On face veils and collectively growing the hell up.


There’s been a massive furore this week about France’s new law banning face veils in public. As usual, I’m getting in to this one a few days late- which is, of course, several decades on the internet.

So I’ll be quick(ish). If French women people want to wear a thing, they should bloody well have the right to do so. That right should not be limited by other people’s ideas on what constitutes good fashion sense. That right should not be limited by other people’s ideas on what their clothing says about them. Perhaps some bare minimum of restrictions might be applicable on grounds of public decency. But that’s about it, and even that is a thing I’m a little uncomfortable with.

There are a few grounds on which I’d like to talk about this. You’ll notice, however, that absolutely none of them involve making assumptions regarding the motivations of women who wear face veils. This is because I’m not a woman who wears a face veil. I’m not a Muslim. Hell, I’m not even vaguely religious, and I don’t exist as a religious or cultural minority where I live. Going around ascribing motivations and narratives to a bunch of people I don’t know, about an area we don’t have in common? It’s not only bad form, it’s also quite likely to be out-and-out incorrect.

Security

The major reason given for banning face coverings is that of security. If a person’s face is covered, you can’t identify them, and therefore they could get away with all sorts of mischief. It sounds plausible, doesn’t it? So I did a bit of googling to see if I could find out about all the crimes being committed by women wearing face veils. It seems reasonable to assume that legislators would only go to the trouble of banning a thing if it were already causing problems. Surely if it’s such a major issue, there would be no trouble finding out about the waves of veiled gangs robbing banks and service stations with impunity? No such luck. The major crime being committed by women covering their faces seems to be.. covering their faces. Oh, and also being the victims of assault by bystanders outraged at their fashion sense. Charming, that. Given that this is a bunch of people who’ve been subject to an awful lot of scrutiny, the fact that I can’t find any reports of them actually committing crimes is remarkable.

Participation and Democracy

The ability of women to participate in society while wearing veils on their faces is another issue that seems to come up, time and time again. If a woman covers her face, you see, she is immediately rendered silent and identity-less. She can’t speak for herself, because a thin layer of fabric absolutely prevents a person’s voice from being heard.

You know, I’m trying very hard to take this one seriously and lay off the snark. But, damnit, it’s just too easy. And it seems to me that if a person finds women wearing face-veils to be entirely silent and impossible to interact with, that’s most likely a problem on their side. I’ve never seen much difference in people’s ability to ask for directions, or complain about the weather or how crowded the bus is, or squee over awesome toys in the Science Museum, based on whether I can see their face or not. But then again, I’m not going around glaring at people because of what they’re wearing either. And I may not have ever worn a face-veil, but I have had some odd haircuts in my time. And the people who are inclined to glare at the woman with a shaved head simply didn’t get to chat to me at the bus stop.

Also, if someone is going to be reclusive due to their beliefs, or if they feel excluded from society because of their beliefs, forcibly altering their dress code isn’t going to change that. The only thing that’ll do that is if relatively privileged people get up off their asses and quit marginalising them.

Sexism

Ah, this old chestnut. I love this one, I really do. You see, if a woman wears a face-veil, it’s sexist. If she wears heels, that’s sexist as well- except when it’s unprofessional not to, and they can’t be too high. Ditto to makeup. Also if she wears a bikini, it’s sexist. And so is a burqini! Covering up is prudish. Not covering up is slutty. If you shave your legs you’re a victim of the patriarchy, and if you don’t you’re a fuddy-duddy humourless unsexy feminazi. But like I said to the (impressively awesome) Nahida over at the Fatal Feminist, a veil is a piece of cloth. A piece of cloth! Pieces of cloth aren’t sexist. Pieces of cloth don’t infringe on people’s rights. People do that. And maybe- just maybe- the major thing that’s sexist isn’t face-veils, or bikinis, or heels or makeup or burqinis, but the fact that women are constantly judged as women for the choices we make in how we present ourselves.

Listen, it’s absolutely possible that some women who veil their faces feel pressured to do so. But if you take away their right to cover, then you should probably take away my right to shave my legs as well. Because I sure as hell do feel social pressure to do that one, and everyone knows that unless we make choices in an absolute vacuum they cannot be meaningful. Right? Also, all you need to do is confiscate our fabric and our razors, and sexism will miraculously disappear!

Totally Not Racist, Right.

Oh, this one. You see, in defending the face-veil ban, it’s been argued that it’s actually nothing to do with Muslim women. It’s just a general ban on covering your face. Which is unacceptable in our society, amirite?

