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The divide between the public and private sphere has long been a contentious issue for political theory. With relation to modern forms of democracy, a strong need for defining the boundaries for the two spheres has emerged. However, with new complexities surfacing they remain blurred. Several theorists such as Seyla Benhabib, Saba Mahmood, Jean Cohen and Will Kymlicka, have viewed this subject with varying perspectives. The divide between public and private has always been such that the distinction is made on the basis of masculinity and femininity. Household roles have always been considered fit for women, whereas the political and social activities are considered suitable for men. This has made notions of progress and rationality attached to the public sphere, and the concept of traditions and religious allegiance to fall into the private sphere. (Herzog and Braude). This paper aims to review Benahabib’s, Mahmood’s and Kymlicka’s perspective regarding the debatable topic of defining boundaries between what constitutes public and private.

It is impossible to ignore feminist scholarship when viewing the public private debate. The main aim of many schools of feminist thought remains to defy the defined roles for women in private sphere and to take their access to those fields which have always been considered public. Therefore, which arenas constitute the private and public sphere is something of immense importance to them. Benhabib talks about the L’affair du foulard or the scarf affair that sprung up in France in 1989. Three girls were banned from wearing a head scarf at the public school they attended. With the support of the ex-president of the National Federation for Muslims in France, they continued to wear the scarf and gathered supporters. This in real terms implied that they were now viewing the scarf as a political gesture and an outward manifestation of their personal identity and beliefs. In 2004, the French National Assembly banned the wearing of all religious symbols in public schools. This was felt by most as an attack mainly on the headscarf worn by Muslims. The state did not want such religious symbols to be worn by students as being propagated in the public sphere. The Supreme Court wanted the state to remain neutral. Therefore, in 1989 they issued a judgment in which they allowed the wearing of religious symbols but prohibited the propagation of any such beliefs on to others. They left the decision of defining the headscarf on to the school. (Benhabib, 184-188). This was a major weakness since this was a matter the state should have addressed directly. A contention was visible over the divide between personal liberty of wearing a headscarf that appeared to be a private matter and the neutral atmosphere a liberal and democratic state needs to maintain in the public arena.

Benhabib brings forth the concept of democratic iterations through which issues such as the scarf affair can be better dealt with. These would include the public arguments and exchange of claims through which such concepts can be contested. (Benhabib, 179). France faced the dilemma of whether boundaries of public - private should be breached in relation to maintaining a balance between the long cherished liberal values of freedom of expression and the growing pressures exerted by multiculturalism taking root. In her opinion, the state should have made use of democratic iterations to take into account the viewpoint of the girls wearing the scarf. (Benahabib, 197). It is possible that most of them felt it to be a sign of liberation from tradition and a way to come out in the public sphere and express their inner identity.

Similar to this was the German headscarf case.  When the matter went to court a substantial case could not be made in favor of respecting pluralism with allowing religious symbols to be worn by civil servants working in public space. Thus, the wearing of the headscarf was taken to be a sign of the teacher’s specific allegiance towards the religion of Islam. (Benhabib, 200-201).

Benhabib - belonging to the Kantian school of thought - suggests that the boundaries between the public private need to be expanded. In view of the conflicts arising between pluralism and upholding liberal values, Benhabib proposes that the state is justified in defining some sort of boundary between the public and private. However, it is noteworthy that even the measures of democratic iterations as suggested would take place on the framework of moral universalism. Therefore, there appears to be a chance that the discourse of moral universalism might end up undermining what may be liberation for the other.

However, Benhabib’s solution of democratic iterations is not very much in line with postmodernists such as Habermas, who feel that discussion on public issues - those that involve everyone - must not be debated upon as every perspective cannot be granted equal weight. Benhabib feels that debate regarding the conception of the good life must be brought forward into the public sphere. If this does not happen then the existing gender bias will define the universal norms that must be followed, leaving no room for difference.  Benhabib is in line with some major concerns of postmodernism as she is also of the view that through discourse an idealized form of reason can be achieved. (Canaday). However, she is skeptical of the ideals of equality and liberty in today’s democracy. This is because the very norms of equality and tolerance fail to account for difference and the rhetoric of enlightenment creates an illusion. She is a defender of difference as she argues that debate in the public sphere should not aim to achieve knowledge on the “general interest”, since this is likely to suppress differing voices.

