A Niqāb at the Opera, or, Who is Not Veiled?


On the night of October 3rd, 2014, singers of l’Opéra National de Paris halted their performance of Verdi’s La Traviata at the Bastille Opera House because one of them spotted a female “tourist from a Gulf State” in the front row, wearing a niqāb. They gathered behind the first act curtain to tell the company’s deputy director, Jean-Philippe Thiellay, that they would refuse to go on, unless she was either unveiled or removed.

Thiellay backed the singers, and, citing France’s 2011 burqa ban, under which the veiled woman could be fined €150 for her chosen dress, asked security to confront her. She left promptly with her male companion. Eyewitnesses would have had to assess her body language and gait to know whether she felt humiliated.

It’s both hilarious and pathetic that the precious faculty of irony could so fail a gaggle of French singers — in powdered wigs, pretending to be 19th century Italians — that they would piously feel that a viewer’s clothing was disrupting their fiction. Perhaps it says something about the artistic poverty of the opera class that its elite performers can’t recognize the strange parallels of passion and anachronism mirrored across the footlights that night. The bustier and tophat-wearers gazed out into the front row, and saw a black gown and niqāb reflected back.

It couldn’t have been more twistedly perfect, unless of course the opera that night had been Strauss’ Salomé, and the soprano had stopped the dance of veils to demand the woman in the front row strip down or leave.

Here we see Europe, reconstructed and curated for tourists, meet the “tourist from the Gulf State”, who is most likely spending oil money – €210 of it for her front-row seat – and blink. Did the singers forget exactly how they are filling up their cars and the furnaces of their heritage châteaux? Aren’t those front-row seats and luxury boxes usually occupied by executives of the Total Société Anonyme oil Corp., who spread the values of Liberté, Equalité, Fraternité and postcolonial neoliberalism throughout their Gulf outposts while so suavely veiled in their Cardin and Gaultier?

Next time I’m in Paris I think I’ll go to the Bastille in a full burqa sewn from several tricolour French flags, with a little visor made of fine French lace, just to see what happens. I’ll either be ejected or given a slot at Fashion Week.

Of course, I can’t say I personally understand the niqāb. I don’t know what it is like to move through the world under a covering I feel compelled by belief or force to wear. Perhaps because I have always been obliged to perform my face in the open. But what would my face feel like if I weren’t using it to present whatever I thought others wanted to see? Does the niqāb-wearer not have to perform? To smile when she doesn’t feel a smile? Does her jaw feel relaxed? Are her cheeks soft and neutral? Can she speak in a voice unaltered by forced expressions? Does the veil constitute a kind of portable room of her own? Can she speak for herself?

To so many, the niqāb seems to be a shimmering black box. Who has the code? Muslim scholars agree it is nowhere near obligatory as a religious commitment. Many outsiders revile it as a sign of patriarchal control. Many insider-wearers claim it frees them from colonialist sexual objectification, preserving their attention for God. Some older-school feminists worry that these women are only expressing the freedom to be subjugated and possessed. The phrase “Stockholm Syndrome” is bandied about. But some newer-school feminists hear their reports more generously, and insist that the empowerment of women is best served by listening carefully to what they say, regardless of how it grates on one’s values.

Many prominent beefy white men see the niqāb as a security threat, or proof of intent to defraud. In Australia, some parliamentarians want to segregate veiled women who visit the legislative chambers into the enclosed areas normally reserved for noisy children. It’s unclear whether they think that children and veiled women are equally likely to be suicide bombers, or that if the women are bombers it’s better they blow up some noisy children while they’re at it. Of course, given that any eco-terrorist could strap explosives to her chest under her hippie poncho if that was her thing, a security check that democratically scans everyone entering the premises is the only smart solution.

In Canada, Jason Kenney, who struggles nobly with the oxymoronic role of Conservative Minister for Multiculturalism, claims that the words a woman speaks in her Canadian citizenship ceremony won’t work if she speaks them through a niqāb. Prime Minister Stephen Harper has recently agreed. Apparently the ghost of John A. MacDonald needs to see your face to assess your honesty in reciting the pledge.

Judges sport such snappy black robes. Are there many of them who are concerned that a woman might play a recording of her oath beneath her veil? Or worse: a recording of someone else reciting the oath? She could do it, I suppose, with a small beat box, which would be kind of cool. She could go further and beat box it out while standing under the portrait of the Queen, whose crown demurely covers much of her bluish perm. Who isn’t in a veil?

And what if the judge is visually impaired, and wouldn’t be able to see the veiled woman’s mouth moving anyway? There are so many ways in which the magical thinking of statecraft can be confounded!

The covering is powerful in the most ambivalent and unreadable way. As it conceals the face, it also hides the power that conceals the face. It might be consented to, it might be forced: no one can really say, case by case. (Although it’s hard to consent to anything so pervasive, and certainly when you’re a pre-teen.) The niqāb wrests power back from the consumer-surveillance state. it renders the person unreadable by facial recognition software. Security video cannot track the wearer, and Facebook cannot market to her based upon photo-tags. It removes the wearer from our facial economy. It insults so many expectations of freedom, even as it shows so many freedoms to be hollow.

