Dear Sir, May I wear my burka to the opera?

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?

fan-a_lady_windermere

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?

pollution mask

 

Must overheated ladies surrender their fans at the door?

Are carnival masks not a western, European tradition?

carnival mask

 

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  • No tolerance to intolerance. The Paris opera decided correctly, for human rights and against intolerance. We shouldn’t cave in to cultural relativism. None of the other face covering applications mentioned above (carnival, medical indications etc.) stands for a suppressive and inhuman ideology like radical Islam does. A Niqab is a demonstration of suppression of human rights. And should not be tolerated as such in public space.
    I will reconsider my argument the day Saudi-Arabia tolerates nude swimmers on their shores. In such a climate of tolerance, I wouldn’t mind if women want to wear a Niqab, because they feel like it.

    • I’m sorry, but who are you to determine what constitutes ‘oppression’ and what constitutes a different cultural standard of modesty? One must assume by your comments that when you visit certain parts of Africa, you don a loincloth and nothing else in deference to local standards? Asking most Muslim women to remove their niqab is equivalent to insisting Western women expose their breasts. Whether or not that offends you with its ‘oppressiveness’ is neither here nor there.

      No tolerance for intolerance indeed.

      • Tristan,

        read the Quran for a starter. And then we can start talking about the so-called “freedom” these women have. Agree?

        It will never, ever, stop to confuse and annoy me how all these Western “liberals” defend a religion which is the most misogynist ideology seen on this planet since the dawn of time. Do you really hate women that much?

        • “read the Quran for a starter. And then we can start talking about the so-called “freedom” these women have. Agree?”

          You may wish to compare the Bible to the Qur’an when it comes to women’s rights. If anything, the Bible is just as bad, if not worse.

          http://www.christianity-islam.com/woman.html

          What is written and what is practised are, of course, two different things, which is why there are plenty of Muslim countries where women are not expected to wear a niqab.

    • Tristan, it’s relatively easy. We can take the UN Charter on human rights and also most of our western constitutions, to define clearly what is acceptable and what is not.
      Calling the Niqab a “different cultural standard of modesty” is a most perverted thing to say, really. It has nothing to do with modesty and all with control and suppression of women.
      Don’t confuse, that some women that have been conditioned and brainwashed since early childhood to wear them as adults, do defend their “right” to wear them. Google “Stockholm Syndrome” if you want to learn about these traps in the human psyche.

  • I support the Opera’s action, and France’s law, wholeheartedly. What we are talking about here is not a wardrobe choice — it is a symbol of the subjugation of women, and it should not be tolerated anywhere.

  • “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.”

    Ah, the everlasting two wrongs don’t make a right fallacy.

    “With an accident victim undergoing reconstructive surgery?”

    Do victims of car accidents usually wear niqabs in public?

    “Are carnival masks not a western, European tradition?”

    This is just to stupid, Mr. Lebrecht.

  • Should the chorus have the right to determine who sits in the audience?

    Of course, we only have the management’s ‘word’ that these claims by chorus members were ever made. ‘Rent-a-mob’ comes cheapest when you don’t have to pay anyone at all, and just make up their alleged ‘views’.

    But I see the anonymous tentacles of rent-a-mob have quickly appeared here too – and on the other SD story on this topic, where they’ve quickly descended into personal offtopic attacks against myself and others. The usual modus operandi .

  • In my country, Germany, such a law does not exist so far. However, a Burka wearing would-be student recently lost a lawsuit against the university which refused to admit her. The university’s argument: Studying here means taking part in a form of interactive communication, which is not possible when others can’t see your face. Hear, hear.

  • 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.”

    No, it was more than likely deemed offensive everywhere she went, but people lack the guts to speak up in defence of the ban. In France, there’s a world of difference between passing legislation and applying it.

  • The problem is a cultural one. When a Western woman travels to a muslem country where it is custom that women wear head scarfs, she usually wears one as well, out of cultural politeness. Burka’s are different, an old cultural custom from pre-islamic tribal times, so Western visitors are mostly allowed to not wear them when visiting. And not always are they a symbol of suppression because in a culture where men’s eyes are preying on women and streets unsafe, women feel safer when completely covered, and thus it can also be a symbol of freedom, according to local circumstances. Burkas as ‘extreme symbols of muslem culture’ simply do not belong in Europe and thus, they should be avoided by visitors. Given the presence of muslems and the problems this creates, it is all the more important that muslem women who want or are obliged to wear a burka should not come into Europe, or else leave the cloth at home. It is a cultural offence to wear such thing in Europe as it is an offence to go bathing in bikini at muslem beaches, as some European ‘liberated’ women do.

