[2206] Of it is not hard to choose between liberalism and authoritarian feminism

Elizabeth Farrelly at the Sydney Morning Herald writes that the burqa is an affront to feminism.[1] She makes feminism sounds authoritarian. Quoting a friend of mine, “all this really is another case of someone trying to shove the politics of one kind of identity ahead of another.”

I am unsure how widely this view is shared among feminists out there. BBC seems to believe that it is a standard position.[2] If it is a standard position, then I think the gulf between me and them has just grown wider.

My greatest issue with feminism up until recently is affirmative action. I cannot bring myself to support affirmative action for women and ending up living in a tokenistic system. Worse, some want more than tokenism. Through experience, radical feminists want inequality of rights in their favor rather than simple equality between genders.

The issue with burqa opens up a second front. If feminists seek to ban burqa, then it necessarily goes against the principle of liberty. If a person freely chooses to wear burqa, then to prevent her from wearing it is a violation of her individual liberty. It is a violation of liberalism. Therefore, if the burqa is an affront to feminism, then feminism has to be an affront to liberalism.

We all have our bias and some of these biases may be perverted and deserve criticism. Whatever it is, a person is free to hold whatever bias there is. But to act on the bias and impose others of one’s bias is unambiguously authoritarian. Clearly from her article, Farrelly is choosing the illiberal path.

If feminism indeed tries to push this agenda through, this is a sad development for all. Feminism can be a great ally in promoting liberty, especially in societies where women suffer from real discrimination. Liberals are fiercely in favor of equality of rights and that make liberals and feminists friends.

Sometimes however, I feel feminism simply goes to places when no liberal will follow and in fact, will oppose. This case of burqa is one of those impossible paths for liberal to tread on.

Mohd Hafiz Noor Shams. Some rights reserved Mohd Hafiz Noor Shams. Some rights reserved Mohd Hafiz Noor Shams. Some rights reserved

[1] — Democracy pivots on the universal franchise; the presumption for each individual of a public identity, as well as a private one. To cover someone’s face in public, to reduce them to a walking tent, is to declare them lacking such identity, destroying any possibility of their meaningful public existence. It is, literally, to efface them.

To hide the face is to hide the person. As Shada Islam, Europe correspondent for the Pakistan paper Dawn, wrote last week, most European Muslim women have little patience with the burqa or its wearers, seeing it as ”a sad process of self-isolation and self-imposed exile”.

And while you could see even exile as a personal right, it does directly contradict a public duty, the duty of public presence. The morality of identity-erasure may be (barely) acceptable, but the ethics are not. Brave little Belgium. [Let’s face facts, the burqa is an affront to feminism . Elizabeth Farrelly. Sydney Morning Herald. May 13 2010]

[2] — But the arguments against the niqab are not just based on feminism and the status of women. [Behind France’s Islamic veil. BBC News. April 8 2010]

By Hafiz Noor Shams

For more about me, please read this.

6 replies on “[2206] Of it is not hard to choose between liberalism and authoritarian feminism”

Hello Gareth,

I hope you’re having a good weekend.

And now, straight to business.

I wish to reiterate what I said here earlier: that I am accusing not feminism as a whole as authoritarian, but as I have qualified it. There is a whole spectrum of feminism, as with any other thoughts and I am picking one particular point. Specifically, the one that agrees with Farrelly, or rather, the one that advocates/justifies the banning by basing it on feminism. It is not my understanding that is at fault. It is about recognizing subtle but crucial difference and I recognize it.

Take your statement that “the resentful rich or male is supportive of hegemonic authoritarianism.” This statement is problematic given what you wrote, “[a]uthoritarianism requires a group in which there is disciplined and possibly coercive submission to authority. If this group be feminism, it is obvious that feminism is highly fragmented and distributed in its organisation, and, therefore, is incapable of internal authoritarianism. ” These two statements are contradictory to the way you understand authoritarian. Why? Is the rich or the male as a group not fragmented and distributed? Are both of us not male? If that statement you gave was true, would that make those groups as incapable of authoritarianism? (I wouldn’t say authoritarianism here actually, but would say ‘incapable of being authoritarian’ instead but I’m just trying to rephrase it in your words.)

My point remains that apart from philosophy, action matters. Views that advocate the ban is incompatible to liberty. That ban violates individual liberty. That ban needs requires state action. I think, it is easy to accuse any state of doing so as appealing to authoritarianism. What if a group supports an authoritarian policy by the state? That policy, if executed, will be an authoritarian action. Mind you that that policy is being advocated by Farrelly.

If what you wrote about feminism as incapable of authoritarian action because it is incompatible with its philosophy is true, then feminism of whatever strain cannot be used to support authoritarian policy by the state as described in the paragraph above. But some strain is being used. Why? Are these strains somehow less feminine?

