You’ve probably seen this photo. It went viral Wednesday. It depicts a female Muslim beachgoer in Nice, France, being forced to take off her clothes at the command of three armed, white policemen. It’s an ugly image that raises your hackles on first glimpse.
In addition to being outrageous, the photo also interests me for what it’s able to synthesize into one moment: the repression of a state telling a woman what to wear — indeed, making her strip — and the presumed repression of the thing she’s taking off. A hijab.
Before starting in on this, I should probably identify myself. God knows what the present term of art is among people who spend way too much time online — I’m probably a white cis ally or something — but basically I’m a straight white man who thinks that society should be ordered in a way that empowers everyone to reach their full potential. I identify as a feminist, but I also realize it’s a contested term whose dialectic I have watched go into some pretty knotty places.
One of the more interesting debates being waged right now is over the intersectionality that is Muslim feminism. I know a couple of vocal Muslim feminists who post frequently on social media. They come from different ethnicities and experiences, but their stance is the same: don’t impose your white concern on me. It’s colonial and misinformed. Muslim women are liberating themselves just fine, traditional or modern, covered or uncovered.
Sometimes I feel like I have to take their word for it. Like many westerners, the idea of hijab makes me uncomfortable. I don’t like that a society should decree that women have a higher bar of modesty than men; that the responsibility for disciplining the male gaze falls on women; and worst, that these norms are acculturated enough to make women feel they are being their truest selves by conforming to it. I’m aware that we all exist on a spectrum of volitional modesty — I wouldn't choose to walk around naked even if it were legal — but something strikes me as arrestingly wrong about women having to wear so much more than a man on a daily basis. When the mood strikes, yes. All the time? Fuck that.
I respect the fact that a lot of hijabis choose to dress that way. One of my friends, not Muslim, told me it was liberating to cover herself while she was visiting Pakistan. I’ve heard the same from others.
At the same time, it seems unlikely that women who have to go to ridiculous lengths to adhere to highly gendered strictures are really that liberated. (Read the supposedly empowered woman who invented the burkini to get a taste of that. “Do I call myself a feminist? Yes, maybe. I like to stand behind my man, but I am the engine, and I choose to be. I want him to take all the credit, but I am the quiet achiever.” Um, sure.)
Still, the choice is the thing to preserve. People should dress how they want. For anyone who disagrees, the incident in Nice provides a convenient worksheet for arriving at that conclusion.
Let’s suppose that hijab strikes my eye as a misogynist coercion. It offends me on the grounds that no one should have to dress to appease anyone else, least of all the sky fairy your ancestors made up. When I see hijab, I feel like I’m witnessing an injustice.
My distaste for this piece of cloth rests entirely on the presumption that the wearer either didn’t have a choice or came from so patriarchal a culture that she effectively didn’t have a choice. And that presumption could be wrong. I could be witnessing a deliberately feminist declaration. The truth is, I can’t know. The hijab does to the possibility of repression what it does to a woman’s body: it hides it.
A group of cops telling a woman to strip is a far more acute violence. This is an act of repression laid viscerally bare. A racist one, too, since these particular French laws banning the “burkini” were openly passed to vilify Muslims, regardless of what the authorities invoke about laïcité.
What we have, essentially, is the clash of two rigid conformities. One is religious and presumed, and the other is religiously anti-religious and real. In both cases, personal freedom loses.
The reason to compare the coercion of Islamic clothing requirements to that of Islamophobic clothing requirements is that we have to choose one to allow. The antidote to doctrine is laxity. Freedom. And under a free regime, some women will wear hijab.
So there’s the question. What’s worse: allowing the specter of cultural misogyny in public, or publicly punishing a type of female clothing? If the answer isn’t obvious, the photo from France makes it obvious.
More pointedly, the most constructive way to oppose Islamic body covering is to allow it without reservation. The only thing worth opposing is the prospect of women being forced to wear something. The attire itself is irrelevant. And the way to allow a woman who does not want to cover herself, to escape having to do so, is to demonstrate that she lives in a place where she has the agency to decide for herself.
The United States already holds that truth to be self-evident. Obama voiced as much at a press conference in France. Yet for those of us who don’t have an easy access point to this debate, but are invested in the questions it entails, the folly of others has generated a valuable lesson. France’s violence in service of secular doctrine is clearly worse than allowing a society to express itself freely. Let's never do that here.