When a 60-year-old woman lawyer got into a brawl with a heavily-veiled Muslim sister at a French shopping mall last weekend, the French native was no doubt cheered, if silently, by many fellow nationals. Face veils have become the flash-point for simmering racial tensions and France is not alone in proposing to ban them from the public square. Belgium’s lower house approved a ban at the end of April, and a couple of days after the burqa rage incident the French cabinet was presented with a long-anticipated draft bill stipulating that “no one can wear a garment intended to hide the face in the public space”.
Popular it may be, but the ban is an unlikely one from other points of view. A law about how a woman may dress? In the bastion of liberte? In the birthplace of fashion, an industry which loves to shock? If the Muslims had not invented it first, what is the betting that if a model appeared on the catwalk at Paris fashion week wearing the equivalent of a black tent with a small mesh window or slit for vision, the audience would have been wowed?
Prior to the current Muslim era in the West, pretty much the only rule regarding how people might appear in public was that they should not be stark naked. Now, the French and Belgian governments, watched closely by Italians, Australians and others, want to forbid anyone being completely covered. Between those extremes — and with the possible exception of Nazi insignia — anything goes. Witness a gay pride parade somewhere near you.
The odd thing about the face veil issue is that very few Muslim women in Europe cover their faces — only an estimated 1900 in France out of a total Muslim population estimated at five million. At that rate, an average Frenchwoman on an average shopping trip would be unlucky to sight a burqa (which covers the entire face and body, leaving just a mesh screen to see through) or a niqab (a face veil which leaves the area around the eyes clear and is usually combined with a long veil or full body covering). But when you do, I have found, it is not a cheerful sight. It does not justify making snide remarks for the wearer to hear, let alone coming to blows with her as the lawyer lady in Trignac did. But at the very least it makes you wonder about the isolation of the woman and how she can ever become a participant in society.
Faces are a sign that humans are social beings and meant to be open to one another. A woman — or a man — without a face seems less than a person. The disembodied eyes shown by the niqab are not enough. It is the face that introduces us to a person and tells us by their changing expression — a combination of eye movements, smiles, frowns, voice changes — together with larger body language, more than their words. Faces can tell us things without any words. All this is obliterated by the face veil; the person behind it is closed to those outside her own home and cultural group.
It is very clear to the French, and to nearly everyone else, that this is an assault on the equal dignity of women vis-à-vis men, especially since it often allegedly goes hand in hand with polygamy, neglect of wives and children, use of extra wives to exploit the welfare system, violence against wives and the subjection of their daughters to female circumcision — practices which are said to go much wider than the small number of Muslims who veil the face.
All this is doubly offensive in a staunchly feminist nation, whose current nod to the spirit of Simone de Beauvoir is to force a quota (40 per cent) of women onto boards of listed companies. It also offends France’s virulent strain of secularism, which six years ago prompted a law banning the wearing of headscarves and other “conspicuous religious symbols” in public schools.
In fact it is difficult to escape the impression that the real issue at stake for the French is not the oppression of Muslim women but the visibility of Muslim culture and the way it challenges feminist and secularist assumptions.
Those assumptions also produce blind spots when it comes to the dignity of women. A person who takes that dignity seriously is more likely to be offended by the dress sense of the crowd rather than of an isolated Muslim in a burqa, for the typical European/American/Australian woman today also goes about with something that obscures her face: the exposed breast cleavage just below it.
As western women cling to fashions that aim to reveal everything about the body, they too are depersonalised. The stranger’s eye is not drawn to the face where they might encounter the person, but to the body as a sexual object. And this leads also to oppression, even if the woman, just like the one in the burqa, does not understand that she is oppressed.
Oppressed or not, Muslim women are fighting back. Some who wear the face veil told a group of reporters in France this week that they would not obey the ban (which is expected to come into force next year) and they would not leave the country. They say it is tantamount to denying freedom to practice one’s religion. They talked about having recourse to the European Court of Human Rights if arrested.
As for their dignity, they say it cannot be dictated by the state. The secularism of the state should guarantee religious freedom, they argue. Also, they ask, if the French are such feminists, why do women make up less than 20 per cent of the 577 members of the National Assembly, the lower house of parliament?
Good points, ladies. But the truth that human dignity is not defined by decrees of the state does not mean it is defined by the customs of any particular group, either. For all that some women embrace it willingly, there is something very undignified about hiding the face. The dignity of a woman is the dignity of a person, and the face veil suggests, quite simply, that the wearer is not a person — for her husband and children, maybe, but not for you and me.
This is a sad state of affairs but not one that governments can solve with bans. If anything, these will provoke resentment among Muslims at large and rebellion among the young (watch for more veils appearing, not less). As Muslim leaders themselves say, the answer lies with the education and empowerment of Muslim women.
What would help a lot is a decision by European women to dress and conduct themselves in a style consistent with feminine dignity. Half-bared bosoms and burqa rage are definitely not the way to persuade our Muslim sisters to give up the veil.
Carolyn Moynihan is deputy editor of MercatorNet.