Les Couture Police

This post was written by Liz Stephens on January 26, 2010
Posted Under: Gender Politics,Islamophobia,Religion

With all the furore about a French parliamentary committee recommending a ban on Muslim women wearing Islamic face veils in public, I thought it was a good time to bring up France’s long-standing history of banning items of clothing…

Historically religion isn’t the only area to fall victim to the fashion police in France, sartorial expressions of gender-bending have also been under threat. Apparently there is a still-current law in Paris which prevents French women from dressing like men. Introduced in 1800 by a Paris police chief, the law says it’s only ok for women to wear trousers if they are holding the reins of a horse or on a bicycle.

Although it has lain dormant for years, the law has never been repealed despite many opportunities to do so. There’s still nothing to stop it being enforced – although it would have to be enforced by a policeman as the uniform for Parisianpolicewomen includes trousers (what a winning instance of “do as I say and not as I do” that would be…). I’ve never understood why women who dress as men have traditionally been seen as a moral danger or a bit risqué (even in panto), but men who dress as women are the focus of hilarity on both sides of the channel. It’s a humour I will never understand, much like Benny Hill.

It may seem hilariously archaic now but when the ‘sanscullotes’ law was introduced, a reason was given which we often hear being used in the arguments for banning the veil – fear of displays (or non-displays in the case of the veil) which transgress ‘the norms’ of society. The veil is certainly an affront to the liberal secular view.

European politicians often speak of the veil as making them feel uncomfortable, suspicious or disconnected from the wearer. People who appear visually different evoke an old fear in Western society, particularly those who wear masks or conceal their faces – a mask allows you to lose inhibitions and commit transgressions without fear of being identified. As Shakespeare writes in Measure for Measure – a play where a central character is a woman about to take the veil and become a nun:

“To speak so indirectly I am loath… to veil full purpose.” (Act 4: Scene 6)

We worry about this for practical reasons of security. However, if France were banning the veil for this reason only then hard hats, motorcycle helmets and hoodies would also be banned.

It’s worth remembering that at the time the Parisian law was introduced (shortly after the revolution), women in trousers were seen as threatening to the fragile status quo. The law was meant as a reminder that the promise of egalité of the revolution was only to be extended to the fraternity, not the sorority. Ironically, now the veil stands accused of representing exactly the same kind of sexual inequality. Plus ça change.

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Reader Comments

Significantly all religions seem fixated with dress codes that amount to the subordination and submission of sexuality.

Written By ChrisH on January 27th, 2010 @ 9:30 am

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