Religions and their publics:

Short skirts and niqab bans: On sexuality and the secular body

posted by Jennifer A. Selby and Mayanthi L. Fernando

Introduced in Québec in March 2010, Bill 94 proposed requiring women to unveil their faces if they wanted to work in the public sector or access public services, including hospitals, universities, and public transportation. The bill was eventually tabled and was followed in November 2013 with Bill 60, which demanded in more generalist language the removal of conspicuous religious signs in order to dispense or use public services in the province. These Québécois bills—which have not passed—echo the logic of the April 2011 French law targeting the niqab (face veil) and banning the “dissimulation of the face” in public spaces. Both French and Québécois proponents of these laws cited gender equality and women’s emancipation—which they deemed foundational to French and Québécois values—as their primary goal. Despite Québec’s long insistence that it espouses a third path between Canadian multiculturalism and the French Jacobin model, Québec and France have increasingly converged to promote a model of secularism in which liberty and equality are articulated as sexual liberty and sexual equality. In fact, these niqab restrictions represent a broader secular-liberal discourse—what Joan W. Scott calls “sexularism”—that posits secularism as the best guarantor of women’s sexual freedom and sexual equality and, therefore, as that which distinguishes the West from the woman-oppressing rest, especially from Islam.

Much has been written on secularist reactions to veiling, some of it on this blog. Most of that scholarship focuses on the problems that the veil, and Islamic piety more generally, pose for political secularism. Here, we try to provide a somewhat different reading that follows recent work arguing that, like forms of religiosity, secularity too includes a range of ethical, social, and physical dispositions, hence the need to apprehend the secular via its sensorial and affective dimensions and not only its political ones. In a 2010 post, Charles Hirschkind asked: “Is there a secular body? Or, in somewhat different terms, is there a particular configuration of the human sensorium—of sensibilities, affects, embodied dispositions—specific to secular subjects, and thus constitutive of what we mean by ‘secular society’?” Michael Warner posed a similar set of questions: “What is the lived and embodied dimension of the secular?” he asked, and “how is this bodily secularity related to thin accounts of ‘secular rationality? ’” Using the niqab bans as a starting point, we try to map some of the coordinates of what might be called the secular body, being especially attentive to its sex and gender norms. Rather than ask if there is a secular body, we inquire into the secular investment in the body, or more precisely, in female bodies. We therefore ask how the secular body might be fundamentally sexed and gendered. We argue that the French and Québécois cases reveal a particular set of sexual protocols regarding what constitutes the proper female subject and proper femininity— and attendant notions of maleness and masculinity—that intimately link secularity to the embodiment of very specific sex and gender norms.

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Bill 94 was introduced to the National Assembly of Québec in response to what was deemed an unreasonable request for special accommodation made by a niqab-wearing Egyptian woman in a French language class for new immigrants. The bill laid out guidelines governing individuals’ requests for accommodation, requiring that individuals must “show their face during the delivery of services [as] a general practice.” During a news conference, premier Jean Charest, flanked by three female ministers, avowed that “An accommodation cannot be granted unless it respects the principle of equality between men and women, and the religious neutrality of the state.” The convergence of women’s rights and secular neutrality was made more explicit by a 161-page February 2011 report entitled “Affirming secularism, a step toward real equality between men and women,” released by the Conseil du Statut de la Femme (Council on the Status of Women, CSF), a government-funded body created in 1973 to defend women’s rights in the province. The Québécois document approvingly cites the French Stasi commission’s report, which preceded France’s 2004 ban on headscarves in public schools, noting that secularism can no longer be conceived without a direct link to the “equality principle between the sexes.” The CSF report also criticizes Canadian multiculturalism and Québec’s current model of laïcité ouverte (open secularism) for threatening the secular commitment to gender equality. Although the report uses generalist language about politico-religious extremism, most of its examples concern Islam and Muslims. Thus the fight against radical Islam is hitched to the protection of women’s rights, with both accomplished via a renewed commitment to secularism.

