Sex and religion are at it again. French president Nicolas Sarkozy is proposing to ban women from wearing the full Islamic veil because it “hurts the dignity of women and is unacceptable in French society.”
But this is no more about women’s dignity than the invasion of Iraq was about liberating Iraqi women (though the Bush administration didn’t hesitate to use that as one of their many false rationales for war).
Sarkozy’s logic is so badly skewed that it looks like yet another fit of Islamophobia, cynically using women’s rights as the excuse.
Any woman who’s ever tried on a vintage hat with a veil falling from the brim knows the sexy feeling that comes from being half hidden. But that’s a far lipstick-feminist cry from the full ultra-orthodox Islamic veil — the niqab, which leaves only the eyes uncovered, or the burqa, which has a mesh screen over the eye slit. These literally make women invisible. Or in France, it seems, all too visible.
Yet why exactly is such veiling so abhorrent it requires a law to ban it?
Veiling has been used throughout the centuries as a means of keeping women second-class citizens, and not solely in Islam. It was only narrowly avoided in Christianity — Saint Paul wanted it adopted for all early Christian women. And women hiding their hair with variants on headscarves is a sign of piety in orthodox Judaism and Christianity (think nuns) as well as in Islam.
Yet the Bible doesn’t call for veiling. And neither does the Quran. What it actually says, in Sura 24, verses 30-31, is as follows: “Tell believing men to lower their glances and guard their private parts… And tell believing women to lower their glances and guard their private parts… and let their headscarves fall to cover their necklines.” Basically, if you’ve got it, don’t flaunt it.
It takes centuries of ultra-conservative clerics to turn a call for bisexual modesty into a sexist straitjacket.
But does that mean a western government should punish women for refusing to conform to social norms? How is that different from punishing women for refusing to wear the veil in authoritarian Islamic regimes like Saudi Arabia or Afghanistan under the Taliban?
Does this mean France might consider banning other items of women’s clothing? Ban women from wearing pants, for instance? Where exactly do “dignity” and “acceptability” start and end, and in whose eyes? If a woman chooses to cover her face, that’s her decision to make, just as it is if she chooses to bare her midriff. Either way, government intrusion is objectionable.
Ah, but there’s also a security reason for the proposed new ban, adds Sarkozy’s spokesman. We need to be able to see people’s faces at airport security checkpoints. But then why not simply require that people uncover their faces for security screening? Why go full tilt at the full veil?
By adopting such legislation, France will only move itself toward a mirror image of Saudi Arabia. Bare midriffs banned here, full veils banned there. And women, once again, just pawns in the game.