Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Facing Hitchens

"I can only admire but cannot emulate the accuracy of judgment of those who pose the fair young mammals photographed in magazines where the general neckline is just low enough to provoke a past master's chuckle and just high enough not to make a postmaster frown." (Vladimir Nabokov)

I like Christopher Hitchens's column in Slate this week. I don't agree with it, but I like it because he emphasizes exactly the point at issue. He offers some "minor" objections to the Burka as well, but seems as bored by them as I am. (It may or may not be true that it's unsafe to drive a car wearing various kinds of headdress, but then the law should be against driving under that influence, not the influence itself. We don't ban whisky because it impairs our ability to drive. Nor ought we to ban pot for that reason, as Hitchens would agree.)

No, Hitchens goes straight at it. It begins with a somewhat personal stance:

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"?

But he ends with something much more universal (and what is an intellectual for if not to distill a universal principle from a feeling of personal indignation?):

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.

There seems to me to be an obvious objection. Hitchens is claiming his right to see a woman's face over her right to hide it from him. He is offering me the right to see his face in exchange for relinquishing my right to turn mine away from him while I talk to him.

Now, as it happens, the idea of a face to face with Christopher Hitchens appeals to me. But I both understand and respect the impulse to modesty that underlies a woman's (or man's) choice to wear a veil (which is not the same impulse, I want to point out, that underlies the decision of European women to wear sunglasses.) I also understand the desire that underpins a man's hope that his wife will dress modestly in public; and I leave it to husband, wife, and priest (if husband and wife so choose), to decide what's appropriate. I will never grant the state the power to decide what counts as reasonable modesty, no more than I will grant the state the right to decide what counts as too immodest. I would have thought Hitchens was with me on this.

In my country, at least for now, a woman has the right to show as much of her face (and then some) as she chooses. I simply cannot see anything healthy in a law that changes this.


Presskorn said...

I think still Badiou's Le Monde article "Behind the scarfed law, there is fear" from 2004 is the best on the whole burka-hijab-thing... An excerpt:

"Grandiose causes need new-style arguments. For example: hijab must be banned; it is a sign of male power (the father or eldest brother) over young girls or women. So, we'll banish the women who obstinately wear it. Basically put: these girls or women are oppressed. Hence, they shall be punished. It's a little like saying: "This woman has been raped: throw her in jail." ... [...]...Or, contrariwise: it is they who freely want to wear that damned headscarf, those rebels, those brats! Hence, they shall be punished. Wait a minute: do you mean it isn't the symbol of male oppression, after all? The father and eldest brother have nothing to do with it? Where then does the need to ban the scarf come from? The problem in hijab is conspicuously religious. Those brats have made their belief conspicuous. You there! Go stand in the corner!"

PS: Incidentally, I don't like Badiou generally and his book on philosophy of mathematics and Wittgenstein will certainly be banned after the revolution... But headscarfs will be allowed :-)

Presskorn said...

Errata: In the previous comment, "I still think that" replaces "I think still"...