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


  1. #1

    Thank you for this!!! I don't understand why people don't get it:
    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.

  2. #2

    What a dumb argument, Hitchens.

    The best argument is that the full veil is a public safety issue--when you enter a bank, a government building, or a public place of business, it should be possible for others to ascertain your identity. That argument applies equally to women wearing the veil (although not if they are only wearing a headscarf and not covering their faces) and guys wearing ski masks. You could also argue that this applies to any public space--roads, parks, etc. But the idea that other people have some generic right to look at you (which actually ranks higher than your right to show your face) is just stupid.

  3. #3


    If you actually read the article he makes that point. Amanda selectively used portions of the article to make his argument more prickish than it actually is.

  4. #4

    Well, to be fair, Hitchens is pretty prickish to begin with, so it doesn't take much.

  5. #5

    I agree with Kit-Kat. It is entirely impossible to make Hitchens more prickish than he already is.

  6. #6

    I don't think the public safety argument is valid, either. Are we also going to ban facial hair and dark glasses? Really this is just a bunch of rhetorical gymnastics to try to justify an, "Oooh, Muslims are weird and I don't like it!!!" reaction to Muslim immigrants.

  7. #7

    @Jesus son: I agree. Much as I often dislike Hitchens, he's very clearly citing public safety issues and not his right to look at women. He spends just as long or longer discussing the sexism behind the veil.

    I'm conflicted about this issue - as it pertains to France, because our laws and constitution are different from France's. That's not addressing the moral behind the attitude, but if you move to France, you are expected to assimilate to the culture to a wider extent than here in the US. Unfortunately, it's not as though these women have much choice about living in France. I think it's appropriate that they ask and deny men citizenship if the man in question says he requires his wife to wear a veil.

  8. #8

    In the USA we regularly ban the "right" to wear masks in public ala the KKK. Jenny I'm surprised they didn't cover this in your 9th grade civics class.

  9. #9






  10. #10

    Hitchens is smatter than us all. If he says it's right, it's right.

  11. #11


  12. #12

    Hitchens is not noted for sensitivity to teh wimminz.

  13. #13

    He states pretty clearly in his conclusion that the right to see other people's faces comes first, and the right to show your own face comes second. Hitchen's argument is not purely (or even chiefly) about "safety," or he would have said so in the conclusion---it's about liberty, equality, "fraternity" and "sorority." His right to see other people's faces is based on social expectations, not security.

  14. #14

    So what else does Hitchens have the right to see? Does he have the right to see my ears, my neck, my shoulders, my forehead, my feet? Where does it end?

  15. #15

    I wish people would realize they don't have a *right* to anything from anybody else other than the right to be left alone.

  16. #16


    You're conflating his argument with an entirely separate issue. He arrives at his conclusion logically--saying that for the very same reasons a male robber or klansman shouldn't be allowed to cover his face apply to Muslim women.

    Where is the outrage coming from? It seems completely invented. You can argue from the perspective of religious rights or women's rights, but the reality is dress codes exist in all societies. You can't run around a mall wearing a ski mask and you ALSO can't walk around completely nude without getting arrested for public indecency. Are public indecency laws sexist?

    These types of restrictions are all a matter of degree and your righteous outrage is missing some serious logical links.

    And yeah, Hitchens is a prick who I often disagree with, but he is often a really witty and well-spoken prick.

  17. #17

    Public indecency laws are sexist I'd say.

  18. Michael Hatfield

    In a free country you have a right to dress how you want, the mistake France made was allowing people who do not share their values to immigrate. There is no principle that states that a country has to allow you to move their and become a citizen no matter what. If anyone can provide a reason why everyone should be allowed to immigrate to France or America I would love to hear it.

  19. #19


    I think the public safety argument would be more valid if one differentiated between the niqab (face veil) and the burka (full covering). There have certainly been cases of male criminals using the burka as a disguise, and it would seem a bit more in line with the ski mask analogy than a niqab which still shows the eyes and bone structure of the face.

    But more importantly, why isn't Hitchens taking more consideration for the public safety of women whose families force them to veil? He points to the violence used to coerce some women into extreme veiling, but does not consider what will happen to these same women if they cannot go out in public veiled. I don't think those patriarchal husbands and fathers will suddenly let their female relatives head out in jeans. More likely, those women already victimized by their families will be doubly victimized by the law. If they cannot wear a veil on public streets, they may be kept in seclusion at home where there is no help in cases of domestic abuse.

  20. #20

    @ Michael Hatfield
    Immigrants actually tend to be more committed to the "values" of the country than the people who were born there; they made an active choice to be part of that country.