Particularly interesting is the CSF report’s investment in the unveiled female face. Essentially, it argues that women’s faces must be bare and their bodies “areligious” in order to be “neutral.” According to the report, a neutral dress code and bare face protect women against patriarchal religious traditions and give them access to social and civic rights, including the rights to vote, to divorce, and to abortion. And, just as secularism once protected women against Catholicism, now it must do so against Islam by promoting an areligious female body. Yet even as the report attempts to fit niqab bans into this broad narrative, its repeated invocations of and attachment to the bare face—where bare means unveiled, rather than without adornments like make-up or piercings—index a particular problem with Islam and a grounding in specific sex/gender norms and gender performativity integral to Québécois secularity (a point further addressed here).

Even as Bill 94 and the CSF report display a clear attachment to women’s bare faces, however, they leave that attachment unexplored, and the sex/gender norms integral to that attachment implicit. It is instructive, therefore, to turn to French opponents of veiling, who are equally invested in the bare female face, but much more explicit about why.

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In July 2008 National Assembly deputy André Gerin began to speak out against what he perceived as the increasing number of women wearing face veils in his district. Like much of the French discourse about veiling, Gerin presented no sociological evidence, relying purely on emotional rhetoric. He and fifty-seven other deputies co-signed a resolution (No. 1725) demanding a commission to study the problem of the face veil. President Nicolas Sarkozy soon obliged, appointing Gerin to lead a commission that, after interviewing 211 individuals (none of them niqab-wearing women), presented a 658-page report to the National Assembly in January 2010.

The report argues that women who wear face veils lose their dignity, their femininity, and their very identity as persons, echoing the initial resolution, which decried the niqab as “an attack on a woman’s dignity and on the assertion of her femininity” so that “her very existence is denied.” In justifying the creation of the commission, Sarkozy had noted, “we cannot accept in our country women who are imprisoned behind a grid, cut off from society and deprived of any identity.” What Sarkozy and the deputies suggest is that the niqab denies its wearers the possibility of full personhood.

But how and why? Here, the mention of femininity is key, as is the Gerin Commission Report’s surprising attention to the 2009 film La journée de la jupe (“Skirt Day”). The film chronicles the experiences of a female high school teacher working in a socio-economically marginalized banlieue (outer-city suburb), where the male students have no respect for women. One day, having come to school in a short skirt—something she has been expressly asked not to do by the principal—the teacher-protagonist “loses it,” holding her students hostage with one of their own guns. She has one demand of the authorities called in to negotiate this hostage crisis: “that the government establishes a national skirt day in all schools. A day when the government states you can wear a skirt and not be a whore!” The Gerin Commission devoted a section of its report to a discussion of the film by commission members and invited interlocutors. One interlocutor, republican feminist philosopher Elizabeth Badinter, described how she had attended a screening of the film at a public middle school in the immigrant-populated 18th arrondissement of Paris, and how she had been struck by the paucity of girls wearing short skirts. Like the film, she attributed this reluctance to Maghrebi Muslim cultural mores and the concomitant pressure on girls to dress modestly. Similarly, Olivia Cattan, president of the association Parole de Femmes (Women’s Words), noted before the commission that at the poor, largely non-white middle school where she teaches, there might be “one girl” in a class of twenty who wears a skirt, and she voiced her concern for the related rise in garçons manqués (tomboys). Another interlocutor before the commission, National Assembly deputy Danièle Hoffman-Rispal, succinctly summed up Badinter’s and Cattan’s fears: “Skirt Day is not just a film, it’s every day.”

