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.
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.
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.