  21. #21

    The "I have a right to see your face" argument, IS stupid, but not because it has anything to do with sexism or gawking. I'm not really seeing the link Amanda is trying to make here. It's stupid because no such right has ever existed, and I'm not sure on what basis you could argue for it.

    The problem with the veil ban is that it clearly targets Muslims. Western society is pretty liberal when it comes to personal appearance... punks with mohawks, cross-dressers, and just about everyone on Halloween dress in ways that make certain people uncomfortable. Yet none of them are facing any kind of legal limitations on how they dress. It's discrimination, plain and simple.

  22. #22

    NbyNW: Truth.

    If the lady herself chose to wear the veil then she might decide that the new law makes it too much trouble, but if she has been told to wear the veil then it is much more likely that she will now be told that she cannot go out in public because she is no longer allowed to wear it.

  23. #23

    Why don't we just outlaw religion. Problem solved kza saves the day again.

  24. #24

    The Sexist, huh. So you opportunistically take offense in order to write about it. From your take on Hitchens' article, I'm guessing you've got a sweet pair of myopic sexist-tinted goggles which magically turn sex-neutral arguments into sexist ones. Seek and ye shall find, baby! BTW, the brand of "feminism" I'm smelling is passe by about a decade (b/c it was intellectually and philosophically vanquished two decades ago). Ciao, baby.

  25. Michael Hatfield

    Except fundamentalist Islam is incompatible w/democracy. According to Fundamentalist Muslims democracy and Womens right's are unislamic. Why should France or the US allow people to immigrate who don't believe in democracy or freedom?

  26. #26

    I agree with Kza; everyone has a right to be as naked (or not) as they choose. I fervently feel for women from conservative Muslim backgrounds that are forced to wear the veil for the satisfaction and "honor" of their male relatives/spouses.

    But I equally feel that the government has no right to tell a woman that she can't honor her god by wearing one. It's a paternalistic attitude from both sides. (And I use the term "paternalistic" in this case to mean both you what is good for you and to reference connotations of male supremacy over female rights.)

  27. #27

    Are we all losing our mind. of course we have the right to see one anothers' face. just take an example of your loved ones, how in the world would you know which one is your wife when you meet your wife in a public place filled with a 100 women dressed in all black??
    recently i met a guy taking his family picture in a tourist place and all the women are dressed in black.. no i have no idea why those women posed for the photo!!

  28. #28

    So, Amanda, I don't quite get it; are you for or against the ban? Or are you just against Hitchens and don't really care that Muslim women are being forced to wear or not wear something?

    He said "next but not least" which indicates that the rights of the women are most important. Of course you'd put your own rights (and how they affect you) as the most obvious and therefore first in the line of reasoning.

    "I agree with Kit-Kat. It is entirely impossible to make Hitchens more prickish than he already is." Huh. Do you even care about the rights of the women in question?

    My guess is that you probably wouldn't have much to say about it if the ban was here and it involved KKK "burqas."

  29. #29

    Let's try a little thought experiment. Let's say we want to ban Jewish men from wearing Yamulkes in the US because they restrict my right to tell whether a man has a bald spot or not. Or maybe we want to ban Catholic nuns from wearing their habits because they symbolize repression of women in European history. See the problem now?

  30. #30

    I'd like to mandate that guys wear Eisenhower jackets because I think men look hot in Eisenhower jackets. Would anyone like to sign my petition?

  31. pipi long stockings

    They could solve the security issue of Burqas and Niqabs by having female security guards check the identity of veiled women in private rooms. This would allow places that require photo ID to accommodate the needs of religious Muslim women while maintaining safety and security.

    There is no reason that France can't learn to live harmoniously with their growing Muslim population. Instead they are trying to force assimilation.

    These laws won't even help the women they are supposedly trying to help, the women forced to wear veils. Instead they will isolate these women even more because now they won't be allowed to go in public.

  32. #32

    @ bellacoker: consider your petition signed!

    Also, the only thing that banning Muslim women from wearing burqas and niqabs in public accomplishes is to make it impossible for that segment of the community to be seen in public. It doesn't address the cultural clash of Muslim immigrants living in a mostly secular/Christian-ish Western European country. It especially doesn't "liberate" any of the women affected by the ban. Clearly there's anxiety on both sides here, what I want to know is, how would Muslim women address the tension? What is their solution?

  33. #33

    Europe has to deal with this, different countries try different approaches, in at least one Eorupesn country there is what amounts to a low level civil war being fought against the state by muslim immigrants. Gang raping "westren whores" is seen as acceptable behaviour by many of these people.