Also, somehow, the name of the feminist Norah Elam comes to my mine. Norah Elam was not exactly a liberal feminist. She was a feminist, and a fascist. A fascist is automatically an authoritarian. She is an excellent real world contradiction to your assertion about the incompatibility of authoritarian action within feminism.

Your alternative view is equally problematic in the real world. What about France? What about Belgium? Are these illiberal feminist views so weak enough that it doesn’t matter in the actualization of the ban in Belgium? And in its support in France? If feminist groups were so weak, it shouldn’t have affected the debate. But it is affecting it and successfully at that. Nevertheless, absence of power does not imply no presence of authoritarian thoughts.

The real world matters. Action matters. To say that a person is incapable of committing authoritarian action/thoughts because of the philosophy he/she holds ignore the person’s capability of hypocrisy or simply human imperfection, that all of us suffers. To admit to as you have asserted is to give anybody to use whatever means necessary to achieve an liberal end. I do not believe the end justifies the mean. Do you instead believe that it is justified?

If you do, then this disagreement will be satisfying enough me to leave it at that.

Furthermore, if the action is inconsistent with the philosophy, then that is what the feminists need to answer. Not me. All I am pointing out is the authoritarian action, whatever the action is based on. If it is based on feminism as some feminists believe, then my assertion widens as well. I am not apologetic about that.

And I think you will need to explain who affirmative action comes into play in this debate on burqa. I fear I don’t see the connection as you do. At the moment, it appears as two separate issues to me.

On negative and positive liberty, I don’t think highly of too many social liberal policy. This difference is perhaps another reason that allows me to use the word authoritarian and differentiate it as an adjective describing a tendency and as a system in the first place. That definition probably does not exist on the other side because social liberals push the definition farther to left. For classical liberals, the definition is slightly wider.

Finally, on affirmative action, like I said previously, affirmative action is only one out of many solutions. Discrimination can be solved without affirmative action.

I am not supporting the status quo. I am only discounting affirmative action. To blame everybody that does not support affirmative action as supporting the status quo is failure to understand the fact the affirmative action is not the one and only policy addressing discrimination.

You admit that feminism’s goal is not authoritarian, but persist that feminism seeks to use authoritarian means to achieve its goal. Your attempt at a distinction between the adjective ‘authoritarian’ and the noun ‘authoritarianism’ is impossible: if feminism were authoritarian, it would be acting in accordance to authoritarianism. I believe that your understanding of authoritarianism is at fault, and suggest that this is a common libertarian fallacy.

Authoritarianism requires a group in which there is disciplined and possibly coercive submission to authority. If this group be feminism, it is obvious that feminism is highly fragmented and distributed in its organisation, and, therefore, is incapable of internal authoritarianism. Alternatively, if feminism be supposed to seek to impose its views on a society, we have the problem that feminists are not dominant in the political sphere nor in the formation of public opinion. Thus, feminism is incapable of authoritarian organisation whether internally or through societal dominance.

The libertarian fallacy is to label any curtailment of individual liberties as authoritarian. However, if we value the rule of law, we understand that individual liberties need to be curtailed in preservation of social liberties. Authoritarianism has no regard for rule of law nor social liberties.

Farrelly understands that some Muslim women cover their faces due to patriarchal hegemony, and so they do so not under unalloyed free will, but social pressure. Thus, she argues that it is right to use social pressure to free women from this imposition, and that it is a form of affirmative action. As such, it would be equivalent to any law we might have that enables coercion in the protection of the individual.

I disagree with Farrelly’s position on two accounts. Firstly, it reinforces rather than lessens the assumption that the women in question are incapable of making free decisions, and I would suggest that this belies feminist principles. Secondly, the main proponents of the ban are racist anti-Islamic groups, for which she is simply providing credible reasoning without gaining anything in return.

If what Farrelly advocates, and her reasoning behind it, is authoritarian, then any use of law that restricts personal freedoms in the name of wider social good (like restricting the possession and carrying of weapons) is equally authoritarian. In fact such legal restrictions are fundamental to social liberalism.

Yes, when I wrote about positive and negative liberties, I wrote the names the wrong way round (too much late-night thinking!). The importance though is that there is a distinction between the two. You label Farrelly’s approach as illiberal because it is against a conception of negative liberty in that one should not be so coerced. However, her approach is one from positive liberty. This is the chief divide between libertarianism and social liberalism. Of course, we need to balance these liberties carefully (that one’s individual liberties should not restrict others’ individual liberties is fundamentally understood). Feminism recognises that society affords fewer freedoms to women, and that affirmative actions are needed to equalise the position. In a similar way social democracies establish progressive taxation and benefits for the poor to lessen their disadvantage in society. If you’re a rich person in a social democracy you might resent the high taxes you pay in the same way that a man might resent feminist-inspired affirmative action. However, both uphold a status quo that is unequal, whereas the social democrats and feminists seek to overturn the status quo in the name of equality. In fact the resentful rich or male is supportive of hegemonic authoritarianism.