Interesting, that. I suppose that’s why a few months ago in the Big Freeze, everyone was up in arms over all of the non-Muslims covering our heads with hats and our faces with big, chunky scarves. Rendering ourselves almost unrecognisable in layers and layers of jumpers, coats and gloves, with nothing visible but our eyes. Staying indoors as much as possible, only leaving the house when we absolutely had to, and definitely covering as much of our faces as possible without restricting our vision. I guess that for those couple of months this winter, practically the entire country were security risks, the victims of extreme sexism, and unable to participate in society?

Or is it okay to cover ourselves up if it’s because of the weather, but not when it’s our choice? A choice which is statistically more likely to be made by (gasp!) brown people? And this is not racist… how?

That bit about growing the hell up.

Here’s the thing. Whatever way you slice it, the ban on face-coverings in France is absolutely an attack on Muslim women’s right to freedom of expression. In extension, it’s an attack on everyone’s freedom of expression. As with all of our rights, my right to not cover my face is meaningless if it isn’t a choice. It’s meaningless as a choice if it would be imposed anyway. Taking away the rights of those who choose to express themselves in a certain- harmless*- manner invalidates all of our autonomy and right to self-determination. Doing so in a pointed attack on an already marginalised group only furthers their marginalisation. As a society, we need to grow the hell up and realise that there is no conflict between Muslim women and Western women. Many Muslim women are Western women, and many of those Western women want to dress how they please. In a society which supposedly values individual freedoms, who are we to take those freedoms from ourselves?

*There have been mentions of increased risk of vitamin D deficiency in people who cover up. This would be a sensible argument in favour of banning covering if there were no such thing as vitamin supplements, and if any and all unhealthy behaviours were banned. But you can take my cookies, my cherry brandy cocktails, and my occasional days spent doing nothing but playing video games from my cold dead hands.

18 thoughts on “On face veils and collectively growing the hell up.

  1. Hi, I love you. =D

    Also, I have not heard of the burqini until now. LOL!

    I really, really love this post. I can’t get over it. It tackles everything succinctly and snark-ily. I’m left utterly speechless at how amazing you are. *hugs*

  2. I’ve read a number of essays by an American activist who has been working with one of the French groups in favor of the ban. Her rational for the ban was, in a nutshell:

    1) Fundamentalist Islam is evil and needs to be destroyed.
    2) Women wearing face veils are either being oppressed by them, or are perpetuating misogyny. It’s simply not possible to wear them without either of those two being true, unless the women wearing the face veils are putting on the veils in protest of the veils not being banned. Then it’s okay, because freedom of speech.
    3) Banning Muslim women from wearing the burqua and niquab is just like banning white business owners in the US from refusing service to black customers.

    • Firstly- thanks for commenting! It’s always good to get different points of view in comments 🙂
      I’ll respond to your points one-by-one, okay?

      1) Fundamentalist Islam is evil and needs to be destroyed.

      I’m not sure what’s meant by this. What is this ‘fundamentalist Islam’? Do you mean people who are very religious? People who are visibly religious? People whose religion and politics are intertwined in an exclusive kind of way? People who are anti-Western or anti-secularism? Or are you conflating Islam with terrorism?
      I suspect it’s the latter, given your use of the word ‘evil’. If so, I’d encourage you to look a little deeper into the social and political structures surrounding ‘fundamentalist Islam’, as well as other flavours of religious fundamentalisms. These things don’t grow up in a vacuum. The kind of fundamentalism that I suspect you refer to, which is based on a strong ingroup-outgroup us-versus-them mentality, almost always coincides with high levels of political and social marginalisation. Hence why fundamentalisms happen in ex-colonies, in the poorer US states of the Bible Belt, in socially marginalised communities in France. The colonial history of ‘dividing and conquering’ the Hutu and Tutsi in Rwanda. Closer to (my) home, in colonially, economically and culturally separated communities in Northern Ireland. In all of these areas you’ll see incredibly similar structures of privilege and marginalisation, and marginalised groups reclaiming pride in their identities through fundamentalism.
      The solution to this is never, ever to further marginalise the group in question. After all, that’s what led to the situation in the first place! The only way to deal with this- and it’s a long, slow and difficult process- is to engage in dismantling the structures of marginalisation that led to such resentment in the first place.

    • 2) Women wearing face veils are either being oppressed by them, or are perpetuating misogyny. It’s simply not possible to wear them without either of those two being true, unless the women wearing the face veils are putting on the veils in protest of the veils not being banned. Then it’s okay, because freedom of speech.

      Sorry, but I’m going to have to go with a ‘citation needed’ here. Why are women wearing face veils either being oppressed by them or perpetuating misogyny? How do you know this? What is it about this piece of fabric that is so inherently oppressive?

      I would argue that one of the major things that all women are oppressed by is the constant (de)sexualisation of our bodies. We are always judged in relation to how we are (or are not) ‘sexy’, where ‘sexy’ is defined very specifically in terms of our attractiveness to heterosexual men. This happens all the time. Constantly. This is the misogyny. This is the oppression.

