The Burqa and the Political Realm

“The presence of others who see what we see and hear what we hear assures us of the reality of the world and ourselves.”

-Hannah Arendt,  The Human Condition

Over the past decade, European public opinion has roiled with controversy over the full face covering – the niqab or burqa – of Muslim women. According to a Pew Global Attitudes Survey, conducted between April 7th and May 8th 2010, the majority of citizens in France, Germany, Britain, and Spain approve of banning veils that cover the whole face. Subsequently, France and Belgium have implemented national laws that ban the full veil in public places.

Municipal bans are sprinkled across Europe as a whole. Is there an Arendtian angle on the discomfiture that one finds in Europe over the niqab and the burqa (hereafter N/B), a properly political angle that avoids pathologizing the response as simply Islamophobic or xenophobic?

Arendt claimed that the word public evokes two “interrelated phenomena”. First:

everything that appears in public can be seen and heard by everybody and has the widest possible publicity. For us, appearance – something that is being seen and heard by others as well as by ourselves – constitutes reality. Compared with the reality which comes from being seen and heard, even the greatest forces of intimate life – the passions of the heart, the thoughts of the mind, the delights of the senses – lead an uncertain, shadowy kind of existence unless and until they are transformed, deprivatized and deindividualized, as it were, into a shape to fit them for public appearance…The presence of others who see what we see and hear what we hear assures us of the reality of the world and ourselves…

The second referent of public is “the world itself, in so far as it is common to all of us and distinguished from our privately owned place in it.”

Arendt captures an idea prominent in Western traditions: the notion, both intuitive and articulated, that being visible to one another is an integral part of politics. This expectation is registered in theories of judgment (consider the role played by the “spectator” in Adam Smith and Kant’s theories of judgment) and in some of our most potent democratic metaphors: enlightenment, openness, transparency, illumination, recognition, social legibility, accountability, “publicity” and, not least, public. Liberals trumpet the virtue of the Open Society and liberalized Marxists idealize the translucent speech-situation. Socialists and radicals extol debunking, the heir of Rousseau’s crusade to remove the “deceitful veil of politeness” which conceals “fear, coldness, reserve, hate, and fraud”. Negating these images are opacity, the Dark Ages, the dark arts, dark times, heart of darkness, artifice, living in the closet, a shadowy realm, cave-like illusion,  Stygian gloom, moral blindness, the id, concealment, inscrutability, subterfuge, murkiness, obscurantism, and backroom deals – notions which variously imply various states of ignorance, menace and deceit. True, prominent French intellectuals of the last century sought to demote vision’s status in the pantheon of sensibility, while conservatives still remain attached to the “decent drapery of life” (Burke). Yet these perspectives have done little to impede the centrality of seeing within the Western, Apollonian political aesthetic.

This formulation suggests what is discordant about the N/B’s existence in the Western political space. While for its bearer the N/B may be understood as a badge of tradition and piety, from the standpoint of a constitutional pluralist citizenry it is a mode of concealment incompatible with public recognition in which visibility of face is central. The N/B denudes facial and, to a degree, vocal recognition. It standardizes human features and hence contributes to the very stereotyping that N/B wearers themselves deplore.  Faces and voices are all different, evidence of human plurality. The N/B literally effaces these variations, with the partial exception of the eyes that may sometimes be seen. The N/B also symbolically ruptures the bond of citizenship reciprocity because while its wearer can see her real or potential interlocutor, can take advantage of the visibility of others, non-wearers are denied such access.

Consider two objections to this line of reasoning.

Users of the Internet are often obscured from view and no one assumes that their being invisible is uncitizenly.  Indeed, under some definitions of politics, the internet might be considered the quintessentially modern medium of political life: informing the public of political events, orchestrating voting, requesting or inciting people to participate in demonstrations, directing attention to abuses of rule, mobilizing citizens for collective action.  Search engines like Google ever more assume traditional government functions. Its engineers claim that the company’s predictions of flu epidemics and employment trends are already more accurate than those of the Centers for Disease Control and the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Even so, in Western societies the Internet is an ancillary to public display not a substitute for it, a tool to expand communication, rather than an obstacle to constrict it. Computer webcams are employed between interactants and in web chat rooms; interviews of foreign job applicants conducted via Skype grow daily in popularity. And it is no coincidence that the world’s most prominent social networking site is called Facebook. Moreover, where Internet use takes place without face recognition (as with email or instant messaging) it typically does so reciprocally: both users are in the same position and hence issues of visibility imbalance and citizen asymmetry do not arise.

