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The right to hide our faces

July 16, 2010

So the French are planning to pass a law banning the wearing of face-covering clothing in public, which has been framed by the politicians and commentators alike as mostly about the Islamic full-face veil. There are so many things wrong with this that it’s hard to know where to start. But let’s try.

I’m mostly going to leave the feminist angle on this particular one, not because it’s unimportant – it is extremely fucking important – but because ukenagashi (a friend), got there first and said basically everything I wanted to say and did so a lot better than I could have managed:

. . . In France, this is what it’s become for Muslim women. Every morning they put on not clothes, but a political statement. No matter what they wear. How can you please everyone? You only have one body to clothe. And fuck, what about pleasing themselves? That didn’t even come into the cartoon. The girl’s choice didn’t matter – it was all about whether she was going to acquiesce to the rules of her religious leader, her schoolteacher, the politicians who govern her country, or whether she was going to flout them.

Extending that to the entirety of public life is nothing short of… I don’t even know a word for it. I can’t even imagine it. Non-Muslim women often complain that our clothes send a statement, and God knows I’ve had times where I’ve stood in front of my wardrobe thinking desperately How can I not send the wrong signals? How can I appear a completely non-sexual being? and that sucks. That sucks a lot. But that’s nothing compared to adding a strong religious force like Islam and a strong secular element like France into the mix.

Go and read the whole thing – it’s amazing. I’ll wait.

Back? Cool.

According to the BBC, the proposed text of the bill makes no mention of Islam or veils at all; it’s a general ban on the wearing of face-covering garments in public. Rather like the Arizona immigration laws, the various politicians supporting the ban are pointing to the precise text of the law as justification for why they totally aren’t racist/misogynist/Islamophobic at all!!1! But when you pass a bill that, regardless of its language, is in practice only going to restrict the freedom of a particular, very small, and already-oppressed group of people, then you are, in fact, probably being all those things. (If the law passes and les gendarmes do, in fact, start arresting motorcyclists in non-transparent helmets, street performers, traditionally-minded brides and people in enormous sunglasses, then maybe I’ll take them seriously when they claim not to be racially/Islamophobically motivated. But not before.)

The whole business is a horrible stew of misogyny, Islamophobia, and racism, with a dash of classism thrown in for good measure – as another friend pointed out on Facebook, European Muslims are disproportionately poorer and less-educated than their non-Muslim counterparts, thanks in great part to said Islamophobia and racism. As the same friend summed it up, it’s “yet another example of middle-class middle-aged WASPs telling working-class brown girls what they can and cannot put on their own bodies”. (I’d link, but Q doesn’t have a blog yet. I’m trying to talk him into it, though.)

The Islamophobic, racist and misogynist nature of this proposed law has been covered in a lot more depth elsewhere (Tasha Fierce guesting at Feministe has another good take), so I’m going to move on to two things that I don’t think has been touched on much in their own right, despite coming up tangentially in almost every article about this I’ve read. One is civil liberties; the other is anonymity.

Because this law is popularly perceived – probably accurately – as directed at a very specific case, people have concentrated on the specific issue of the veil. But stated in broader terms, its possible ramifications become clearer: the French government is proposing to get involved in what its citizens do or do not wear. If a woman’s husband saying “You must veil your face” is abusive and wrong (and I think it is), how is the state saying “You must not veil your face” any better? It’s a gratuitous and authoritarian abuse of state power, and one that has the potential to set a precedent for really unpleasant shit further down the line.

Most of us in the West are not old enough, and are fortunate enough never to have been in the position, to have ever had to comply with sumptuary laws – the technical term for government legislation (as distinguished from private organisations’ rules) regulating manner or type of dress. The only likely exceptions I can think of are Holocaust survivors, and that alone should tell you something about the history of governments restricting what their citizens wear.

The yellow star that the Nazis compelled Jews to wear, and the system of similar badges for other classes of victim, is probably the most recent example of sumptuary-law enforcement in Europe. Go back further, however, to the Middle Ages, and you find similar laws all over the place, mainly designed to ensure that the common-born (especially those of the nouveau riche merchant class who had built a fortune rather than inherited one) did not dress above their station, in case – horrors! – they were mistaken for their betters.*

It should ring alarm bells that, historically and in fiction, the states that regulate what their citizens can and cannot wear are nearly all authoritarian hells, regardless of the differences in the exact regulations they impose. In Brave New World, the lower castes wear colour-coded clothes; in the dystopian RPG Paranoia, riffing on BNW, your clothing reflects your security clearance; and in The Handmaid’s Tale, the colour of a woman’s dress reveals her designated purpose – white for unmarried girls, red for Handmaids, blue for Wives, green for Marthas, and striped for the working-class Econowives, who are expected to be wife, handmaid and servant all at once. At the other end of the spectrum (as it were) from such colour-coding, you have worlds like that of THX 1138, where every member of the citizenry has the same white pyjama-like outfit and shaven head; and it’s rare to find a strongly authoritarian real-world environment (e.g. most hierarchical companies, a lot of schools, prisons, the armed forces) that doesn’t have strict rules about its members’ dress.

