Muslim Veils Have No Place in the Surveillance Society

Posted on by Pastabagel and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

This is an invisibility cloak.

The ban on face veils in France is now being actively enforced, with two Muslim women being detained for wearing veils. The goverment’s rationale for the law is, as President Sarkozy put it, “to protect women from being forced to cover their faces and to uphold France’s secular values. So while the punishment for breaking the law is a mild 150 euro fine, the punishment for forcing someone else to wear a veil is roughly $35,000 and two years in prison. (Though it is not at all clear how this latter prohibition would ever be enforced. Presumably the woman coerced into wearing a veiled is also going to be coerced not to talk to the police about the coercion.)

The controversy surrounding this law has made strange bedfellows of former political enemies. Many on the right who proudly support its re-imposition of French cultural values are finding allies on the left among those who think that niqabs and other religious face coverings are oppressive to women. Conversely, those who oppose the law as an encroachment on the freedom of religion are finding common cause with those who believe the law unfairly singles out a minority.

The real story is none of this. This is not a law about women’s rights, minority rights, anti-terrorism, or French culture.

This is a story about this:

The Panopticon

And specifically the French government’s desire to put 1200 of these security cameras in Paris by 2012. “I am very impressed by the efficiency of the British police thanks to this network of cameras,” Said French President Sarkozy in 2008. “In my mind, there is no contradiction between respecting individual freedoms and the installation of cameras to protect everyone’s security.”

Maybe not, but there is a contradiction between the government wanting security cameras to watch people on the street, and those people wanting to cover their faces. In fact, the French government is on track to increase the number of surveillance cameras throughout France to a whopping 60,000. This is not about women’s rights or religious rights, this is about making those 60,000 cameras worthwhile.

The point of security cameras is not to constantly watch the public. The point is to make the public constantly think that they may be watched. The point is to put the power of the State into the mind of the person on the street, to make the people internalize the State’s voice:

Hence the major effect of the Panopticon: to induce in the inmate a state of conscious and permanent visibility that assures the automatic functioning of power. So to arrange things that the surveillance is permanent in its effects, even if it is discontinuous in its action…power should be visible and unverifiable. Visible: the inmate will constantly have before his eyes the tall outline of the central tower from which he is spied upon. Unverifiable: the inmate must never know whether he is being looked at at any one moment; but he must be sure that he may always be so…The Panopticon is a machine for dissociating the see/being seen dyad: in the peripheric ring, one is totally seen, without ever seeing; in the central tower, one sees everything without ever being seen.

– Michel Foucault, Discipline & Punish: The Birth of the Prison

Security cameras do not merely see, they also project. They project power back onto you. When you think you are being watched, the presence of the watcher is felt locally and their power over you felt acutely. Surveillance cameras in public spaces are projectors of state power, eliminating those interstitial spaces and moments where authority is believed to be absent based on the absences of its agents.

In light of this, we can now see the real threat of the veil: invisibility. Not only is the veiled person invisible to the camera, but conversely the power projected by that surveillance is rendered invisible to the person veiled.

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22 Responses to Muslim Veils Have No Place in the Surveillance Society

  1. edumds says:

    You are right and specially because you are right Auden is even more so:

    “The blessed will not care what angle they are regarded from”

  2. Napsterbater says:

    I think the French fancy for big government will soon pass. And you know what happens when the French are unhappy.

  3. Comus says:

    Excellent post. I almost foamed coffee out of my orifices when reading that Sarkozy quote. CCTV has been, and is, notorious for being ineffective and not even a deterrant (a good read with research links:

    The repetative hype in surveillance is mainly due to two things: security industry profiteering and manufacturing anxiety. The atmosphere of “taking away your rights does not effect you if you’re not doing anything wrong” is somewhere between Orwell and HAL.

    So CCTV does not help solve crimes, does not act as a deterrant, but still they are going at it like goats on ecstasy . Why is that? Well, in the US the big profiteers appear to be GE and Lockheed Martin which you might remember from such classics as “war on terror” or “privatised military restructuring”. This is also one of those neverending battles (especially as it does not help), that needs constant upgrading and New Methods. Read: cow. How about an immigrant border? Biometric passports? Airport scanners?

