In Your Face
French attempts to outlaw the burqa strike a blow for the rights of women.
The French legislators who seek to repudiate the wearing of the veil or the burqa —whether the garment covers "only" the face or the entire female body—are often described as seeking to impose a "ban." To the contrary, they are attempting to lift a ban: a ban on the right of women to choose their own dress, a ban on the right of women to disagree with male and clerical authority, and a ban on the right of all citizens to look one another in the face. The proposed law is in the best traditions of the French republic, which declares all citizens equal before the law and—no less important—equal in the face of one another.
On the door of my bank in Washington, D.C., is a printed notice politely requesting me to remove any form of facial concealment before I enter the premises. The notice doesn't bore me or weary me by explaining its reasoning: A person barging through those doors with any sort of mask would incur the right and proper presumption of guilt. This presumption should operate in the rest of society. I would indignantly refuse to have any dealings with a nurse or doctor or teacher who hid his or her face, let alone a tax inspector or customs official. Where would we be without sayings like "What have you got to hide?" or "You dare not show your face"?
Ah, but the particular and special demand to consider the veil and the burqa as an exemption applies only to women. And it also applies only to religious practice (and, unless we foolishly pretend otherwise, only to one religious practice). This at once tells you all you need to know: Society is being asked to abandon an immemorial tradition of equality and openness in order to gratify one faith, one faith that has a very questionable record in respect of females.
Let me ask a simple question to the pseudoliberals who take a soft line on the veil and the burqa. What about the Ku Klux Klan? Notorious for its hooded style and its reactionary history, this gang is and always was dedicated to upholding Protestant and Anglo-Saxon purity. I do not deny the right of the KKK to take this faith-based view, which is protected by the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. I might even go so far as to say that, at a rally protected by police, they could lawfully hide their nasty faces. But I am not going to have a hooded man or woman teach my children, or push their way into the bank ahead of me, or drive my taxi or bus, and there will never be a law that says I have to.
There are lesser objections to the covered face or the all-covering cloak. The latter has often been used by male criminals—not just religious terrorists but common thugs—to conceal themselves and make an escape. It has also been used to conceal horrible injuries inflicted on abused females. It is incompatible—because of its effect on peripheral vision—with activities such as driving a car or negotiating traffic. This removes it from the sphere of private decision-making and makes it a danger to others, as well as an offense to the ordinary democratic civility that depends on phrases like "Nice to see you."
It might be objected that in some Muslim societies women are not allowed to drive in the first place. But that would absolutely emphasize my second point. All the above criticisms would be valid if Muslim women were as passionately committed to wearing a burqa as a male Klansman is committed to donning a pointy-headed white shroud. But, in fact, we have no assurance that Muslim women put on the burqa or don the veil as a matter of their own choice. A huge amount of evidence goes the other way. Mothers, wives, and daughters have been threatened with acid in the face, or honor-killing, or vicious beating, if they do not adopt the humiliating outer clothing that is mandated by their menfolk. This is why, in many Muslim societies, such as Tunisia and Turkey, the shrouded look is illegal in government buildings, schools, and universities. Why should Europeans and Americans, seeking perhaps to accommodate Muslim immigrants, adopt the standard only of the most backward and primitive Muslim states? The burqa and the veil, surely, are the most aggressive sign of a refusal to integrate or accommodate. Even in Iran there is only a requirement for the covering of hair, and I defy anybody to find any authority in the Quran for the concealment of the face.
Not that it would matter in the least if the Quran said otherwise. Religion is the worst possible excuse for any exception to the common law. Mormons may not have polygamous marriage, female circumcision is a federal crime in this country, and in some states Christian Scientists face prosecution if they neglect their children by denying them medical care. Do we dare lecture the French for declaring simply that all citizens and residents, whatever their confessional allegiance, must be able to recognize one another in the clearest sense of that universal term?
So it's really quite simple. My right to see your face is the beginning of it, as is your right to see mine. Next but not least comes the right of women to show their faces, which easily trumps the right of their male relatives or their male imams to decide otherwise. The law must be decisively on the side of transparency. The French are striking a blow not just for liberty and equality and fraternity, but for sorority too.
Christopher Hitchens (1949-2011) was a columnist for Vanity Fair and the author, most recently, of Arguably, a collection of essays.
Photograph of woman wearing a niqab veil by Alain Jocard/AFP/Getty Images.