Daniel Weinstock – Feminism, the Veil, and the Problem of False Consciousness (ASI 2014)

Defenders of Muslim women’s right to veil (and of women of other faiths’ rights to engage in practices which are judged by mainstream feminists as betokening female subjugation) often point to the fact that many women who veil claim to be doing so freely, in the absence of all coercion of constraint. Some feminists retort that these women are victims of “false consciousness.” Their claim is that these women have so fully internalized patriarchal norms that their coerced actions appear to them to be free. My paper will examine arguments of false consciousness in the context of liberal democracies. On the one hand, such claims must be used with great parsimony in a political culture which is hesitant to intervene paternalistically in the choices made by citizens. What’s more, false
consciousness arguments are suspect in that on the face of it they fail the Popperian test of falsifiability. On the other hand, it is hard to deny that some women do find themselves in oppressive conditions that tend to favour the formation of adaptive preferences. My goal is to develop a liberal theory of false consciousness, one that, first, insists upon respecting the choices made by women against the backdrop of fair background conditions, but that questions those arrived at when such conditions are lacking, and that, second, adopts modes of intervention in cases of false consciousness that avoid paternalistic excesses.

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