Monday, October 18, 2010

A French Woman Tears a Niqab from a Tourist's Face

This is what happened:
Prosecutors have called for a 63-year-old French woman to be given a two-month suspended prison sentence and a fine of €750 (£659) after she admitted tearing a full Islamic veil from the face of a tourist from the United Arab Emirates.

The woman, a retired English teacher identified only as Marlène Ruby, said she was "irritated" by the sight of two women shopping in Paris in their niqabs.
"I tore her niqab off and I shouted. I wanted to create a bit of a scandal," she told Le Parisien. Her anger, she said, sprang from witnessing the treatment of women in the Middle East, where she used to teach. "I think it is unacceptable for the niqab to be worn in the country of human rights. It's a muzzle," she said.
I'm obviously against tearing anything off anyone's face or violence of any sort. But here is what bothers me: I'm not sure about the Emirates, but I know that if I travel to Saudi Arabia, I will have to don an abaya right in the airport. And as mush as I resent the idea, I would absolutely do it out of respect for the country I'm visiting. I understand that the Saudi people find my low-cut blouses and short skirts offensive. While I don't share their beliefs about the need to restrict female freedom, I don't think it's my place to defy them in their own country. If I can't put up with the humiliation of an abaya (which I can't), this means I will not be travelling to their country any time soon.

So my question is: why is it that my culture deserves less respect from niqab-wearing people? And also: why do we infantilize these people to the extent where we don't demand from them the same tolerance and understanding of cultural differences that we are prepared to exhibit when visiting their countries? If I am expected to put on an abaya in a Saudi airport, why doesn't a Saudi woman remove hers in an airport of a country where women have won - after long and painful struggles - the right not to be considered anybody's property?

And please don't mention religion to me in this context because, as everybody knows, niqab has nothing to do with Islam.

23 comments:

Vinod Khare said...

Excellent post, whole heartedly agree!

Canukistani said...

“If I am expected to put on an abaya in a Saudi airport, why doesn't a Saudi woman remove hers in an airport of a country where women have won - after long and painful struggles - the right not to be considered anybody's property?”
I don’t have a problem with what you say but Muslim women have had the right to own property since the Middle Ages. In Christian Europe, women have been virtual chattel until the end of the nineteenth century. This could be a subtext for some of the situations in Jane Austin’s books. In Quebec, women were considered chattel until the 1960s. Women's status in Mishnaic law varies from virtual chattel to full legal persons depending on the situation. A levirate widow was considered property until she married.

Clarissa said...

I absolutely have no problem with Islam. The entire first month of my Hispanic civilization class is dedicated to educating my students about the amazing contribution of the Muslim people to the world culture and the beauty of their religion.

So this is not about religion. It's about women's rights.

el said...

Isn't it more complicated since modern European democratic culture puts individual freedom and tolerance as ideals (at least, on the rhetorical level)? As it should, imo. Saudi Arabia is hardly a democracy and the example we should follow. How much should people, let alone tourists be forced to mimic dominant culture of the democratic countries they visit, which love to boast how many freedoms and rights their citizens have? Would love to read a serious post on the topic, explaining where exactly you would put the line, but Controversy section holds nothing. Yet?

Is only a Niqab a problem? The topic seems very complicated, so if there has ever been a controversy, this is one. I am all the more cynical after understanding from Israeli newspapers that France forbid burka not mainly because of loving women, but for other, political reasons. Hating the other is never far from surface and such laws have this "small" side-effect of sending a message to… the native population that it's open season on those horrible foreigners. This woman got the message that it's OK to be "irritated" by women in niqabs partly from the press, partly from such laws, partly from this human tendency to hate different people. You may be against it for feminist reasons, but the masses haven't suddenly become feminist overnight. I suspect this woman and most people against a niqab are driven by that force, which before (and sometimes nowadays) moved to harass those Jews with their different, black clothing and unchristian ways.

You said you won't be travelling to Saudi Arabia because of women's rights, but… you wouldn't be able to anyway since you're a Jew, unless you hid it very carefully. Of course, as an Israeli Jew I probably wouldn't get out of there alive at all. The veil is the least of their problems, though you could say it symbolizes all.

