As widely reported, the latest diktat from the leader of the British House of Commons, Jack Straw, quickly backed up by Prime Minister Tony Blair, and by the progressive Prime Minister of Italy, Romano Prodi, is this: the niqab is a Bad Thing. Wearing it can, and should, according to another British Minister, rightfully get you fired as a teaching assistant in an English school--and an employment tribunal agrees. As for Prodi:
"You can't cover your face. If you have a veil, fine, but you must be seen," Prodi told Reuters television. "This is common sense I think, it is important for our society. It is not how you dress but if you are hidden or not."
For Blair and for Straw, it stands for an unacceptable separation from "society." And, to be fair, a number of Muslim commentators concur that the niqab is not promoting a positive image of Islam. The veil is a vestige of submission from another world and time, it prevents social integration--and recognition. Our own warm-spirited Margaret Wente joins the chorus: "Take off your veils, ladies."
Meanwhile, in another part of the forest, women are forced to wear the veil: it is a protection, say the powers that be, portable purdah that holds at bay the unwelcome attention of strangers.
Women, in other words, are going to be dressed à la mode, even if the largely male decision-makers in this respect cannot quite agree on what the mode is to be. The women themselves, of course, will simply be acted upon--as usual.
But what is really at stake here in the West, where the notion of a crazed dictator with nuclear weapons is overshadowed, at least for a moment, by an item of women's clothing? Something is striking a deep enough chord in our cultural unconscious to involve European prime ministers in a matter that applies to an utterly miniscule number of Muslim women in the West. What could it be? Feminists don't seem to know what to make of it--some are vocal, others are mute, as Sheema Khan notes in her excellent article on the subject. And those of liberal bent make their usual impotent pleas for tolerance, without really understanding what's going on.
Let me suggest, first of all, that the liberation of women is an excuse, not the underlying reason for the uproar. The male European leaders who have pronounced on this issue are a little closer to the mark in some of their comments: it's all about separation, and being seen.
Like the archer sending his missiles from an arrow slit in a besieged castle,covering a wide range while being effectively hidden from view, the niqabi sees, but is not seen. It is not merely that our gaze is thwarted. It is that her gaze is unimpeded. This is intolerable, even in 2006: we cannot permit this advantage to women. In the liberated West, we are told, women can wear whatever they wish (although men tend to dictate the fashions). But let women refuse to be displayed, and the leaders of Western nations will speak out forcefully.
Under cover, as it were, the culture wars continue: we fight feminism anew, and throw in a little orientalism for good measure. Here once again is the mysterious East, whose eyes alone are visible to us, the watcher from the shadows, all expression hidden from view, inscrutable as Westerners once described the Chinese, who made their faces into masks. What are they thinking? What are the subalterns plotting?
Because this is, in fact, all about vision, that sense that our modern age privileges over all others. The gaze immediately establishes unequal power relations: the observer, detached and knowing, and the observed, subject to observation and the object of the observer. Here, though, the niqabi has turned the tables: she is the observer, we the observed. Our own view of the Other, whether the object of our regard is a woman or a Muslim, or both, is deliberately obstructed. Our gaze is turned back. And the deep resonances of this polysemous act by a tiny handful of women, interpreted as resistance, are enough to draw forth the fury of world leaders. The reactions to Kim Jong Il's recent nuclear stunt, on the other hand, if only because entirely predictable in tone and substance, seem tame in comparison.