Samhita at Feministing notes that Italy’s Constitutional Affairs Commission has passed a draft law that would ban the wearing of face-covering veils such as the burqa and niqab in public places. Further parliamentary debate is scheduled for September. Italy would follow France and Belgium in instituting such a ban. It has initial support from the current governing coalition, which has framed the issue primarily around women’s rights and aiding the integration of new immigrants. Opposition leaders have countered that Berlusconi’s supporters are using feminist arguments to advance the cause of intolerance. La Repubblica has a quick breakdown of various parties’ reactions (Italian).
Look, I get that there are people who, for very noble, non-racist reasons think that the Islamic practice of veiling is really terrible. As somebody who generally thinks people should be able to wear what they want without being shamed for it, and who’s uncomfortable with overt attempts to police peoples’ bodies and sexuality, I have some complex feelings toward it myself. I do think there’s a genuine, reasonable debate to be had as to where cultural practices that might be regarded as oppressive, and that perpetuate themselves through informal-but-powerful social structures, can be subject to third party ‘corrective’ intervention.
All that said, the notion that it is the business of an ostensibly liberal state to regulate peoples’ clothing flies in the face of some pretty bedrock principles. Religious practice shouldn’t be subject to legal sanction absent a clear demonstration that it directly violates others’ civil rights. How a woman chooses to dress is no business of the state. The paternalistic attitude of some of the laws’ proponents, who assert that Islamic dress “is never the free choice of women” is broad in the extreme, and reveals a willingness to police the minutae of peoples’ lives that ought to be anathema to a state ostensibly respectful of individual choice. Oh, and please don’t frame this as an issue of “public safety.” If and when there’s a major spike in crime traceable to niqab-wearing women, that will potentially become a relevant point. There isn’t; it’s not.
More than anything, though, this is about Italians specifically and Westerners in general being uncomfortable with the optics of culturally diversity. I’m not uniformly against any and all regulation of such matters, but when it comes down to personal expression as basic as clothing, individual rights trump the collective desire for cultural homogeneity. Samhita had another post on this issue from April, from which I’ll quote in closing:
Critiquing cultural practices that we are not part of is difficult. Criticism of veiling (and for that matter rap) is folded into the argument that the West is better, more progressive, more modern and better suited for the lives of women (even though women’s lives are being negatively impacted every day by patriarchy everywhere). Or it is often used to justify military or police aggression (as was the case in Afghanistan, predicated on the rhetoric that we must free women using the burqa as a symbol for invasion). And it ends up feeding the rhetoric that men of color are somehow more sexist, patriarchal, violent and misogynistic then the good willed white men of Europe and the United States.
But these debates shift the focus from the real issues at hand. “Women’s rights” become a stand-in go to phrase to continue a legacy of pushing nationalist rhetoric and racist policy on communities that are already marginalized. In an effort to “free” women of color, they ultimately reconsolidate the very sexist and oppressive conditions they want to overturn, leaving most of us without the cultural space or actual rights to fight back on our own terms.