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)

31 thoughts on “Why Ban the Niqab?

  1. YES! YES! YES! That’s it exactly! That’s why Niqab is such a big deal to Quebeckers and the rest of Canadians don’t really care if Muslims wear their niqab or not. French Catholics fought hard to protect their language, culture and religious freedoms so that the involuntary resocialization forced on our First Nations people in the Jesuit Residential School System wouldn’t be forced on the French as well. European colonizers were all too familiar with these tactics.

    I stand by my previous position on the matter. If our gvt. wants to empower Muslim women, they should uphold their rights under Section 2 of the Charter and let them wear whatever they want to wear. Shoe’s on the other foot now, Quebec.

  2. Whose veiled threat are you kidding? Why claim hermetic people can be part of society (much less France) when going farther than punks and bluetooth dorks combined? Even for art’s sake I don’t think I’d stomach the free pass of spiky ninjas yawping around obliviously. I liked the marriage ban on moral grounds fine, but then you cite an earlier light pondering that it was xenophobia, like it had weight well beyond explanation.

  3. OK. Zipping up my asbestos suit I’ll plunge in and comment on why, even though I don’t know if I’d favor a ban, having women wearing Muslim outfits in Europe is a bad thing.

    The visibility of women wearing the niqab and other Muslim-identified gear makes ethnicity more salient. And that makes it more difficult for men and women who are identified as African or middle eastern, by their names or skin tones to assimilate.

    According to the standard narrative, assimilation is a Faustian bargain: individuals who would ceteris paribus prefer to affirm their ethnic identities shed, or hide, them in order to get various social and material benefits. And those who want to shed their ethnic identities quite apart from the social and material benefits of assimilation suffer from self-hatred, false consciousness, yada-yada-yada.

    But should we accept this story? Why? It seems likely that some people want to assimilate but others don’t: de gustibus. In what proportions? I don’t know. That’s an empirical question. But the presence, and visibility of cultural preservationists doing ethnic sets back the interests of assimilationists who don’t want hyphenated identities.

    There’s a story by Philip Roth, ‘Eli the Fanatic,’ which I cite in my book The Multicultural Mystique. The scene is set just after WWII in an American suburb. I group of Jewish refugees from Europe have settled in the suburb and set up a Jewish school. They wear funny clothes, have peculiar habits, and are an embarrassment to the indigenous Jewish suburbanites–who contact Eli, a lawyer, to see if there’s some way of running them out of town on a zoning violation or whatever.

    IMHO their concern is legitimate: they want to be just plain regular unhypenated Americans and don’t want to be identified with these weird foreign people who are culturally alien to them. I can understand that. And I can also understand how French people who, because of their appearance or names are identified as being of middle eastern or African ancestry must feel about these weird foreign people dressing up in funny clothes.

    And yes I’d say the same thing about young black dudes doing ethnic–so did Bill Cosby. And yes I’d say the same thing about hispanics doing hispanic. Ethnicity stinks. It’s oppressive to people who are ethnically identified, who want to assimilate.

  4. HEB, that’s a wonderful remark. When one looks at these situations, one could ask is what is going on genuine assimilation or faux-assimilation/cultural annihilation. And a major difference could well be whether there is genuine mobility. Another, which I didn’t mention, is whether there are shared resources and shared power.

    Apfelbaum is looking at how we create dominant-subordinate group relationships, and I think one can argue that’s going on in France. But it’s got all sorts of inequalities build into it, and the actions are aimed at preserving the inequalities. But to say that isn’t to deny that it might be in the interests of the women to get rid of the nibaqs.

    However, one thing I only just mentioned is the idea that if it turns out the mobility is illusory, the oppressed are really stuck if they tried to assimilate, since getting together to rebel will be much harder.

  5. Exactly so. White man speak with forked tongue. (Akerloff has an account of this, on the reds and greens.)

    Sarkozy et. al. proclaim that the issue isn’t race or national origin but culture and behavior. But they then warehouse immigrants, unto the third and fourth generation, in suburban housing projects miles out of town without public transportation, isolate them, refuse to address blatant discrimination in employment, and don’t do a thing to address discriminatory practices that block assimilation.

  6. The Eli story may be true to ethnic groups living within the American melting pot narrative. But is it true in France as well? I couldn’t flawlessly assimilate to their culture, as romantic&beautiful as it is. If I raised a child from birth in that country, the child would probably even be seen as “foreign” because he or she would probably still speak the language with an accent.

