Polygamy is illegal because it is against the doctrines of Christianity. In a culturally Christian culture we still haven’t got as far as challenging that particular bit of orthodoxy. Its time will come. In any case, it no longer matters much. Marriage has become, as it should be, a private arrangement, which people enter into how they wish and when they wish. It is only if you want to be recognised by the state that it will take any notice of you at all, but if you wish to share your life with someone of the opposite sex, or the same sex, or several of each, or three men and a goat, the state will not bother you much. It is one of the very few areas where state interference has decreased in recent years. It is true that you will not get official permission except for some of these arrangements, but it matters little. It mattered when the government and your neighbours would make your life a misery if your lifestyle wasn’t sanctioned by the right paperwork, but that is now no longer the case in Britain. Therefore polygamy is not illegal. It’s true there is no form for it, but there is nothing to stop you living with as many people as you want, in whatever sexual and social arrangement you choose. Some of your neighbours might still purse their lips, and the Daily Mail will encourage them to throw manure at you, but they won’t dare, as they no longer feel courage in numbers.
Similar considerations apply to business hours, particularly Sunday trading. Hours of commerce are restricted for reasons which have largely been forgotten, but it is still difficult to change the rigidly followed traditions. Trade, fortunately, is flexible, and the trader has found ways to give his customers what they want when they want it, even if the Vicar or the Councillor are not happy about it.
I made similar remarks when Theodore Dalrymple stated tangentially that we are quite right to forbid public necrophilia. I don't know whether we do in fact forbid it, it's quite possible no one has ever thought to make it illegal. But if it is illegal it is not because we are right to ban it but because there is no one who cares about it. If there were an underground interest in it, growing slowly, taking advantage maybe of increasing public and institutional acceptance of sex, we would be having a quite different argument. And we probably would be wrong to ban it, though ban it we certainly would.
The prohibition of the burqa/niqab is a matter of freedom or oppression depending on what its prohibition is intended to achieve, or will in fact achieve. If Muslim women in Britain are forced to wear it against their will, by their husbands, then a prohibition will make it much harder for men to force women to hide from life and the world. If, on the other hand, Muslim women choose freely to express/obey the tenets of their faith/culture, then a prohibition restricts their freedom for no reason and so is wrong. The question, then, is how do we know what we are trying to respond to, and how do we establish numbers, percentages, proportions, and sort out the mess of overlapping desires/beliefs/decrees/impositions to arrive at something fair and just?
I think the answer is we don’t. If a woman who does not want to cover her face is forced to do so by her husband, she has the same recourse in law as other abused women, if she so considers herself. If there are cultural difficulties which make it unusually difficult for her to take advantage of those laws, there are people who could work to overcome those obstacles. To prohibit women from wearing a particular kind of dress is, it would appear, wrong.
The assumption always seems to be that no woman would wear a niqab/burqa if she were not forced to do so, but this is almost certainly not true.
Religious freedom is not a special kind of freedom that only religious people have, it is just freedom. Freedom of religion is freedom of belief, is freedom of opinion, is freedom of speech, is freedom full stop. They are all the same thing, and we all want to have them.
It annoys me when people defend the freedom of others to hold and profess their own beliefs, and then have to add, ‘however absurd/irrational’. It is a little tick which betrays an unreflecting sense of the superiority of their own reason to that of people who don’t agree with them. It is not unnatural, of course. Most of us believe that being right, according to our own lights, makes us better than those who are wrong, but the middle of an argument in defence of freedom is the wrong place to express that feeling. A small point, but there you are.
Puritans always follow the orthodoxy. What makes them feel good is knowing the crowd is behind them as they stop other people having fun, or freedom. The exact same types who are now trying to ban tobacco, alcohol, food, sugar were using the same arguments to attack homosexuals fifty years ago. Certainly some people find the smell of tobacco unbearably unpleasant or the presence of drunk people frightening or they have seen their brother die a horrible death after smoking forty a day for twenty years, but most seem to be are motivated largely by the desire to stop other people from doing what they want.