      What is not oppressive- what cannot be- is how we respond to that. The things we do to deal with it, so that we can live our damn lives with a bit of (inner) peace. If a woman decides to play up her sexual attractiveness? If she decides to play it down? If she decides that, to hell with it all, she’s going to bloody well cover herself from head to toe and there’s not a damn thing anyone can do about it? It’s all responses to living in a pervasively patriarchal society.

      But I’m not the person to talk to about that one, since I don’t wear the things. I was able to rustle up this blog post talking about this BBC article/documentary talking to women who cover their faces, about their choice to do so. That first link is also to Muslimah Media Watch, where there’s tons of resources if you’re interested in finding out more. I would absolutely recommend doing so, because it seems to me that there’s a lot more going on here than just oppression/misogyny.

      Also, though- why does freedom of speech only apply in protest? If a person has the right to do a thing when protesting having that right taken away, don’t they have a right to do that thing at any time?

    • 3) Banning Muslim women from wearing the burqua and niquab is just like banning white business owners in the US from refusing service to black customers.

      …….
      ……
      …..?
      Wuh?
      Citation, plz.

      ..Also, I just realised, after that epic series of comments, that I’m entirely unsure whether you agree with these rationale or not? Or whether you’re just passing ’em on? Hrm.

  3. In Montreal, I have seen burqa-clad women led around on leashes. Whether those women consented to that treatment or not is of no interest whatsoever to me. What bothered me was that I felt completely degraded by that sight. I’d love for my Canadian government to protected me from seeing such horrible things in public.

    I would also like to hear what one is supposed to do as a teacher when there is a student in class whose face is completely covered. Just in simple practical terms, how am I expected to ensure that the person who shows up for the final exam under that niqab is the person who has been taking my course.

    • Thanks for commenting! Those are two very interesting points you’ve raised.
      As for the first one, to be honest my first reaction was that some people really should learn to keep their kinks at home. I’d read that as kinky, you see, as opposed to a religious thing. But who knows? Like you said, you don’t know whether they consented to that or not.
      There’s two major points within this, that I can see. The first is the behaviour of these couples. The second is your (and other people’s) reactions to them. With regards to the first, I’d say that despite your lack of interest in it, consent is absolutely the key. If I get my kicks from being covered from head to toe and led about on a leash? That’s my choice. If I’ve been coerced into it? That’s assault. That’s unlawful imprisonment. That’s kidnapping. We have laws against that kind of thing, and for good reason! And if we have reason to suspect that women are being assaulted and imprisoned, we have an obligation to reach out to those women, and to throw the book at the people assaulting them.
      But if it’s a choice, or a kink? Then it’s up to them. And, to hit on the second point there, it’s up to us to deal with our own reactions. My right to not feel offended is, almost always, trumped by all of our right to express ourselves freely. Given that there’s no incitement to violence or hatred going on here, I can’t see any reason to interfere, unless there is reason to believe that those women are being coerced.

      As for your second point, about your experiences as a teacher. I wasn’t sure about this one, so I asked my housemate C, who has taught in college and who also works as a polling clerk in elections here. I figured she’d be well aware of any solutions to the issue of niqab and identity!
      C said that as a poll clerk, she would do a similar thing as if a person needed to be assisted to vote- she’d ask the person to remove their veil, in one of the polling booths where their privacy would be respected. As far as I know, as long as the person asking is female there’s no reason why this wouldn’t be absolutely fine. She also said that while it had never come up in any of her classes, she’d probably just get them to pop out into the hallways or next room- somewhere private- and remove the veil for a moment. Assuming the class is large enough that the person wouldn’t be easily identifiable by voice or mannerisms, of course! From what I gather, there’s nothing that isn’t permissable about this. Although if it were to come up and that weren’t okay, I’m sure a quick call to the local Muslim society would come up with some solutions. They’ve been handling this for ages, after all!

  4. If you can’t see a persons face, how can you engage with them conversationally face to face? Facial and body language are a vital part of how human beings connect with each other.

    It plays a central role particularly in the areas of passport offices, police stations, banks, teachers, hospitals, driving a car, etc. It’s crucial to know the identity of the person in most matters. In other cases, people essentially need to follow facial expressions for communications.

    In muslim countries, muslims expect tourists and EU people to wear the face veil/clothing and respect their cultures within their countries. Why do tourists and EU people have to follow the rules if it’s not their own culture? The penalties are very high if you do not follow them. Surely, that is a violation against EU people who do not practice muslim?

    The face veil is a barrier to communication and therefore to integration into society. It is therefore creates isolationism in covering your face. Secondly, I have found it an offence to talk to one who has a veil behind her face as communication is difficult when you ONLY see the eyes. Society is living in a modern age, not in a repressive and dark age.