I was waiting in Heathrow on a layover a few months back. There were several niqāb’d women at the gate. I was fascinated. They seemed to share a secret. I could hear them laugh and chat in softly pharyngealized staccato. They looked through each other’s glittering bags of duty-free. I could see their eyes smiling, but I might have been making it up. Their husbands or brothers walked together down the marble hall, arm in arm, in impeccable silks and linens, discussing things quietly.

As I gawked, I noticed that the robes and niqābs were all delicately lined with tiny rhinestones. They might have been diamonds. Their hemlines draped graciously over Prada slippers. It seemed that the niqāb can also be a fashion, intimating beauty too transgressive to be seen. I totally intruded upon them with my stare, which is regrettable but also funny, because surely at least part of the point of the garb is to avoid an unwanted, othering male gaze.

When I see the niqāb worn by women lugging their vegetables home to the public housing complex where I go to swim I don’t feel the same things at all. So my brain is clearly colluding wealth with independence and poverty with oppression in a way that wouldn’t survive close scrutiny. But in that moment in the airport, suspended between times and cultures, I found the garment simple, powerful, and inscrutable. Some day I hope to become friends with a woman who wears a niqāb. Isn’t this part of what this about — that Jason Kenney and Stephen Harper only have a certain circle of pasty friends? How much wider is my circle? If I made friends with a woman who wears a niqāb, maybe I would understand it better. Perhaps I might understand what might sometimes be a strange inversion of my own power as a white man.

Isn’t my own white male face a kind of mask? Do I wear it with as much confidence as some women might wear a niqāb – knowing it will project a certain meaning and allegiance without effort? That it may just take certain vulnerabilities completely off the table? My privilege allows me to walk through the world far less concerned about smiling, appearing deferent, or averting my gaze. I am male and white: both hide whoever I am behind an unearned attribution of power.

Perhaps when I am uncomfortable with the niqāb it is because it infringes upon this strength. I guess there’s a greasy bit of Aussie PM Tony Abbott within me: he said he found the veil “confronting”. At least he is transparent about his othering reactivity. Suddenly, Tony and I see the draped contours of a face that needs to project no effort or deference towards me, because it is hidden. How dare a person hide from us? How dare this be their expression or erasure of gender? How dare they wear a mask more impenetrable than our own? The danger isn’t in the explosives that are not strapped around her waist. It is in the specter of what we cannot understand and control.

Remember when 80s supermodel Kelly LeBrock did that Pantene shampoo commercial where she hair-flipped and gazed into the camera and purred “Don’t hate me because I’m beautiful?” I had a dream last night in which the opera-niqāb woman, black cloth fluttering in the stage-wind, gazed at the camera of my mind and said in perfect Oxford English “Don’t hate me because I don’t give a shit about whether you think I’m beautiful.”

There’s this meme popping up in racist Facebook threads that shows a woman in a black burqa standing on a sidewalk, flanked by two black bags of garbage. The caption says: “Hello Mrs. Abudullah – nice children you have there.”

That just about says it all, doesn’t it? Here is a woman whose faith or circumstance or even politics has covered her from view, and it enrages people so much that that they toilet the stresses of their own veils upon her. And they hate her children, who clearly spoil the fantasy of a living in a world they can understand.

It’s no wonder that some of them will not sing, to give her two dreamy hours of Verdi’s homage to La Triavata – the “fallen woman”.

Singers: the show must go on. Consider the veil, the robe, your foundation makeup, rouge, wigs, and all your Jaguars burning up gas. It’s all a fucking show, except for those who are hungry.


1 Comment

  • Thank you Matthew for such a well written article in which you are very honest about your stance regarding the niqab. I laughed a full belly laughter at some of your thoughts, and your dream, I love how you comission such a clear rendition of your inner dialogue an put it into words. What women wear can be a major point of contention or discomfort for people whether here in the West or in the East. On one side the niqab makes people more inclined to imagine some impending explosion and on another side, as you mentioned, the niqab wearer goes against the status quo of women caring about what non familiar people think of her. Either way the niqab just rubs some people the wrong way. One of Canada’s most touted ideologies is multiculturalism, hopefully this means that eventually the anger, suspicion and anxiety the niqab/hijab/veil spark in people will become a non issue (I can’t expect anything from France or any other nation I am not taxed for). The niqab will just have to get in line behind the multitude of other differences about people that are so difficult for others to accept. If I wear to go to Saudi Arabia the niqab would be necessary for me to wear because Saudi Arabia is very clear about it’s rules and laws regarding attire for both men and women. I am however perplexed that a nation such as Canada that is in itself clear about the laws regarding what is appropriate for public display yet is very open and forward about that which is acceptable has such an issue with an individual’s choice to wear a niqab or whatever. Niqab is tradition, much like the white curly wigs that judges and lawyers wear in English courts of law.

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