I’m a big fan of the French. Having visited Paris fairly regularly over the past several years, and having found the people very civilised, family oriented, hard working and sophisticated, I have very little to say about them that is bad. I also tend to be in favour of their more than usually left wing and inclusive politics.
Last week on Twitter, I heard about the first steps towards legislation in the French parliament banning beauty pageants for the under 16s. My first reaction was to be impressed. I think beauty pageants represent a pretty horrendous objectification of anyone, whatever form they occur in, and I’d never expose my own children to them, so banning them seemed like a good idea, and I said so.
The problem is that word, ban.
I have a natural inclination to mistrust the idea that it’s a worthwhile and even a noble exercise banning anything. I am, essentially anti-censorship for the very same reasons. We are adults and we should be as free as possible to make our own decisions on behalf of ourselves and our children. The desire to want to stamp out the sexualisation of children is one I share, but banning beauty pageants in order to do it, banning children from taking part in competitive activities that require them to learn a skill like singing or dancing seems a pity, even when it is accompanied by all that make-up and hairspray. No, I’ll say it again, I wouldn’t do it to my kids, and the thought of it appalls me, but the idea that banning it will change the hearts and minds of the parents who encourage their children to take part in beauty pageants is a nonsense.
I remember an occasion several years ago when I was invited to watch a group of pre-school little girls in tutus singing and dancing to the old song, “Be Young and Beautiful”. It made me want to throw-up. They had been taught a rictus grin and to wiggle and gyrate and flap their hands to the words, “Be young and beautiful – It’s your duty to be beautiful – Be young and beautiful – If you want to be loved!”
The French can and no doubt will ban child beauty pageants, but the sexualisation of children doesn’t begin and end with them.
In the same week as I heard about the ban, I was reminded of another law passed in France. I think of it as the Burqa Law, passed in 2010 and banning the wearing of face coverings in public spaces, including balaclavas, crash helmets, and, of course, the niqab, burqa and other veils worn by women for religious reasons.
So, alongside the sexualisation of children the French also disapprove of the desexualisation of women.
It would appear that it’s polarisation they don’t like.
I’ve long been suspicious of the burqa, its parts and the various, so-called modest garments worn by various religious groups, and let’s not pretend these garments aren’t almost exclusively worn by women. We shouldn’t forget that the more and most religious of many religions wear modest garments, including some Jews and Christians, as well as many Muslim women. It always seems to be the Muslims that we focus our attention on.
I have heard Muslim women speak eloquently of their reasons for wearing modest garments and the freedoms that they enjoy as a result of their choices. I am often given to wondering, though, how often it is the choice of the woman to wear the burqa, and how often it is the rights of freedom of the Muslim man that are being upheld, that he might instruct his wife and daughters, and the other women of his household or under his influence to wear the garments.
I’m hugely ambivalent about all of this. To insist that a modern Muslim woman, who is making a choice to wear modest garments show her face if she choices not to seems to me like a possible infringement of human rights. It also seems to me that no man should insist that a woman in his household wear anything she chooses not to, and that her government ensure her freedom not to.
Strict laws banning beauty pageants for children or the wearing of any particular garments for anyone seem to miss the point somehow. Children genuinely at risk of sexualisation and sexual exploitation need protection, and women who are genuinely being repressed need their liberty, and those things must be protected under existing laws, surely?
In this clip TV journalist Riham Said demonstrates her own feelings about wearing the veil.