Saturday, 23 January 2010

The French Veil Ban, and other well-meaning interventions

This is a response to a post over at Feminazery, a little later than I'd hoped. The details of the proposed ban on 'people on the public street whose face is entirely covered' in France are pretty much irrelevant - I was having a think about the idea of banning any aspect of personal appearance. The post has been difficult to write because it's more personal than I would normally consider being. Nonetheless, there's a couple of things I want to say on this topic.

Should we consider banning any items of clothing related to a particular religion, we will have to word the legislation very carefully indeed. I'm sure that there is no way to make such a law both workable and non-discriminatory. Say we decided that women covering their hair with a headscarf was 'intimidating' and that banning this practice in public would be a step forward for women's rights. Either many things would be included unintentionally (Hair nets and swimming caps? Will the headgear of Queen Elizabeth, and many other women her age, be banned too?) or the headgear will have to be defined as a symbol of a particular religion. Practically speaking, the only way to determine whether something is being worn as a religious symbol is to determine the religious beliefs of the wearer; if two women are both covering their hair, and only one is a Muslim, only one would be breaking the law. Clearly, that sucks.

My second point is aimed at those who would like to see some practices banned because they are a symbol of female subjugation. It is widely accepted that Muslim women follow rules on covering skin and hair because they will be punished if they don't, and if you are sure of this fact then it must be upsetting to see evidence of this walking around. But forcing a change in behaviour is not the answer. Not only is it denying that women have the right, even the ability, to choose for themselves, but it completely disregards how they may feel about the new, enforced level of exposure.

This is where my personal experience comes in, which should explain why I'm (quite arrogantly) attempting to speak for a group of women I don't belong to. I wear a wig. I have done since the age of about three, due to some piffling genetic oddity, the only symptom of which is that it makes my 'natural' hairstyle resemble that of a mad scientist caught fraternising with the enemy. And there lies the probem - lack of hair in a woman has certain cultural associations. We no longer shave the heads of female fraternisers, prisoners or asylum inmates, but it is still considered a sign of criminality, illness, deviance, or extreme politics. Just look at the perplexed derision that awaited Britney Spears when she shaved her head, even though leaving it an inch longer would have been accepted. As I don't want to attract such associations purely based on my appearance*, I cover my own hair most of the day.

Looking at it logically, it's silly that I should feel this way. Natural -looking wigs aren't cheap. They're also hot in the summer, and uncomfortable under winter hats. They make me worried about going on roller-coasters (and I LOVE roller-coasters) and getting caught it the rain loses much of its romance. My life would improve if I just did away with the blasted things, and the only thing stopping me is the culture I grew up in; because of the way long, thick, shiny hair is fetishised in western culture, and the fact that lack of hair is still considered a legitimate target for ridicule**, I would rather walk down the street with a bare arse than a bare head.

...And I think the same goes for any culturally-imposed rules on clothing. However unfair and unnecessary they may appear to those looking in, imposing change from the outside amounts to a twisted form of bullying. No state has the right to force people to feel uncomfortable, all day every day, as they go about their normal, law-abiding business. Anyone who thinks it a good idea to force women to feel exposed had better be prepared to go naked the next day.

*And because I don't have Sigourney Weaver or Natalie Portman's beautifully-shaped cranium.

** That episode of Johnathan Creek where they repeatedly take the piss out of a bald girlfriend was easily the most traumatic TV experience of my early teenage years.

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