August 8, 2014 By MADHAVI MENON

Sociality and the burqa question

burqa 2

France may have lost the football World Cup but it has won its case in the European Court of Human Rights to ensure that no one covers his or her face in public. This verdict stems from a challenge to France’s 2010 edict banning the public from wearing religious symbols, including crucifixes, yarmulkes and burqas. It is interesting that out of this broad sweep of things to be banned, it is only the burqa (and the niqab) that have generated controversy. Proponents of France’s stand insist that everyone’s face should be seen for reasons of security, equality, and sociality. Opponents argue that this universalising imposition of the French Revolution’s Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité in relation to public dress undermines an individual’s right to practise his or her religion.

The European Court rejected France’s claim that the burqa diminishes gender equality. It also rejected the idea that faces should be uncovered in the interests of public security. Both these are significant rejections that go against popular perceptions that equate Muslims with terrorists. So effective is a particular brand of propaganda in the world today that the very notion of a woman covering her head and face has come to be synonymous with conservatism and understood as the opposite of modernity. An uncovered face is taken to mean modern and honest; veiling is seen as deceitful.

Sociable behaviour

The Strasbourg court’s judgment, while quite advanced in its rejection of a surface analysis of women’s rights, and quite nuanced in its refusal to equate “safety” with a lack of face covering, was unable to resist the allure of sociality. Its 15-2 majority ruling was able to accept the French government’s assertion that an unveiled face in public is one of the “minimum requirements of life in society.”

Now this is an interesting turn. This is not about women’s rights, gender equality, or public safety. The new game in town is sociality. People cannot cover their faces in public because this adversely affects the requirements mandated by society about what counts as sociable behaviour. As the judgment states: “A veil concealing the face…breach[es] the right of others to live in a space of socialisation which [makes] living together easier.”

In a meditation a few years ago on the eve of France’s 2010 ban on the public display of religious symbols, one of France’s leading philosophers, Alain Badiou, mused on an occurrence that used to take place with some frequency in Paris: he and a veiled woman passed one another on the street. Why, Badiou asked, should it make any difference to him that she was veiled, or to her that he was unveiled? Why is difference so dangerous that it needs to be legislated against? What would it mean to be indifferent to differences of dress and gender and religion and race and ethnicity in the sense of not using any of these as the basis on which to pass laws?

Badiou did not have an answer to this important set of questions, but that has not stopped the French government and the Strasbourg court from coming up with their own glib ones. This difference, they claim, is important because it interferes with sociality. In such a reading, an unveiled face is the sine qua non, that without which socialisation cannot take place. If you cannot see a face, then you cannot be social.

Let us take this argument further as Thomas More did in his 16th century satire, Utopia. Following the logic of unveiling to its extreme, More argued strongly that people should not get married without seeing each other naked. If you have not seen someone’s body, he asked, then how can you pledge troth to the person? Full nakedness for More was the index to people’s souls — you only get to know who they are once you see them in flesh. Nowadays, of course, we have laws in place against such display — you cannot be seen in public without clothes on. Indeed, nudity is considered anti-social behaviour.

What constitutes sociality?

So what constitutes sociality for whom, when, and where? Who gets to decide what is and what is not social behaviour? When did seeing someone’s face become the definition of sociality, a definition that is hard not to be seen as being religion-phobic? If a veiled face withholds the sight of a face, then what about the many other modes of withholding that we regularly utilise when in public? Not speaking clearly? Not speaking at all? Not telling the truth? Pretending all is well when it might not be? Why is sociality physical, and why is physicality religiously coded? Does an uncovered face translate into a good, non-Muslim human being? And does the Strasbourg judgment encode non-Muslim as good?

When these questions are assumed to have glib answers rather than being taken seriously as questions, then that is when religious phobia becomes law. Perhaps we should consider legislating about open minds instead?

(Madhavi Menon is professor of English at Ashoka University, Haryana.)

Published by The Hindu on 6, August, 2014


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