Googled to check and found:
http://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/jsource/arabs/saudiban.html
Visas will not be issued for the following groups of people:
• An Israeli passport holder or a passport that has an Israeli arrival/departure stamp.
• Jewish People


The same info here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Human_rights_in_Saudi_Arabia
[under Antisemitism]


Thank you for your recommendations. Read "В круге первом." Will check the other 2. Dydincev is at my library!

Clarissa said...

I can't answer at length right now because I'm exhausted after 3 long lectures, but here are some things I wrote on this subject:

http://clarissasbox.blogspot.com/2010/03/zizek-on-liberal-self-flagellation.html

http://clarissasbox.blogspot.com/2009/06/burqa.html

Allison said...

what perplexes me is if this is a womens right issue why do we simply target Islam with its use of a hijab and nijab ,when devoted orthodox Jewish women have to shave their head and wear a wig,and Catholic women are not allowed to be on birth control and even nuns have to cover their hair?

Allison said...

if it were an issue concerning women's right why does it seems that they are targeting Muslim women, when orthodox Jewish women must save their head and wear a wig and devoted Catholics are not allowed to be on birth control and nun also cover their hair?

Clarissa said...

Once again, this is not about Islam. If there are mullahs issuing fatwahs against niqabs, then it is oviously not about Islam. It's about clothing choices and ideological messages they send. Clothing is highly regulated in Western societies. Nobody is allowed to wear whatever they like wherever they go. Right? Which means we are used to regulating clothes and this should be no big deal. It is a big deal only to those who want to condescend to and patronize Muslim people with a badly digested idea of "tolerance."

geo said...

Perhaps I'm missing something, however I think that the situations aren't comparable as you state them.

"Modesty" or similar to me is different than "offensive" as concepts.

When I was at an Islamic Center they had the urinals in the men's restroom covered over because for them men are Not supposed to show their bodies while urinating.

IF I were offended that a man from an Islamic "culture" would not use a urinal elsewhere, that would be different from the situation I just described. I would expect him to respect his own beliefs and not be concerned whether he was a devout Muslim or not or whether his religion really required what he did or not.

If I was offended that a "foreigner" was "over-dressed" in a social situation, that would be different than s/he being "obscene" or "inappropriate" in a way that related to "modesty".

Many years ago when my mother and step-father joined me at a clothing optional beach, it was not "wrong" that neither took their clothes off. IF I was nude at a "normal" beach, besides the legal issue it would be inappropriate.

You are entitled to your own feelings about Hijabs and similar, just as I might take offense at many things I may see in various areas, IF I see things in a particular way. I don't see either of us being "offended" as giving us rights related to the "other" beyond for example inviting or not inviting them to our own house.

I was bothered greatly when at my aunt's (Orthodox Jewish) funeral, her daughters didn't speak, while her sons did. My feelings didn't matter. If may aunt's family had defied the customs of their culture, that would have been their issue with others present at the funeral.

Clarissa said...

But, geo, that's exactly what I'm saying. Your aunt's children behaved the way they chose in their home and during their mother's funeral, and you had to comply. If, however, somebody came into your home and only talked to you and not to your wife because he considers her a lesser human being, I don't think you would tolerate it, right?

The French woman in the story did the same thing. If she agrees to respect the Muslim woman in the Muslim woman's home, she also expects the Muslim woman to respect her in her home.

As for the modesty argument, you seem to be saying that the burqa-wearing woman suggests that I am immodest, since I don't cover up, right? That offends me because modesty is not in the clothes. It's in one's mind.

geo said...

IF the French woman had invited the Muslim woman into her Home, she could, I suppose, say: "you are only welcome if you don't were your burqa" so the woman could Choose whether or not to come.

The French woman does not "own" the streets of France. The Muslim woman is "offending" the French woman which in my mind is ok in the public sphere in which they are in. If the Muslim woman were repeatedly saying profanities at a large volume in public this would be different - a "modesty" issue (or similar).

Saying that "modesty is in the mind" is implying that All or nearly all behavior is acceptable in public. I see clear distinctions and sometimes more difficult distinctions which you evidently don't see.

You walking in the streets of the U.S. could touch upon the "modesty" constraints to the degree that you expose three parts of your body (whereas for a man there would be two). The "modesty" limits have liberalized in my lifetime in general.