Jean Cohen’s article on “Democracy, Difference and right of privacy” also argues for the place of difference. Infact similar to Benhabib she is of the view that a true democratic state must guarantee voice to difference. She cites the abortion issue as a matter pertinent to the issue of the public private dichotomy. According to her the right to abortion should be provided by state but whether it is used or not is  a private matter and so must be left to the individual involved. (Cohen, 207). If we consider the scarf affair in this light it is reasonable to think that defining legislation in terms of banning the headscarf is not appropriate rather it should be a matter left to the individual. The abortion issue also came to light in the changing social circumstances of women’s growing emancipation and so a need was felt for providing this right to the public to choose for themselves albeit it would be legally allowed. Similarly with today’s multicultural societies and the growing identity crisis among minorities living in foreign homelands it seems quite appropriate to allow the wearing of religious symbols such as the headscarf.
In her essay “The Rights of Others”, Benhabib talks about the right to hospitality. She is a follower of Kant’s conditional hospitality theory. According to Kant, anyone has the right to space in a foreign land for a temporary time as long as he or she does not become the cause of any destruction. This rests on Kant’s notion that hospitality is basically a right and not a virtue or favor that one country does to another. Every human being has equal rights over the surface of the earth and these boundaries are created by man. (Benhabib, 26-39). In contrast to this, postmodernists such as Derida feel that hospitality for foreigners should be unconditional. Such an approach, however, leads to crises such as terrorism. (Rosenfeld). What Derida is essentially proposing is that a form of care and love that exists in the private sphere usually is projected on to the public sphere. Unconditional form of care is generally found in personal relationships. However, applying that to the level of the state will not be without a cost.

In order to bring forth a perspective based on liberalism and the public private dichotomy Kymlicka’s “Multicultural Citizenship” is an insightful resource. Kymlicka talks about the conflict which arises in a liberal state when it has to balance the ideals of liberty and tolerance. A question crops up with respect to the states responsibility of protecting religious minorities and giving them freedom. What if the tenets of a minority go against the principles of liberalism? It is not clear whether liberalism cherishes individual autonomy more or tolerance. Today the Western notion of religious tolerance, for instance, is based on the concept of freedom of conscience. (Kymlicka, 158). This, however, may not be in line with some particular religious values.
             Kymlicka discusses the Rawlsian point of view regarding this dilemma. Rawls argues that the extent of autonomy should be limited. For instance, he feels that in the public sphere everyone must adhere to liberal ideas and values. In other words, people should be communitarians in public and must uphold the values most cherished in their society. Rawls is also of the view that not every community will be able to accept liberal principles as supreme, such as in the case of individual freedom. (Kymlicka, 158-165). In religions such as Islam, apostasy is a sin which is punishable by a death sentence. This creates a dilemma for the state since a liberal society would provide every individual with the right to choose or renounce their faith. However, a Muslim community residing in such a society would differ. Therefore, if the Western model of freedom of individual conscience is applied, then in effect we are sidelining difference and imposing the majority’s standpoint. Kymlicka feels that it is not appropriate for the state to impose liberal values on all its citizens or else it will amount to an infringement into the private life of individuals. The state’s role regarding religion should be such that the autonomy of the minorities is taken away.
          In this respect Kymlicka quotes the example of Wisconsin v Yoder which concerned the Amish community in America. They wanted to restrict their children’s education from the age of 16 onwards so that their knowledge about the outside world would be limited. The Supreme Court accepted the claim of the Amish although it went against the basic principle of autonomy. (Kymlicka, 160,161). Sandel - being a communitarian - also agrees with this decision of the court as according to him greater good for the society would result. This is an example when the State did not intervene in the private sphere of the individuals of a certain community and so respected the public private divide. However, the state’s success in defending its liberal conception of autonomy remains questionable. Kymlicka is quite considerate towards difference and feels that it is not appropriate to enforce liberal values through legislation. Rather, they should be popularized through reasoning. (Kymlicka, 168). Therefore, multiculturalism and difference in his point of view must be respected and minorities must be given their due space.

