The eviction from the Paris Opéra of a woman wearing niqab arouses new and disturbing questions that go far beyond operatic dress code.
The woman was asked to leave, ostensibly, because covering your face in a public place is an offence under French law. We must assume that this misdemeanour was overlooked by the hotel where she stayed, by the restaurants where she ate, by the tourist attractions and galleries that she visited, by the airports and stations by which she entered France. Only at the Opéra was her facial covering deemed offensive.
And by whom? By members of the chorus, who refused to sing to an audience member whose eyes they could not see. Would they have acted the same with sleeping Frenchmen in the front row? With an injured footballer in a protective face mask? With an accident victim undergoing reconstructive surgery? An unmistakable whiff of prejudice arises from the incident, along with a sulphurous hint of the racial tensions that run beneath much of French public discourse these days.
Should the chorus have the right to determine who sits in the audience?
Are operagoers bothered by what our neighbour is wearing, provided it does not distract attention?
Do we have more rights at the opera than we do on an aircraft to choose who sits next to us? Or who lies in the next hospital bed?
May a cardinal wear his galero to the opera? An asthmatic his smog protector?
Must overheated ladies surrender their fans at the door?
Are carnival masks not a western, European tradition?