You could, I think, argue that nudity should be tolerated in public in the U.S. I certainly would support such a concept idealistically, however in reality I see limits that we tend to face.

If you want to have nudity in your house, this is different. If you are at a clothing optional beach this may be similar to your house if you allow nudity.

If I were to go with you into some Orthodox Jewish Areas of the U.S. or other countries, you might feel pressures to "conform" as you might feel related to burqa's or at least having your face covered and your arms and legs covered as well.

We see this differently! To me - the absolutes are not realistic and I draw boundaries in some areas.

KT said...

I arrived late so pardon me if I say things that have already been said.

My opinion is that you have compared totally different things in this post. The issue of women's rights becomes a complicated one when you mix it with religious freedom and tolerance. (I'll try to leave another comment in the other posts about tolerance.)

Saudi Arabia - like someone said above - is hardly a good examplar of what Western, progressive societies should follow. It was built on regulating behaviour and thought - like many other oppressive governments. Your conclusion from comparing the two countries is similar to saying that "During the cold war, just because the Soviet Union oppressed everyone who lived under their laws should make the US at the time do the same to immigrants and escapees from the Soviet Union.".

Let me put it differently. Americans in China do not get access to some websites: including BBC, CNN, and Twitter among others. To use your argument, whenever any Chinese immigrant or visitor comes into the US, we should MAKE THEM use those things just to prove that we can, and we're different.

The problem with making such a case is that it erroneously equates the two systems and makes a mess of the ideals of democracy and freedom. Women's rights is all about the freedom to choose. It's important to clarify that. What Saudi Arabia does is remove that freedom to choose when people enter their country. America, on the other hand, lives off the ideal that women - while being empowered - must have the right to choose and have their choices respected. When you yank a burqua off someone's face, you take away their rights. When you put up a sign at airports insisting that immigrant moslems comply with your own laws, you take away their rights. You do more harm to women's rights than enhance it, exchanging one form of bondage for another.

It doesn't have to do with being liberal. It's being tolerant.

KT said...

But then again, you have a point. I've just taken a look at the niqab on google images. Anyone compelled to wear that by any government requires a breath of fresh air, literally. That's horrible.

Tec said...

"And also: why do we infantilize these people to the extent where we don't demand from them the same tolerance and understanding of cultural differences that we are prepared to exhibit when visiting their countries? If I am expected to put on an abaya in a Saudi airport, why doesn't a Saudi woman remove hers in an airport of a country where women have won - after long and painful struggles - the right not to be considered anybody's property?"

This has alighted me to a very interesting perspective about niquab wearing. Most discussions centre on how it's offensive to Muslims and anyone who feels differently is a racist, however as you point out, the niquab is offensive to cultures where human rights, including those of women, are valued because it represents oppression of a human being. Quite the opposite then of a racist sentiment.

While I do believe women have a right to wear the niquab if they "choose" to do so (of course choice in a culture that severely limits a women's voice and rights isn't really a free choice), there are several situations where its inappropriate. For example, in Canada there was a lot controversy here over whether niquab wearing women should be required to show their face when voting, (to confirm their identity.)

http://www.cbc.ca/canada/story/2009/06/26/veil-vote-legislation026.html

auditorydamage said...

So my question is: why is it that my culture deserves less respect from niqab-wearing people? And also: why do we infantilize these people to the extent where we don't demand from them the same tolerance and understanding of cultural differences that we are prepared to exhibit when visiting their countries?

I think your second question comes closer to the true nature of the issue - and your first mirrors the ethical error the more repressive countries are making.

The difference between an authoritarian country like Saudi Arabia and a relatively more liberal one like Canada is that a visitor from the UAE can choose what to wear in Canada without retribution or shame, instead of being forced to conform under threat of legal and/or physical punishment. Those tourists should be able to wear those niqabs as long as they wish - and should they choose one day soon to take them off, they should have the right to do that as well. Not only that, but if their male relatives try to punish them for making their individual choices, society should be prepared to step in to defend the woman's right to choose what is best for herself. Cultural practices should not be turned into legal obligations, for that is inherently oppressive and xenophobic, and it is the ethical error that makes places like Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia, Iran, the parts of Iraq under the control of theocratic forces the oppressive hellholes they are for women. It would be unfortunate for France to simply become the European equivalent of that, and I don't think the anti-niqab law will make France into a bastion of modern liberation from religious patriarchy; women simply won't be allowed to travel there, or won't be allowed to travel outside, and those women who believe they are supposed to wear a full covering won't go someplace where they are forced to remove it. However, I do think women will go places where they can wear what they are comfortable wearing (for positive or negative reasons) and know they are free to make different choices when they feel ready to do so. I will never force a woman to take off her face covering, but I will gladly encourage her to make any decision that is right for her - and I will act in solidarity with her if someone else tries to force her to do otherwise.