    It also adds to the general sense of insecurity, when a person spots a camera he/she is reminded of the constant fear one should be aware of. On the other hand it adds to the false sense of security. Sort of like the illusion of a benevolent observing god that turns out to be merely indifferent.

  4. Maybe not, but there is a contradiction between the government wanting security cameras to watch people on the street, and those people wanting to cover their faces.

    That’s the money quote. There are clear secular reasons to ban veils but protecting human rights is an excellent reason for a government to take away other rights.

    As much as a government monopoly of this kind of power is troubling, it’s even more troubling to realize that these cameras, that information, will ultimately be available to some private individual or corporation, ostensibly under the guise of private sector cooperation.

    • foxfire says:

      “I’m from the government, and I’m here to help”

      Nothing more scary than a government taking your rights away for your own good.

  5. cat says:

    Only 2,000 Muslims in France wear full-face veils.

    Does that change your reasoning about the CCTV cameras or not?

  6. whowashere says:

    Great work Pastabagel. Huge moment here, thank you.

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  8. xylokopos says:

    Naive question:

    How exactly is it proven that surveillance cameras are NOT deterring criminal acts? The mere fact that there is still crime does not prove it any more than it proves that the existence of the police and the judicial system does not deter anything.

    Another naive question for those of you that have visited London or Paris:

    Did you feel oppressed by the visible power of the state when, oh I don’t know, going about Trafalgar Square or the Quartier Latin? Did you suddenly have an epiphany about how right Foucault was and how much more you would enjoy your time there if there was not a single visible camera?

    And a final one:

    Forgetting whatever sinister reasoning is behind Sarkozy’s sudden love affair with CCTV, is it unreasonable to be fined on account of what you are or are not wearing in public?

    • Pastabagel says:

      How exactly is it proven that surveillance cameras are NOT deterring criminal acts?
      The point is whether they are deterring legal acts.

      If someone were planning a crime, the existence of the cameras would in no way deter them, it would simply alter the manner in which the crime is committed. You’d conduct the crime indoors, in a restroom, or in a parked car, rather than on a street corner. People still rob banks and convenience stores even though everyone knows those places have cameras and alarms. Furthermore, if you were planning to crime in public and you weren’t already planning to wear a mask, wouldn’t the existence of the cameras cause you to wear one? In other words, the ban on face coverings is idiotic if its motivation is to deter criminals, because they were already planning to break a much more serious law anyway.

      “Did you feel oppressed by the visible power of the state…” I don’t, personally, but what if someone answers yes? Do we simply label them as paranoid or nutjobs and then ignore their opinion? Or would you ignore their opinion because it contradicted yours, and then scramble to find a label to apply to them so that that threatening opinion could be safely marginalized?

      “is it unreasonable to be fined on account of what you are or are not wearing in public?”
      Yes. If I want to walk around the streets of Paris in a burqa or a hockey mask, I should be able to. Consider that if someone is fining you for what you are wearing, it isn’t really a “public” space anymore.

    • Comus says:

      Well, most of the studies have mapped the crime rate before and after the introduction of the CCTV system, and then compared it to overall crime rates. Most of them, as my previous link notes, have noticed no practical effect. It is quite similar to the counter-intuitive fact that the added presence of police in the streets does not in anyway lower crime rates (some studies have even suggested it has an opposite effect). These are both just societal reminders of the Other.

      The fact that I am not oppressed by the cameras or the police should not weigh on their usefulness. I’m not offended by people speeding either, yet this would not qualify as an argument for cancelling speed limits.

      What Sarkozy is doing is a cunning straw man attack, a sleight-of-hand to make you forget about the actual causes of riots, social problems etc. Absolutely no-one benefits from this stupidity. Extremely anti-veil Ayaan Hirsi Ali has a good point, that it’s better to just link, than to refer:

  9. cat says:

    “In other words, the ban on face coverings is idiotic if its motivation is to deter criminals, because they were already planning to break a much more serious law anyway.”

    Agreed, but that’s not the motivation for the ban on Muslim face coverings.

  10. xylokopos says:

    “..if you were planning to crime in public and you weren’t already planning to wear a mask, wouldn’t the existence of the cameras cause you to wear one? In other words, the ban on face coverings is idiotic if its motivation is to deter criminals, because they were already planning to break a much more serious law anyway.”

