Here in France, President Nicolas Sarkozy has green-lighted legislation that will ban women from wearing burqas in public places. This is obviously great news for the 2000 or so unfortunates – out of a Muslim female population of approximately 5 million - who actually go round wearing two man tents over themselves. Just how the French police are going to enforce these rules in public remains to be seen, but surely candidates for legal martyrdom must already be queuing.
This bill is the essence of the Sarkozy administration. French has a great word for it – “brasser de l’air”, which means to makes swimming motion outside the medium of water just to give the impression that you’re saying something, going somewhere. After floating this foolish idea around until it returned as so much egg in face, with even the Constitutional Court doubting its legality, the government must have felt itself compelled to see it through since not to do so would have made it look all wishy-washy.
And even so the government squirms away from taking responsibility for a decision that directly targets a specific faith group by couching it in PC terms. Burqas "do not pose a problem in a religious sense, but threaten the dignity of women," goes the declaration. But aren’t there other phenomena that undermine the dignity of women beyond Islamic ones, as sociologist Pierre Bourdieu was wont to ask?
Quite recently in the plush and altogether secular neighbourhood of the Marais in central Paris, I noticed that an inordinate number of women in their forties, fifties and sixties had inflicted some form of plastic surgery on themselves. Blown up lips, facial skin pulled tight and waxy looking, eyes drawn up into the corners, cheekbones bulged out. The effect was less unpleasant than just eerie. Trying to visualise myself as the subject, I keep thinking of those virtual reality visors back in the early 90’s that when clapped on threw you into a 3D world. Each time you moved your head, your virtual reality head followed along, just a fraction off. It got me thinking that plastic surgery is like the flipside of the burqa. The latter makes you glaringly invisible, less than human, but the former, by surgically caricaturing secondary sexual characteristics, makes you a sight beyond human.
The problem is that plastic surgery is practised by so-called empowered and independent women at the top end of society, the burqa by the stereotype of a downtrodden Muslim sisterhood that needs to be saved from itself. And yet both can be read as symptoms of an enduring and masochistic subservience to the male gaze. Only one gives rise to moral panic attacks and hand wringing about equality, however. So let’s not be confused in our progressive instincts by a government’s weasel words. Clearly, I’m not arguing for a ban on either of these practises. As I’ve mentioned previously, you cannot force dignity on anyone if they are not prepared to defend it themselves. We should also be free to ruin our lives too.