    And I admit it. I’m tres lazy about using my franglais. I’m not much more eloquent in la belle langue than Pepe le Pew. Following Dr. Baber’s argument about “weird foreigners making the locals look bad” what’s so different about people that go to France and speak the language with a Texan accent? Or refuse to speak the language at all? One could also argue that many Texans oppress women, therefore the accent is a badge that should be removed under threat of legal sanctions. N’est ce que pas?

  7. Hey, I didn’t say I was in favor of legally banning Muslim outfits or Texas accents. But I’m really not keen on either. I confess that my fellow Americans embarrass me and I wish they’d shape up.

    When I went to England to get married, my then future in-laws were amazed that (1) I spoke intelligibly and (2) didn’t cut up all my food in one go before I ate it. They’d had dealings with American military personnel from the base at Fairford–largely I suspect Texan.

    As an American I don’t like to see my fellow countrymen doing Ugly American.

  8. Has there been any discussion of this issue in terms of the interests of the female (if not also male) children raised by mothers who wear the niqab in a democracy under a regime in which the wearing of them is legal? I’ve been impressed by (some of) the arguments against the ban that have been made on this blog, a serious challenge to my initial intuitive stereotypical liberal endorsement of it, but I keep returning to my original position at the thought of the normative influence such wear might have on daughters, and the likely constraints on their life prospects I assume would, on average, attach to that influence. (Similar to my attitude towards polygamy, the most powerful argument against which I find in the normative influence on the children of such arrangements.)

  9. jj –

    Granted that you haven’t explained the details of Apfelbaum’s proposal and I’m too lazy and tired to go look up and read the paper right now, either this doesn’t look like an explanation (an answer to the title question of the post) or it seems to make claims about elaborate conspiracies that I find highly implausible.

    On the first reading, Apfelbaum is just listing a set of features often (always?) found in situations of group domination — there are supposedly universal standards that actually can only be fully achieved by members of one group, members of other groups who try to live up to them all either fail or achieve them only precariously, etc. That’s fine as far as it goes, but it doesn’t actually explain why that confluence of features comes to be or how it’s maintained. Why, for one thing, did this set of standards come to be so universally accepted, especially since it so clearly only applies to one group? What, for another, makes it impossible for the dominated group to `preserve its own norms and standards’?

    On the second reading, Apfelbaum is claiming that (all of?) the members of the dominant group intentionally arrange/maintain things so that they have all the features in this set. This certainly gives the explanation that’s missing on the first reading. But its explanation is, in essence, that there’s an elaborate, carefully planned and coordinated conspiracy by (all of?) the members of the dominant group to come into or stay in power.

    In a few cases this is plausible. We have the legal records, Papal bulls, academic texts, and other documentary evidence that shows pretty clearly that European political leaders and intellectuals invented a series of rationalizations for genocide, colonization, and the slave trade over the course of several hundred years, quite explicitly for the sake of the wealth produced by plantation agriculture and natural resource extraction.

    But in other cases it’s highly implausible. Consider ads that promulgate conceptions of beauty that lead to eating disorders. No-one is creating these ads with the intention of giving people eating disorders. Still less are naturally thin women engaged in some sort of plot to continue promulgating these conceptions of beauty, and so on, in order to maintain their power over other women.

    The examples of `English Only’ and the niqab ban in France, I think, fall into the latter category.

  10. I agree it’s hard to get/be thin. But how hard is it to avoid wearing a niqab?

    The question is: who is wearing these outfits and why? That’s an empirical question but as I understand it about half are converts. And most in any case are not women who would be stuck at home in purdah if they didn’t have the option of going out in portable purdah.

    Apart from the niqab, just considering headscarves, a significant number of wearers are adolescent girls, whose mothers don’t cover, making oppositional identity statements–along the lines of boys wearing baggy shorts falling half-way off their butts and otherwise affecting the trappings of ghetto culture. The paradigm cases were Lila and Alma Levy, the French headscarf girls, who challenged the policy at their Paris Lycee. Their mother was a non-observant Muslim who didn’t cover. And their father–yes, you heard right, ‘Levy,’–was an atheist of Jewish ancestry.

    Ethic is countercultural and cool. And the kids are having fun. But I repeat they are making ethnicity more salient, effectively pinning it on adults and other children who don’t want to be ethnically identified and so doing harm.

