Flesh and the face veil: NiqaBitch

The story of NiqaBitch’s tongue in cheek protest has taken over France and other attentive circles. “NiqaBitch” refers to a duo who posted a controversial video showing two women walking about Paris in face veils paired with black mini-shorts and high heels. The short clip was intended as a demonstration against France’s recent legislation banning the niqab (burqa) in public places.
According to the two women, their aim was to criticize the French ban using a contradictory juxtaposition of legs in mini-shorts and full face veil to see how the public and authorities would react to such a display. In their own statement that appeared originally in French in Rue89, they explain,“we’ve decided to challenge the traditional interpretation of what it means to wear the niqab. […] We didn’t intend to attack or insult the feelings of orthodox Muslims – to each their own. Rather, we wanted to challenge the elected officials of the Republic who supported the passing of a law that’s believed to be largely unconstitutional. And finally, isn’t it better to have a laugh while making a statement?”

NiqaBitch definitely has a point; the most mind-boggling aspect of the years-long debate in France over the Muslim head scarf, the face veil, and many other outer aspects of Muslim identity is the lack of consistency between what the Republic claims to stand for and what it practices through laws. It seems to have chosen to legitimize (or delegitimize) a particular identity in its own citizens in the public sphere. France, it seems, is so desperate to preserve itself against the fluidity and globalization of the 21st century that it chooses to chip away at republican aspects that serve as its foundation.

Upon initial viewing, I questioned the success of their protest through the imagery projected in their video. However, by applying the two extremes of dress that could be worn by women – total coverage and anonymity to bare or hyper-sexualized flesh – NiqaBitch has raised discussion and debate over the French ban. It is not clear whether the Niqabitch duo are aware of or concerned by these connotations. Nor is clear if they launched onto the world stage without adequate thought about the implications for Muslim women; their protest could be seen as further removing the Muslim woman’s voice on the subject, reducing her to the fetishized Orientalist image that has proved long-lasting.

Historically, Muslim women have been objectified in the West, as seen in the wide range of 18th and 19th century French, British, and American representations of the East and Eastern women in literature and art. The part of me that objects to women’s objectification is turned off and offended. Furthermore, the part of me that is viscerally sensitive to generalizations wants to reject the video as silly and ignorant.

The protest style raises questions about how NiqaBitch makes their point. At times in the video, it seems like they are doing it for a laugh, not to criticize with humor. We see the ladies stopping to take photos, stand on street corners and talk to passersby, and in mocking fashion, visit the buildings that house French government offices. The video attempts to unleash shock imagery to make a statement, but in many ways fails to make it.

The imagery of the video pushes the debate on women’s bodies as the battlefield of politics, religion, and the choices of the individual self. Orientalist imagery often serves to subtract the voices and realities of the East (“Middle,” ”Near,” or “Far”) and paint the region in the eyes of its European (Western) beholder. However, using similar imagery to critique the actions of the French government certainly has subversive undertones and works to counter the idea that women have to be either way – totally covered or totally bare.

Furthermore, the duo, whether they meant to or not, have raised the question of where the Muslim woman belongs in this conversation, if at all. While one of the women is Muslim, neither necessarily believe in niqab as a woman who wears it daily might. The duo claim, “we didn’t intend to attack or insult the feelings of orthodox Muslims – to each their own. …” Certainly, Muslim women belong to this conversation as it is as much about them as Europeans, just as it is about all women and their right to decide what happens upon their bodies. Perhaps even discussing the connotations of imagery, and the choice of attire of the two women of Niqabitch, we fall into the trap of constant debate over what women choose to wear in the public sphere. Our discussion not only reinforces the fact that women are forced to behave in a certain way based on the decisions of authorities.

The critique by NiqaBitch does not have anything to do with Muslim women or Islam. Their attempt to critique the French ban on niqab goes beyond simple criticism of the ban. The territory they stand in is a critique of the overall French socio-political system that harps on liberty and equality while circumscribing what French citizens may wear in public. The French debate and ban on veiling is a symptom of hypocrisy that is virulent in government and political circles, and the inability of the French government to come to terms with its Muslim population. What France has done in passing the niqab ban is no different than what Iran or Saudi Arabia do – dictating the clothing choices of women within their borders.
Zarin Hamid is a recent graduate of the International Peace and Conflict Resolution program at American University. Her interests include human rights, gender, and conflict, and community based peacebuilding.


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