Usually, when a state or organisation tries to minimise the number of acceptable modes of dress, its goal is to force (at least on the surface) conformity with some ideal it sees as important. In schools and the army it’s mostly about inspiring loyalty and a sense of unity; in companies, it’s about projecting a particular corporate image. In the case of France, banning an item of dress employed solely by Muslims, it looks suspiciously like an attempt to force French Muslim women closer to a Western secular norm, in the name of integration. The ruling from a few years back banning religious wear in schools reeks of the same thing.

I’m indulging in hyperbole, here, to be sure. France is some distance from the kind of regimented hell that most of the real and fictional examples portray. But I don’t think it’s exaggeration to say that this an extremely dangerous precedent, because it presumes that the government banning a specific sort of clothing is an acceptable use of government power. Once it’s enshrined in law that the government has any jurisdiction at all over your wardrobe, the way is open for further interference – and there’s the potential to extend that interference out of the realm of clothing.

I’m fairly sure that this is a violation of the right to free speech. (‘Free speech’ is broader, in its legal sense, than literal speech; it also covers various forms of action and nonverbal media.) Even if you accept that the veil is innately misogynist – which is by no means a universal opinion amongst feminists, Muslims, or anywhere else – the fact remains that you are fully within your rights to be misogynist in public if that’s what you feel like doing, and that is as it should be.**

Veil-wearers incite no violence, perpetrate no dangers, by the mere act of wearing the veil, and offending people is not a crime. Except apparently to the French government it is, and you have to wonder what other avenues of potentially offensive speech they’re thinking of shutting down. Swearing in public? Unpatriotic T-shirts? Or, given that they’ve passed one censorious law in the name of protecting women, follow the UK government’s lead and ban particular kinds of porn? (It’s now illegal here to possess pornography depicting certain levels of violence, even if it was produced with the full consent of all involved.)

Against this background of authoritarianism, censorship and the massive overuse of governmental power, the assertion by the French Minister for Justice, Michele Alliot-Marie, that “democracy thrives when it is open-faced” comes across as exceptionally problematic. The literal application of this with regard to the veil is not so important, I don’t think, as the wider attitude it implies. I don’t know that Ms Alliot-Marie has thought what she’s saying all the way through, and I kind of hope she hasn’t, and will clarify or retract the statement later; but I have a horrible feeling that she means exactly what she says.

This idea that “open-faced”ness, literal or metaphorical, is inherently a good thing follows the pattern of a bunch of recent public statements by powerful people to the effect that anonymity is only a desirable thing to people with something to hide. Notably, the founder of Facebook, Mark Zuckerberg, has defended the increasing laxness of FB’s default privacy settings with the excuse that if only everyone would be honest, there wouldn’t be a problem. And then more recently, Activision-Blizzard – the parent company of World of Warcraft – announced the advent of RealID, a system which would display users’ real names on their forums, with much the same justification.

I shouldn’t have to say that this is an attitude that’s both inherently rooted in privilege and massively, dangerously wrong. The privilege part is that it’s easy to be open with your information when you either have nobody who wants to kill you, or have the resources to make sure that anyone who does want to kill you probably can’t – both situations in which the rich, white, cis, straight, able-bodied male heads of Facebook and Blizzard are lucky enough to be. They are making the basic error-from-privilege*** of assuming that because they are safe, all their users must be as well. Which is wildly untrue.

For a start, there is not a person in this world who doesn’t compartmentalise their lives at least a bit, online or off. Would you talk the same way at work, or in front of your grandparents, as you do at home? Probably not; I know I don’t.

The idea that I should stop visiting my grandparents because they aren’t willing to put up with my normal foul-mouthed style of speech is ridiculous. We accept that we shut off parts of ourselves in certain places in order to get on with life. From there, it’s just a matter of degree. There are people who are out at university but not at home; whose bosses aren’t aware of their activism; who never told their parents about that trip to hospital; who have never told their ex that he fathered a child; and on and on and on. Most of these decisions Not To Tell are taken for very good reasons involving not being disowned, losing your job, and dying.

