Also known as ‘The Bill Prohibiting Facial Dissimulation in a Public Place’, when I first heard that France was toying with the idea of ‘banning burqas’, my immediate reaction was unqualified alarm: surely the last thing the world needs at this moment is for supposedly civilised, liberal countries to start making inflammatory laws that criminalise Muslims.
There are so many things to say about this occurrence it is difficult to know where to start. Yes, it’s politically motivated and fundamentally stupid: a simplistic response to a highly complex situation. It is a single incident which is the crysallisation of a number of trends and forces, interesting for what it reveals about ‘the French’ and their national identity: in crisis perhaps? This Economist article suggests a deep level of national malaise and malcontent – albeit somewhat unwarranted.
I have discussed it with many people and have so far resisted commenting in writing, but I am afraid I have been provoked, by none other than Tim Lovejoy of Something For The Weekend fame, and a horrendous exchange with co-presenter Louise Redknapp, in which he implied (and was sadly proven more or less correct) that she was mainly only capable of wearing high heeled shoes and discussing her haircut.
This sort of run-of-the-mill, casually sexist commentary sits very ill with the holier-than-thou attitude that seems to be adopted over here when discussing the concept of women being required by their faith to cover their faces.
Firstly – particularly as this is a debate that happens in pubs and workplaces as well as newspaper columns – whatever people say about their motivations for ‘not liking it’, however far the enlightened men of Britain claim it’s concern for the oppressed women underneath, I find it hard to believe anti-niqab/ burqa sentiment is ever totally free of good old ‘fear of the alien culture’.
Secondly, on the question of practices that suppress women, we needn’t be so superior. Yes, I am eternally grateful for the advances that have been made in gender equality, and from which I can only have benefited, but those advances shouldn’t blind us to the fact that we are still guilty in ‘the west’ of constructing barriers around women’s identities. They are just socio-psychological rather than big black pieces of material, and therefore much harder to pin down and challenge.
If you want examples: How often do you see a man in an advert for fabric detergent or air freshener? Why does the word ‘beauty’ have a feminine connotation? What is the ratio of men to women on the R4 Today programme? Why is it ‘boy meets girl’ and not the other way around?
It is unfortunate for the niqab that it is such a clear visual sign, and therefore targetable in the gender debate. Indeed the whole matter of visuality is interesting here: if the niqab hampers women by rendering them invisible, without identity, Western women have been equally constrained by the fact that they have been treated as such explicitly visual objects. What does it do to your personality if, at heart, you suspect that what you look like is more important than what you think or say?
In 1905, an Austrian intellectual, Rosa Mayreder, who was writing very much against the prevailing opinions of her time, suggested that ‘the highest triumph of civilisation’ is the ‘unhampered self-predestination of the individual’. Over 100 years later I’m not sure, even in Britain, if we are there yet. ‘Self-determination’, in one’s life and opinions, is available and deemed appropriate for men far more often than for women. And both sexes are complicit in perpetuating this status quo.
If there are any lessons to be learned from Something For The Weekend (beyond the fact that Gwyneth Paltrow, published cookery book notwithstanding, doesn’t apparently know her way around a kitchen), it is that we are just as blind to the limiting effects of some of our embedded cultural assumptions about gender, as women who wear the niqab might be to theirs.