Saturday, 15 May 2010

Damned if you do

Christopher Hitchens wrote an article on Slate regarding the French ban on burqas. Essentially as I see it he's arguing that it's a good thing based on two basic prongs, the first being that it frees women from being forced to wear it by their families, and the second is that being able to see each others faces is something important to western culture.

However, if Amanda Hess is right in her article, "But If You're Wearing A Veil, How Will I Know That You're Smiling, Baby? then the "real" argument that Hitchens made is that he just wants to look at the faces of women.

Now I have trouble understanding what Hess wants. Is she saying the burqa, regardless of whether the woman is being forced to wear it, is ok because it prevents us dirty men from looking at their faces? Or that us blokes are to avert our gaze whenever we talk to, or even see a woman?

I suspect that it may be the latter for two reasons. The first is that Hess does not make her stance clear on the issue. In fact she doesn't seem to even consider the merits of Hitchens' argument, instead it's written off as "wrong" simply because Hitchens is a man. The second is in this passage:

In an essay condemning a cultural institution that prevents men from looking at the faces of women, Hitchens instead argues that men have an inalienable right to stare. Of course, Hitchens phrases this in gender-neutral terms—”My right to see your face is the beginning of it, as is your right to see mine”—that assumes social equivalence between the gazes of women and men. In fact, the gender-neutral approach fails to acknowledge the sexist cultural institutions that allow men to exert ownership over women’s bodies through their gaze—like street harassment and sexual objectification. When a guy passes a woman on the street and tells her to “smile, baby,” he’s asserting authority over her face, her feelings, and how she chooses to express them—or not. Those who would declare their “right” to look at women should first note the social context in which women’s faces are often examined.

(my emphasis)

The bold seems, to me, to suggest that I shouldn't dare sully the purity of a woman by looking upon her face. This, coupled with the suggestion in the previous sentence regarding "social equivalence between the gazes of women and men" seems to drive this point home. If a woman looks at me, it's ok regardless of why she's looking at me, but if I look at a woman I'm "exerting ownership over [her] bod[y]".

The underlined part is, in my opinion, completely irrelevant. Just because there are some jerks out there does not mean that all men are dirty pigs. But it does suggest that had Hitchens said that "all women should wear burqas" we would see a similar article. Now if woman wrote an article on the issue in a similar vein as Hitchens' article I get the feeling that we wouldn't be seeing an article from Hess on the subject.

I draw that conclusion (and also the title of this post) on her closing statement:

Forcing a woman to wear the veil is one way to own women’s bodies; declaring that it is your “right” to force her to take it off is just another tactic in the same vein.

If I argue that the ban is good then I'm arguing that I want to own women's bodies. If I argue that the ban is bad then I'm implicitly guilty of owning women's bodies because some women will be forced to wear the veil.

I guess any opinion that I could have on this issue don't matter to someone like Hess because either way I just want to own women's bodies.

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Just as a brief aside, my own opinion of the French burqa ban is more or less that both the French and the French Muslims (ugh, it's an inelegant way of distinguishing them but it'll have to do...) need to come to terms with different issues. The French need to accept that Islam demands followers to dress modestly and should at least allow some sort of "out", say by permitting head scarves, while the French Muslims need to accept that some assimilation is necessary and the burqa is a tradition that they will need to drop. But this is something that deserves its own blog post.

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