The right to cover oneself completely

18 Apr

When I was an undergraduate women’s studies student, the issue of women’s emancipation was often considered through the prisms of  other cultures, countries, religions, and mores. It was not enough that one believed in the rights of all people, it was important to strain this belief through a colander of cultural and religious relativism. By this I mean that one must always remain mindful of one’s position when attempting a critique of an altogether different position.

I used to get in rather large arguments with a French friend of mine. For her, it was absolutely justifiable that the French government pass and uphold laws whose statutes were dependent on the foundational French constitutional values: liberty, equality, fraternity.

This did not mean that a government must pass laws that seek to rectify historical inequalities however, that form of law-making is more akin with American ideology. For France, the constitution states the values, and that is how the laws must be passed and the ideology upheld: all are equal under the law.

Whether this is accurate on the ground is not at issue. So, because of this essential equality, citizens are held to the abstract standards; the freedom of church and state prohibits girls in schools wearing the Islamic veil, this law has been in place for several years.

The law passed in the past 2 weeks prohibiting women from wearing a face and head covering in public is the natural continuance of the previous law ( by natural I mean according to the above logic). The law has provoked international discussion concerning the rights of women to dress themselves according to their own standards, and ultimately concerning the form that Western governments are beginning to take in response to growing Muslim populations.

There are approximately 6 million Muslims in France, and though estimates vary, around 2000 Muslim women wear niqab.

What is niqab? Well, it can signify several different types of covering; however the photographs displayed most often tend to be similar to the one above.

Below is a more accurate and concise cartoon illustrating the varying forms of head scarf possibilities found amongst women of Muslim faith and culture.

As evident, these forms reveal extremely divergent possibilities, the hijab resembling a scarf a stylish French coquette might wear, or a camel herder in the deserts of North Africa. The burqa and niqab remain the most severe of the forms, and they are also likely to be the least glimpsed in Western countries.

Why has the niqab provoked such a firm and absolutist response in France? Particularly if its usage is so rare?

Why is the right to wear hardly any clothing at all unquestionable? While the right to cover oneself completely must be forbidden?

Photographs such as this are easily found on the Internet, and are often the illustrations provided for news articles detailing the legislation. Undoubtedly, this kind of picture is extremely provocative: it begs for a response. But why must the response be outrage? The juxtaposition is so stark between the two women, that the differences appear absolute. The figure on the right remains completely unknowable, while the figure on the left appears more easily understood. Wherein lies the fear? That the woman underneath the niqab remains completely unseen, rendering any interpretation of her as woman unknowable? Is this removal from interpretation a sign of her difference, her otherness, her dangerousness, her non-Westernness? And, would legally preventing her from donning the niqab render her safe for interpretation after all? Where do her needs and desires fit into the Western framework of femaleness and citizenry?

p.s. as of May 11: I recently received a comment from a reader stating that Western countries have become “too tolerant” in their allowance of religious practices such as those represented in this posting. I couldn’t disagree more. You cannot proclaim the wonders of your democracy in one voice, and with another voice dictate just what forms of religious and cultural plurality you will or will not allow.  This does not make sense–democratically, logically, demographically, politically, or philosophically.

Further, the notion that various forms of  undress are completely allowed and encouraged, while the form of absolute covering must be completely prohibited is contradictory and hypocritical: a feminist and democratic red herring.


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