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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