As the National Assembly in France votes to ban the niqab in public places, Syria has quietly banned it in schools; according to some sources this will force 1200 women out of their jobs.
The French ban is the bitter fruit of Sarkozy’s debate on ‘national identity’, a euphenism for an increasingly racist discourse on what ‘means’ to be French. The subject of identity is so complex and personal that attempts to define and categorise it are, in my opinion, meaningless and ultimately insulting. Questioning someone’s sense of belonging to a country, whether they choose to cover their face or not, is redundant. What do such questions even mean? By trying to set parameters for being French, or British, or Syrian, or Iranian, we are delegitimising anyone who does not fit such parameters exactly, no matter to what extent they feel French, or British, or Syrian, or Iranian. It is a government trying to assert control over something intimate and difficult for an individual to determine, never mind a state or a law. The same thing can be seen in Britain; a hysterical scramble to label things as British, to celebrate British things simply for the virtue of them being British. It’s unclear what the aims of such moves are; trying to manufacture a sense of cohesion? That’s all very well, but when you try and manufacture cohesion by legislating against freedom of expression, you alienate those who previously had felt a part of society.
Xenophobia sanctioned by law is still xenophobia. The kneejerk reaction to the niqab, that it is threatening, that it creates barriers, is specious and reflects on the viewer rather than the viewed. People create barriers around them by all sorts of means; an England flag shaved into your head, excessive facial piercing, a designer handbag, all can be regarded as obstacles to cohesion. The niqab ban is indicative of a rise in anti-Islamic feeling, of demonising the Muslim ‘other’ as menacing and in need of subjugation to Western norms. The French immigration test for ‘assimilation’ to French society specifies two criteria: command of the language and a clean criminal record. Leaving aside the fact that these two may not apply to many French citizens, they seem fair. Assimilation should be judged on things that all society holds equal. Niqab-wearing women may speak fluent French and never have committed a crime, and now they are to be criminalised. Only one French depute voted against the ban; it passed in near unanimity.
The Syrian ban is part of the government’s movement to clamp down on signs of Islamism. The Syrian government is Alawite; Alawite women often do not wear any head covering, and the wearing of the niqab can thus be seen as a sign of subversion. The practice of full veiling is not particularly common in Syria, yet this will still have an impact on the lives of women and girls who are involved in the education system. The ban is particularly interesting for its lack of publicity; it was passed fairly recently but barely made the news. This is probably because, unlike the ban in France, it does not have this baggage of the ‘national identity’ debate and all the politics of xenophobia and Islamophobia that comes with it. Yet both measures restrict freedom of expression to serve the purposes of state interfering in its citizens’ lives. Furthermore, both apply to such a minority practice as to make them seem deliberately targeted and thus especially unfair.