Not Telling on the Internet, what with the Internet being a lot like real life really, tends to come from the same places.

Anonymity lets people say things on the Internet that they would never dare say in real life. Bigots say the bigoted things they always wanted to; but people can be their real selves – politically and religiously, be queer, trans, kinky, whatever – behind the shield of anonymity when doing so “open-faced” would lose them their job, their family or even their life.

Anonymity enables people to vote for what they believe in, without the fear of reprisals afterwards. It enables whistle-blowers and witnesses to see justice done without fearing for their jobs or lives.

Anonymity interrupts the imposition of hierarchies. Every hierarchy in the world relies on being able to punish those who break the rules – but you can’t punish them if you don’t know who they are. Thanks to CCTV, if you go out in public without your face covered, they probably do know who you are. The potential intersections of this law with the increasing levels of surveillance in France and elsewhere are . . . nasty.

Anonymity is a precious, precious thing, and the idea that we should all be required to uncover our metaphorical faces should be met with horror. Control over one’s personal information, like control over one’s physical person, should and must rest with the individual. Depriving anyone of the right to hide their face is a step onto a very slippery slope indeed.


*The common feature of the Nazis’ badges and the various medieval attempts to maintain class hierarchy through clothing is the idea that the state has an interest in making sure that people look like what they are, as opposed to letting social pressures get on with it. Said social pressures are mostly concentrated nowadays in respect to gender and/or sex, I think, as far as actual clothing is concerned; but the general expectation that people who differ from you in some significant respect don’t and should not look like you (and its flipside, that anyone who looks like you must share your life history and views) operates practically everywhere, with horrible consequences when marginalised people who dare to look the same as privileged people get outed. See also the ideas that only visibly disabled people can really be disabled, that transsexual people who look pretty much like cissexual people of the same sex are hideous deceivers, that everyone with lightish skin is white (and a safe audience for racist jokes), that anyone who is not right now kissing someone of the same sex must be straight . . . and on and on and on.

**To paraphrase Voltaire, I may loathe what you say, but I’ll defend your right to say it.

***This should be added to the list of errors that they teach you about in logic class – argumentum ab vacatione (argument from privilege/exemption) sounds good and formal.

19 Comments leave one →
  1. Paul Skinner permalink
    July 16, 2010 5:59 pm

    “You must veil your face” is abusive and wrong (and I think it is), how is the state saying “You must not veil your face” any better?

    Because it doesn’t just go after the women who wear the veil. In fact, they are barely punished* in comparison to what can happen to the husband who’s found demanding his wife to wear the veil. There is the possibility of a year jail sentence and a €30,000 fine.

    Plus, it’s also a little important to point out it isn’t a ban on the veil, but the full-face veil.

    Perhaps my point here is that full-face veils (including motorbike helmets, kids in hoodies and scarfs around their faces and whatever else you want) in the wrong place (i.e. a dark alley) breed fear and make identifying those who do abuse the concept of anonymity close to impossible.

    Now, I don’t agree with the law in its current wording, and I don’t for a second think it’ll get past the Court of Human Rights, but some parts of it are interesting and could be developed to be more interesting/applicable.

    As a bizarre side point that will probably end up enveloping my other more important point, I don’t completely agree with your opinion that banning clothing types is always wrong (which seems to be clear to me, but correct me if I’m wrong).
    In Germany it is illegal to display (let alone wear) a Swastika except in scholarly situations. Do you disagree with that law? If so, why?

    *I don’t think they should be punished unless they refuse to show their identity when specifically asked to. I agree fully with your views of anonymity being important.

  2. July 16, 2010 7:34 pm

    The thing is, as has been pointed out in other places, a man sufficiently abusive as not to allow his wife out without the veil (by which I always mean the face-covering version; the hijab I tend to refer to as a headscarf) isn’t going to magically change his mind because of a change in the law; it’s far more likely that women being forced into wearing the veil are now simply never going to leave the house.

  3. Seamus permalink
    July 17, 2010 1:11 am

    Completely in support, of course, of the right to wear the veil, because what on earth is the state doing deciding what people wear? As for RealID: although it is dangerous and has obvious problems, it’s one of several remedies being considered for a problem that I think needs to be solved, the problem encapsulated by the Greater Internet Fuckwad Theory (normal person + anonymity + audience = total fuckwad). People being arseholes to each other on 4chan is okay, because that’s what one goes there for, but when we’re at the point where they’re posting flashing images to epilepsy forums, phoning bereaved parents to mock them, goading teenagers into suicide… at that point, something needs to change, and forcing a person to hold to a single, definable identity on the internet would make it a lot more difficult to behave in this way. I don’t want people’s grandmothers or bosses to be able to see everything they do, but neither do I like it that people can incite serious attacks on others without fear of detection or punishment by the law. I’m not necessarily saying that RealID is the right approach; just that not curtailing the opportunities for anonymity in any way will mean that people keep getting away with these hideous, pointless crimes, and that’s something we have to be aware of.

