Why Ban the Niqab?

We’ve been concerned over France’s banning of the niqab, the Muslim face veil for women. The official story is that it is to prevent a practice that symbolizes a kind of subjugation of women. That’s not terribly convincing, Jender argued earlier.

So why are they doing it? Is it just Islamophobia? Perhaps not exactly. There’s another explanation that appeals to ways in which relations of power and subordination are preserved. It could apply in France to the banning and in the US to the “English only” movements.

The account comes from an article mentioned by Abigail Stewart, a psychologist at U Mich; it is “Relations of Domination” by Erica Apfelbaum. Stewart mentioned it in an APA Women in Philosophy session, and she was interested in how tokenism – letting some of the subordinated into the dominant group – helps the process of domination; we’ll look at that briefly at the end. But the article starts off on themes quite relevant to the banning of the niqab.

Having read the article, I had the uneasy feeling that everyone else must have seen this already. And maybe I should hope that this is so.

In any case, here’s the account: it is to a dominant group’s advantage to “degroup” the subordinate group. That is, cohesive subordinated groups with a strong identity have strenghts that can threatened the domination. So a prudent thing to do is to get rid of the things that give the group a visible cultural identity. Such as the niqab.

Interestingly enough, some governments appear to have been nearly explicit about this motive. E.g., in a post Monkey tells us:

Syria has banned the niqab from it state universities. Women who wear it will not be allowed to study or teach there. Many primary school teachers who wear the niqab have also been removed from their posts and given administrative jobs. The Syrian authorities say the move is necessary to protect Syria’s secular identity.

Apfelbaum may disapprove of the use, but her theory suggests they have a point about preserving the domination of the secularists.

Apfelbaum summarizes domination as a two-stage process:

The dominant group first creates a mythical standard and the impression that there is a homogeneous social body that meets this standard (for example, white, male, silent, middle American). The dominant group also fosters the belief that everyone can and should strive to conform to this standard, regardless of whether they are members of the dominant group or the subordinated (group). In reality, however, the latter (group) has long ago been deprived of the necessary means to succeed at this task (for example, denial of credit, inferior schooling, hiring practices). Thus, we have a ‘universal rule’, said to apply equally to both groups in the relation.

The second step occurs at the same time, when the subordinated (group) loses the means to preserve its own norms and standards. No longer is it possible to lead an autonomous existence outside of the locked-in relation of the dominant group.

Tokenism is important because it supports the claim that the dominant group is not really fixed and closed after all. (“Merit is what matters”??)

let us consider the illusion of social mobility; this mobility is illusory in that it is made to appear to apply equally to members of the subordinated (group) and to the dominant group.
However, there are some individuals who ‘benefit’ from this apparent mobility: the practice of tokenism is indispensable for maintaining the verisimilitude of this mobility illusion, and for denying the existence of the exclusionary practices, while at the same time buttressing them. Moreover, the assimilation and integration of token persons into the dominant group is only illusory: More serious, perhaps, is that, in the name of this mobility the constraints placed on these individuals differ entirely from the obligations that bind persons in an egalitarian relation. While ‘equals’ in the reciprocal relation (members of the dominant group) are secure, the token (group)/group member at moment can be removed, disqualified and his/her position in the upwardly mobile hierarchy can be suddenly invalidated.


Relations of Domination and Movements for Liberation: An Analysis of Power between Groups (Abridged) by Erika Apfelbaum, Feminism & Psychology (1999 9: 267)