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Takin’ it to the Streets: Is France's Niqab Ban Street Harassment?

One typical victim-blaming justification of street harassment goes something like this, "What did she think would happen when she went out wearing that?!" The logic underlying such a comment seems to be that the only women who are groped, ogled, or verbally accosted on the street are ones who choose to buck social norms of modesty by improperly displaying their sexuality—and the conclusion that follows this strain of logic is that there is no other possible reading by the men who observe this type of "non-normative" behavior than to perceive it as an invitation for all types of commentary and conduct, from the annoying to the illegal. Many feminists are all too familiar with this wrongheaded sentiment when it comes to sexual violence and harassment, but the news out of France recently has caused me to consider its relevance to another gendered freedom, or rather lack thereof, in France: the state prohibition of Muslim women wearing the niqab in public.

At its core, street harassment is about denying people equal right and access to public space as a result of their (perceived or actual) gender identity, gender expression, and/or sexual orientation. As if this definition weren't complicated enough, its simplicity fails to clearly identify the ways gender identity, gender expression, and sexual orientation are influenced by a myriad other factors that contribute to our gendered and sexual identities: race, ethnicity, religion, immigration status, and nationality, to name a few. In France, all these things collide in the now worldwide debate regarding the newly enacted law passed by the conservative French government that bans women from wearing the niqab in public spaces.

As of April 11, 2011, writes journalist Angelique Chrisafis, "any Muslim woman wearing a face veil is now banned from all public places in France, including when walking down the street, taking a train, going to hospital or collecting her children from school. Women in niqabs will be effectively under house arrest, allowed only inside a place of worship or a private car, although they risk being stopped by traffic police if they drive." This new law is an example of what happens when secularism goes awry and should be seen as an important women's rights issue—an infraction of this group of female citizens' right to public space—as opposed to merely seeing the niqab as a symbol of gender oppression.

The niqab ban is also an anti-immigrant attack on a very small female minority in the country, as fewer than 2,000 women in France are thought to wear the veil. (Which begs the question: why bother ban it at all?) This anti-immigrant sentiment is echoed in the institutional consequence for public niqab wearing: a €150 ($215 USD) fine or citizenship lessons for those caught violating the law. The assumption being that any Muslim woman wearing niqab isn't well versed enough in what it means to be a "real" French citizen, and therefore needs instruction on how to properly be French. Clearly, outward displays of religiosity are not what "good" Frenchwomen do—and who cares if marginalized groups don't have equal access to public space or, conversely, aren't allowed to dress as they please?

An additional complication is that the ban has increased hostility toward niqabis in public places. One woman told the New York Times, "Before, on the street, I got only stares. But now people look at us as if we had killed their mothers." Documentarian Naima Bouteldja added, "Most of the women confront verbal abuse on a daily basis."

The street harassment bells should be ringing clearly for you now if they weren't already.

"The street is the universal home of freedom and nobody should challenge that so long as these women are not impinging on anyone else's freedom," says Rachid Nekkaz, a Muslim property dealer. "I am calling on all free women who so wish to wear the veil in the street and engage in civil disobedience." Reading Nekkaz's call, I was reminded of the SlutWalks cropping up across North America, and I wonder if any activists in France are taking such steps of solidarity. (If you are, please tell us about it in the comments!)

Here's the thing about identity and freedom: if you want the latter, you've got to embrace the former in all its diverse forms. Because if you don't, people will find ways to resist going down the slippery slope of assimilationist confinement. Aside from being defiantly arrested in public protest of the law, Muslim women in France are turning to more creative forms of resistance, such as wearing medical face masks while claiming it as a protection from illness. In some ways this is an apt metaphor for the unjust ailments they are being made to endure at the imposition of their government and fellow citizens.

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Comments

22 comments have been made. Post a comment.

What needs to be understood

What needs to be understood is that not all women are forced to wear the veil. There are great number of women around the world who are CHOOSING to wear it, some even going against familial requests, as a sign of respect and solidarity. Making a blanket assumption is just as dangerous and idiotic as making a blanket generalization.

What kind of choice is that..

I don't think the veil should be banned, but I also don't believe it helps for more people to begin wearing it out of solidarity either. The choice to wear a veil is a loaded one, as it is a choice founded in an ideology that explicitly subjugates women. The subjugation of women was invented before the veil, so the veil can only reflect that fact even if the wearer chooses freely to wear it. So really, attacking the veil as simply an object is futile against the repression of women, as it is really a symbol that can be infinitely mutated as long as the ideology persists. Its clear that the current French government is not really concerned with women's lib, but rather obstinately clinging to its glossed over vision of French culture. I'm sure that whatever the Front National envisions as a perfect France has never actually existed, and hopefully never will.

"The choice to wear a veil is

"The choice to wear a veil is a loaded one, as it is a choice founded in an ideology that explicitly subjugates women."

This statement shows two things:
1) how little you know about Islam.
2) how little you understand about the subjugation of women in mainstream culture.

Islam granted women the right to hold land, to make demands of her husband and even granted the right of Divorce centuries before the Christian Church (and mainstream culture) would grant similar rights.