  4. July 17, 2010 7:09 pm

    I’m absolutely honoured to be mentioned here, and floored by your intelligence and eloquence. As usual ❤

    Seriously, a big fat WORD to everything you say, and thank you for saying it.

  5. July 18, 2010 6:49 pm

    To elaborate on what I said to Paul (it doesn’t seem as clear as I meant it, looking back), if a husband is forcing his wife to wear the niqab, the problem is the abusive husband, not the niqab. Banning a specific object that can be used to abuse does nothing to address the root causes of the abuse or make it easier for the victim to get away from the abuser. The veil ban does, however, give the French government something they can point to and say “look, we’ve done something!” when asked about their record on cultural integration, women’s rights, church/state separation, etc.

    @Seamus: You’re right, of course, that holding people accountable by somehow tying their internet identity/ies to a real-world one would probably put a big dent in the amount of senseless and horrible shit that people do on the internet. On the other hand, I can’t see any way of doing that that wouldn’t be significantly open to abuse from one direction or another – any such system would have to have bank- or government-level security on it, to prevent ‘channers and their ilk from doing their normal shit and then pinning it on somebody else, and even then . . . people give their bank details out to phishers and pick easy passwords, and government workers leave their stuff on trains.

    There’s also the small point that governments commit abuse as well; if you put in place some system that allowed the police to hunt down those guilty of crimes-via-Internet, how would that work in somewhere like China? Hell, the UK has its fair share of miscarriages of justice; how would, for example, the organisers of and participants in anti-government protest be affected by having their internet IDs tied to their real-life ones?

    There’s only so much you can do when it comes to modifying the system, partly because of human error, and partly because you have to balance the ability to adequately punish the guilty with the need to adequately protect the innocent.

    @ukenagashi: Thanks!

  6. July 18, 2010 10:01 pm

    What you say is true, of course. I suppose the solution will have to involve a greater degree of moderation (in cases of virtual abuse) and guarding of information (in cases of virtual means to IRL abuse). This debate, by the way, is neatly encapsulated by Penny Arcade.

  7. Paul Skinner permalink
    July 18, 2010 11:04 pm

    I think Ctrl+Alt+Del summed up exactly what’ll happen.

    It won’t stop a single dickhead from being a dickhead.

  8. July 19, 2010 1:21 am

    All this time I had been under the impression that France was specifically banning the veil. I didn’t know it was all face-covering clothing. I was already opposed to the ban, but this is just like, wtf.

    When I read Alliot-Marie’s remark, my first thought was, “democracy is not a sandwich!”

    My main problem with legislation like this is that it purports to protect women, but there clearly has been little to no consultation with the women it’s supposed to protect. I wrote an essay about it.

    If they wanted to target men who force their wives to wear the veil, then I suspect that behaviour could be constructed as an existing offence, perhaps harassment?

  9. July 19, 2010 10:30 am

    @Paul: This may well be true. It might make them easier to track down; but (and here’s another issue) given that what the trolls are generally up to comes under the umbrella of harassment of various kinds, that half the justice system still doesn’t seem to understand what the Internet is (unless there’s paedophilia or government secrets involved), and how hard it is to get a conviction on even real-world, face-to-face harassment . . . even those who are named and shamed may never actually be punished.

    It’s certainly the case that those crimes easiest to commit via the internet (harassment, stalking, bullying, etc.) have a substantial overlap with those that aren’t taken overly seriously in the real world.

    @MarissaAO: thanks for the link! I read the essay, it sheds a lot more light on the situation that Muslim women affected by this and similar laws are actually in.

    And yes – there must be some subsection of existing harassment or domestic abuse law that could be used to help women forced to wear the veil.

  10. Seamus permalink
    July 19, 2010 8:02 pm

    This idea of harrassment law taking down men who “force” their wives to wear the veil seems rather far-fetched. It rests on the idea that Muslim women are unwilling, coerced slaves, forced into a niqab by their masters, whereas most Muslim couples consist of two people attempting to follow tradition and support each other according to their own understanding of those words. Do I like the niqab? No, as a dedicated member of the global hotpants fandom, I am not at all given to thinking that a woman’s body should be covered from head to toe. But construing every woman wearing a veil as abused? That’s crazy, and the women out there wearing that veil are not looking at things that way. As for the subsection of the law available to women forced to wear the veil, in France and other democratic nations, that’s easy: it’s in the divorce legislation. Because if one needs to take one’s husband to court to negotiate a satisfactory relationship, the marriage is fucked in any language. There’s nothing in French law to stop a woman simply walking out.