    Cultural relativism and multiculti indifference to the need of immigrants to integrate and thus, to be supported in their efforts, have greatly contributed to this rubbing of two mutually exclusive world views.

    • “And not always are they a symbol of suppression because in a culture where men’s eyes are preying on women and streets unsafe, women feel safer when completely covered, and thus it can also be a symbol of freedom, according to local circumstances.”

      Exactly. Reducing the chance of attack and rape by walking around like a dog is the new freedom.

      We simply need much more of this rich culture in Europe!

  • I suppose this makes me a bad person, but I do not like any interaction with people whose faces I can’t see. My western cultural associations mean that a covered face is usually up to no good (balaclava-clad or otherwise masked robbers, breakers-in, etc.). I do not care what people do in their own countries/cultures, and am perfectly interested in cultural differences, but in the west the direction has always been aiming, however imperfectly, toward openness in society.

    These people were visitors, and behaved properly — withdrawing without protest. But an awful lot of people live in France, and may feel that it is their country too — and this is where the majority of conflicts over this matter will ensue. I’m sorry, but if I lived in Saudi Arabia, I would have to observe rigorous dress codes that are anathema to me. It’s the law. I fail to see why France cannot uphold dress codes that support their “laicité.”

    • For those who are “uncomfortable” interacting with someone who’s face is covered… she’s just sitting in the audience of a theatrical presentation, watching it.

      If you’re expecting to interact with her, you’re going to be interrupting the opera.

      Whatever you may regard the covering as a “symbol” of, it’s still just a piece of clothing that imposes no hardship on anyone but the wearer, if that.

      How about Texas matrons with big hair as a symbol of oppressive wealth? Ban them too?

      How about people in jeans as a symbol of disrespect for culture? Ban them too?

      • Fascinating to see there still are people around who believe niqab is “just a piece of clothing”. Yeah, just as uncontroversial as a pair of black socks, you’re right about that.

        Radical chic is dead – get over it.

      • My comment was not so much upon this lady, who may well have been innocent of the law and who behaved discreetly when challenged, as with the law in general, to which I have no objection. I do see arguments by those who feel it illiberal to impose dress codes upon the public, but I don’t agree with them.

        When I see very young girls wearing such covering in schools, they seem to be saying by implication to the girls not wearing them, “I am more virtuous, modest, good” than you are. And at an age where some young girls still consider such attributes things to be aspired to. I do not see why any young relative of mine should be subject to the sort of self-questioning that come of this. And I am not delighted the the veiled young girls go home and ask their mothers why they can’t dress like the other girls, probably to get answers about the looseness of western morals. So right from the get-go people are separated.

  • We don’t know if she wore her niqab in the hotels or the restaurants – but you can bet she took it off when she walked through passport control at the Paris airport. We do know for sure that she wore it at the opera, and surely she knew she was flaunting French law. She was in France, and everyone has an obligation to obey the laws of the country they are visiting – irrespective of their religious beliefs. Those laws were deemed necessary by that country to insure everyone’s safety (including tourists!). So, if that lady doesn’t like French laws, she doesn’t have to visit France, period.

    • Yes, and I suppose she chose La Traviata because the opening scene has a champagne-quaffing chorus, the Brindisi. And Act II is set in a gambling den.

      Ever been to an opera??

      No, I didn’t think so.

      • Yeah, and did you also hear a lot of Muslims use aftershave and perfume even though alcohol is banned in the Quran!

        You need to get some new arguments. The ones you use went out of date in 2001.

  • What would be your reaction if all of sudden there were somebody in a seat at the opera wearing a Ku Klux Klan hood?

  • “read the Quran for a starter. And then we can start talking about the so-called “freedom” these women have. Agree?”

    You may wish to compare the Bible to the Qur’an when it comes to women’s rights. If anything, the Bible is just as bad, if not worse.

    http://www.christianity-islam.com/woman.html

    What is written and what is practised are, of course, two different things, which is why there are plenty of Muslim countries where women are not expected to wear a niqab.