In Islam the husband is REQUIRED to work and provide for his wife and cannot ask her for anything to pay for standard expenses. Anything that she earns is hers and if she chooses to give it to the husband to pay for bills and living costs then it is considered a charity. How does that subjugate women?

Women and men are expected to dress modestly and a woman's sexuality is preserved only for her husband and her husband's sexuality is preserved only for his wife. How does that subjugate women?

Women are praised in the Qur'an and Hadith as our mothers and we are expected to treat every Muslim woman as our sister if there is no other relationship tying us together. How does this subjugate women?

The first scholar of Islam was Our Mother Aishah (may Allah be pleased with her) and it is through her that a majority of the teachings of the Prophet were passed on and explained so that the next generation could understand the meaning behind the words. She was one of the first niqabis and she did so out of choice so that men would listen to her words and not be distracted by her beauty. How does this subjugate women?

Meanwhile across the world women are stripped naked and plastered on billboards to sell products of all sorts and are presented on TV to parade around in mock celebrations of beauty where they are sorted out to choose who is the prettiest and who just doesn't measure up. How does this liberate women?

Think long and hard.

Long and Hard

I should have been more specific regarding what I meant by "ideology that explicitly subjugates women", because what I meant was patriarchy in general. What I was trying to say that ideologies [including Christianity, Islam and Judaism - in alphabetical order] which are based on the subjectivity of men are bound to relegate women to the status of object.
The ways women are represented as such vary; their objectivity is apparent through use of physical symbols like certain forms of clothing. I stressed that these symbols can change, because a woman wearing a veil and a woman "stripped naked and plastered on billboards" are just two distinct reactions to the same situation, one which requires a woman to choose how she will be objectified. The "billboards" is an example of situation where objectivity is explicitly clear. The veil implies that what lies behind it is an object which must be covered/ignored in order for it to not distract men. Why should a face be considered an object? A face is a face. A human being's face.
I was aware of the way Islam has historically treated women. And that in comparison to some Christian practices, Islam has been the more progressive religion of the two. But relative to one another, neither of those religions is that radical.
What I'm talking about is this:
Is a system which requires [in the case of Islam] or expects [in the case of Christianity, etc] a man to support a woman truly capable of gender equity?
Should women be satisfied with the option to either cover their faces or be objectified? Can't we imagine a future where the subjectivity of women would simply be assumed, as is that of men? Where a woman's beauty would be as irrelevant as that of a man's?

Thanks

IsabelleA, just wanted to quickly thank you for sharing your considerations, found them very helpful to further and frame my own position towards these debates :-)

Also

Yes, and even if someone is being forced to wear it, that's no reason to make their life more difficult by making it impossible for them to go out and live their life.

Not ALL women who wear the

Not ALL women who wear the hijab or veil are forced to wear it. One of my closest friends is a Muslim and all through out high school her parents REFUSED to let her wear the hijab - they were worried about the discrimination she would face. Now that we are in university, my friend recently CHOSE to start wearing the hijab for her own PERSONAL, religious reasons. Her parents will just have to accept it.

How is forcing women to not wear the veil any better than forcing women to wear the veil?

Oppression doesn't stop oppression

If you think covering your face is oppressive then don't do it. I have many Muslim friends and some of them cover and some of them dont. Most womyn who cover are even fully aware that their religion doesn't require it, they choose to. You dont get to decide what these womyn get to wear, they do. This is like saying "oh since I think abortion is oppressive I'm going to publicly humiliate every womyn who is having an abortion so they know they better not do it."
Just like how men dont get to decide how we control our bodies, we don't get to decide how Muslim womyn express themselves with their dress. They aren't hurting anyone by covering their hair. Oppressing them just causes more oppression. Period.
I wish I could go to France with all of my covering and non covering friends and we could all just show up wearing bandanas over our faces. Solidarity french Muslim ladies!

separation & subjugation

I find the practice of separating and subjugating females with the Niqab deeply dehumanizing and damaging to all ages & genders

This is precisely what the French ban does: it separates and subjugates niqabis by relegating them to their homes and other private spheres by denying them access to public space.

On "barbarism": this sentiment is steeped in racism and Islamophobia. We can debate this issue without this brand of value judgement. (Kelsey, can we please flag this post as needing to be monitored especially closely for comment policy infractions?)

Moderating this thread...

Thanks everyone for jumping in and commenting on this thread! Please keep our comments policy (linked to in Mandy's comment above and my signature below) in mind when leaving comments. Comments that violate our policy will be removed.

(FYI, I hid the above comment that Mandy's referring to that suggests women who wear the niqab are "barbaric.")

____________
Kelsey Wallace, contributor

Ask me about our Comments Policy!

Thanks Kelsey!

I appreciate your swift response! :-)

Just a Band-aid.

While I agree that the niqab is incredibly misogynistic and dehumanising, banning it isn't a thorough solution to the deeper problems it represents. Banning the niqab is treating the symptom, not the cause. Outreach and education are the ways to get at the roots of the niqab problem.