    The questions to ponder,

    Is it worn on that fact of being resistant to western culture and not integrating with western culture?

    Is wearing a face veil a control to stop muslim men losing their women to other men? Or other men looking at the stunning muslim women? Or to “protect” men from their desires?

    Muslim women are capable of controlling their own desires and don’t need their husbands or head veil to do that.

    Why cover their beauty – be proud of it and be proud of who you are in western society and integrate with western culture.

    • I would put together a reply to you, except that it’s obvious from your comment that you’re not replying to me. While I’m happy to engage with people who disagree with me, I prefer if they engage with me first.
      The vast majority of your comment has already been dealt with within my original post. If you’d like to comment on anything I’ve said, please do. If you disagree with any of the actual points which I have made, I’m happy to hear it. However I’d appreciate if you would give an indication of having read the original post when you do so.
      Also, I indicated in my original post that I’m not interested in discussing the motivations of women who choose to cover their faces. Is there a reason why you feel entitled to dictate to complete strangers on their choice of clothing?

    • However:

      There is no monolithic ‘Muslim countries’, all of which have exactly the same culture and laws. The vast majority of majority-Muslim countries do not mandate covering. However, it is generally considered polite to dress reasonably modestly when a guest in places where that is the norm. That’s not limited to Muslim countries, and that’s not every Muslim-majority country.
      Also, we’re not talking about the mythical monolithic Muslim ‘world’ here. We’re talking about a bunch of entirely Western women living in a Western country who would like to be afforded the right to self-expression and self-determination.

    • I’ve been to a Muslim country and a mostly Muslim country, and I didn’t cover. I don’t think I saw anyone cover their face in the mostly Muslim country, and plenty of women who didn’t in the Muslim one.

      Oh! You mean repressive Muslim countries! Is “repressive” the standard you think we should be going for?

  5. Hear bloody hear.
    That is pretty much all I have to say about that, except that I think I’m going to have to start following your blog now.

  6. Did you forget the political motivation? It is no coincidence that in Iraq more and more women wear the veil as a visual protest against the West. It is a very visual ‘I don’t want to integrate with you’ sign and unlike many more subtle religious symbols it identifies the wearer as a strict Muslim, one that believes that non Muslims should perish.

    It’s also amusing, in the not amusing sense of the word, that Muslims become individuals when criticised but very much a united front at other times…..sister this, brother that. A religion of convenience……side by side and stand alone.

    • Firstly: hello! Thanks for commenting 🙂

      Secondly:
      Why should Iraqi women feel like they have to integrate with the West? Do you feel like you have to integrate with the Middle East? How about other areas of the world?
      Or is there something exceptional about the West that means that everyone else should integrate with it, without the converse being true?

      Also, why do you equate ‘strict Muslim’ with ‘believing that non-Muslims should perish’? The vast majority of interpretations of Islam, including strict Islam, don’t involve killing non-Muslims. I’m not going to speak for Muslims here, as I’m not one, but even a quick look at history will show that Islamic societies have, historically, been far more friendly to other religious and cultural groups than, say, Christian societies. What you’re referring to is the Islamist political movements, which are an entirely different thing. They’re no more (or less) Muslim than the IRA are Christian.

      Also, regarding the ‘brother’ and ‘sister’ thing. You have to realise that we are talking about a marginalised minority here, particularly in the West. Marginalised minorities often use language like that- just look at how, say, African-Americans sometimes use almost identical language, how LGBTQ people refer to members of the community as ‘family’. It’s not unique to Islam.

  7. Also the women that are subjected to being forced or forcibly advised are most likely to be the ones without any Western or otherwise more enlightened friends. She is more likely to be kept at home and away from people….are we saying for the apparent freedom of expression (albeit a bit illiterate if the assume this cultural and not religious) of the very few is worth the absolute imprisonment and coercion of another?

    I understand it’s very cool to jump on the ‘oh we Westerners are evil to the Muslims’ bandwagon but how can anyone justify wearing a veil in 2011?

    • Right, this one is an interesting point! However, I’d take that same point and come to precisely the opposite conclusion.

      Okay.

      So let’s assume that a certain proportion of women who cover their faces do so because of social/familial pressure. Let’s say that this pressure means that she is, as you say, ‘forcibly advised’ to cover when in public, or else not go out at all.
      Are you really saying that denying her this one thing which gives her a measure of independence is the right thing to do? If she is going to be forcibly kept indoors without a face-veil, then by banning the veil you’re effectively taking away the one route outside that she has! Thereby rendering her completely invisible. Thereby taking away any opportunities she might have had to interact with others outside her community.

      So I’d turn that question around: Are you really saying that the comfort of others is worth the absolute imprisonment and coercion of another? And how, in 2011, can anyone justify decreeing what another person is allowed to wear?

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