Nothing is so galling to a people not broken in from the birth as a paternal, or in other words a meddling government, a government which tells them what to read and say and eat and drink and wear. - Thomas Babington, Lord Macaulay
My friend Philippa had a gift for coming up with memorable phrases, two of which I’ve used as the titles of previous columns (“Good Fantasy, Bad Reality” and “No Fun Shall Be Had”). “The enlightenment police” was her term for, as I stated in my August 30th column, “people who think their ideas about proper living need to apply to everyone else’s personal preferences.” The “enlightenment police” differ from plain old garden-variety moralistic busybodies chiefly in their rhetoric, which eschews traditional terms like “sin” and “salvation” in favor of terms like “oppression” and “empowerment”. But they are exactly like other moralists in their absolute faith in their own righteousness, their infantilization of adults who have beliefs which disagree with theirs and their willingness to “rescue” others at the point of a gun.
One of the interesting things about tyranny is the way it creates empathy between groups who might otherwise have nothing to do with one another. It would be difficult to conceive of two kinds of women who were farther apart on the modesty scale than whores and Muslim women who observe hijab, yet we are both targeted by “enlightenment police” armed with neofeminist rhetoric who are willing to deny our rights, to rob us of agency and to oppress us in the name of “freeing” us from “male oppression” no matter what we might want for ourselves. And because of that, the struggles and statements of the French Muslim women from this story in the Guardian of September 19th may seem eerily familiar to prostitutes and those who support our rights:
…In April, France introduced a law…[banning] Muslim women in full-face veils, or niqab…from any public activity including walking down the street, taking a bus, going to the shops or collecting their children from school. French politicians in favour of the ban said they were acting to protect the “gender equality” and “dignity” of women. But five months after the law was introduced, the result is a mixture of confusion and apathy. Muslim groups report a worrying increase in discrimination and verbal and physical violence against women in veils. There have been instances of people in the street taking the law into their hands and trying to rip off full-face veils, of bus drivers refusing to carry women in niqab or of shop-owners trying to bar entry. A few women have taken to wearing bird-flu-style medical masks to keep their faces covered; some describe a climate of divisiveness, mistrust and fear. One politician who backed the law said that women still going out in niqab were simply being “provocative”.
[Hind] Ahmas…was attacked in the street [by] a man and woman…[who] called her a whore and told her to go back to Afghanistan. ”My quality of life has seriously deteriorated since the ban. In my head, I have to prepare for war every time I step outside, prepare to come up against people who want to put a bullet in my head. The politicians claimed they were liberating us; what they’ve done is to exclude us from the social sphere. Before this law, I never asked myself whether I’d be able to make it to a cafe or collect documents from a town hall. One politician in favour of the ban said niqabs were ‘walking prisons’. Well, that’s exactly where we’ve been stuck by this law.” But despite all the fanfare surrounding the niqab ban, no woman has yet been punished under the law for wearing one. The first real test will come on Thursday [September 22nd], when a local judge in Meaux, east of Paris, will decide whether to hand out to Ahmas and a friend the first ever fine. [As this follow-up explains, they were fined €120 and €80 respectively and will immediately appeal to France’s supreme court]…Now, human rights lawyers are suggesting it could soon be overturned.
Only the French police can [legally] confront a woman in niqab. They can’t remove her veil but must refer the case to a local judge, who can hand out a…fine, a citizenship course, or both. Some police have wrongly given on-the-spot fines, which were later annulled. Others appear to ignore women in niqab walking down the street, perhaps because they feel they have more important crimes to be stopping. The interior ministry says that since the law came into force in April there have been 91 incidents of women in niqab being stopped by police outside Paris and nine incidents in the Paris region…The French justice ministry says “fewer than 10″ cases are currently going through the courts and the lack of fines shows the state favours “dialogue” not punishment. But Gilles Devers, a lawyer acting for Ahmas and several other women in niqab, argued punishments were not being handed out because the niqab law contravenes European human rights legislation on personal liberties and freedom of religion. As soon as a fine is imposed, there will be an appeal right up to the European court of human rights in Strasbourg, which could rule against the law and expose the French state as a laughing stock.
If the French law is challenged in this way, the result would be crucial for Muslims across the continent. Belgium introduced its own niqab ban this summer, punishable not just by a fine but seven days in prison. In Italy, the far-right Northern League has resuscitated a 1975 law against face coverings to fine women in certain areas of the north. Silvio Berlusconi’s party is now preparing an anti-niqab law. Denmark is preparing legislation to limit the wearing of niqabs; politicians in Austria, the Netherlands and Switzerland are pushing for outright bans. Thomas Hammarberg, the Council of Europe’s commissioner for human rights, blogged this summer: ”The way the dress of a small number of women has been portrayed as a key problem requiring urgent discussion and legislation is a sad capitulation to the prejudices of the xenophobes.”
…There are no reliable statistics on who wears the niqab in France and whether they have kept wearing it since the law. It is estimated that only a few hundred women wear it, mostly French citizens. Muslim associations say a minority of women have taken off the niqab or moved abroad…An Open Society Foundation report on women in niqabs in France…found that of a sample of 32 women in niqab, none had been forced to wear the full veil. Many said they would refuse to take if off after the law came in, adding that they would avoid leaving home, or move abroad…
A few hundred women, yet they’ve managed to back the French government against the wall and may yet defeat its attempt to control them. There are almost 450,000 of us; why can’t we do the same? We need to expose the “enlightenment police” for what they are: busybody control freaks who don’t give a damn about women’s dignity, but are happy to use it as an excuse for oppression.
One Year Ago Today
“Who Did Your Tits?” tells the story of how and why I went from not-quite-A to DDD, and how it affected my life.