So, French MPs have voted to ban the burka.
We know where this story will go next. Somewhere in France, a woman will engage in a piece of civil disobediance and enter a public space wearing her veil. She will draw attention, crowds, the press. She will be asked to leave, but she will not leave. Eventually, she will be deported from the area by the gendarmerie or other state agency. Worse, someone may try to pull off the offending strip of cloth.
This event will be photgraphed and videoed by more than one person, and the footage will be on YouTube within the hour. It will then become a staple of anti-secular propaganda, proving the intolerance of the European mind and the inherent anti-Islamic sentiment sweeping the West.
Some might suggest that my worries about this inevitable end-point are purely pragmatic. They might agree that the new French law is counter-productive in the PR war against fundamentalist Islam… but then go on to argue that sometimes, the right decisions are not popular and that we cannot allow short-term realpolitik to trump the principle of the thing.
Here, I have to disagree. I think that the question over policing what people wear is the principle at stake here. Dictating dress codes is an incursion on an individual’s free expression. If we condemn a misogynistic religion or a patriarchal culture when it proscribes what women wear, then how can we support a government that intervenes (and sets prohibitions) in precisely the same arena? It is appalling.
I often hear the argument that women who wear the veil are “brainwashed”, an assertion that certainly makes sense to me.1 But such a claim is unfalsifiable, impossible to verify. It is therefore a useless and illegitimate argument to put forward in the political arena, and not a good enough reason to legislate. If we are truly convinced that brainwashing has taken place, then we must engage in “reverse-brainwashing”, putting forward alternative arguments, explaining the theory and the history of patriarchy, in the hope that people make different choices. We might begin by discussing the value of facial expressions in communication, while taking an honest look at the idea of the “male gaze” and the undoubted objectification and sexualisation of the female form that is endemic in all cultures.
This is a longer and more frustrating approach, but far better than one which says that you are empowered by being criminalised. Unfortunately, such long-term thinking rarely appeals to politicians, who favour the heavy-hand of legislation over deeper, cultural approaches. A burqa ban is also a convenient dog-whistle for the far-right groups, who mainstream politicians are happy to pander to at the expense of a minority with no discernible political power.
If the burqa and the niqab are oppressive to women, then the only people who can shrug off that oppression is the women themselves. Ripping off that ‘oppression’, by force and at a time of our own choosing, does not look like liberation at all. It merely substitutes one form of dictatorship for another, returns no autonomy to the women themselves, and unwittingly endorses intolerance. The philosopher Alain Badiou has a great formulation:
Basically put: these girls or women are oppressed. Hence, they shall be punished. It’s a little like saying: “This woman has been raped: throw her in jail.”
1. One might also suggest that women who wear too little are similarly brainwashed. After all, are they not persuaded to do so by the diktats of the celebrity gossip magazines?