There are far too many people - in the Middle East, in France, and in Canada - who insist on telling women what they are allowed to wear. That's patriarchy and authoritarianism, not culture, and it has to end everywhere.

Clarissa said...

"a visitor from the UAE can choose what to wear in Canada without retribution or shame, instead of being forced to conform under threat of legal and/or physical punishment."

-Not again, seriously. Can a person from UAE or anywhere else walk around naked in Canada? Can they teach or come to work or visit Canadian acquaintances in a shirt that offends Canada? Or that praises Hitler? Or that says, "All women are nasty, vile bitches?" I guess not, huh?

I have written extensively on how there is absolutely no freedom of clothing choices in North America. There is only such freedom when we all get wimpily scared of the word "religion" being bandied about. A professor who would insist that a student remove a hoodie from their face during an exam will be terrified to ask a niqab-wearing person to do the same. How fair is that?

"women simply won't be allowed to travel there, or won't be allowed to travel outside, and those women who believe they are supposed to wear a full covering won't go someplace where they are forced to remove it."

-That will be the choice and the responsibility of those women. Do they really need you to worry about their travelling restrictions? Have they told you they do? Why such a certainty that it's your business to patronize these women?

auditorydamage said...

-Not again, seriously. Can a person from UAE or anywhere else walk around naked in Canada? Can they teach or come to work or visit Canadian acquaintances in a shirt that offends Canada? Or that praises Hitler? Or that says, "All women are nasty, vile bitches?" I guess not, huh?

One difference is that the French niqab ban places legal sanction upon the individual who is also the target of the wrong act, which is the coercion and threats of harassment and violence often used to enforce the wearing of all-covering clothing. I know what the French are trying to do, but I also think the result will be counterproductive because the method they're using is wrong. I know very well what I have been told, that many women who wear niqabs and burqas do so unwillingly, in fear of what will happen should they choose not to do so, and thus that it's not enough merely to say I support an individual's choice. If a society really was interested in stamping out the oppression underlying the practice, it would make enough resources available to support a woman making that choice in those circumstances that she would be able to do whatever necessary - move, get serious protection if threatened, get immense assstance with living costs and finding a job, therapy, peer support, all publicly funded and *well*-funded - to believe she can successfully make that choice and thrive. Someone I love and respect dearly works in frontline trauma counselling, mostly with women who have been abused, and one thing I can say for sure is that no one is doing that now, otherwise the organizations she works at wouldn't be scraping for resources.

That will be the choice and the responsibility of those women.

Well, yes, that's right, and if I said anything that implies I think otherwise, then I expressed myself poorly. I know I'm coming from several privileged perspectives, and the absolute last things I would want to do is insert myself into something where my input is not wanted or make anyone's individual decisions for them. Hell, I think that's the problem in the first place; perpetuating that would be asinine.

ximenah said...

but once again, saudi arabia is the only arab country that lawfully expects its women (and all female visitors) to cover up, this act is unusual even for all the other arab countries, and most of arabic women refuse to surrender to that( in most cases)
but if u visit any other arab country, (u.a.e,m syria,lebanon, jordan,moroco,kuwait, qatar,egypt, algeria, etc..)what you chose to cloth your body with wont be a matter of concern to any1, and no1 will be expecting u 2 act or dress in a certain way, we respect ur origins no matter where ur from( ofc i cant say that about every1)
so, with what i have stated put into thought, arab women should hav the choice to put the veil and/or naqab or not, even when outside their original country, we are discussing freedom of the female, right? so why should she be excpected to take of what she chose 2 wear bcz it is "unusual" to u, no where around the world should the women be restricted 2 do smthin they dont want to ( that goes especially to suadi arabia)

JS said...

