At this stage, several EU countries have introduced (or are in the process of introducing) legislation banning the wearing of Islamic headscarves, the burqa, the hijab and other forms of dress. The French assembly, that august body of men and women at the vanguard of all things modern, uses the phrase voile integrale to describe the entire range of clothing. Of course the integral bit is not just a handy generic word but represents the entirety of the motivation behind these laws. Ban the burka and you ban the culture. There: it’s integral.
It is probably only a matter of time before the whole discussion gets imported into an Irish context. “But Joe, Joe, I can’t see her face like” yeh yeh go on “and if I can’t see her face, how do I know who she is?! We’ll have a load of motorbike couriers complaining how they have to remove their helmets when they go into the bank, so if we have to do it “why do they have to be any different?” What is striking about how this idea of banning face coverings moves from state to state is the entirely a-spatial nature of the discussion. What works in France will work here and here and here. On the train home last night, a friend told me that Quebec is also in advanced stages of legislatively banning the burqa. Not Canada, but Quebec. Hell, Quebec is almost a French department right? So how does such a debate introduce itself at the doors of a legislature. Here’s how it was introduced in Quebec earlier this year:
“Two words: Uncovered face,” (Quebec’s Premier Jean) Charest told reporters during a press conference in Quebec City. “The principle is clear.”
And yes, the angry and vehement principle is clear: if you live in Quebec and wear a face covering veil you will be denied access to public services. Never mind the fact that governments across the world are trying to make their services available online (the most faceless of all media) or that isolating a small group of people from public life has no seeming consequence. Your face must be uncovered to be quebecois. The men who bombed and killed in London 5 years ago, their faces were not hidden. The men who serially stalk younger women in UK towns, they do not hide their faces. The men who are charged and convicted of the most heinous sexual depravity in our courts here in Ireland: their faces are never hidden.
Instead we must make available to selective public gaze the faces of some women over others. The threat to ‘our’ security is compromised by a woman doing her shopping. How do these ideas travel across spaces and different territories? How does a brutal measure like national legislation on a ‘macro’ scale impact upon ‘micro’ scale social relations on our streets and bus stops? If this is secularisation, I’m going back to Mass. I’m writing a paper for the Cork conference right now which is trying to see how a discourse that takes its legitimacy from a post-9/11 environment of fear plants itself in new geographies. And how does this become our idea of what is right and proper in ‘public’. I’m not sure I am any closer to a firm idea.