The lengthy discussion of the film by the commission begs the question: how is the anecdotal rarity of short skirts among young women of immigrant origin relevant to hearings about the acceptability of face veils in the public sphere? Cattan makes the connection most explicitly: the decline of skirt-wearers and the appearance of tomboys signal an environment in which young women deny their femininity; this in turn reflects a broader degeneration of gender equality. And all are the result of the rise of Islamic fundamentalism, of which the niqab is the most visible representation. As is evident from the consternation about the lack of short skirts, femininity takes a very particular form in this narrative, and the Franco-Maghrebi feminist organization Ni Putes Ni Soumises (Neither Whores Nor Doormats, NPNS), a vociferous proponent of both the 2004 ban on headscarves and the 2010 ban on niqabs, best exemplifies its contours. In her autobiography, NPNS co-founder Fadela Amara contends that during her adolescence three decades ago, “it was considered natural for us to wear short skirts, tight-fitting jeans, low-cut blouses, and short T-shirts,” all modes of dress she defines as “showing off our femininity.” Like the Gerin Commission, Amara decries the pressure supposedly exerted on young Muslim women by patriarchal Islam and lauds those who rebel “by continuing to wear revealing clothing, by dressing in fashion, [and] by using makeup” in order “to exist as individuals, by dressing in fashion, by using makeup.” Another leader of NPNS, Sihem Habchi, testified before the Gerin Commission that the face veil entails the loss of a woman’s self. Notably, when Habchi declared that she—unlike her veiled counterparts—was not ashamed of her body, she removed her jacket to reveal bare shoulders. The commission members applauded, presumably appreciative of the embrace of secularity that her bare shoulders represent. Indeed, Habchi, Amara, and the Gerin Commission voice their criticism of veiling as a defense of secularism, linking secular values like individual autonomy and sexual equality to a particular mode of hetero-femininity and to particular sexual protocols (a link explored elsewhere). What is striking is how certain aesthetic practices—wearing makeup and short skirts—and certain forms of bodily display—bare legs, bare shoulders, uncovered hair, and bare faces—have become essential to that femininity. Also striking is how much this model of femininity is naturalized, such that wearing makeup and revealing clothes corresponds to taking up one’s natural qualities and desires as a woman and an individual.

Equally integral to femininity is the capacity to seduce, which the niqab is thought to impede, thus obstructing, once again, the ability of a woman to take up her natural femininity. André Rossinot, mayor of the city of Nancy, put forth this idea in his testimony before the Gerin Commission. According to Rossinot, the niqab is part of a gender system in which “women do not have control of their image, they are not free to show themselves, to exist on the outside, even less to seduce.” Rossinot’s reference to seduction brings to mind Joan W. Scott’s compelling analysis of French debates about veiling.

Within French secular-republican ideology, Scott argues, subjectivation is not simply dialogic but also fundamentally gendered. Man hails woman into being: “Feminine identity depend[s] on male desire; male desire depend[s] on visual stimulation.” Seduction and the male gaze are therefore key to subjectivation: the visual appreciation of women’s faces and bodies brings women into being as women, just as the ability to see women’s faces and bodies brings men into being as men. Within this framework, the niqab is not only an assault on women’s femininity and men’s masculinity, but also, more broadly, on women’s and men’s very existence as subjects.

This framework collapses sex and gender, positing an integral relationship between the female-sexed body and the feminine gender (and the male-sexed body and masculine gender). Thus to express one’s self, and in so doing to enact one’s autonomy, is to express one’s feminine sexuality and vice versa. It is precisely this logic that allows Fadela Amara to call the headscarf “an instrument of power over women used by men” by noting that “men do not wear the headscarf”—a sign of gender inequality—while at the same time describing suburban Muslim women’s wearing of short skirts and makeup (obviously also not worn by men) as a way of “affirming their femininity” and “being themselves.” This secular re-investment in a natural or biological sexual difference means that opponents of the niqab can champion simultaneously hyper-normative femininity and—indeed, as—sexual equality.

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Proposals to ban the niqab in Québec and France consistently posit a link between secularity and gender equality; we have sought to analyze that link by exploring Québécois and French investments in the visibility of the female body and face, and by attending to the concomitant sexual protocols that underpin Québécois and French secularity. A few concluding points are in order. First, we are struck by the remarkable commitment to sexual difference as an organizing principle. What is ironic about this commitment is that it has become the basis for a secular discourse of gender equality. Even more ironic is that this commitment to gender equality has then been mobilized to critique the niqab as perpetuating a system of innate sexual difference that leads to gender inequality.

Second, to return to our initial analytical framework of the secular body, we are struck by how foundational the sexed and gendered body has become to discourses and practices of secularity. Warner, Hirschkind, and others are surely correct that the secular is not a space-clearing arrangement of political and affective neutrality, but rather a site of robust norms, affects, emotions, embodied dispositions, and ethical sensibilities. Like religious bodies, the secular body therefore needs to be examined as a site of marked fullness rather than of unmarked absence. We suggest that this kind of analysis cannot be done without attending to sex/gender, and to the sexed/gendered configuration of the sensibilities, bodily dispositions, affects, and norms that underpin what might be called the secular body.

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