Veiling the Argument

Originally posted on May 10, 2010

In Amanda Hess’ critique of Christopher Hitchens’ article about the French ban on the burqa, Hess argues that “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'”:

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.

Hess quotes from Hitchens’ article:

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.

Even taking the quote at face value, Hess’ assertions misrepresent Hitchens’ position. He did not say men have an inalienable right to stare. While this is not the first time Hess has made egregious leaps in logic in order to find sexism where there is none, although it is one of the sloppier attempts. Not only does she introduce ideas that were not mentioned in Hitchens’ comment, but she also selectively quoted from Hitchens’ article in a way that changed his actual position.

This is what Hitchens actually stated:

The French legislators who seek to repudiate the wearing of the veil or the burqa—whether the garment covers “only” the face or the entire female body—are often described as seeking to impose a “ban.” To the contrary, they are attempting to lift a ban: a ban on the right of women to choose their own dress, a ban on the right of women to disagree with male and clerical authority, and a ban on the right of all citizens to look one another in the face. The proposed law is in the best traditions of the French republic, which declares all citizens equal before the law and—no less important—equal in the face of one another.

On the door of my bank in Washington, D.C., is a printed notice politely requesting me to remove any form of facial concealment before I enter the premises. The notice doesn’t bore me or weary me by explaining its reasoning: A person barging through those doors with any sort of mask would incur the right and proper presumption of guilt. This presumption should operate in the rest of society. I would indignantly refuse to have any dealings with a nurse or doctor or teacher who hid his or her face, let alone a tax inspector or customs official. Where would we be without sayings like “What have you got to hide?” or “You dare not show your face”?

Ah, but the particular and special demand to consider the veil and the burqa as an exemption applies only to women. And it also applies only to religious practice (and, unless we foolishly pretend otherwise, only to one religious practice). This at once tells you all you need to know: Society is being asked to abandon an immemorial tradition of equality and openness in order to gratify one faith, one faith that has a very questionable record in respect of females.

Hitchens’ position, contrary to what Hess stated, is about equality, primarily equal visibility. While his argument about people’s “right” to see someone else’s face lacks support, he makes a valid point about the social impact of covering one’s face. In Western society seeing a person face to face plays an important role. We would refuse to deal with nurses, doctors, teachers, tax collectors, and customs officials who hid their faces because of our cultural, and perhaps instinctual, presumption that people only cover their faces when they want to hide something.  To illustrate that Hitchens uses an analogy:

Let me ask a simple question to the pseudoliberals who take a soft line on the veil and the burqa. What about the Ku Klux Klan? Notorious for its hooded style and its reactionary history, this gang is and always was dedicated to upholding Protestant and Anglo-Saxon purity. I do not deny the right of the KKK to take this faith-based view, which is protected by the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. I might even go so far as to say that, at a rally protected by police, they could lawfully hide their nasty faces. But I am not going to have a hooded man or woman teach my children, or push their way into the bank ahead of me, or drive my taxi or bus, and there will never be a law that says I have to.

In short, Hitchens does not say men posses the inalienable right to stare at women, nor does he fail to acknowledge “the sexist cultural institutions that allow men to exert ownership over women’s bodies through their gaze,” whatever that means. Hitchens asserts that people possess the right to see each other’s  faces, that women possess the right to show their faces, and that the law must side with transparency. That is not an anti-woman or pro-harassment position, although it apparently is not a feminist position either.

Any fair reading of Hitchens’ article would show that he does not present or support any element of sexism against women. Any fair reading of Hess’ response would show that she goes out of her way to find sexism, going so far as to misrepresent Hitchens’ actual argument. She demonstrates the problem with forming an opinion beforehand and the problem with selectively reading things based on one’s political position. Twisting a person’s argument does not make one’s argument sound. Rather, it shows the flaws in one’s own argument.

7 thoughts on “Veiling the Argument

  1. Indeed. Christopher Hitchens is far too busy hating religion to spend time hating women.

  2. In the USA a ban on veils and burquas would never fly as indeed it shouldn’t. Whatever we may think of the practice, we have religious freedom here.

    France is different, has never claimed to have a constitution like ours, and has always been concerned with upholding the French culture. If muslims don’t like this, they could always leave France.

  3. In the USA a ban on veils and burquas would never fly ????

    We had an incident at my daughter’s school. Any student that wore anything professing a religious view was banned and said articles were confiscated to be later picked up by parents. Yet a Muslim girl, who was wearing what could be called a ‘modified’ veil and burqua [ veil and head covering extending down to cover the shoulders while wearing long sleeved, buttoned up shirt/blouse and loose slacks. ] was allowed to remain so dressed and completed the school year.

    Freedom of religion doesn’t seem to include include Christians or Jews. The school didn’t want to offend any Muslims…

  4. duck, your daughter’s school is curtailing its students’ First Amendment rights. The SCOTUS has been very clear that students are allowed to profess their religion at school. If that kind of behavior persists, I’d contact the ACLU and get other parents involved.

  5. “In the USA a ban on veils and burquas would never fly as indeed it shouldn’t. Whatever we may think of the practice, we have religious freedom here.”

    The Sikh have religious curved ceremonial sheathed knives, worn as necklaces. Decorative and always sheathed. But I still doubt you’d allow a bladed weapon in class, or at your workplace.

    Same deal with Burqa, or if someone had a pointy (most are blunt) cross.

    And again, the religious freedom to perform female genital mutilation is banned.

  6. I utterly utterly hate the burqa debates. Banning people from concealing their faces is a very complex issue, over whether the state should intervene in personal issues if they think it will help the person (in this case, stop the person from developing issues of self-worth from feeling the need to hide their faces), and also whether or not it actually would make things better or worse for the person.

    Instead, the general populace think there is only two elements to the situation:
    1: The ban is for security reasons.
    2: The ban only affects women wearing burqas.

    ‘course, bonus points go for anyone who says the ban discriminates. A rule that affects everyone equally cannot, by definition, be sexist.

    Personally, I’m in favour of the ban. Without going into a big debate about it, I believe the state should ensure the best for the people, even when the people don’t want it.

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