    I understand the point of your article to be to prove or present the link you assume exists between CCTV proliferation in France and the banning of the burqa in public, however I see nothing in your presentation to support this link. You present it as matter of fact, the same way the Spiegel article you linked presents the “connection” between cameras in public and internet censhorship and the way I could link the whole debate to Sarkozy’s wife’s tits, if I were so inclined.

    On a different level, the connection between security and electronic surveillance is pretty well established and the whole argument about criminal adaptability is extremely weak – sure you could not utterly disincentivize someone who will commit a crime anyway, but him leaving his prints all over the place is not an argument against the usefuleness of fingerprinting from a police perspective.

    There is nothing “illegal” about cameras watching the public sphere, the same way there is nothing illegal if cops patrol the streets. You can find it annoying, but it is doubtful that the mere existence of the cameras cause this level of distress and disruption in a person’s life. This is one of those rant-inducing topics that blogs thrive on and people interested in pop culture, media and multiple post-modern readings such as yourself enjoy playing with.

    “If I want to walk around the streets of Paris in a burqa or a hockey mask, I should be able to”

    How about walking the streets of Paris naked? How about walking the streets of Berlin wearing a swastika? Should you be able to? Since you are not, do you feel as strongly about it?

    • Pastabagel says:


      How about walking the streets of Paris naked? How about walking the streets of Berlin wearing a swastika? Should you be able to? Since you are not, do you feel as strongly about it?

      Yes to all those things. Women can legally go topless on NYC streets. Not many women have done it, but some have, and Western civilization has not collapsed. Likewise, in the US the right to march wearing swastikas or KKK hoods has been reviewed and protected by the US Supreme court. And I very very strongly that if people in the US were banned from wearing swastikas in public, nazism in the US would be a much greater problem.

      There is no rational explanation for banning burqas. It does none of the things the government claims it does, such as bolstering French culture, liberating women, etc. None of those objectives are accomplished by a law that only affects 2000 people. The only rational explanation is that the law actualyl affects more than the 2000 veil-wearing women, namely that the government does not want people to walk the streets with cameras’ view of their faces obstructed by anything.

      I think I understand what you are saying. My point is not to rage against the Man that is keeping everyone down.

      it is doubtful that the mere existence of the cameras cause this level of distress and disruption in a person’s life.

      I never said they cause distress or disruption. In fact, if they did, the cameras wouldn’t work for the purpose I attribute to them, namely to project the power of the state onto the people on a continuous but low-level basis.

      • Fifi says:

        There are a whole slew of issues that this law is attempting to distract from

        1 – rising unemployment and racism, including…
        a) a general fear of immigrants and rising racism in France (which has led to politicians like Le Pen becoming increasingly popular – it’s the usual blame the immigrants for decreasing jobs and quality of life for working/middle class people), this has been going on in Europe and Britain for a while.
        b) a desire to blame the riots in the suburbs on “extremism” rather than lack of jobs, education and opportunities for young people, particularly young people who aren’t white French (but it’s no picnic these days even for the more privileged, many who leave to seek work elsewhere)
        c) the reality is that most of the Islamic immigrants are people who can immigrate to France because they’re from French colonies, most would have been happy to stay where they were born if France hadn’t contributed to making their country of origin a total shithole via the first wave of colonization and then the second wave of corporate exploitation/colonization

        2 – “feminism” as ideology rather than as a practical means to improve women’s lives, combined with a total denial of how France has actually not really done that great a job in terms of equality for women

        a) wearing a mini-skirt isn’t equality, nor is not being allowed to cover your face with a particularly female item of clothing – getting to decide what you wear and when is freedom of choice and the right to self determination vis a vis attire. It’s easy enough to draft a general law that forbids men from making women wear anything against their will but that might get rather messy when a woman divorces a controlling non-muslim husband who “likes” his wife to dress a certain way to make him look good, get aroused, not arouse other men, etc and retaliates against her when she doesn’t…one suspects that most politicians do some controlling of what their wives, and mistresses, wear. If they really wanted to prevent women being forced to wear a burqa and naqab, they should deport men who force women to wear it (and allow the women to stay, with financial aid, if they wish).

