Begging to differ (politely) from a comment that Scott Marten makes on the French headscarf ban:
I just don’t understand how people who feel this law is justified because girls are being forced to wear headscarves can think that the solution is to force them to take it back off. If I hold a gun to your head and make you do something you don’t want to, is the correct police response to hold another gun to your head and tell you not to? What makes otherwise rational people think that the solution lies in that direction?
Well, perhaps because there are situations in which holding a gun to someone’s head is the right thing to do, and is indeed in the interests of the person at gunpoint. I don’t think that the headscarf ban is one of those situations, but …
Take two examples. Many countries impose jail sentences on people who pay kidnap ransoms. The reasoning is obvious – if nobody were willing to pay ransom (because they would face a hefty jail sentence) then nobody would have an incentive to kidnap; therefore everyone (except kidnappers) would be better off. Another example comes from legislation that imposes extraterritorial sanctions – country A seeks to impose penalties on executives from country B, who do business in country C (as when the US introduced legislation that would have sanctioned non-US nationals who did business with Cuba). Many countries have laws that forbid their citizens from complying with extraterritorial sanctions of this sort, thus protecting them to some extent from the application of the extraterritorial legislation (and perhaps encouraging the country that has tried to make a grab for extraterritorial power to rethink its demands). Again, these executives are better off because their government has effectively put a gun to their head, threatening to punish them if they comply with foreign laws that have extraterritorial reach.
This logic may apply to informal institutions too – the state may be quite justified in banning some opprobrious social practices that appear to be the result of individual choice, but that are in fact the result of pervasive social norms which drastically constrain the freedom of choice of the individuals involved. These individuals may actively ‘prefer’ to be forced to do something which they would otherwise find greatly difficult to do (people who break with informal norms may face exclusion from their community, violence, or death). The question then is whether or not the foulard is the result of constraint or the result of choice. If young women (1) really were being forced en masse to wear the veil by their parents and community leaders, (2) would strongly prefer to do otherwise, and (3) had few available choices if they broke with their community, then the French state would probably be justified in banning it. As matters stand, there doesn’t seem to be much evidence that this is the case. Many young women from Islamic backgrounds seem to be adopting headscarfs as a matter of free choice rather than external compulsion. They’re not adapting the veil because they’re being forced to, or even because they’re ignorant – they’re adopting it as a form of self-expression. This suggests that France’s approach is unjustified – but other state rules banning informal social practices might not be.