By Jane Perlez
Published: June 22, 2007
LONDON, June 16 — Increasingly, Muslim women in Britain take their children to school and run errands covered head to toe in flowing black gowns that allow only a slit for their eyes. On a Sunday afternoon in Hyde Park, groups of black-clad Muslim women relaxed on the green baize lawn among the in-line skaters and badminton players.
Their appearance, like little else, has unnerved other Britons, testing the limits of tolerance here and fueling the debate over the role of Muslims in British life.
This story is a fascinating example of how public life in liberal-democratic societies depends on specific norms of visibility. Why is wearing the niqab in public so transgressive? The mere fact of cultural difference will account for some of the reactions, of course, but not for the intensity of the emotions involved. Consider also that the woman under the veil could be seen to be enacting her right to privacy. That liberal norm can’t come close, however, to balancing the profound rupture that occurs simply by denying others the opportunity to see you in public. The veil says that one is there but not there, present yet being withheld. This image threatens, perhaps because it creates a different kind of stranger than what we are used to as we pass one another on sidewalks and other public spaces. Or perhaps it challenges the idea that we are surrounded by individuals rather than types, groups, classes . . . Individuality requires constant social construction, not least through our use of images. In any case, the niqab demonstrates how important it is to see and be seen according to culturally specific norms of visibility, and how political cultures differ in part by having different optics, and how liberal-democratic public culture depends on continual iteration of norms of individual expressiveness and social transparency.
One sign of social rupture is to that repair strategies follow. In the New York Times slide show, one can follow veiled women as they go around London. We see them shopping, riding an escalator, etc. Then, the last image:
The traumatic image of an unknowable woman acting on her own has been replaced with a heteronormative snapshot of a woman and her husband holding hands. She now can be read through him, and he is at least visible and somewhat legible.
The gender politics of this issue are very complicated, as feminism gets entangled with colonialism, and others can go there better than I can. Note, however, how this dimension plays out in the two photos, and not innocently. In the first image, the fundamental antagonism is portrayed as if between two women: the emancipated woman against one under the veil. Guess which one is unhappy? In the second, social acceptance and personal happiness comes tied to a reassertion of patriarchy, which now acquires new significance as the male bears the weight of the social gaze.