        b) if there was a real interest in helping women escape oppression by violent and controlling husbands, there’d be an increase of funding in women’s shelters and youth centres that provide the means for women and children to leave abusive husbands.

        c) This law effectively and in practical terms will actually make life harder for women who aren’t wearing the hajib by choice (though many do choose it) because it simply means they’ll never be allowed to leave the house. One way that women are controlled is by limiting their contact with the outside world – sons are sent to do shopping, etc. Non-religious control freak husbands do this in other ways.

        d) there’s also the problematic issue that revolves around the idea that some Western women believe they know what’s best for everyone, even though they haven’t really managed to create real social equality for all women, which means it’s just paternalism/colonialism with boobs (some of them man-boobs) or, if you’d prefer, a malignant form of maternalism. It’s convenient to deny the privileges and entitlements of one’s own class and race while claiming to be a victim as a woman, particularly if you’re a mainstream politician participating in a system that is still mainly run by men and on the same terms as it was before feminism (only the Swedes seem to have addressed any of these kinds of systemic issues in a practical way). The one good thing to come out of this is increased debate surrounding what it means to be a feminist in France and an increase in Arabic and Persian women actually speaking up about their own views on the subject.

        e) banning the hijab solves nothing and is actually a total avoidance of the real issues, it’s political theatre to distract people from more important issues.

        I wouldn’t want to be forced to wear a burqa and niqab or a miniskirt and bikini top, and there are certainly days when I’d actually quite like to go about my errands being more or less invisible. As a woman in our culture who has naturally biggish boobs, which men seem to think is an invitation for all kinds of idiocy even if you dress like crap and don’t groom, being able to be neutral/invisible would be quite useful and welcome sometimes. Of course, I’d rather just dress normally and not have to deal with men (or women) who are idiots and don’t respect other people’s autonomy.

      • Fifi says:

        As an aside, even though the swastika is now most often associated with Hitler in Europe and America it’s actually an Eastern symbol that Hitler appropriated. Banning the swastika hasn’t in any way shape or form actually reduced the amount of racism or white power type movements in Europe so that’s really more about not offending people’s sensibilities than it is about preventing fascism, racism or religious persecution. It also seems like you can get away with it if you happen to be an English prince. Besides that, the swastika is part of lots of tiled floor designs in cathedrals and other buildings in Europe and America (the use predates the nazi appropriation of the symbol) and is a symbol commonly used in Hinduism – effectively, banning all use of the swastika would actually be a form of religious repression. A bit ironic really.

  11. xylokopos says:

    Pastabagel, I will take your word about the US, but trust me when I say that even in the most progressive and chilled out european capitals, a man going about his business in public butt naked is breaking the law. It might not be enforced, depending on circumstance, but exposure and lewdness and breach of common decency are all felonies and very much part of all european legal codes. Dressing up/displaying nazi insignia, can (and most certainly will, in certain countries) get you in trouble with the law for a variety of reasons: promoting hate crimes, inciting unrest, promoting hate speech etc. Numerous countries have enforced dress codes and actively do so at this point. I don’t think examples are necessary.

    Sure the whole burqa debacle in France did not arise out of the cultural awareness and belief in human rights that fill the hearts of french politicians with rainbows and croissants and yes, the timing is suspect; still, sarko’s motivations notwithstanding, many people, as well as myself, feel it is a damn fine idea and way more useful than other fashionable laws these days, such as not smoking in pubs for example.

    You know, now that I think of it, it’s also not inconceivable that a lot of french politicos/higher civil functionaries DO FEEL strongly about the issue – especially women- because alot of them were students/activists at a time when the cultural environment in france was decidedly militant secular, feminist and pro-left and many have retained the worldview of their earlier days.

  12. Fifi says:

    “still, sarko’s motivations notwithstanding, many people, as well as myself, feel it is a damn fine idea and way more useful than other fashionable laws these days, such as not smoking in pubs for example.”