  11. July 19, 2010 8:37 pm

    I don’t think anyone was arguing that every woman wearing the veil must be a victim of abuse – just Paul pointed out upthread that one of the provisions of the law is to punish men who do abuse their wives in this fashion, and Marissa and I were speculating that there must be a law capable of covering that (particular, rare) situation already.

    I think that so far all uses of ‘forced’ have been in that specific sense, rather than implying that Muslim women as a group are forced to veil by tradition or religion or patriarchy or whatever. I certainly didn’t intend the latter implication, and I’m sorry if that wasn’t clear.

  12. ohands permalink
    July 20, 2010 8:26 am

    This is a wonderful article.

    Paul wrote Perhaps my point here is that full-face veils (including motorbike helmets, kids in hoodies and scarfs around their faces and whatever else you want) in the wrong place (i.e. a dark alley) breed fear and make identifying those who do abuse the concept of anonymity close to impossible.

    Someone else (and I would link if I could remember who) asked a very good question: is there a rash of people wearing the niqab out committing crimes the Islamophobic media hasn’t been covering?

    Frankly, if someone is going to commit a crime and wants anonymity, there’s a lot of things they can use, and they probably won’t mind breaking this law considering their committing what is probably a far worse crime at the time. And yeah, someone hiding their face in a dark alley with a scarf is scary, but then again any guy (and probably woman) I find in a dark alley is going to be scary. Just because he’s wearing a scarf doesn’t mean I think the scarf should be banned. There are other people who aren’t abusing the scarf, and use it for warmth.

    5 bucks says we will never see a law banning necklaces because women wearing crosses are all obviously also being abused. *rolls eyes*

  13. July 20, 2010 11:23 am

    @ohands: Thanks, and thanks for stopping by!

    While the various forms of veil could undoubtedly be useful for committing crimes, yeah, it does seem extremely unlikely that they are being used in this fashion or we would have heard. I don’t know what country you’re in, but here, the Daily Mail and/or Express would surely be all over even the rumour of niqab-clad criminals. (Trying to imagine the headlines. POLICE VEIL AGAIN? YOU’RE NIQD? Sadly it’d probably be more like VEILED TERRORISTS ESCAPE JUSTICE.)

    And banning things usable for the commission of crimes rarely prevents the crime altogether. Should we ban false moustaches now? Hats? Cars? As you say, scarves? (I hike my normal neck-scarf up over my face on cold days because otherwise my nose freezes. Clearly I am a criminal!) The “but people could be using them as disguises!” argument doesn’t really hold water, I don’t think.

  14. Seamus permalink
    July 20, 2010 1:45 pm

    I think that so far all uses of ‘forced’ have been in that specific sense, rather than implying that Muslim women as a group are forced to veil by tradition or religion or patriarchy or whatever. I certainly didn’t intend the latter implication, and I’m sorry if that wasn’t clear.

    Point taken.

    I don’t know about headscarfs, but an alley mugger in a full burqa would be a sight I’d pay to see. Airport security have, I think, had some issues with burqas — I seem to recall a story about a male fugitive escaping by disguising himself with a burqa — but there is a simple provision to avoid such problems, which is that, after passing through the metal detector, the woman (or otherwise) goes into a private room with one or more female members of security staff and takes the headgear off: as she is being seen only by women, there’s no Islamic custom prohibiting this and everyone’s happy. Apart from me; I’m the guy next in line taking off my size 13s and getting frisked to within an inch of my life because some part of my body appears to be metallic and always sets the blinking machine off, and all the female staff members with the gentle touch are occupied, so I’m getting roughly felt by a big man with a gun on his hip. But hey, we all have our crosses to bear. Particularly in airports.

  15. knightofthedropdowntable permalink*
    July 20, 2010 4:54 pm

    And banning things usable for the commission of crimes rarely prevents the crime altogether. Should we ban false moustaches now? Hats? Cars? As you say, scarves?

    How about balaclavas? They were actually used as disguises by Irish terrorist groups for years, but I don’t remember them being banned at all (although I might just have forgotten).

  16. Paul Skinner permalink
    July 23, 2010 5:46 pm

    To sum up:


  1. French Burqa Ban « Speaker's Corner
  2. Society. It’s like Tetris. « This Wicked Day
  3. Three hypotheticals and an actuality « This Wicked Day

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