One day in London, a few years ago, I was approached on the street by a woman dressed head-to-toe in black. Literally head-to-toe: All that was visible, aside from black cloth, was her eyes. I was a bit unnerved: For those of us raised in societies where this kind of dress is unusual, it’s peculiar not to be able to see someone’s face and mouth.
“Excuse me,” she said, in a British accent.
Ingrained norms of politeness trumped my uneasiness. This was before the era of ubiquitous smartphones: she asked me the way to the train station.
Afterwards, I thought over this tiny interaction. I thought how, if one is wearing such unusual dress, simply asking directions must be somewhat frightening, since one may well be snubbed on the basis of appearing so different—a fear a member of any visible minority may have. Most importantly, I realized that this simplest of all exchanges had changed my perception of her.
The interaction forced me to confront my own assumptions. I wouldn’t have consciously thought she was menacing—my well-trained mind would have discarded that thought as a stereotype as soon as it surfaced—but if she hadn’t spoken to me, the shadow of the stereotype would have persisted below the surface, unexamined and corrosive. After speaking with her I had the profound thought: Well, even women in niqabs need directions so they can walk to the train station, so they can ride the train … just like other people.
Such interactions, and the realizations they trigger, are no more possible, legally, for the people of France.
On July 1, the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) upheld a French ban, adopted a few years ago, on wearing full-face veils in public. The court recognized that the public security justifications raised were specious: ski masks, mummers, and face-painting have never been thought to create security concerns. The court also wisely threw out the patriarchal female equality argument that dictating to adult women what they should wear only on the ultra-modest end of the spectrum (micro-shorts and halter tops are ok) protects women’s rights.
No, the court upheld the ban on the basis of the peculiar notion that it undermined the civic value of “living together.”
This was not exactly a ringing endorsement; the court criticized many aspects of the ban, including the poorly disguised racism that was part of the debate over it, and rejected almost all the justifications made by the French government. But ultimately, the court took refuge in the notion that it should defer to the French courts, so it would not interfere and strike the ban down.
“Living together” was the justification offered by France that was given credence, although according to the best estimates, there are fewer than two thousand women in all of France wearing full-face veils, so the chances of actually meeting one on the street are slim indeed.
Now that the ban is upheld, such women are vulnerable to fines if they are caught in public by the police. Since their religious beliefs require precisely that they wear the veils in public, not at home, many or most of them, rather than risk the fine, will remain at home. No more trips to the store, to drop the children at school. Definitely no working outside the home, no studying except online. No voting unless it’s online. While the growth of the internet makes possible accomplishing a great deal virtually, this is quite obviously the opposite of “living together.”
I’m more disturbed by the belief that women can’t go out unescorted by male relatives (and this belief is clearly more destructive of women’s equality) than by the belief that women should wear a full-face veil. Banning the veil in public has the perverse result of keeping those women who would otherwise go out and interact independently in deep sequestration.
Tragically, the ban precludes precisely the kind of interaction that’s the essence of real living together, living together that demystifies those whose differences may not be so profound after all. By the ECHR’s logic, an essential element of “living together” appears to be that people should be protected from having to see different styles of dress, at least dress dictated by deeply held beliefs (all kinds of bizarre garb goes without notice by politicians when it’s part of a stunt).
I have personally recoiled on occasion from people with major facial piercings, and one might indeed wonder “Who would do that to themselves except under coercion?” I’m sure that facial piercings are a lot more common in Europe than full-face veils, but by now I’ve seen enough that I’m hardly surprised, and punks (or whoever they are) are not a group that arouses unease in secular countries, so the question of dictating what they do to their faces has never come up.
Women who wear the veil are being victimized because they are, for many, at least subconsciously, symbolic of something viewed as big and scary: Islamic extremism. No matter that Muslims, including a few women covering their faces, have been present in France for centuries. (It wasn’t scary before). Naturally, advocates of the French ban deplore the requirements, in certain countries, that women dress in one way or another to conform with local notions of Islamic dress, and the French ban can be understood as a type of tit-for-tat, French politicians (a majority of them male, of course) serving up a metaphorical “Take that! We’ll show you what intolerance is.” What the ban shows best is that in France, secularism now has this key feature of a state religion: as the justification for legal restrictions on how women dress.