National Post Barbara Kay: National character on parade

National Post - Thursday September 19th, 2013

France bans child beauty pageants, while a British judge decides Muslim women must remove their veils while testifying.

National character was on full display this week in Britain and France on the issue of self-presentation of women in public. In England Judge Peter Murphy ruled that a Muslim woman defendant could wear her full niqab with face veil in court during her trial, but that she must remove it while giving evidence. The compromise seemed to many observers to be rooted in the sense of pragmatism and individual freedom that governs much of British public life.

Anyone who has wasted an hour of his or her life watching the TLC reality show Toddlers & Tiaras — or, God forbid, Here Comes Honey Boo Boo — knows that the world of child beauty pageants is a sort of spray-tanned parallel universe wherein little girls parade across stages to win their mothers a vicarious sense of approval.

Contestants are plastered with makeup, outfitted with “flippers” (false teeth to cover up gaps from lost baby teeth — a pesky inconvenience of childhood for the pageant mom) and taught how to “shake that booty” as any good twerking-Miley-Cyrus-in-training should know.

I know all of this, of course, because I have wasted far too many hours watching pageant-related reality shows on TLC — an admission for which I feel enormous shame.

As the niqab debate continues to roil European countries – a 2010 Pew Research poll found majority support for a ban in several European countries, with lower support in Britain – France’s approach was the obvious point of comparison. An officially secular state, and the model for Quebec’s hotly contested proposed values charter, France banned face cover in public altogether two years ago, having already banned the hijab and other ostentatious religious symbols years before.

France has become the bellwether once again on another female self-presentation issue. On Tuesday, by 197 to 146, in an amendment to a law on women’s rights, France’s Senate voted to ban beauty pageants for children on the grounds that it represents the too-early sexualisation of children. Anyone entering a child in such a competition may face up to two years in prison and $41,000 in fines. The amendment offers no wiggle room, reading: “Organizing beauty competitions for children under 16 is banned.”

Good for France. They have grasped the nettle on two particularly repulsive social crimes against women.

Beauty pageant girls (there are no such pageants for boys) are painted and primped and posed into a parody of seductive womanhood. They are offered up to the public by their parents (mostly mothers) who are essentially pimping their daughters’ hyper-sexualized faces and bodies as titillation for adult fantasies. It is an indecent phenomenon.

But so is face-masking indecent. The veil desexualizes and dehumanizes women, turning them into anonymous creatures with whom social reciprocity is impossible.

Beauty pageant mothers resist criticism by insisting that their daughters love what they do, and that they do it freely. But they are too young to give informed consent. Likewise, many veiled women tell the media that they veil themselves freely. But since the media will never hear from the women who do not veil themselves freely, such assertions are merely anecdotal and irrelevant to the question of whether the veil should or should not be banned.

Beauty pageants for children and niqabs for women are customs that only make sense in a culture where females have no other purpose in life than to charm

Arguments for freedom of religion and freedom of expression cannot prevail where those being harmed are too young or too brainwashed to evaluate their own victimhood.

For example, up until 1957 the Kaulong people on the island of New Britain just east of New Guinea practiced the ritual strangulation of widows. Nobody knows why. It was just a tribal custom. But it was so firmly ingrained that the widows themselves perpetuated it, insisting that a male relative strangle them when their husbands died, even taunting or mocking his manhood if he balked at the task. Are these women free or enslaved?

There may be children prancing about stages and batting their eyelashes at appreciative audiences who are having what they think of as the time of their lives, and there may be thousands of women who think shrouding their bodies and faces is the very height of womanly pride. But beauty pageants for children and niqabs for women are customs that only make sense in a culture where females have no other purpose in life than to charm, seduce and provide sexual satisfaction to men, or where women are frankly chattel.

Surely we are beyond such retrograde sexism and tribalism – or should be.