12 October 2017

Show Yourself

Face on for a face off.

By Neil Tidmarsh

The Austrian government’s Anti-Face Veiling Act came into force last Sunday, and only days later this ‘burka ban’ law claimed its first victim.  But the victim wasn’t a woman wearing a burka.  It was a man dressed up as a shark.

He was advertising a chain of computer stores called McShark.  But the costume’s head covered his face, and the law forbids the wearing of full-face coverings in public.  He refused to take the shark’s head off (“ain’t doing no harm, officer, just doing me job, ain’t you got no real criminals to arrest?”) so he was fined €150 by the police.

An Algerian businessman, Rachid Nekkaz, has offered to pay the fines of anyone caught out by the new law (apparently he has already spent €300,000 paying fines for women falling foul of similar laws in France and Belgium) – it would be interesting know whether or not he’s signed a cheque for the Shark Man.

Meanwhile, in Iran, a nineteen year old girl has been kicked out of the national chess team and banned from the game for not covering up when playing for her country.  Dorsa Derakhshani has stood out from an early age: more than ten years ago, she was the only competitor not wearing a headscarf at a national chess tournament for under-eights – she was wearing a princess dress and tiara instead (which she admits was a canny psychological ploy – it made her feel powerful).  But her refusal to wear a hijab came to a head last February when a controversy blew up over the dress regulations imposed by the Iranian chess federation for the Women’s World Chess Championship held in Tehran; all competitors were required to wear the hijab, but a number of players from the USA and elsewhere refused to do so and boycotted the event.

It’s all very confusing.  The Austrian foreign minister Sebastian Kurz said that his country would not tolerate symbols of a parallel society; but what about symbols of diversity, pluralism and tolerance?  Rachid Nekkaz described the new anti-burka law as an attack on freedom; but those protesting women chess players described the Iranian pro-hijab rule as an attack on freedom, choice and the rights of women.  It just goes to show what a mess the authorities get into when they proscribe – across the board and without precision or good practical reason – what people can wear or do.  Surely everyone should be allowed to wear whatever they like as long as it doesn’t present any specific danger or threat to the rest of the public?

There were other examples this week.  In Tajikistan, President Rahmon (“Founder of Peace and National Unity – Leader of the Nation” as state media have been ordered to describe him whenever his name is mentioned) banned mourners at funerals from wearing black.  Potentially very confusing for those of us for whom wearing black at funerals is de rigueur.  Mourners have also been banned from wailing loudly, tearing at their hair and scratching their faces.  Birthday celebrations were banned in 2007 to prevent excessive expenditure, of course, and in recent years the police have shaved the beards off tens of thousands of men in this mainly Muslim country as a gesture against Islamic fundamentalism.

How much of your face you should or should not show was also in the news from India this week, where moustaches – rather than beards – and whether they should be permitted or banned have provoked mystifying levels of violence.  In Gujarat state, the lowest caste, the Dalits, have launched a movement intending to end their ‘untouchable’ stigma within thirty years.  Many Dalit men have begun to grow moustaches as a result, in defiance and protest against an ancient tradition which forbids them from growing facial hair.  In recent days, however, some of them have been attacked – beaten up and stabbed – by higher caste men eager to enforce the tradition by imposing a ban.

Of course, there are places and occasions – such as issuing passports, and at passport control at airports – where the authorities need to regulate how we appear and dictate what we can or cannot wear, for the good of society as a whole.  As three Chinese women found out a few days ago – they had flown to South Korea for plastic surgery, and when they tried to return to China they weren’t let back into the country because they no longer looked like the photos in their passports.  Moreover, their heads were swathed in bandages and their faces were so swollen after the operations that any sort of identification was difficult.  Tens if not hundreds of thousands of Chinese people visit South Korea for cosmetic surgery each year, and some surgeons issue their patients with certificates to inform immigration officers about the operations as part of the service.

Perhaps McShark should have issued their man with a similar certificate.  But I doubt that it would have saved him (or Rachid Nekkaz) that fine of €150.


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