    Naive westren liberals dont understand the threat to freedom that the the muslim religion represents.

    Also, islam, the christian right and feminism have plenty of common ground on anti-sexual freedom, its a recipie for oppression.

  34. #34

    Amanda---Hallo aus Deutschland! I like reading your blog!

    I think what is most revealing in the veil discussion is the demonization of the veil-wearing women. Like, if you accept Hitchens' premise that women are forced to wear this clothing, then (clearly!) the appropriate criminalization is on the abuse---on the people/institutions forcing them to wear it.

    Targeting the women, the abused and not the abusers, often smacks of racism and/or sexism. Maybe people see the burqa-clad as the visual vanguard of the oh-so-dreaded "Islamization" of their society. On the other hand, as you point out here, others would prefer to fashion women in an image they control.

    Presumably people don't talk much about targeting the abusers because the logistics, so to speak, are foreboding. Clearly one should setup an outlet for the intimidated/abused (I don't think it's controversial that at least _some_ veil-wearers are not covered-by-choice) to report instances and seek counsel/shelter.

    What I'd really be interested to see is more of your (Amanda or whoever else is inclined) thoughts on these mundane technical details of a just approach to the veil enigma. What evidence can a woman provide to achieve beyond-reasonable-doubt that she's being forced to don a burqa/veil/whatev? Subsequently, how can we protect her from recriminations and help her integrate into society? Also, how do we make a distinction (in a legal sense) between "being forced to wear" a uniform for work and some religious garb? Etc etc.

    I'm not _at all_ an expert, but I do guess that a delineation of some of these "technicalities", so to speak, could go some way in shifting the conversation, and most importantly the target of demonization and criminalization, back from the abused to the abuser.

  35. #35

    @Erik: that was really refreshing to read after some/many/most of the earlier comments. Thanks!

  36. #36

    If you follow Hitchens’ logic, you could conclude that we should all live in glass houses, because we all have the right to know what are neighbors are doing, to make sure they aren't stockpiling illegal weapons, making bombs, making child pornography, or downloading it. The veil being a safety issue is an argument that is debatable. When I go into PNC Bank, they ask me to take my baseball cap off. The Hijab, I don't see it as being a public safety issue. What most people don't understand, and I tell them this all the time, is that the Hijab comes from Europe. Also, if you look at pictures of the Virgin Mary, she’s essentially wearing a Hijab, just like nuns do. Are their women being forced to wear the Hijab or veil, probably yes. Are they as oppressed as nuns are? That’s another argument. Are there Muslim women that do want to wear the veil? Yes there are. All you have to do is look at Turkey, where women have done protests to wear the Hijab. You can also look at Morocco, where women do, and some don’t wear the Hijab. If a Muslim woman terrorist is determined to commit a terrorist act, all she has to do is dress up like a nun, wear a Habit, and commit her act. This act would absolutely invalidate the ban on veils and Hijabs as being a public safety concern.

  37. #37

    Hey Amanda,

    Check out Alain Badiou's essay from 2004 "Hijab"--pretty much anticipates and slashes the shit out of the French universalist bullshit that builds this feminism-at-the-service-of-nationalism-for-the-purpose-of-exposing-womens-bodies-and-all-that-creepy-shit:

    There's a very nice print distro of it from Petroleuse Press, a feminist group based out of NYC that has a lot of other stuff that you might be somewhat interested in:

  38. #38

    Whenever someone says "to follow your logic", I always wince in anticipation of the ensuing illogical trainwreck. Ah, the irony. Here's how it works. A perfectly reasonable point is taken and mangled beyond all recognition but still in a way convenient to the mangler. Then, the mangler claims their conveniently mangled trainwreck is bunk therefore the original argument must also be bunk. Then the mangler walks away under the grave misapprehension that they've made a valid point all the while clueless that they possess the thinking skills of a 4th grader.

  39. #39

    Hitchens is ultimately just scared shitless of the potentiality of resistance that the veil might keep close (or at least that he thinks it might keep close). Franz Fanon spoke of how, during the Algerian war of resistance against French colonialism, women would don coverings specifically to smuggle weapons for the FLN.

    Every time you hear "veil" in an argument in France, replace it with the following sentence:

    "We are scared shitless what the dispossessed children of former colonial subjects that were imported as cheap labor in the 70s and then discarded into the invisiblity of the Banlieues might do to our precious little European homogeneity like oh dear god in 2005 when the cars were set aflame over the death of one measly black child who would have otherwise been indistinguishable from the gray concrete projects which we have so graciously built for them."

  40. #40

    There are so many things I'd like to dispute.

