24 May

Veiled Threats to the French Republic?

Posted By polity_admin_user

First posted 24th May 2010

I was in a shopping centre last week and my eye was drawn to the rules governing entry. Apparently the centre does not allow anything ‘which obscures the face’ including motorbike helmets, hoodies, baseball caps ‘with the peak turned to hide the face’ or anything else which makes faces less visible. Such rules are no doubt seen as reasonable anti-shoplifting and anti-terrorist measures. Of course dress codes are common at various social events and occasions such as funerals, dinners in polite society (not that I get invited to many) and lots more, but my shopping experience made me think about the significance of the human face in social interactions.

From a sociological perspective, covering the face in public, however it’s achieved, leads to a lessening of communication. Being able to ‘read’ facial expressions is something we get used to without thinking about it and in any encounter we continuously monitor other people’s faces as well as managing our own facial expressions and the impressions we give out to others. As Norbert Elias pointed out, the human face is a remarkably flexible signing board which is capable of very subtle manipulation, and communicating in this way is part of all human cultures. At the same time though, our emotional states often breach our surface demeanour and we find it almost impossible to manage the facial signing board to avoid giving our real emotions away. How many times do we listen, apparently intently, to others whilst our face gives away to them just how tedious and dull we find their words? I know this to be true just by reading the faces of students during my lectures, though hopefully not all of them.

In short, it isn’t called ‘face-to-face’ communication for nothing and covering the face partially or entirely prevents much or all of this type of communication. This can be a positive thing and certainly doesn’t constitute a reason for banning some items of clothing. There are times when we just don’t want to communicate with other people. For example, I sometimes use dark sunglasses and a hat in public to avoid making eye contact with others and them with me, as I really can’t be bothered or don’t want to engage in conversation or interaction. Others use more subtle devices such as staring at the ground and walking quickly or talking on a mobile phone, even if it’s switched off. Avoiding face-to-face social interaction is part of what Georg Simmel called ‘urban reserve’, aimed at preserving our precious energy in densely populated cities.

Of course, for shopping centres and other public areas covered by the now ubiquitous CCTV systems, the face is central to identification and matching up live and recorded images with real people forms the basis of many criminal prosecutions. The logic of banning the covering of the face therefore seems legitimate. But how does this logic survive the adoption of dress codes based on religious belief? For instance, it is noticeable that the local shopping centre makes no mention of the burka or niqab, two forms of Islamic dress which many Muslim women wear as part of their commitment to their faith. I assume this is too sensitive an issue to deal with on a large sign at the entrance to the centre. But is there any difference between young men wearing fashionable hoodies and baseball caps and Muslim women choosing to cover the face for religious reasons? Certainly not if the issue is purely to enable facial identification on CCTV.

This polite bypassing of contentious matters of religious dress is quite typical of what used to be called ‘British reserve’, that less-than-explicit approach to establishing, monitoring and enforcing rules to avoid confrontation. No such reserve exists over in France, though, where public debate continues over proposed legislation to ban the burka and niqab in public places, with a vote in parliament due in July to settle the matter. Belgium has also moved to outlaw the burka, its Home Affairs Committee arguing that the garment is ‘not compatible with an open, liberal, tolerant society’. [See here for Belgium and other national campaigns.] In France the full burka has been banned in state schools and for public employees since 2004 as part of a general attempt to keep ‘religious symbols’ of all kinds out of public-sector employment and education. But the burka has been singled out as particularly ‘anti-French’ and President Sarkozy recently repeated yet again that ‘the burka is not welcome in France’. A parliamentary commission recently completed its deliberations, recommending a ‘partial ban’ on Islamic face veils. It suggests that face veils should be banned in schools, hospitals, state employment and on all public transport while anyone exhibiting visible signs of ‘radical religious practice’ should be refused citizenship, describing face veils as an unacceptable challenge to the Republic. The proposal includes fines for female wearers of the veil of 140 Euros with much larger ones for their husbands of up to 20,000 Euros.

By focusing specifically on religious symbols, the report is making essentially political arguments about the incompatibility of what it sees as religious fundamentalism and the oppression of women with French culture and its social ideals. Unlike crash helmets, the government argues that the burka and niqab are not freely chosen by women but are forms of dress they are made to adopt by their husbands. Hence the disparity in fines for men and women. If so, then banning them should represent liberation for women in line with foundational French national ideals of liberty, fraternity and equality. The problem of course is that Muslim women wear these items for a range of different reasons including expressing their personal commitment to Islam within a publicly secular society. [For a discussion of the various reasons why women wear the veil, see here.] Banning face veils on the basis of just one possible interpretation of their adoption means infringing the rights of others to wear what they freely choose as part of their religious life. In multicultural societies, this policy seems likely to highlight and reinforce social divisions rather than to promote better cross-cultural understanding and solidarity.

Chapter 8 covers social interaction and body language extensively and has much relevant material on face-to-face encounters. Chapter 17 can then be approached for issues of religion, particularly pp.755-7 on ‘Islam and the West’ debates. Finally, the current context of governments introducing measures for controlling the ‘new’ terrorism is described on pp.1044-6. For a discussion of the veil in Western Europe, see Christian Joppke’s Veil: Mirror of Identity

Philip W. Sutton