A second objection to the claim that N/B attire in public places is uncitizenly turns the tables on the author: it draws on the Graeco-Roman tradition itself, the origins of Western notions of citizenship. In that tradition, being a public person was considered a kind of theatricality in which an agent adopts a persona, a mask. But the comparison between the N/B and the persona is superficial and not only because one mask is made of cloth while another is a metaphor. In antiquity, the function of persona was not to conceal public visibility but precisely to do the opposite: to shine the light of the ­polis on the political actor, to dramatize the fact that the individual had entered the public stage and that, as such, had left the private world of intimacy so as to consort freely with his peers and deliberate on political affairs. The political persona was, then, an addition to, or rather a rupture with, private life, not a replication or extension of it, a vehicle of distinction, not a mantle contrived to expunge from public view the unique personality of the woman beneath its folds. Politics, in Western traditions, entails a split within the being that engages in it, the construction of a second self: as an equal of others who are familial strangers bound together by the common tie of citizenship; a self able to cooperate with these strangers, to “see” things from multiple points of view and be seen seeing.

The N/B, however, is not a fictive mask designed to open up its wearer to the public recognition of peers acting in concert or in conflict; it is a carapace projected into the public space, a material mask that signals exclusivity, an emblem of segmental occlusion, of what Durkheim, discussing the primacy of resemblance in tribal societies, called the politico-familial.

Nor is the N/B artificial or dualistic. On the contrary, it signifies Sharia’s total claim on the individual in all her activities, the type of claim that the public-private distinction expressly repudiates. It transpires that the classical concept of the mask and the N/B have nothing substantively in common.

These brief reflections, prompted by my reading of Arendt, are not a rationale for banning the full veil but they do allow us to think of the European response to it in a political way. Readers who are interested in the more extensive argument that Dan Gordon (UMass Amherst) and I have developed on this topic, contrasting American and European legal regimes, may wish to read our “On the Edge of Solidarity: The Burqa and Public Life,” and “From the headscarf to the burqa: the role of social theorists in shaping laws against the veil,” Economy and Society 2012 (forthcoming).

-Peter Baehr, Lingnan University Hong Kong

A Devised Truth-Morgan Green

Truth is a political construction.  Last week, two women were fined for wearing burqas in a suburb of Paris.  This was the first application of a controversial law passed in France forbidding Muslim women from covering their faces in public.  Compulsory unveiling in France creates a narrative of a homogeneous French identity. In an age of mass immigration and turmoil between Islam and the West, the veil functions as a synecdoche for Muslim dissonance.  Cultural battles are often fought through the form of the female body, though the conflict is much deeper than a thin layer of fabric across the face.  Women are traditionally the mothers, home-keepers, and face of moral society, and therefore visually represent national ideals. A cultural battle is being fought through the body of the Muslim French woman, using her image to project political truth.

The right wing political pursuits in France have encroached on women’s right to freely practice their religion. While France claims to be in favor of women’s rights and freedoms, a woman’s right to identify with her religion, a precious freedom, is now forbidden.  The choice to wear a headscarf should be personal and not legal.  Muslim women who choose to wear the hijab believe that Islam liberates and empowers them, while the image of the veil challenges the Western notion of these words.

This ban is accompanied by a great ignorance that will not be recognized until the controversy is over.  This shrouding of the truth must be dispelled in the name of human rights.  Seeing a woman fully covered from head to toe can be discomforting.  From a Western perspective the covering of ones face can be interpreted as a refusal to exist, an erasure from society, an equivalent to silence.  Muslim women cover their face in order to be modest and diminish their publicly exposed sexuality, but when out of context as in France the veil intensifies sexuality in its excessiveness. It is conspicuous, and being so visible calls more attention to Muslim women rather than less.  There is mystery and fear of what is under the veil, and this ban is an attempt to control women, more so than the veil is misconstrued to do so itself.  Save for extreme circumstances in conservative Muslim countries, women choose to wear their head coverings and are not required to do so.

The only obligatory dress code for Muslims according to the Koran is to dress modestly. The Koran actually says in Surah XXIV Light “And tell the believing women to lower their gaze and be modest, and to display of their adornment only what which is apparent, and to draw their veils over their bosom”  It goes on to describe the close relations with whom the woman can share her

adornments.  There are no specifics about the hijab or burqa.  There is no sketch or diagram.  Covering the head is a cultural and personal choice in order to identify with faith.  Muslim women wear the hijab to feel connected with their faith and with their community, as well as to distinguish themselves from Western traditions.  Men are    [i]not limited in their choices. This tradition is not distinctly Islamic.  There are Hasidic Jews, as well as Amish men and woman who dress in a distinctive conservative style as well.  A headscarf can even be as secular as a fashion statement as seen above on the lovely Grace Kelly! France especially recognizes the power of clothes, where being fashionable and beautiful is an expression of patriotism.