You have a compelling argument, but there are some issues. For now, two:

First, I believe headscarves/ headcoverings carry significantly more cultural weight than miniskirts or heels. Their categorization as "offensive" seems also to be fairly recent, as someone above pointed out. Wearing a t-shirt and jeans to a meeting implies disrespect; wearing a tube top and short skirt is distracting. Headscarves, by contrast, render the wearer more visually unobtrusive. As another poster said, it conveys a conventional notion of modesty.

I also disagree with your point that this issue has nothing to do with Islam. This flies in the face of the fact that all (as far as we know) the wearers of headcoverings are Islamic. The people being targeted in the media and by governments are labeled as Muslims. Even if it's not in a strict interpretation of Islam, it is a part of cultures heavily tied to Islam.


That said, I do not agree with women being forced to don headcoverings, especially by law. I also don't support the banning of headcoverings, especially by law. There should be a choice allowed, borne of out cultural sensitivity.

---

There was an interesting case Joan Wallach Scott wrote about in which two teenage girls in France converted to Islam against the wishes of their family and decided to wear the burqa. They were kicked out of school. It really is too complicated an issue to be summed up in binaries of freedom/ oppression, and Scott makes a good case for underlying tensions between "Islamic cultures" and Western secular cultures that grew out of Christian traditions.

Clarissa said...

This is not about headscarves, as much as it is about coverings that cover up the body and the face completely. As much as people defend the freedom of burqa wearers to wear what they want, nobody as yet has even tried to suggest what I, as an educator, am supposed to do when a student or several students come to my classroom with their faces covered. Apparently, their decision to practice their freedom to wear whatver tehy want is supposed to be more important than my right to conduct a fair an equal class session. I would really appreciate some practical suggestions here.

Anonymous said...

I am a first time reader to your blog but I can see that, unfortunately, your comments are from persons who only want an argument - bored, perhaps lonely people. It would be good if they tried to understand what you said instead of jumping at the opportunity for a "match" with you. It is true that everyone is entitled to an opinion though. Good luck.

Anonymous said...

I think any person who condones violent removal of clothing from another person is justifying an extreme form of violation of that person.

Therefore it is a crime against any woman for anyone to justify abuse against her, which is a form of violation of her human rights to attempt to remove any item of her personal clothing without consent, which is comparable to a form of rape.

Therefore I would state that anyone who agrees with what the article describes, needs to have psychological councelling about what is appropriate conventional social behaviour, towards others.

I think using some half-baked excuse about 'what they do to women in another country' is a ridiculous justification. If anyone supports the human rights of women in Saudi Arabia, that is irrelevant to the anti-Islamic abuse of women who choose to wear the face covering from their own choice from their own religious freedom.

There are many women who choose to wear the face-covering as part of their culture and their religious beliefs. This also includes women who are from non-Saudi backgrounds, women who are also from Jewish backgrounds, for example, where modesty is part of the orthodox religious belief as well, are beginning to wear nikabs as well more and more. from their own personal choice and belief.

If people from the West can't have tolerance towards people of other cultures, that is called racism. Abusing random women who are guests from another culture to Europe as part of that racist attack is the lowest most cowardly form of behaviour by anyone European possible.

Some women like to cover up and feel secure wearing face coverings. It is a tradition in Arabia, which also comes from a practical adaptation to a changing extreme climate where protection from the sun is aimed for at all times.

Not everyone feels that it is 'freedom' to be viewed on public display like a piece of meat as some women from the 'West' consider for themselves to mean being 'free'.

Not all women want to be treated like a sex object every time they walk down the street, and don't necessarily consider this 'freedom'. Personally I have spent time in Arab countries, and I can perfectly understand 'why' women wear coverings, because they want to have 'freedom' away from the eyes of men.

Some people just do prefer to protect their privacy. Some women from Europe who don't understand this, are not doing anyone in the ME any favours by supporting such racist abuse against the woman from the UAE as mentioned above.

Clarissa said...

Buddy, can you read? Have you seen this in the very first lines of the post: "I'm obviously against tearing anything off anyone's face or violence of any sort"? Or do you prefer to talk to voices in your head?

"Personally I have spent time in Arab countries, and I can perfectly understand 'why' women wear coverings"

-If you like being treated like property, maybe you should move there.

The next time, try to read a post before you respond with a long, boring rant.