On July 13, 2010 the French National Assembly overwhelmingly voted in favour of a bill prohibiting the wearing in public of clothing which conceals the face, with 335 votes for the bill and one against (most of the opposition boycotted it). In the following September, the bill easily passed through the Senate by 246 to one, and the Council of State ratiﬁed the law in October, despite previously warning the government that it could not find any legal basis in support of the ban, and that it would likely violate both the French constitution and the European Convention on Human Rights. On April 11, 2011, the ban came into effect. Violations of the ban incur the penalty of €150 or the humiliating attendance of French citizenship classes. This ban has nothing to do with secularism, and nothing to do with clothing. It is about politicians catering to voters who have been infected with a growing epidemic of Islamophobia. It is unjust, prejudicial, and dangerous.
President Sarkozy declared the Islamic veil “not welcome” in France, and said it was a sign of “subservience.” French Justice Minister Michèle Alliot-Marie claimed that “democracy thrives when it is open-faced.” French Interior Minister Claude Guéant recently called France’s growing Muslim population a problem and said that such things as prayers in the streets “shock a certain number of people,” and negatively affect them. He also whined that the French “no longer felt at home” due to the Muslim minority. One cannot help but wonder whether he would still have a job, had he said such a thing about the Jewish minority.
According to a recent poll, forty-two percent of French people consider the presence of Muslim communities a “threat” to their (evidently remarkably fragile) national identity. In 2008, a Pew poll found that thirty-eight percent of French people had an “unfavorable” view of Muslims, which is actually quite tolerant compared to such European neighbours as Spain, Germany, and Poland. A 2010 study found that French Muslims face “massive discrimination,” and are 2.5 times less likely on average than Christians to receive a positive response to a job application.
Thankfully, not everyone submits to the current Islamophobic trends. When France’s ruling conservative party, the Union for a Popular Movement (UMP) recently held a public forum on the issue of the place of Islam in society, Prime Minister Francois Fillon refused to attend, voicing his concern that the party was drifting too far to the right. Furthermore, the leaders of France’s Roman Catholic, Muslim, Jewish, Protestant, Orthodox, and Buddhist faiths all voiced their opposition to the debate, claiming that it would add fuel to the steadily growing fire of racism and Islamophobia throughout France.
The ban was designed by the UMP to appeal to anti-immigrant, Islamophobic voters whom they have lost to the even more right-winged National Front, which wants to stop all non-European immigration to France. Marine Le Pen, the new leader of the populist National Front, who has compared Muslims praying in the streets to the Nazi occupation of France, and claims that there is no such thing as Islamophobia, is currently enjoying higher popularity ratings in France than any other leader, including Sarkozy.
At the risk of stating the (hopefully) obvious, supporters of this ban (Over 80% of the French public support it) are guilty of the very thing which they purport to be against – the enforcement of a dress code. This is a textbook example of ‘forced tolerance.’ This amounts to imposing one’s own subjective values upon others, essentially ‘forcing’ them to be free. This is in direct violation to John Stuart Mill’s harm principle, which states that “the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others.” John Dalhuisen, Amnesty International’s expert on discrimination in Europe says, “a complete ban on the covering of the face would violate the rights to freedom of expression and religion of those women who wear the burqa or the niqab as an expression of their identity or beliefs.”
One could argue that most governments also forbid public nudity, but this is a straw man argument which ignores the fact that the primary reason why this law is seen by many as unjust is that it specifically targets one identifiable group, one coherent segment of society, and for no legitimate reason. The Islamic veil does not disrupt society the way that public nudity may. It certainly does not fall under any classification of hate speech, the way that wearing a shirt with a racist slogan or symbol does (although even most forms of hate speech are protected under freedom of expression laws in some countries, such as under America’s incredibly robust First Amendment). In those cases where women are forced by someone else to wear the veil, it is of course illegal, which no one argues against, because it infringes upon their freedom to dress the way they choose. Hence the irony of this new French law.
Another straw man is that there are certain situations in any society when it is necessary to see an individual’s face, such as when entering airport security or having your photo taken for various forms of official identification, and therefore this law is justified. As interviews and opinion polls have shown, most, if not all veil-wearers have absolutely no problem removing their niqabs or burqas in such situations, especially if done in a respectful manner where only women are present, which is a small request such as the one for halal or kosher meal options.
The idea that this law has anything to do with secularism is wholly erroneous, as secularism means a divide between religion and politics. What exactly does how one dresses in public have to do with politics? Are crosses, kippahs, turbans and kirpans, habits and vestments, prayer beads, tilakas, and religious slogans written on clothing also to be banned?