    I come from a highly multicultural part of the US, where everyone ‘is’ something. In every conversation amongst the people of the land, when someone was mentioned for the first time, the question was: ‘What is s/he?’ And the expected answer was ‘He’s Italian,’ ‘She’s Jewish,’ ‘They’re Polish’ or whatever. You think ethnic diversity would be fun–great restaurants and people wearing colorful costumes in the streets. But believe me when it isn’t just a show for tourists, where it’s real, it’s perfectly awful: stereotyping, clannishness, discrimination.

  11. sorry, H. E. Baber, but this sounds a lot like holding ethnic or racial minorities responsible for racism. for instance, in the Roth story: isn’t it significant that the “assimilated” Jews want to get rid of the immigrant Jews, because they worry that they would be confused with the immigrant Jews? but who precisely would be doing this confusing?

    it’s of course perfectly understandable that assimilated folks might have this reaction, but i think that its confusing a symptom for the disease itself. a lot of people draw great strength from their ethnic identities, and “assimilation” would be a betrayal of their culture, their history, and their families. that they should be victimized by state racism because of their ethnicity is a failure of those states which purport to be liberal. moreover, this entirely overlooks the fact that even “assimilated” black folks (whatever that might look mean in the u.s., since most black folks in the u.s. are not immigrants), for instance, still experience racism. sikhs are murdered for appearing to be muslims (despite the fact that muslim is not an ethnicity). egyptian coptic christians attending an anti-Park51 rally in new york were threatened because they were mistaken for muslims, though they themselves were there to protest against islam! when it comes to racism, assimilation will not save us.

    oh, france. i remember clearly going to a kristeva lecture in which she argued that they in france have a such a rich and deep understanding of freedom, because, as she put it, now anyone can be french. a year later, the suburbs were in flames, and now sarkozy makes speeches in which he says outright that one must show oneself worthy of being french. plus ça change, i guess (that’s my franlgais for you, xena!)

  12. Dan, as I’m sure you know, social scientists talk about group actions, aims and plans a lot. I followed Apfelbaum in this, and in fact I don’t have a theory of when a group constitutes an agent. Some people think that such talk must be reducible to talk about individual agents and others do not. (I think Margaret Gilbert has been important in defending the idea that a group can have a view that none of its members have.)

    So it might be possible to defend the idea that a group has a plan and a goal, but the individuals do not. In this case, there seems clearly no need to appeal to secret agreements and conspiracies. On the other hand, we might want to say that speaking of a group as having a plan and a goal as mainly a façon de parler to indicate an effectiveness of results that may be partly a matter of individual actions and partly a matter of such factors as the fact that we imitate each other, pick up others attitudes and emotions, have explicit and implicit biases, have possibly pretty basic tendencies to preserve the status quo, easily acquire racisms, etc. You don’t need many people to get a whole country in a state of fear that “those people” might take over. And even if that doesn’t happen, the denial of resources may not be a matter of anyone’s saying “let them eat cake.” Rather, the children of outsiders may have extra cognitive loads that leave teachers with the impression that they are not very bright, companies don’t want to hire people who look so different and might be dishonest, thieves, rapists, etc (whatever is the current rumor), doctors tend not to spend the time with outsider patients and can even have these bizarre beliefs such as they feel pain less. So they get less good treatment and are more ill more often. And so on and so forth. You don’t have to posit any agreement to see prejudice systematically disadvantage people in education, employment and medicine.

    Accordingly, if the second option – the group itself is not literally an agent – is correct, then I think we are looking at multiple realizability. There are vast numbers of ways in which prejudice operates and what Apelbaum is looking at what general characteristics (several levels of generalness above individuals) have to get realized for there to be a dominance-subordination relation.

    All the discourse I’ve heard about “English only” has been full of references to power – who has to change, for example. Do “we” change for “them”??!? You mean, “we” should have to learn some foreign language to get a job in America?!?

    I think I may well not have understood what you are saying. I tend to think that at this blog we’re discussing a lot of this a lot of the time. We don’t want to posit a secret conspiricay in, e.g., philosophy, to keep non-white, non-male human beings out, but we might well want to say that it is very exclusionary.

