on solid ground when they ban the practice.

Try these thought experiments: Imagine if everyone covered their faces in public in the same way or in just a few ways. Imagine if all liberals wore one kind of face covering and all conservatives wore another. Suppose that all Christians wore a white mask and all non-Christians wore a black mask. What if all Trump supporters wore a Trump caricature mask and all Trump opponents wore some other mask? Imagine if all introverted people covered their faces in one way and all extroverted people covered their faces in another way. Any of these scenarios would represent the epitome of deindividuation and dehumanization! Human society would be the worse for it. Philosopher of ethics Immanuel Kant said, “Act as if the maxim of your action were to be erected by your will a universal law of nature.” We should not will that the maxim “cover your face in public” become a universal law.

It would be wise for all countries to implement a law modeled after this:

Covering the face in public, including at any indoor or outdoor area for economic, entertainment, or government functions, and other than in one’s own residence or a religious establishment, is hereby banned. Upon first violation a person shall attend a four-hour educational program pertaining to the rationale of the law, the consequences of violation, and strategies for coping. If the violator is married, then the spouse shall be required to attend. Subsequent violations shall result in a fine of $250 USD per incident, and any person failing to pay the fine shall be jailed for forty-eight hours. Any person requiring another person to cover his or her face in public shall be subject to the same penalties. Exceptions may be authorized by the local government for health or safety reasons only, and clear regulations for these exceptions shall be devised and implemented.

Examples of circumstantial exceptions could be to protect the skin of the face in cold, windy, or dusty conditions; to protect already damaged skin from exposure and infection; or to protect self or others from the transmission of diseases stemming from germs ejected from the mouth or nose. This model law implies no discrimination based on sex, religion, ethnicity, or country of origin.

Those persons seeking residence in a new country ought to sign a contract in which they agree to obey the laws of the host country and to peacefully accept deportation if they persistently violate the laws. The laws may require uncovering the face in public or speaking the language of the host country in business and government transactions. Informed written consent should be obtained from the prospective immigrants.

The recent bans on face covering in public enacted by European and African countries are enlightened, progressive, and consistent with secular humanist principles. We can hope that these bans will be adopted elsewhere, even in the Americas. We live in an interdependent world, a social nexus, and thus the common good must take precedence over individual freedom when values collide.


References

  1. Sanghani, Radhika. “Burka Bans: The Countries where Muslim Women Can’t Wear Veils.” TheTelegraph, August 17, 2017.
  2. “The Islamic Veil Across Europe.” BBC News, May 31, 2018.
  3. Matsumoto, David and Hwang, Hyi Sung. “Reading Facial Expressions of Emotion.” Journal of the American Psychological Association, May 2011.
  4. Sanghani, Radhika. “Burka Bans … “
  5. “The Islamic Veil Across Europe.”
  6. Ahmed, Qanta. “As a Muslim, I Strongly Support The Right to Ban the Veil.” The Spectator, March 18, 2017.
  7. “Hijab.” BBC, September 3, 2009. Web. December 19, 2018.Available online at http://www.bbc.co.uk/religion/religions/islam/beliefs/hijab_1.shtml.
  8. Ahmed, Qanta. “As a Muslim …”

Gary Whittenberger

Gary J. Whittenberger, PhD, is a retired psychologist, a longtime member of the Center for Inquiry, codirector of the Tallahassee Freethinkers’ Forum, and author of the book God Wants You to Be an Atheist.