Coming Soon:

The following books by Robert Paul Wolff are available on Amazon.com as e-books: KANT'S THEORY OF MENTAL ACTIVITY, THE AUTONOMY OF REASON, UNDERSTANDING MARX, UNDERSTANDING RAWLS, THE POVERTY OF LIBERALISM, A LIFE IN THE ACADEMY, MONEYBAGS MUST BE SO LUCKY, AN INTRODUCTION TO THE USE OF FORMAL METHODS IN POLITICAL PHILOSOPHY.
Now Available: Volumes I, II, III, and IV of the Collected Published and Unpublished Papers.

NOW AVAILABLE ON YOUTUBE: LECTURES ON KANT'S CRITIQUE OF PURE REASON. To view the lectures, go to YouTube and search for "Robert Paul Wolff Kant." There they will be.

To contact me about organizing, email me at rpwolff750@gmail.com




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Wednesday, May 5, 2010

MASKS, VEILS, AND THE PRESENTATION OF SELF IN EVERYDAY LIFE

Now that I am posting my Memoirs three times a week, I can use this space on off days to comment on the passing scene. Today, in the NEW YORK TIMES, The Majority Leader in the French National Assembly, Jean-Francois Cope, has an op ed defending his proposal to ban the wearing of the burqa and niqab in public. He offers an argument I had not heard before, and since I think it is deeply flawed, I thought I would comment. So we are clear, the law concerns the full body garment worn by some Muslim women that leaves only a gauze covered eye slit.

First things first. If a young woman wishes to cut and dye her hair a spiked purple and orange, attach body piercings to her ears, nose, tongue, eye lids, nipples, and clitoris, and wear an abbreviated tank top with short shorts, that is in France an acceptable expression of individuality. But if she wishes to wear a burqa, that is an unacceptable attack on the foundations of French liberty.

Pretty clearly, modesty is not the issue.

Cope offers two arguments. The first is that the wearing of the burqa,like the wearing of a mask, poses a security threat, because it makes it impossible for police using security cameras to identify felons in the act of breaking the law. This is no doubt true, but inasmuch as it is also an argument for requiring everyone to wear large print name tags, with penalties for wearing a tag with the wrong name on it, I think we can safely pass over this argument.

Cope's real argument is rather more subtle, and at least to me, surprising. By wearing the burqa, a Muslim woman is refusing to make eye contact with her fellow citizens. The burqa represents "a refusal to exist as a person in the eyes of others. The person who wears one is no longer identifiable; she is a shadow among others, lacking individuality, avoiding responsibility."

There are two things wrong with this argument, which is the sum and substance of Cope's case. First, it imposes on everyone in a society [not just Muslim women] the demand that they constantly engage in interactions with others, whether or not they want to. It refuses to permit someone to withdraw into him or herself, to cultivate anonymity or privacy, to decline to put on a party face and be one of the group. In effect, it says that you cannot be a J. D. Salinger, even if you pay your taxes and leave others alone. That is a terrifying image of a society, and I can tell you, as someone who owns a Paris apartment and spends a good deal of time there, it does not in the slightest describe the character of social interactions on Paris streets.

Second, Cope's argument is hopelessly ignorant of the realities of human interactions. I would strongly recommed that he read Erving Goffman's little book, THE PRESENTATION OF SELF IN EVERYDAY LIFE. Does Cope really believe that the public persona presented by Nicholas Sarkozy to the world is any more open, accessible, or authentic than that presented by a woman wearing a burqa?

Despite the superficial sophistication of Cope's argument, it and others like it are simply twenty-first century version of "Coloreds around back" and "no Irish need apply."

2 comments:

Ann said...

As I understand your argument, the proposed restrictions on the burqa in France are simply a form of prejudice... racial or ethnic.

What about the presumed intent to "liberate" women in French society...at least according to our definition of liberation.....?

It reminds me of the debate on female mutilation...whether each culture must be allowed to have its own practices, or whether there is some universal human right to bodily integrity.

Kell said...

On the one hand Copé's arguments are not fully convincing me. Banning the burqa is not going to effect how women are treated by their husbands behind closed doors, and surely if a woman refuses to be seen by other men in public, and her only means of entering the public sphere is by wearing the burqa, then isn't banning it simply forcing these conservative Muslim women further into the private sphere, out of sight and out of mind?

Yet on the other side of the same coin I understand the need for gender equality and female liberation, specifically within the Islamic diaspora.
My problem with Copé's approach to it, however much I respect his efforts in that direction, is that I strongly feel that such an equality can not be forced, nor will this happen overnight. By banning religious garb the Western world is only further isolating followers of the Islamic faith. This is not going to serve to incorporate them into the euro-centric world of France, but is more likely to make them seek out spaces where they can continue to wear their burqas in a more Islam-concentrated community.