One typical victim-blaming justification of street harassment goes something like this, "What did she think would happen when she went out wearing that?!" The logic underlying such a comment seems to be that the only women who are groped, ogled, or verbally accosted on the street are ones who choose to buck social norms of modesty by improperly displaying their sexuality—and the conclusion that follows this strain of logic is that there is no other possible reading by the men who observe this type of "non-normative" behavior than to perceive it as an invitation for all types of commentary and conduct, from the annoying to the illegal. Many feminists are all too familiar with this wrongheaded sentiment when it comes to sexual violence and harassment, but the news out of France recently has caused me to consider its relevance to another gendered freedom, or rather lack thereof, in France: the state prohibition of Muslim women wearing the niqab in public.
At its core, street harassment is about denying people equal right and access to public space as a result of their (perceived or actual) gender identity, gender expression, and/or sexual orientation. As if this definition weren't complicated enough, its simplicity fails to clearly identify the ways gender identity, gender expression, and sexual orientation are influenced by a myriad other factors that contribute to our gendered and sexual identities: race, ethnicity, religion, immigration status, and nationality, to name a few. In France, all these things collide in the now worldwide debate regarding the newly enacted law passed by the conservative French government that bans women from wearing the niqab in public spaces.
As of April 11, 2011, writes journalist Angelique Chrisafis, "any Muslim woman wearing a face veil is now banned from all public places in France, including when walking down the street, taking a train, going to hospital or collecting her children from school. Women in niqabs will be effectively under house arrest, allowed only inside a place of worship or a private car, although they risk being stopped by traffic police if they drive." This new law is an example of what happens when secularism goes awry and should be seen as an important women's rights issue—an infraction of this group of female citizens' right to public space—as opposed to merely seeing the niqab as a symbol of gender oppression.
The niqab ban is also an anti-immigrant attack on a very small female minority in the country, as fewer than 2,000 women in France are thought to wear the veil. (Which begs the question: why bother ban it at all?) This anti-immigrant sentiment is echoed in the institutional consequence for public niqab wearing: a €150 ($215 USD) fine or citizenship lessons for those caught violating the law. The assumption being that any Muslim woman wearing niqab isn't well versed enough in what it means to be a "real" French citizen, and therefore needs instruction on how to properly be French. Clearly, outward displays of religiosity are not what "good" Frenchwomen do—and who cares if marginalized groups don't have equal access to public space or, conversely, aren't allowed to dress as they please?
An additional complication is that the ban has increased hostility toward niqabis in public places. One woman told the New York Times, "Before, on the street, I got only stares. But now people look at us as if we had killed their mothers." Documentarian Naima Bouteldja added, "Most of the women confront verbal abuse on a daily basis."
The street harassment bells should be ringing clearly for you now if they weren't already.
"The street is the universal home of freedom and nobody should challenge that so long as these women are not impinging on anyone else's freedom," says Rachid Nekkaz, a Muslim property dealer. "I am calling on all free women who so wish to wear the veil in the street and engage in civil disobedience." Reading Nekkaz's call, I was reminded of the SlutWalks cropping up across North America, and I wonder if any activists in France are taking such steps of solidarity. (If you are, please tell us about it in the comments!)
Here's the thing about identity and freedom: if you want the latter, you've got to embrace the former in all its diverse forms. Because if you don't, people will find ways to resist going down the slippery slope of assimilationist confinement. Aside from being defiantly arrested in public protest of the law, Muslim women in France are turning to more creative forms of resistance, such as wearing medical face masks while claiming it as a protection from illness. In some ways this is an apt metaphor for the unjust ailments they are being made to endure at the imposition of their government and fellow citizens.