Thank you Mr President but I’ll pick my own clothes today…

This past weekend, Belgium became the second European nation – after France – to create a law banning the public wearing of face-covering niqabs and burqas by Muslim women.  This law comes with a hefty penalty of 7 days in jail for ‘offenders’ and 138 Euro fine.  While both countries argue that it is unacceptable for a person’s face to be masked in public, the bottom line remains that once again a political war is being waged on the bodies of women.

Regardless of what political sentiment backs these laws – anti-Islamic, secularization, social conformity – the practical outcome is an attempt to control women’s bodies.  These European lawmakers are just as guilty banning the burqa as the Taliban was enforcing it.  Either way, both sides are pulling for the power to decorate the female body and present it as a marker of what is valued by their respective cultures.  Ultimately, it comes down to men (and some women) in positions of power controlling what is or is not put on women’s bodies.

Photo by Flickr user sokabs, courtesy of Flickr Creative Commons

At the heart of the issue is control of the female body, and, as an extension, the control of women.  Seeing a woman completely covered in an obviously Islamic dress suggests to the outside viewer that she is controlled by the “other”, which means she is not being controlled by “us”, the cult of liberty and freedom.  In the Western world we are uncomfortable with the idea that she is under rule of this foreign power and we want her to be under our rule so that we can force her to be free, equal and exposed.

In France, where the burqa was outlawed earlier this year, the ban is seen to be in keeping with the core french values of Liberty, Equality and Fraternity.  Delacroix’s iconic painting of Liberty Leading the People is a clear example of the way in which woman’s bodies become markers of the values of a society.  Lady Liberty, the personification of the values of the French revolution, leads the troops in her dishevelled dress, exposed breast and bare feet, confidently wielding the French flag.  She is a symbol of the way in which female bodies are decorated to be embodiments of cultural values. Women’s bodies have become the canvas onto which the codes, beliefs, and mores of a culture are painted.  What she exposes, covers up, or embellishes demonstrates what her society sees as beautiful, appropriate, reverent or valuable. Her dress has become a uniform which clearly marks the team to which she belongs.  I question whether these laws are really about liberty and equality or more about reducing numbers of the opposite team.

 There are plenty of other moral and practical issues on the line with this law – the scapegoating of muslim women, limiting the mobility of niqab wearing women, freedom of religious expression – but for me the most problematic issue is the mindset behind the law which suggests a woman’s body is not controlled by her but by the state.  Her body is no longer her own but has become a symbol of the values and beliefs of whatever culture she represents.  What I find difficult to understand is why these European nations are so insistent on exposing the woman behind the veil as they clearly aren’t able to see her as anything but a representation of “otherness’.