Despite these truths, it is difficult to know a person without seeing their face. However, there is a difference between the burqa, which covers the entirety of the face, and the hijab, which leaves the face exposed.  The Muslim women in France who choose to wear the full burqa are a vast minority: about 3 thousand out of a country of 62 billion.  France, the most secular country in Europe, practices a strict separation of church and state.  So why should the government ban the religious choice of a small selection of their citizens?

The projected truth of what it is to be French was discussed in an official national debate on French identity led by President Sarkozy. Sarkozy’s attempt to define the national essence encourages a false ideal that all citizens must comply with the same set of values.  Hannah Arendt also sees truth as something that applies to all men, a universal fact. However, the French government is trying to enforce a truth of the French image, while discounting the realistic diversity in their population.

According to the French government, the veil undermines national unity and threatens community. The French Right sites the preservation of frenchness as its primary objection to the veil.   The veil has also become an issue of National Security. Muslim women must be totally visible in public.  It is not safe to drive with vision obstructed by the veil. The tradeoff of these precautions is encroachment on the freedom of religion.  Moreover, Muslim women have expressed the willingness to show their faces when legally necessary as in court, or at the bank.

The subject of women’s body as a form of political debate is not unprecedented.  Catholic missionaries attempting to convert and assimilate Native American women cut off their long dark braids.  Mini skirts in the late 60’s were measured with a ruler in schools for proper length.  My mother was sent home from higschool in Austin, Texas for having yarn shoelaces that dragged on the ground. While the French claim to be protecting the equality and dignity of women, they are in fact disrespecting women’s right to choose their own religious practice.

Kenza Drider, a conservative Muslim French woman, announced her candidacy for President the same day the women were fined for wearing their veils in a town hall.  She proposes to serve all women who are the subject of political discrimination, and though she has little chance to win the election she brings up the excellent point:  How does controlling what women wear protect their rights?

When I was in the West Bank for three weeks I was asked to cover my hair, which I found unpleasant.  Covering my latest haircut or dye job: both of which  have the power to transform and reinvent self-image, felt oppressive. I wore a scarf to and from the school where I taught and quickly tore it off the moment I entered my classroom. It is part of Western culture to celebrate the beauty of the female body, which consequently means to expose it.  This is something I believe in personally, and support the celebration of the female body.  However, my mind was opened when my students told me why they love their hijabs, and choose to start wearing them much earlier than they needed to. Generally girls adorn themselves with hijabs when they begin menstruating.  They said it makes them feel like more of a woman, and they are proud to feel that way.  I had never thought of it like that, but now see that this choice is strongly cultural and connects the fashionable young ladies with their community as well as their religion.  The choice is not unlike my own to begin wearing a bra and shaving my legs during those same formative years.


The choice to wear a hijab ties a young woman to their families as a representative symbol of societal values. This is not in accordance with the Western idolization of individualism, and therefore an essential difference between our cultures. By dictating how women can dress, France is dismissing differences in culture that it should tolerate rather than control.

France’s burqa ban oppresses women by banning an essential part of their religious and cultural heritage.  The ultimate right for any individual, man or woman, is choice. France’s nationalist battle of the veil prohibits this right.  French Muslim women should not have to choose between their religion and their country because their country doesn’t view their choices as French.  Does the narrative projected by the French government ring true, or is a woman’s right to choose the universal truth?  Though the collective nationalist brainwashing can be compelling, in the end there can only be one truth.  Either France is right and the burqa condemns the countries sense of self, as well as oppresses women, or Muslim women who freely choose to wear their burqas are the more free and liberated citizens of France.  The ban exemplifies the manipulation of truth for a political purpose, using the woman’s body as an illustrative tool for change.

[1] Iranian Painter: Afshin Pirhashemi

[1] Jananne Al-Ani, Untitled, 1996

[1] Grace Kelly in To Catch a Thief 1995

[1] President Sarkozy

[1] Kenza Drider announcing her candidacy

[1] My English Class, Bard Palestinian Youth Initiative, West Bank

[1] Lisa Lyon by Robert Mapplethorpe