This law will also accomplish precisely the opposite of what its creators have presumably attempted to achieve, namely combating the isolation experienced by veil-wearers. Rather than (in their interpretation of Islam) forsake their religion, the vast majority of wearers will instead opt to remain trapped in the safety of their own homes, thus unable to participate in the civil society that republican France is so defensive of.
© Malcolm Evans
Why exactly do members of an open society need to see each other’s faces in order to trust them? We are not offended at the sight of someone in a winter scarf, balaclava, Halloween or surgical mask, or motorcycle helmet. We do not feel uncomfortable when talking to someone over the phone, or online. And even if we were, would we have a right to forbid it? If this religious practice is seen as harmful to its practitioners, then why are there not bills being passed in European parliaments for the banning of Catholic self-flagellation, which is still practised in Mediterranean countries during penitential processions during Lent’s Holy Week? If religious expressions in public threaten secularism (which they do not), then shouldn’t all religious symbols be banned in public? This law is designed specifically to target Muslims.
Some have also argued that the niqab and burqa are symbols of oppression or male suppremacy, which they have every right to opine. However, as contemporary philosopher Martha Nussbaum argues:
“[these people] typically don’t know much about Islam and would have a hard time saying what symbolizes what in that religion. But the more glaring flaw in the argument is that society is suffused with symbols of male supremacy that treat women as objects. Sex magazines, nude photos, tight jeans — all of these products, arguably, treat women as objects, as do so many aspects of our media culture. Every time I undress in the locker room of my gym, I see women bearing the scars of liposuction, tummy tucks, breast implants. Isn’t much of this done in order to conform to a male norm of female beauty that casts women as sex objects? Proponents of the burqa ban do not propose to ban all these objectifying practices. Indeed, they often participate in them.”
One could easily argue that high heels are symbols, and even instruments of oppression, since they are painful and difficult to wear, and the only purpose they serve is to objectify women. Both sides have every right to have and express their opinions, and to do whatever they like themselves, so long as they are not hurting anyone else, but neither side has any right to forbid someone else to do something based on their own personal values.
Fewer than two thousand of five to six million Muslims in ferociously secular France (home to the European Union’s largest Muslim minority) even wear the niqab or burqa, representing about 0.003 percent of the population. Half of the population of France actually report never having even seen the veil. The new law “is a solution to a problem that does not exist,” as journalist Gwynne Dyer puts it.
The western public’s tiny, self-affirming knowledge of Islamic culture, taught to us, for us, and by us, rarely lets Islam (the terms “western public” and “Islam” admittedly have little ontological stability) speak for itself. Rather than embarrassingly attempting to explain another culture to ourselves, why not invite them to speak for themselves? Thankfully, on this specific issue, some inquisitive minds have done just that, though the results are predictably being largely ignored by most media outlets.
The recent study by the At Home in Europe project of the Open Society Foundation interviewed thirty-two French Muslim women who wear the full face veil. The results show that not a single one of them has ever been forced to wear it. On the contrary, most women independently chose to wear the veil to the protests of their parents and husbands (only one of the women had been encouraged by her husband to wear it). So why did these women make such a decision, which is so hard for most non-Muslims and Muslims alike to understand? The women revealed that they chose to don the veil as part of a “spiritual journey,” and to deepen their relationship with god. Many of them decided to start wearing it as a form of protest against the rising tide of Islamophobia in France.
Almost all of the women have faced some form of verbal abuse from bystanders on the street, and some have been attacked by both non-Muslims and fellow Muslims. All of the women stated that they would gladly remove the veil when asked by some sort of official.
As prominent American feminist Naomi Wolf writes, contrary to the limited western interpretation of the veil, most wearers actually feel liberated for various reasons that most western commentators have simply not considered. For example, not being constantly immersed in sexual imagery renders actual sexual experiences more powerful, and wearing a veil can make a woman feel like men actually talk to her as an individual, rather than a sexual object.
We ourselves in the West are hardly a moral authority when it comes to women’s apparel, espousing an incredibly schizophrenic and inconsistent ideology ranging from “Dress provocatively if you want to win your man/get that promotion/exercise your sexual liberation,” to “If you dress provocatively, then you’re a slut and just asking to be raped.” Nearly ninety percent of American teenaged girls now feel pressured by a predatory fashion industry to be thin, and one third have starved themselves in order to lose weight. Should we also ban the provocative western clothing, magazines, and advertising which facilitates such egregious outcomes? Of course not. We should simply keep our eyes on them and be free to engage in constructive, critical dialogue.
Ironically, France has now joined a very small club of countries, such as Saudi Arabia and Iran, in enforcing a strict dress code, utterly violating the freedom that most French citizens hold so dear, and setting a very nasty precedent which other European countries are bound to follow.
© Jimmy Margulies