    That’s an odd example, second hand smoke actually has a health effect on people other than the smoker so banning smoking in pubs isn’t just about being “fashionable” – it’s about public health and also protecting workers. (Incidentally, even most smokers where I live think it’s better now you can’t smoke inside bars and don’t mind going outside to indulge. It also makes it easier for people who are attempting to stop smoking.) A woman wearing a burqa isn’t effecting your health, it might offend you but it doesn’t actually hurt you or potentially give you cancer even though you’ve never worn a burqa yourself.

    • xylokopos says:

      There is nothing odd about the example, fifi, the only odd thing is that you wrote an entire diatribe about what you – a non-frenchwoman, and a non-resident in France – theorize are the reasons behind a law of the french state, while at the same time you take the government’s word without any hesitation about another dubious and unpopular law.

      Don’t think I am attacking you, I am merely using this to underline the point I made to pastabagel earlier, that this is the kind of subject that everybody loves theorizing about and expanding on on the internet and linking it in a very fashionable way to everything under the sun; and that based on your personal bias, you can over-analyze it until the sun goes cold.

      In addition, also notice how on those issues, the ban on smoking in public and the burqa ban, you adapt an extremely unreasonable way of thinking, in one case thinking the government is attempting to distract from the real issues and the idiot citizens falling for it, and on the other taking it for granted that the government wants you to live a long and happy life and the citizens protesting are idiots who are not getting it and are trying to give you cancer.

      Gotta love the internet.

  13. Fifi says:

    xylokopos – You’re making a lot of assumptions and assertions simply because you seem to consider yourself reasonable therefore anyone who disagrees with you must be unreasonable, that’s faulty reasoning. In reality, you’re not actually being very rational by equating banning the burqa with banning smoking indoors (and making false assumptions about what I believe) – this is simply because smoking potentially harms others as well as the smoker, it actually impinges upon the rights of others to make them inhale your (or my) cigarette smoke. A woman wearing a burqa doesn’t impinge upon my rights or harm me in any way, it may or may not harm her depending on whether it’s her choice or she’s being forced to wear it but that’s no different than a husband forcing his wife to wear anything else she doesn’t want to wear. Also, you don’t seem to be aware that in countries with public health systems and political systems that are at least nominally more socialist, wanting the population to be healthier is at least partially about economics (less healthcare costs). It doesn’t prevent your or me from harming ourselves if we so choose, you or I can still smoke if we so choose (or because we’re addicted).

    The reality is that there is a connection between banning the burqa and surveillance culture – even if the drive to ban the burqa is basically about xenophobia – the connection is that it’s about trying to enforce cultural/social conformity. I’m actually quite conversant with this issue because I live in a former French colony with socialist and secular leanings where we had the same debate regarding banning the burqa AND attempts to ban protesters from wearing anything that covers their face. This debated was partially informed by what’s going on in France but also has its own regional flavour – not that xenophobia essentially changes from region to region that much in its essence.

    • xylokopos says:

      Well, this being the internet and all, I am indeed prone to making assumptions about others, even though in your case my 2 assumptions, namely you not living in France and not being French were correct. I don’t consider you unreasonable and I definitely don’t consider myself a paragon of logical thinking and process. I thought about addressing your points, but I realise that I really don’t feel strongly enough about this to see it through a dozen or so posts, plus it is really obvious that that you espouse a certain narrative about what France is and what its problems are, that is so radically different from mine as to make arguing over it on the net in equal parts pointless and extremely time consuming.

  14. Nik says:

    I’m gonna take a different approach. Banning burkas has nothing to do with surveillance. Its really about trying to mute a culture of violence. Devout Muslim women wear burkas. Muslims are blowing themselves up all over the place. Start banning the more insane practices and maybe we can curb the propagation of zealotry.
    The thing is, the civilized world has certain standards. Beheadings, whipping a 14 year old girl to death for being raped (because she was a participant in an affair), killing white people because someone burned a Koran, these things aren’t applauded in good countries like they are in ones dominated by Islamic zealots.
    I am against surveillance cameras, but the connection to the burka is stupid. They haven’t banned sky masks. The ban is a statement that they won’t accommodate Islamic “culture” that contradicts western values. Plain and simple.
    Pasta, I feel like you post with the intent to incite arguments. The links you make in your articles mimic those of TLP, but instead of education, they promote conspiracy. TLP helped me look at the endgame of media, but your wild conjecture lacks critical thinking and factual backing.