  • I am thoroughly enjoying the discussion here – a German journalist (Henryk M. Broder) has the perfect description for what is going on in some parts of this forum: “we are tolerating ourselves to death”.
    You want to dress up women in fantastic colours such as “black”, “tarmac”, “taxi de Londres” and “a foggy day in Helsinki” – fine. But not in Europe.
    You want to entomb women in a piece of clothing that anonymises them and ‘protects’ them from the stares of other men – fine. But not in Europe.
    Do some of the ‘liberals’ (or NIMBYs to use a better description) realise that many women flee these ‘cultures’ for Europe because they want to decide what to wear, how to live, what to study and if they want to drive a car?
    There can be no tolerance of intolerance.

    • So your definition of the wonderful ‘freedoms’ offered by the West includes being criminalised for wearing the wrong thing?

      Yay progress.

      • Beaumont is just right. It is not merely ‘the wrong thing’ but a cultural symbol, loaded with conflicting emotional content, especially in these times. A bit of adaptation to the customs of the culture you are visiting is merely a form of politeness and civilization.

      • It is interesting to see Mr Jakob-Hoff use quotation marks when describing the freedoms offered by the west. Our shortcomings are manifest, yes of course they are.
        However, it should be clear to even the meanest intellect that democracy is better than a theocracy, equal rights for women are better than not being allowed to drive a car or being stoned for having been raped, being able to be homosexual is better than being publicly hanged for it,…
        This discussion reminds me a lot of western liberals and socialists up to 1989 who praised all the countries of the former Warsaw Pact – but did not live there (Günter Grass referred to the GDR as a ‘kommode Diktatur’ – something along the lines of a ‘comfortable dictatorship’).
        Our western values are something precious – in my country people were beheaded only a couple of decades ago for thinking that democracy and the rule of law are better than a nutter with a moustache staging Armageddon.
        Radical chic no longer works.

  • This is such a controversial and difficult subject, it is not surprizing it fueled such a debate.

    The law against masking one’s face is a remnant of the Sarkozy years, which created only more confusion : the president who was pro-multiculturalism, but against immigrants, pro-Qatar, but against niqab… This was a much-debated law that barely passed. The biggest mistake was to make a law based on reasons of security when it was really aimed only at religious extremism.
    The trouble is that discussing a new law to overturn this ban would create more confusion, more debates on this subject, and it is not really something really needed today.

    About the comparisons, the Opéra de Paris can’t be compared to hotels, taxis, restaurants or planes. The ban is for public places, public meaning “state owned”, if you prefer. A woman then can’t wear a niqab in the street, but she can at home or in a car. A restaurant or a hotel are private buildings, therefore the law does not apply in such situations. On the contrary, the Opéra de Paris is a state owned, public service.

    The most troubling aspects of this story is that so many details about money are given. They were “rich tourists”, with “very expensive seats”, and the Opéra de Paris now apparently targets especially “wealthy middle easterns”. Well, when all you want is money, it is difficult to guarantee all your other principles will be respected. There are not many French who can offer a seat in the upper categories at Bastille or Garnier. So, should the Opera target foreigners who can pay but might have “different” behaviours, or should it lower its prices instead of a 5-10% increase every year ?

  • Isn’t this really just about respect for local customs? When we travel to Muslim countries, we adapt to their customs, whatever they are grounded in. Is it unreasonable to expect the same in return?

  • I completely agree. There’s no denying that in western societies we are taught to be suspicious of people who hide their faces. Think of the strong feelings people have about youths wearing hoodies! From my perspective its about respect. I have spent time in two middle-eastern countries and, as a woman, was obliged to dress in a way that respected the local Wahhabist culture. I accepted that without question and had no expectation that an exception would be made for me as a western woman. Whether we like it or not, we must respect the rules and customs of the countries we visit.

  • We must assume

    We had better not assume facts not in evidence.

    the hotel where she stayed

    We don’t know that she stayed at a hotel. Her family might own a house or a flat in Paris, or she and her husband might be guests of fellow countrymen who reside there. I don’t know whether a hotel is defined as “public.”

    by the restaurants where she ate

    We don’t know that she ate at restaurants.

    by the tourist attractions and galleries that she visited

    We have no evidence that she attended any attractions of that sort.

    by the airports and stations by which she entered France

    At least in some European countries, a accommodation is made for women who wear a full facial covering: at passport control and other official places where identity must be determined precisely, the authorities provide a private room with a female security person. The veiled visitor exposes her face only to this one security guard for a time sufficient to establish her identity, and then she passes through.

