Three hypotheticals and an actuality
Scene: A woman walks home from a football match with her team’s colours round her neck. Another woman, older, must be a fan of a different team, comes up to her. Yells at her. Slaps her. Scratches her. Eventually, rips the scarf off and throws it away.
Response: The second woman gets a fine and maybe a short prison term for assault. Other fans of the assaulter’s team distance themselves quickly. “Not all of us are like that.” The club might make an official statement. Pundits talk about the beautiful game, and lament that what should be a source of entertainment and shared celebration ends up in violence. The papers rush to condemn the whole thing, with probably a bit of class-shaming about Those People, They’re So Violent thrown in for good measure. Everyone is extremely clear that this is assault, this is a bad thing.
Scene: A woman walks down an Ulster street in a Union Jack T-shirt. Another woman comes up to her. Yells at her, slaps her, scratches her face. Rips the shirt. It’s violent. It’s nasty. The victim ends up leaving Ireland.
Response: The second woman gets a fine and maybe jail. The Secretary for Northern Ireland or somebody makes a statement. Probably the Republic government does as well. Maybe some church figures decry the business. There is discreet reference to the Troubles and the ongoing tension, but the emphasis is wholly on the point that whatever the history, this is still wrong. The papers practically boil over with accusatory headlines about “sectarian violence” (I don’t believe I’ve ever seen the word ‘sectarian’ outside of reports on the situation in NI.) The few people who go on about how either she had it coming (for being a Brit) or she had it coming (for dressing like that in that part of town) get shouted down as the extremists and victim-blamers they are. This is assault. This is wrong.
Scene: A European woman walks down the road in the United Arab Emirates wearing a crucifix. Another woman comes up to her, yells at her in a language she doesn’t understand, hits her, ends up ripping the crucifix off. The victim ends up leaving the country.
Response: Quite probably, the assaulter gets a fine and/or some other punishment: assault is illegal pretty much everywhere. However, even assuming that justice got done and the culprit was punished, I can’t even imagine what the tabloid response to this would look like.
Scene: A Muslim woman walks down the street in Paris with her face veiled. Another woman comes up to her. Yells at her, slaps her, scratches her, eventually rips the veil off. The victim ends up leaving France.
Response: This is assault. This is wrong. The assaulter is looking at a fine and maybe prison. And lo, the Daily Mail gives plenty of column inches (link goes to the Press Not Sorry takedown) to the culprit’s justification for why being “irritated” with someone’s dress constitutes grounds for assaulting them, and plenty of webspace to commenters pontificating on why the criminal ‘should be given a medal’ and so forth.
Note for the sake of completeness that this happened before the French ban on face-covering clothing (including, and quite probably aimed at, the niqab and burqa) came in. (And, in any case, a crime is still a crime whether or not the victim was themself a criminal. And the French sumptuary law is a horrible and repressive piece of legislation and should never have passed.)
It boggles me that anyone, anywhere, can’t grasp that assault remains assault no matter what you thought of the victim’s attire, or how offended you were by it. That people don’t grasp the hypocrisy shown by the contrast between the “OMG religious persecution!” furore when that BAE employee was asked not to wear a crucifix at work, and the gleeful welcoming of some other poor woman’s religious symbol being actually torn off.
I guess it’s only assault if the victim was one of Us. If the criminal is one of Us attacking one of Them, it’s practically a blow struck for free speech and liberty. (FYI: The last time I checked, the violent enforcement of kyriarchal norms was the opposite of free speech.) Or something.