  13. Re. Rob’s comment- I don’t know, but I do know that I know one young woman who wears a hijab, and her mother wears a niqab. I know another young woman who doesn’t cover, and get mother wears a hijab. I know one other who wears a hijab, and her mother does not cover. My parents are both conservative christian republicans (e.g. I grew up listening to Limbaugh, reading Rand, and going to church twice a week not counting annual church camps and retreats) and I’m now a liberal agnostic. So while I’m sure parental behavior influences children, I’m not convinced it does to the extent that would justify this sort of ban.

  14. nicely put, jj. i might also add that some economists argue that it is not necessary to prove that individual humans engage in rational choice, e.g. cost-benefit analysis, since we can see that they behave as if they were rational actors in the aggregate, and that is the level of analysis with which most economists are concerned (though one might interrogate this “as if,” and what kind of work it is/does). similarly, it is unnecessary to define the patriarchy, or the kyriarchy, in terms of the intent of individual agents, though this is often enough an argument made against the use of concepts such as patriarchy or kyriarchy.

    thanks for the link, also – apfelbaum’s work sounds really interesting.

  15. Kathryn, I never would have guessed. I had an odd mix of conservative religious zealots and extreme rebellion in my family too. My Gran’s Belfast relatives disowned her for marrying a Protestant. He was stationed in London, where she worked during the blitz. They left for Moose Factory Island, and she continued to be a practising Catholic, and he continued to worship as an Anglican. Mom was encouraged to practise whatever religion she chose. My parents were hippies. Mom chose this huggy-fluffy protestant group she found in Yorkville, Toronto (hippie central) with a name that was trendy at the time. I can’t remember it now. It sounded vaguely Unitarian. My dad’s family is Presbyterian, but for some reason I never really understood, he became an anarchist. Synaesthetik and I were also encouraged to practise whatever religion we chose. In spite of all the information, I never managed to come to an informed decision, even about calling myself an atheist. Doomed to be free, I guess.

    I don’t think Muslim children living in liberal western nations are destined to mimic their parents’ choice of religious expression, or their political affiliations, either.

  16. sk – thanks! Long blog comments always seem to me risky.
    Interesting that the economists have worked this out. Do you work in that area?

  17. >> it is unnecessary to define the patriarchy, or the kyriarchy, in terms of the intent of individual agents, though this is often enough an argument made against the use of concepts such as patriarchy or kyriarchy. << (SK)

    Yes, Baumeister appears to see in the ability to explain “patriarchy” in terms of supra-individual, biological, evolutionary-psychological factors cause for dispensing with the use of such concepts, or at least (I think) as ground for the unhelpfulness of invoking them today in (most) contemporary Western democratic societies, though Razib Khan here offers a similar account while maintaining the terms.

  18. I haven’t read the book, Rob, but it seems to me that Baumeister and Khan confuse gender and sex, or at least ignore more than a half-century of feminist thought on the complex relation between sex and gender, in order to define (or even worse, to justify) gender simply as sex. My understanding of the idea that patriarchy or kyriarchy (insofar as these concepts remain useful; kyriarchy already implies a critical revision) need not be based on the intent of individual agents does not originate in evolutionary logics, but rather in social science or historical logics. I think that, insofar as concepts like the patriarchy are still useful, they presume a critical distance between sex and gender. That also has the benefit of explaining work like that of Joan Roughgarden, a transgender biologist whose work so challenged mainstream assumptions about sexual behavior that it was denied outright on the basis of the findings rather than the method, etc. So in a way her findings were that gender norms are so determinative as to interfere with or to shape our very understanding of what sex is and how it operates.

    Also, no, jj, I don’t work in economics; I’m just a continentalist with strong social science sympathies!

  19. Coyne finds little of merit in Roughgarden’s challenge to standard neo-Darwinian theory.

    >> does not originate in evolutionary logics, but rather in social science or historical logics. <<

    Maybe I'm just too uncritically dazzled by evopsych and the new science of morality, but I don’t see how this can continue to be maintained as a stipulation, in light of the sweeping intellectual trends of the day involving efforts to interconnect “evolutionary logics” and “social science and historical logics.” And as is suggested by the regular appearance on this blog of implicit bias research, “evolutionary logics” are apparently already implicated in understanding sexism and patriarchy phenomena.

  20. Rob- can you explain your last sentence? I don’t understand why you would think implicit bias necessarily has anything to do with evolutionary logics.

