At the New York Times philosophy forum, The Stone, Martha Nussbaum asks how philosophical and legal scholarship can help us understand recent controversies concerning the right of Muslim women to wear headscarves and burqas in public:
Five arguments are commonly made in favor of proposed bans [on wearing burqas in public]. Let’s see whether they treat all citizens with equal respect. First, it is argued that security requires people to show their faces when appearing in public places. A second, closely related, argument says that the kind of transparency and reciprocity proper to relations between citizens is impeded by covering part of the face.
What is wrong with both of these arguments is that they are applied inconsistently. It gets very cold in Chicago – as, indeed, in many parts of Europe. Along the streets we walk, hats pulled down over ears and brows, scarves wound tightly around noses and mouths. No problem of either transparency or security is thought to exist, nor are we forbidden to enter public buildings so insulated. Moreover, many beloved and trusted professionals cover their faces all year round: surgeons, dentists, (American) football players, skiers and skaters. What inspires fear and mistrust in Europe, clearly, is not covering per se, but Muslim covering.
A reasonable demand might be that a Muslim woman have a full face photo on her driver’s license or passport. With suitable protections for modesty during the photographic session, such a photo might possibly be required. However, we know by now that the face is a very bad identifier. At immigration checkpoints, eye-recognition and fingerprinting technologies have already replaced the photo. When these superior technologies spread to police on patrol and airport security lines, we can do away with the photo, hence with what remains of the first and second arguments.
A third argument, very prominent today, is that the burqa is a symbol of male domination that symbolizes the objectification of women (that they are being seen as mere objects)….
Read her discussion of the other three arguments and the rest of the article here.