What women wear is not up for debate

Samantha David says that women should be able to dress how they want, when they want

Published Last updated

The discussion about women’s rights to cover their faces in France rumbles on. The law states that it is illegal for anyone to cover their face in public with a mask, helmet, balaclava, niqab or other veil.

The burqa is also banned if it covers the face. Islamic headscarves are banned from French schools and government buildings by a separate law prohibiting visible religious symbols including crosses, turbans, and kippahs (brimless hat worn by some Jewish men).

Compared to the British approach, which is more tolerant, the French policy seems draconian. Examples of heavy-handed policing of Muslim women (a woman on the beach in Nice being forced to remove her outer clothing by armed police officers in August 2016; a veiled woman being dragged screaming into a police vehicle in Toulouse in April 2018) do not improve the general picture.

In 2010, American Islamic scholar Hamza Yusuf said he was personally opposed to the face veil, but that it is nevertheless a legitimate choice for Muslim women.

He wrote that on a trip to France he reflected how odd it was that “to unveil a woman for all to gape at is civilised but for her to cover up to ward off gazes is a crime”. He added: “While the French Prime Minister [François Fillon at that time] sees no problem exposing in public places a woman’s glorious nakedness, he is oddly and rabidly disturbed by allowing others to cover it up.

“The sooner secular nations learn to allow people of faith to live their lives in peace, the sooner peace will flourish.”

Read that again. There’s a problem. Where is the woman’s decision in that? Who is doing the exposing in this paragraph? An invisible man? And for what purpose? In order that she may be gazed at. Sorry, but a woman’s body isn’t merely sexual. Most women in France do not choose to wear shorts in order to attract the male gaze, and they don’t wear a floor-length frock to avoid it.

They wear what seems practical and appropriate at the time. Shorts when it is hot, evening dress when it’s a formal party, headscarf when painting the ceiling, jeans because they’re comfortable.

Feeling obliged to cover up in order to avoid being gazed at is nonsense. Men don’t do it, why should women? It is the same deal as saying women should cover up to avoid being whistled at, harassed, stalked, up-skirted or even worse.

Women, however they are dressed, aren’t responsible for the criminal behaviour of certain men. I’m glad schoolgirls in France are protected from pressures to cover their hair, I’m glad that women’s faces can’t be covered up in public, and I welcome the new Loi Schiappa, establishing €90 on-the-spot fines for sex pests on the street.

Because the problem isn’t what women wear, it’s what men read into it.