The neighbour in burqa | Sunday Observer

The neighbour in burqa

In January 2010 Jean-François Copé, the parliamentary leader of the Union pour un Mouvement Populaire, the ruling French party, proposed the draft of a law which bans the full-body veil from French streets and all other public places. This announcement came after the anguished six-month debate on the burqa and its Arab equivalent, the niqab, which cover the woman’s face, except for a small slit for the eyes.

All main political parties expressed their rejection of burqa: the main opposition party, the Parti Socialiste, said it is “totally opposed to the burqa,” which amounted to a “prison for women”. The disagreements are of a purely tactical nature: although the then President Nicolas Sarkozy opposes the outright ban on burqa as counter-productive, he called for a “debate on national identity” in October 2009, claiming that the burqa is “against French culture.”

The law fines up to 750 Euros on anyone appearing in public “with their face entirely masked”; exemptions would permit the wearing of masks on “traditional, festive occasions,” such as carnivals. Stiffer punishment would be laid down for men who “forced” their wives or daughters to wear full-body veils. The underlying idea is that the burqa or niqab are contrary to French traditions of freedom and laws on women’s rights, or to quote Copé: “We can measure the modernity of a society by the way it treats and respects women.”

The new legislation is thus intended to protect the dignity and security of women. As Sarkozy said, veils are “not welcome” because, in a secular country like France, they intimidate and alienate non-Muslims… one cannot but note how the allegedly universalist attack on burqa on behalf of human rights and dignity ends up as a defence of the particular French way of life.

This law, of course, gave rise to many pragmatic criticisms – the fear is that, if implemented, it will increase the oppression of Muslim women: they will simply not be allowed to leave home and thus be cut even more from society, exposed to the harsh treatment of forced marriages.

The fine will exacerbate the issue of poverty and joblessness: it will punish the very women who are least likely to have control over their own money. The problem is, however, a more fundamental one – what makes this whole debate symptomatic is, first, the marginal status of the problem: the whole nation talks about it, while the number of women wearing both types of full body veil in France is around 2,000, out of a total French population of adult Muslim women of about 1,500,000. (And, incidentally, most of those women who wear full-length veils are below 30 years, and a substantial proportion of them are French women who had converted.)

The next curious feature is the ambiguity of the critique of burqa: it moves at two levels. First, it is presented as the defence of the dignity and freedom of the oppressed Muslim women – one cannot accept that in a secular France, a group of women has to live a hidden life secluded from the public space, be subordinated to brutal patriarchal authority. However, the argument then as a rule shifts towards the anxieties of the non-Muslim French people themselves: faces covered by burqa do not fit the coordinates of the French culture and identity, they “intimidate and alienate non-Muslims.” Some French women even used the argument that they experience someone wearing a burqa as their own humiliation, as being brutally excluded, rejected from a social link.

This brings us to the true enigma: why does the encounter with a face covered by burqa trigger such anxiety? Is it then, that a face covered by burqa is no longer the Levinasian face, the Otherness from which the unconditional ethical call emanates? But what if the case is the opposite one? From a Freudian perspective, face is the ultimate mask that conceals the horror of the Neighbor-Thing: face is what makes the Neighbour le semblable, a fellow-man with whom we can identify and empathise. (Not to mention the fact that today, many faces are surgically changed and thus deprived of the last vestiges of natural authenticity.)

This then, is why a covered face causes such anxiety: because it confronts us directly with the abyss of the Other-Thing, with the Neighbour in its uncanny dimension. The very covering-up of the face obliterates a protective shield, so that the Other-Thing stares at us directly (recall that the burqa has a narrow slip for the eyes: we don’t see the eyes, but we know there is a gaze there).

Alphonse Allais presented his own version of Salome’s dance of seven veils: when Salome is completely naked, Herod shouts “Go on! On!”, expecting her to take off also the veil of her skin. We should imagine something similar with burqa: the opposite of a woman taking off her burqa and revealing her natural face. What if we go a step further and imagine a woman ‘taking off’ the skin of her face itself, so that what we see beneath her face is precisely an anonymous dark smooth burqa-like surface with a narrow slit for the gaze?

“Love thy neighbour!” means, at its most radical, precisely the impossible, real love for this de-subjectivised subject, for this monstrous dark blot cut with a slit/gaze… This is why, in the psychoanalytic treatment, the patient is not sitting face to face to the analyst: they both stare at a third point, since it is only this suspension of the face which opens the space for the proper dimension of the Neighbour. And therein also resides the limit of the well-known critico-ideological topic of the society of total control where we are all the time tracked and recorded – what eludes the eye of the camera is not some intimate secret but the gaze itself, the object-gaze as the crack/stain in the other.