  21. look, i don’t know who coyne is. and i don’t endorse roughgarden’s work; i think she’s making an interesting counter-argument that cedes that this is the territory on which this kind of work ought to be done. but when coyne dismisses roughgarden’s research right out because she’s transgender and therefore ideological (as if conflating sex and gender is not itself ideological), and when coyne says,

    “Roughgarden believes that evolutionary biologists, with their enthusiasm for the “classical” gender roles of the neo-Darwinian theory of sexual selection, are partly responsible for society’s unease with gay and transgendered people. She is wrong. This theory is powerful and largely correct. Yes, there are nuances of behaviour that require special explanation, or that we don’t yet understand. But nobody, least of all Darwin, ever claimed that evolutionary biology is characterized by ironclad laws. Our field is not physics. Nevertheless, some generalizations, such as the pervasive competition of males for females, can be powerful and useful.”

    i have to ask, useful for whom or for what precisely? the argument is not between intellectuals who largely agree with the sweeping intellectual trends of the day and anti-intellectuals who would take the bible over darwin. putting the problem in those terms is a political move, one that feminists have been engaged in questioning for many, many years. it is in fact the case that darwinist theories have been employed for eliminationist programs, for deciding who should is abnormal and therefore sick, for rape apologias and involuntary sterilizations. and insofar as coyne admits that neo-darwinists are out to explain gender rather than sex, then he’s already shown his hand in that game. if we can separate out the science from the politics, then super, but we won’t get there by pretending that if you disagree you are working for the creationists.

  22. oh and also i totally second kathryn’s question. as i understood it implicit bias did not need to be rooted in evolution, but i could be wrong about that.

  23. Coyne can of course speak for himself.

    My point about implicit bias is that its mechanisms, as most popular media coverage indicates, are the focus of lots of research (e.g., in cognitive science, neuroscience, psychology, etc.) which embrace “evolutionary logics” ( –sometimes I get the impression, when looking at the original research papers of this stuff that gets covered in popular media that it’s almost become de rigueur by now to at least gesture in the direction of some evolutionary just-so story behind whatever cognitive feature is the research topic); and so recruiting this stuff as explanatory material on behalf of a critical agenda (e.g. feminist) implicates it (the agenda) in “evolutionary logics”, no?

  24. Hmmm… No. Of course lots of research in those areas does focus on evolutionary logics, but a. even if that’s how some researches frame the discussion, that doesn’t make it so, and b. even if evolutionary logics are at play- think of Pavlov’s dogs. Perhaps dogs have an evolutionary tendancy to recognize conditions favorable to being fed, but salivating at the sound of bells is surely a conditioned response. c. Media coverage of scientific research tends to be very poor generally (e.g. often ignores the distinction between correlation and causation present in many studies) and d. I can think of a number of efforts in current cog sci and neuroscience research that focus on behavior modification and social conditioning rather than evolution (e.g. research on depression, contemplative science, etc.).

  25. Oh, and in implicit bias research, there’s a correlation between lower levels of bias and increased familarity- which suggests that, at least to some extent, it’s subject to change given social conditions.

  26. sk, I think you are right. The basic phenomenon of associative thinking is well describe before Darwin. E.g., Hume And associative thinking forms the basis for implcit biases.

    Does cogntive neuroscience embrace “evolutionary logics”? I do think that trying to think in terms of these journalistic slogans does not help us. It might actually be corrupting. Kathryn, I admire your attemption to take it on, but let me suggest doing that doing so concedes too much to people with whom you probably basically disagree.

  27. Rob: I’m not convinced that the normative influence on daughters of their mothers’ wearing the niqab is more damaging than the normative influence on daughters of their mothers’ yo-yo dieting, cosmetic surgery, or merely spending an hour every day applying makeup and styling their hair. Symbols of segregation, symbols of objectification — it’s a pick-your-poison kind of thing, wherein removing the niqab from a woman doesn’t unmark her as an object of oppression, so much as it removes her from one marking system and places her into another. Of course, one can try to shun the markers most favored by either system…but even that doesn’t avoid markings; it just selects alternate sets that still can’t avoid being imbued with their own oppressive meanings. My suspicion is that a best-case scenario for all the daughters out there would be to grow up in a world where different systems of marking gender are continually colliding and interacting with one another, providing vantage points from which the meanings of each can be received critically. If so, women who opt to wear the niqab, in societies where that is not the dominant norm, may be adding something valuable to the environments in which both their own and other women’s daughters are growing up.

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