    The fact is that there are a relatively small number of women resident in France who wear the niqab and a number of others who visit the country. Their wearing of the niqab is permitted in private or semi-private situations (e.g., riding in a taxi) and forbidden under law in public situations. Attending the opera (and sitting on the front row) surely counts as “public.”

  • Mr Lebrecht, if you read the French article you cite in your other post a little better than you apparently did, it appears quite clearly that the chorus did not ask for this person to be removed. One of the chorus members alerted the administration, and some of the chorus members were reluctant to carry on – that is all I understand from the article. This person was asked to leave because she broke the law.

    • Indeed! But I suspect this newly found compassion for burka wearers is purely circumstantial… Imagine the editorial if she were attending the John Adams opera!

    • I’ve been participating sincerely on this thread, and trying to see other points of view as I read them. But I am beginning to wonder if you are right. What was a couple so conservative that the lady wears NIQAB (not simply hijab) doing at an opera, and La Traviata at that? How likely is it that someone on stage would be so outraged that a breach of French law was reported to people in a position to enforce the law, and disposed to do so? France, where smoking laws are so much wast of paper?

      Leaving without complaint and without refund, though in the stereotype the cost was chump change, might have seemed the better part of valour. But perhaps it just gave the hired actors more free evening for the same fee, and they didn’t have to sit through the opera (!)

      It’s possible this was just set up to stimulate the sort of debate it has here. Has it done so in France?

  • Dear Mr Lebrecht, this is such a disappointing point of view.
    Europeans seem to hate themselves, trying to justify and forgive opression.
    It’s not because we made terrible things in the past that we can have this kind of strange relativism. This woman has absolutely no choice to wear or not the burqa. Please don’t tell me she has the choice.
    You don’t tell that in the french article, it’s written : “the husband didn’t want that a man spoke directly to her wife”. No problem ?

    Mr Tristan Jakob-Hoff said : “Asking most Muslim women to remove their niqab is equivalent to insisting Western women expose their breasts”.
    If Western women want to expose their breasts, they can. If they don’t want, they don’t do. If we ask to her to do, they can refuse.
    Do you think that this woman can say to her husband ;” sorry, honey, I don’t wan’t to wear burqa”.

    Good point for Abendroth and Theodore McGuiver :
    “About the comparisons, the Opéra de Paris can’t be compared to hotels, taxis, restaurants or planes. The ban is for public places, public meaning “state owned”, if you prefer. A woman then can’t wear a niqab in the street, but she can at home or in a car. A restaurant or a hotel are private buildings, therefore the law does not apply in such situations. On the contrary, the Opéra de Paris is a state owned, public service” That is correct.
    “No, it was more than likely deemed offensive everywhere she went, but people lack the guts to speak up in defence of the ban. In France, there’s a world of difference between passing legislation and applying it”. Completly true.

    • She has no choice about wearing it? Agreed. Which mean s oppression — any time one has no choice. Which further underlines why France is correct to ban a symbol of oppression. Even if some women claim to like it. ( We have western women who claim to like some practices that are generally illegal and distasteful to the vast majority — it is not a cultural monopoly of one region or another ).

  • Fans should left at home! I had a Mahler symphony at the Proms completely destroyed by a woman fluttering her fan a couple of rows in front in direct line of sight of the orchestra! No interval so no chance to ask her to stop! Why no one nearer didn’t get her to stop I do not understand. Similar selfishness is shown by those flapping programmes or other items. They should imagine their neighbour waving a hand in front of their face throughout a show!

    As far as I am concerned the fan point is the only one of substance in a ludicrously exaggerated series of non-sequiturs. I can only imagine the writer would be happy sitting next to a group of men warring balaclavas and holding machine guns on their laps.

    Why shouldn’t people be required to respect local laws and customs?

    • Perhaps you could tell us in which specific way this lady’s clothing would have caused interruption to others around her in a darkened theatre auditorium.

      Have you ever been to an opera? I doubt you have. But I’m sure you’ve been to a National Front meeting. Perhaps people were waving fans there?

      • Couldn’t for the sake of an argument one also ask the same question about – for instance – a naked man, sitting in row 1 of a mostly darkened opera auditorium?
        In which specific way should such an occurrence have caused an interruption? Let’s take it from there and you might find the answer to your question yourself…

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