***Editors Note: This article was printed in the May issue of the California Review
Over the past nine months the French Parliament has been working to institute a ban on the burqa, an Islamic garment worn by women to cover their face. The French government passed the ban on burqas with an overwhelming vote after months of intense debate. In July, the National Assembly debates resulted in 336 votes in favor of the ban and just one vote opposed. More debates took place in September when the proposition again passed 246 to 1 with 100 votes abstaining in the French senate. In October, top French constitutional authorities ruled in support of the legality of the ban, allowing the law to clear the final hurdle before going into effect. Furthermore, Pew Global Attitudes Project found in a survey earlier this year that French people back the ban by a margin of more than four to one.
Approximately 82 percent of those polled approved of a ban with only 17 percent disapproving. A sixth month “grace period” was established before the law would be enforced, but on April 11th , the law went into full effect. The law imposes a fine of 150 euros, approximately $200 USD, for wearing a face-covering veil. Forcing a woman to wear a veil is punishable by a year in prison and a €20,000 fine ,and forcing a minor to do the same is punishable by two years imprisonment and a €30,000 fine. The language in the legislation is written carefully to avoid legal minefield and excludes the use of the words “women,” “Muslim,” and “veil;” it simply makes it illegal for a person to hide his or her face in public spaces unless they are wearing motorcycle helmets, wedding veils, and Carnival costumes.
While the law does not explicitly target Muslim women in the language of the legislation, it is clear that this is the intent of the ban. Interior Minister Claude Gueant said Monday at a European Union meeting in Luxembourg: “The law is very clear. Hiding your face in public places is cause for imposing sanctions. He said it defends “two fundamental principles: the principle of secularism and the principle of equality between man and woman.” If the law is not about limiting practicing Muslims, then why is the argument about gender equality even mentioned? French officials have claimed that veils are oppressive to Muslim women and violate the French value of gender-equality. Opponents of the ban claim the law “promotes intolerance and stigmatizes Muslims, although the legislation does not specifically mention the various types of Islamic face veils.”
Islam is the second most practiced religion in France per number of worshippers, and nearly 10% of the population claim to be practicing Muslims. It is reported by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life that Muslims comprised an estimated of two-thirds (68.5%) of all new immigrants to France in 2010. While the number of Muslims in France who participate in the practice of wearing burqas is approximately 2,000 women, MSN reports that “[even] though only a very small minority of France’s at least 5 million Muslims wear the veil, many Muslims see the ban as a stigma against the country’s No. 2 religion”.
On April 11th, about a dozen people staged protests in front of France’s famous Notre Dame Cathedral which resulted in the arrest of two Muslim women who decided to wear their face-covering veils despite the ban. One of the protesters reportedly stated “We are in France, we are in a democratic country where everyone has the right to do what they want. If they want to wear a veil or go completely nude, [then] that’s their right.” One of the arrested women at Avignon Train Station told a newspaper called the Connexion, “The law is an attack on my European rights, my freedom to come and go, [and] my religious freedom”. Many Muslim women have rejected claims that the veils are oppressive, saying they choose to wear the coverings out of their devotion to God.
MSN reported that a Muslim property dealer encourages women to practice “civil disobedience” by intentionally breaking the law and continuing to wear their face-covering garments if they so desired. He even put one of his $2.9 million properties up for sale and said he would use the profit to help women pay the legal fines for breaking the law. “The street is the universal home of freedom, and nobody should challenge that so long as these woman are not impinging on anyone else’s freedom,” he said. “I am calling on all free women who so wish to wear the veil in the street and engage in civil disobedience.”
The legislation is discriminating against other cultures and religions. It says in the Q’uran to remain modest by wearing veils, bearing a striking similarity to how orthodox Jews wear yarmulkes and independent female Baptists do not wear pants. Furthermore, the legislation clearly violates the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, part of the International Bill of Human Rights. Article 18 of the document states: “Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.”
The law is racist; it really is that simple. In addition, France is not the first country in Europe to attempt such a ban which shows a growing trend of racism in Europe. More specifically, the law shows a growing trend towards rampant xenophobia in much of Europe. The wording in the legislation may not specifically target Muslims, but the world is not blind; the targeting of Muslims is clear in both the law itself and its enforcement. The repression of women in any form is deplorable. But resistance to this measure has nothing to do with political correctness: banning the burka in the name of liberal tolerance is absurd.
Perhaps more disturbing is the underlying principles that not only allowed the passage of such a law but also its approval by an overwhelming majority of the French citizenry. Wearing a garment that covers the face is a victimless crime. No one is being harmed or disadvantaged because a woman chooses to practice an important part of her faith. The French government is claiming security as its primary support for the legislation, but that particular argument should not be taken with such naivety.
Some proponents of the ban claim the veil can be used to hide weapons. Although perhaps that is an accurate statement, pants, a jacket, a shirt, or a dress could also be used to hide weaponry. Anyone can easily tuck a weapon into their shirt, pants, dress, underwear, and anyone can express hate. Perhaps the French government should ban wearing clothing altogether. Perhaps then their citizens would be free from all threats. It sounds ridiculous, doesn’t it? How much more ridiculous is it, though, then the legislation enforced by the French government just a few weeks ago? Fine, the French government does not want people hiding their identity and their face when robbing bank; that is quite understandable, but most places of business ban these, anyway. A woman walking down the Champs-Elysees should be able to rightfully express her religion if she so chooses.
The idea of a government limiting what one can wear is truly frightening. Let us put xenophobia aside and look at the real issue: a government with too much power and a people too naïve to recognize or even care about it. If the concern is security, then let private companies or government buildings restrict what can be worn within their property. The French government has taken outrageous measures to alienate Muslim immigrants. The irony is that the French government is attempting to “equalize” or “acclimate” immigrants into their society and culture by outlawing the Muslim garments. It seems that the French government and most of its people have missed the picture. As ancient Greek writer Aesop said, “We hang the petty thieves and appoint the great ones to public office.”
Stephanie is a senior in Sixth College majoring in political science.