Why take away the choice from

Why take away the choice from them? How is covering one's face with a cloth, willingly, comparable to genital mutilation? I am a muslim woman from an Islamic country. While I do not wear a hijab or a niqab, there shouldn't be laws banning me from wearing what I want, for my own reasons.

Forcing someone to do

Forcing someone to do something they don't want to is wrong. Forcing all women to wear a veil without regard to their feelings is wrong, and forcing women to NOT wear a veil without regard to their feelings is also wrong. If a woman prefers to cover her hair/face, then she should be allowed to do so if that's what she feels like doing. Many women who have worn a veil for much of their lives feel uncomfortable without it (this was the case with a school friend of mine, who felt awkward without her scarf).

I think it's wrong to deny anyone the right to express their spirituality or lack thereof. I don't think it helps anyone, for example, to ban religious symbols in schools. Instead of banning everything in the name of equality, shouldn't we be celebrating everything?

I think the french for "veil"

I think the french for "veil" is "voile", many women are wearing a veil, and there's no problem about that except in schools, because in France they are suppose to be religion free, the students don't have the right to wear visibles signs of their religion. The problem with the niqab or the burqa according to the government, is the fact that the face in hidden. I think these women have the right to be as they want to be as long has it doesn't disturb anyone. The only problem i see is when it's in the administration, i've been working for visas and we had to put a woman in charge of them because they refused to show their faces to a man even if it was to see if the woman on the picture and the woman under the burqa was the same.

"an ideology that explicitly subjugates women"?

I am a Muslim convert and a feminist, and I have no trouble reconciling my feminist ideology with my religion. In many ways Islam is less misogynist than Christianity. Just because some Muslims subjugate women does not mean that is the intent of Islam itself. The Qur'an is very clear about men and women being equal in God's eyes. If you'd like to know more, please read my blog, I, Muslimah (http://muslimah.femagination.com) or my feminist blog, Femagination (http://www.femagination.com). Both have many posts about gender roles in Islam, etc.

Great Blog

Thank-you for the links. I explained my argument above, so to avoid redundancy I won't post it again. The ban leaves a broader impact than just the relationship between Islam and Christianity. It limits freedom of expression, and that I cannot abide.

Solution!

French Niqabi sisters! I saw a video on YouTube that perfectly addresses the problem.
Instead of wearing Niqab, wear the standard hijab (which is not prohibited by this short-sighted, bigoted, misogynistic law) and then wear a SURGICAL MASK to cover your face except the eyes. It conceals just like the hijab and no one can force you to remove it since it is also for HEALTH REASONS!

Fight back!

Niqabitch!

Hey, you wanted to know about french activists who respond to the niquab ban law ? Check this out :
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2-SvxEYLFTM
Two girls made this in the streets of Paris last autumn, in sign of protest against this law. They are wearing a niqab on top but just (hmm, sluty?) shorts and heels. They tried to make fun about it and make people think "Oh what the hell, who cares what you're wearing after all ?" . It is exactly what disturbed me at first - because the law, although made by the conservatives, is supported by a large majority of people - why did people care so much ? Why do they feel it's an agression towards their integretity, freedom, or worse, identity ? Their identity must be fragile, indeed. Just another "mask" for racism anyway.

More seriously, this law has created a division in French Feminism, which is the worst part. Not only the niqab but the hijab itself are seen as symbols of women oppression. Thus emerged a very odd and scandalous feminism linked to islamophobia. Or you may call it racism in the name of women's rights. Some even say that it is the only way to be a feminist today (in France), granted that the "old problems" like sexism at work, equality of salary, abortion and even homosexuality are being solved. Caroline Fourest is a good example of this kind of "feminism". As though religious people have the exclusive corner on sexism. It just makes me sick, since I'm a feminist myself, from a muslim country, not a believer or a religious person no more, and very critical about what religion CAN do to sustain patriarchy. The voices of an alternative feminism, who cares more about what women truely desire, are being shut down. Here's a link to a website which develop this kind of alternative and honourable feminism :
http://lmsi.net/ (sorry, it's in French)

Finally, I'm most grateful to Bitch Mag and you Kelsey for taking on this issue. As always, you set an example of what a despassionate reflection should be like on these matters.

Rita

Thanks!

Thanks for your comment, Rita! However, I can't take credit for this post. Mandy is actually the author; I'm just the editor :)

____________
Kelsey Wallace, contributor

Ask me about our Comments Policy!

Well, thanks also to Mandy

Well, thanks also to Mandy then ! You're doing a great job (I get to learn a lot, and practice my English too !)

I really belive that it is not only a gender issue

Come on, I really thing that this is not only an gender issue. First I most say that I complete against with this Islamic tradition since as it is known this is not in the Coran, there are several Islamic countries and not all of the apply this rule over women. I also know and understand the strong criticizes with the French government against different immigrant groups. But I really thing that this could be a security issue. For example the bank robbery two years ago or others crimes:

http://vladtepesblog.com/?p=19249
http://www.danielpipes.org/blog/2006/11/niqabs-and-burqas-as-security-th...

It has been very famous the video of the six-years old girls who is perfectly check in an airport in USA, so what do you think that police can think about the burka or the nikab?