The Sexist

But If You’re Wearing A Veil, How Will I Know That You’re Smiling, Baby?

In Christopher Hitchens' impassioned defense of the French veil ban, he claims that veils are, in practice, "a ban on the right of all citizens to look one another in the face." Where, oh where, have I heard this dubious "right" to the faces of others claimed before? Oh! Hitchens is channeling the Smile, Baby Guy!

Hitchens' essay posits some feminist arguments against the veil: In short, it's a cultural expectation made only of women, and it's not always worn freely, as some "mothers, wives, and daughters have been threatened with acid in the face, or honor-killing, or vicious beating, if they do not adopt the humiliating outer clothing." But Hitchens' central argument isn't that veils deny women equal rights. It's that the veil denies Hitchens his right—the "right to see your face":

So it's really quite simple. My right to see your face is the beginning of it, as is your right to see mine. Next but not least comes the right of women to show their faces, which easily trumps the right of their male relatives or their male imams to decide otherwise. The law must be decisively on the side of transparency. The French are striking a blow not just for liberty and equality and fraternity, but for sorority too.

In an essay condemning a cultural institution that prevents men from looking at the faces of women, Hitchens instead argues that men have an inalienable right to stare. Of course, Hitchens phrases this in gender-neutral terms—"My right to see your face is the beginning of it, as is your right to see mine"—that assumes social equivalence between the gazes of women and men. In fact, the gender-neutral approach fails to acknowledge the sexist cultural institutions that allow men to exert ownership over women's bodies through their gaze—like street harassment and sexual objectification. When a guy passes a woman on the street and tells her to "smile, baby," he's asserting authority over her face, her feelings, and how she chooses to express them—or not. Those who would declare their "right" to look at women should first note the social context in which women's faces are often examined.

Forcing a woman to wear the veil is one way to own women's bodies; declaring that it is your "right" to force her to take it off is just another tactic in the same vein.

Photo by fabbio, Creative Commons Attribution License 2.0

  • zunguzungu

    @Matt: "The vast majority of women who are veiled across the world are forced to by their husbands, their governments, and their God."

    One of the things that always characterizes this discussion is that the Hitchens side always makes these kinds of generalizations without any actual knowledge to back it up. You say that because you want it to be true so you can be right, but you really have no actual idea what you're talking about. And because you'd rather just make up facts than deal with the actual (very complicated) reasons that women wear facial covering, it's just posturing.

    But this sort of thing is utterly common, if you have your eyes and mind open:

    "On the other hand, every wearer of burqa and niqab I have asked has viewed the garment as a blessing: a liberation not so much from the stares of men as from the stares of anyone at all. It freed them from caring about their appearance. They didn't have to do their hair. (Of course, since fashion abhors a vacuum, and when women's clothes are made forcibly subdued, they find ways to mark style by decorating the fringes of their abayas, say, or by paying heavy attention to eye make-up.) They could count money in public. They didn't get covered with filth, as I did, standing around waiting for the bus, and they could check me out and stare at me without risking the awkwardness of my staring back. No doubt there are women whose burqas are compulsory, but I have not met them."

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