    First of all, I lived in France and the French don't really look eachother in the faces unless they know eachother or want to hook up.

    Also, when I was there, the veils in schools issue was hot. But veils and burqas and hijab are much different things. The veil does not cover the face.

    This law is not about women's right to show their faces. For most women who choose to wear burqa, they want the right to cover up. Most Muslim women I know are against forced veiling, but prefer to keep it a personal religious choice. They are making a statement against makeup and vanity. In their view, they are MORE liberated than western women whom they see as slaves to vanity. (Some women are forced to veil in many Islamic nations, but not in France)

    Let's not judge their feminism until we understand their point of view.

  41. #41


    Damn skippy peanut butter! The larger reality is that the former Imperial nations are in sharp decline. So the draconian laws will increase, as they fight harder to maintain and exert control and influence. Issues like this and the schooling laws in AZ wreak of the same elements of fear. And the powers that be have every "right" to be fretful. Things will get far worse before they get better.

    About the actual issue. It is quite clear the manifestations of patriarchy are playing big dick v little dick here. Little dick has the "right" to control a woman's body, expression and appearance, big dick has the right to control little dick and his woman's body, appearance etc. Hitchens obv sides with the big dicks and their "right" to assert control.

    @Mike Hatfield

    democracy is incompatible w freedom. freedom is incompatible w being free. be afraid. The price of cheap labour will inevitably be the unraveling of your security blanket. dress warm.


  42. #42

    What blows my mind about that Hitchens piece (which I blogged about here) is the weird suggestion that the real problem with the KKK was that they wore masks (here I thought it was the century of racial terrorism and violence), coupled with the visceral hostility towards the women who he poses as being worried about. His real stakes are, as always, in finding ways to justify American power in the Muslim world. And in that, he's just playing the same game as the British a century ago, where the idea of English women voting or owning property was weird and scandalous; Muslim women wearing the veil was the only form of social control against women they could recognize.

  43. #43

    Legba: I love France, but this is one *glaring* flaw in their society and your translation is spot-on. A lot of ethnically French people still have colonial attitudes, and the police brutality in the Banlieues is legendary. It's also nearly impossible to escape from them once you're stuck there. They're an extremely diverse community with all-white leadership pretty much. They need a civil rights movement, bad, and I'm just hoping it doesn't lead to more violence for them all.

    And Michael Hatfield, that's the point of view for many white French people, but what many French immigrants would say to you is this: they invaded my country, killed my people, took our freedom and wrecked our country when they left. They don't have any right to immigrate? I would beg to differ. Colonialism wasn't that long ago, honestly.

  44. #44

    "Hitchens is ultimately just scared shitless of the potentiality of resistance that the veil might keep close (or at least that he thinks it might keep close)"

    This is just wrong. Hitchens hates religion with every beat of his heart. He would be happier if France banned Islam entirely, and would be ecstatic were France to ban religion altogether. He's not scared of Arabs because they're brown and have historical grievances, he's scared of them because their crazy nonsense religion is crazy nonsense.

  45. Legba Carrefour

    @Hatfield: We are largely talking about people born in France, whose parents or grandparents were immigrants. Not that this should matter in the slightest ("immigrant" is a bullshit category to begin with--particularly when you're talking about people from former colonies) but the labeling of someone born in France who has some artifact of Otherness (the veil in this case) as being "immigrant" is straight up white-supremacist nationalism.

    @zunguzungu: The irony of Hitchens invoking the spectre of masked Klansmen is that I'm sure he relished watching masked women in Iran throwing rocks at the police. But shame on those same women if they should keep that mask on when they go shopping in Paris!

  46. #46

    Is there any religion that isn't crazy nonsense? I've yet to find one.

  47. #47

    For his argument to work, women would have to be the only ones with the current rights to hide their faces and expressions.

    But, so far as I understand, he can put on a veil himself any time.

  48. #48

    I have to agree with Conrad Davis on this one. And because of it Hitchens's point is logically consistent. Fundamentalist Islam is incompatible with liberalsim (as in any form of fundamentalist religion). Full face-coverings are an extreme extension of that radical Islam. The fact of that matter is that an open and tolerant society MUST not tolerate intolerance. Much of Europe has since WWII which is how they've gotten to the place they have now where you have a radical culture growing parallel to the dominant democratic culture instead of integrating. The veil ban is a last desperate attempt to crush that intolerance. It's too little too late in my opinion but it's not wrong. The vast majority of women who are veiled across the world are forced to by their husbands, their governments, and their God. That is NOT acceptable anywhere and it must be made perfectly clear that Europe will not accept that attitude toward women. Or toward anyone.

  49. #49

    @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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