Tuesday, July 13, 2010

The State and Clothes: from the Statues of Apparel to the Burqa Ban

The day before the national celebration of the storming of the Bastille in pursuit of liberty, the French government today passed a law banning the wearing of the full veil. It states that "no one can wear a garment in public which is aimed at hiding their face"; women wearing a niqab or burqa will faces fines.

Of course there is a well-founded feminist critique of women being pressured to cover their faces, but it is undeniable that some women do choose to wear such clothes for their own religious reasons. The law does not seem to distinguish between women who freely choose to wear the full veil and those who may be made to do so by others. In the latter case, it is patently absurd to prosecute somebody for something they did not choose, in the former case a fundamental principle is at stake - why should the state be able to dictate what people wear? The notion that the police will be able to arrest women on the basis of their clothing is absurd.

French interior minister Michèle Alliot-Mariez is clear that what is being imposed is not simply a dress code, but a definition of the self and its interaction with others. The simple piece of cloth is a threat to the very notion of citizenship: "We are an old country anchored in a certain idea of how to live together. A full veil which completely hides the face is an attack on those values, which for us are so fundamental. Citizenship has to be lived with an uncovered face. There can therefore be absolutely no solution other than a ban in all public places."

The notion that clothes define the social order, and therefore that the state should regulate clothing to uphold that order, is an old one. A classic example was the Statutes of Apparel issued by Queen Elizabeth I of England in 1574, which tightly defined exactly what fabrics could be worn at different levels of the feudal hierarchy. So for instance only members of the royal family could wear purple silk; 'Velvet in gowns, coats, or other uttermost garments' could only be worn by 'barons' sons, knights and gentlemen in ordinary office attendant upon her majesty's person, and such as have been employed in embassages to foreign princes' (or those above them). For women the rules decreed, among other things, that 'None shall wear any velvet, tufted taffeta, satin, or any gold or silver in their petticoats: except wives of barons, knights of the order, or councilors' ladies, and gentlewomen of the privy chamber and bed chamber, and the maids of honor'.

Today these rules look ridiculous; no doubt future historians will take a similar view of those politicians who spent time in the midst of a global economic crisis and impending environmental problems decreeing what part of a woman's face has to be visible for all to see.

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