What are the bets that I — a heterosexual, middle class, white male — can’t navigate this topic sensitively? More to the point, why should I try? Isn’t this a debate that has little (if anything) to do with me? Muslim women in Australia should be able to wear whatever the damn hell they want. Why is this even up for debate?
As is sensible and appropriate, the rest of the Internet has taken care of the Islamophobic angle. Islam is the Big Scary Religion and everything that is Islamic is somehow threatening. For those of you who think law bubbles up from the pot of culture, it seems we have a series of ‘all-too-common’ law crimes, the most famous of which being ‘driving while black’. Now we have ‘occupying a public place while under the influence of being Muslim’.
But what if it’s not just Islamophobia at work here? Of course, it is Islamophobic and we shouldn’t try to eclipse that with anything else. But what if there were something else at work here, mixed with the Islamophobia, which explains the way otherwise sensible people sense an affinity with this Islamophobic policy.
The launchpad for this begins with the concern that niqab is a threat to security not because Muslims are all trying to kill us, but because we cannot identify the person who is wearing the niqab. It’s on this point that the ‘anti-burqa’ crowd seem to feel they’re being more reasonable and less Islamophobic. If we lived in a culture vacuum where phrases weren’t situated in the context of discussing the way somebody expresses their religio-cultural norms, it might be less Islamophobic. Alas, we don’t.
But even if we did, how reasonable is it to think that we must, at all times, dress in such a way that allows other people to identify us for security reasons? How reasonable is it to think that we must, even in some situations, dress in a way that enables others to monitor us?
People — wrongly and foolishly — think that the panopticon is a State mode of oppression. It’s not. Unfortunately, our political language developed at a time when we were most concerned with the State finding ways of being generally awful towards us. Today, we are censored in much more pervasive ways. The companies behind social media platforms can tweak, shape, and block our messages. Cyclists want to film us when we’re on the street. Companies withdraw funding from celebrities who behave in ‘antisocial’ ways. And we risk people informing our employers if we say controversial things online. We are at all times visible to each other so that we can police each other. The dangerous person is the stranger who does not subject themselves to the scrutiny of peers.
The only freedom we can have from this mode of oppression is through abnegation of identity. We are only free to be ourselves when we are most anonymous.
And this isn’t to be utopian about it. Most of us are terrible, terrible people. I get threats and menacing telephone calls from people calling from private telephone numbers because they’re too gutless to say it on a more even playing field. And I really shouldn’t be too precious about it — seeing the sort of abuse that my (female) friends get online from anonymous guys is far worse than anything I tolerate.
On this line of reasoning, the concern about the niqab is also an attack on people who transgress (in an interesting sense) the modes of oppression that allow us to police each other. Anonymity is threatening because we only trust people that we can keep under surveillance.
It was this need to keep everybody in a state of mutual surveillance that caused Christopher Hitchens to write:
So it’s really quite simple. My right to see your face is the beginning of it, as is your right to see mine. […] The law must be decisively on the side of transparency.
He might not have believed in the divine spirit, but few people had a more fanatical faith in metaphysical rights which privileged his own status than Christopher Hitchens. Of course, it is a nonsense to say that you have a right to see my face and transparency (in this sense) should only have the backing of law if you’re trying to force people to be obedient to social norms.
The ‘solidarity’ movement of posting a selfie of yourself wearing a hijab doesn’t quite grapple with this pervasive intuition that we’re only secure if I allow you, at all times, to identify me. Weirdly, it reinforces it by focusing on a form of attire where the face can be seen and then encouraging you to take a picture of yourself so you can be identified.
Framed differently, if we didn’t have such an anxiety about people being anonymous in public, it would be easier to show the Islamophobic core of the ‘anti-burqa’ rhetoric. The language of security wouldn’t be sullied with racism.