 From the lens of most feminist scholarship, traditional Islamic societies tend to support clear cut divides between public and private spheres - keeping women’s roles confined to the private. Saba Mahmood, in her book “The subject of Freedom”, talks about the Women’s Mosque Movement in Egypt since the 1970s in which the women initially held lessons at home and then at mosques. (Mahmood, 3-4). The mosques are generally considered male domains however this movement was a breakthrough since it transcended the definite boundaries.
       Saba Mahmood also considers the issue of modesty in Islam. The veil in many Islamic cultures is seen as the only rightful way of realizing modesty. However, a debate continues to exist in Islamic circles as to whether such a necessary relationship exists or not. The issue is a result of cultural norms in most cases which bring the issue of the veil into the public sphere despite it being considered a private act. Mahmood takes a radical approach as she argues that the foundations of the public private dichotomy need to be reassessed. She feels that there is no need for discourse to take place on issues such as veiling as they are matters of rights. Moreover, discourse on such issues as proposed by Benhabib and other Kantians would tend to take place on the framework of moral universalism as suggested by Kant. This in reality would lead the viewpoint of one party to overdo the “other” whereas according to Mahmood the “other’s” voice must essentially be heard.  
          What today’s secular and modern societies entail is a limitation on religion to the private sphere. Religion entering the public sphere is assumed to bring forth regimes such as the Taliban in Afghanistan - where certain interpretations of religious practices are forced upon the entire society leaving very little room for individual liberty. Saba Mahmood contends that the state policies of banning the wearing of headscarves, such as in France, are not justifiable considering the public private boundaries. She feels that when the state imposes such a policy, it is in effect making a private decision a matter of public concern. If religion is strictly to be an issue of the private sphere then the state’s attitude of banning religious symbols is not plausible. (Mahmood). Further adding to the injustice is the fact that the women involved in these affairs such as in France, Germany and Turkey were never heard. The weakness of the feminist normative argument is also brought forward since they fail to view the argument of those women who see the wearing of headscarf as a liberating symbol with pride attached to it.
         Saba Mahmood is of the view that the framework of a clear cut divide between public and private especially with regards to religion creates immense problems. The problem with this standpoint is that it leaves no space for understanding issues such as the veil with a different perspective. Either an individual is labeled as oppressed or as liberated simply with regards to her manner of dressing. This is somewhat limiting the scope defining liberation. Mahmood argues for understanding the concept of issues such as the headscarf and in defining public private boundaries with a different perspective, as it is a complex issue regarding more insight. At first sight Mahmood’s argument appears quite radical. However, considering the complexity of the issues she has addressed it seems quite reasonable to keep the issues of multiculturalism away from public debate and consider them solely a private right so as to respect difference.
       Overall all three authors that this paper has reviewed have considered the public private dichotomy in the context of democracy and difference in considerable depth. I have found Kymlicka’s argument to be most satisfying. He has suggested that the liberal majority in a society must sit together with the minority, not for the purpose of convincing them to adopt liberal values, but for the attainment of peaceful coexistence. He has discussed this issue not just with respect to a majority minority conflict but also with the conflicts that liberal and illiberal nations face. It is not appropriate for liberal nations to judge others, especially third world countries, along strict liberal standards. It is important for them to realize that liberalism may not be the most suitable ideology for any society - especially those third world countries which are at a different historical point and which possess a completely different culture and tradition. Therefore, it is essential to realize the existence of multiculturalism in today’s world and have an open attitude towards difference.

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