There are at least two dimensions need to be assessed. The two are the mean and the end. Feminism’s goal in general maybe incompatible with authoritarianism the philosophy. I do not want to debate on that in hope that the discussion here remains focused on specific issue. Hence, I will take it for granted for now.

The issue that I am highlighting is that the way one achieves that presumably liberal goal that feminists seek can be authoritarian. This is not an oxymoron. In fact, the idiom ‘the end does not justify the mean’ appeals to this.

Notice that I used the term authoritarian, not authoritarianism. This difference is one that allows me to label the version espoused by Farrelly as authoritarian. Clearly, what Farrelly is asking is authoritarian if executed, at least from libertarian perspective. That is what I meant by acting on the bias. The libertarian perspective, at least as I understand it, that qualifies one action as authoritarian, is the presence of coercion and the violation of free-will. The only way to do what Farrelly advocates is by using coercion that necessarily transgresses free-will.

I am not convinced that this movement to ban the burqa is due to misconception of Islam. I’ve read enough to see that those who advocate the ban understand that there are those who wear the burqa out of free-will. In fact, Farrelly is clearly aware of this. Furthermore, not just white middle-class women are calling this. There are feminist Muslims too. It is not about cultural misconception.

I will not address the issue of affirmative action because I think I have addressed that here in reply to someone else. But I will touch briefly on your statement that Farrell’s argument is based on liberal concepts. It depends on which liberalism. Social liberalism, maybe but it is definitely does not originate from classical liberalism. I use liberalism to refer to classical liberalism and that is how I justify calling her argument illiberal.

I need to correct you about libertarians supporting positive individual liberty and social liberals focusing on negative liberty. It is in fact the other way round. If libertarians supported positive liberty, libertarians would support affirmative action. But they do not. Libertarians here refer to more or less classical liberals. Feminism supports positive liberty, not negative. This is perhaps the biggest difference between mainstream libertarianism and mainstream feminism. Discussion on affirmative action and others are merely symptoms of that difference.

Just in case the definitions we use for positive and negative are different, I’m using Isaiah Berlin’s definition.

I don’t see anything authoritarian about Farrelly’s article. I don’t agree with her, but I understand her argument. Authoritarianism is predicated on a potential authority (not acting on a bias as you say). Feminism examines and seeks to overthrow the sexual power differential in our societies. These philosophical bases are incompatible. Your phrase ‘feminists out there’ belies your distance from an understanding of feminism. The real argument that should be made is about how liberal feminism (for that is its actual name) is dominated by white middle-class women, and thus suffers from cultural misconceptions of Islam. Of course, feminism is more than this dominant stream.

Affirmative action is about positive discrimination. It is based on the understanding that there is a systemic negative discrimination that needs to be overcome. It’s this systemic discrimination that’s missing from the slim picture of affirmative action you paint. For example, if a parliament has very few women, we can understand that it may pass laws that inadvertently, or not, disadvantage women. It may be almost impossible for women to participate in the political process at all. In this environment, affirmative action for women would seek to break through this inertia. Of course, once near equality had been achieved, there is no more need for the affirmative action. Thus seen, affirmative action is a corrective to overcome the inertia of deeply ingrained systemic discrimination.

The most prominent groups advocating a burqa ban tend to be European, right-wing, conservative, ‘freedom’ (i.e. national independence) groups. So, yes, the majority of those advocating the ban are illiberal. However, the feminist argument against the burqa is based on women’s liberation. Now, I believe there’s an equal and opposite argument from a woman’s freedom to express herself through clothing as she sees fit. I don’t think this makes Farrelly illiberal, though, seeing as her argument is based on liberal concepts. Any law that enforces personal liberty and protects the individual from undue coercion is not illiberal. However, most proponents of this ban do not follow this liberal humanist route, and are simply anti-Islamic.

There are plenty of men who feel free to pontificate on feminism, but fail to understand that their own is a man’s viewpoint with all its privilege. Feminism is broader and more nuanced than you allow it to be. Farrelly is a feminist, but her views are not definitive of feminism.

Whereas libertarianism tends to focus on the individual’s positive liberties, social liberalism traditionally tends to focus on the safeguarding of the negative liberties of all in society. Feminism clearly has much more in common with the second approach to liberty, whereas you seem to be to be coming from the former.

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