On April 11, the French government started enforcing a ban on all face-covering veils in the public square. It is universally recognized that this law specifically targets the practice of religious Muslim women who wear what is known as a niqab. The text of the law itself is worded to carefully avoid any explicit mention of Islam or women. Nevertheless, this law undoubtedly prohibits a particular population from exercising their full religious beliefs.
In a country which purports to triumph liberalism and freedom above all, this law is entirely incongruous.
Even more absurd than the law itself is the rationale on which it stands. French President Nicolas Sarkozy has been one of the prime proponents of the recent “burka ban,” as it has come to be known. He has said that the law is an effort to defend women’s rights and protect their freedom.
The law was easily pushed through the Parliament of France last year by Sarkozy and his party, just one vote short of unanimous support. At that time he claimed that the niqab and the burka represent the subjugation of women.
The ban has strong public support among French voters. Many view the new law as part of a wide endeavor on behalf of Sarkozy to appeal to far right anti-immigration parties within France. Sarkozy himself has said that the ban serves to protect and enforce France’s secular values.
But who is this law really affecting? France has the highest Muslim population in Europe. Yet fewer than 2,000 women of France’s estimated five to six million Muslims purportedly wear a face-covering veil.
Conservative Muslim women wear a niqab, a cloth which covers the face, or a burka which covers the whole body from top to toe, as part of sartorial hijab, that is, traditional modest Muslim dress. Many view dressing this way as part of their religious duty and practice. Thus, to prohibit them from doing so would in effect be no different than curtailing any form of religious practice or expression.
For these religious Muslim women, wearing a face covering, assuming they choose to do so of their own volition, is a harmless act which has religious and cultural significance. This act entails no harm or violence.
By bringing this law into effect, the French government is ironically abusing the very principles which they claim to protect: the rationales of liberalism and freedom. In an open and free society, the right of women to dress as they please should be a given.
Is it not the practice of our extremist buddies in Iran and Saudi Arabia to mandate the way a woman can and cannot dress?
Even French police are saying that they don’t think this law is sound, criticizing its practical implications.
Supporters of the law say that wearing a full face covering is an extremist practice which inhibits full integration into French society.
In my mind this is an insular move on behalf of the French government. We should disapprove of their targeting of a specific religious and cultural practice.
It is exactly this type of detestable policy and close-mindedness which causes otherwise moderate Muslims to spurn the Western world and turn to violent extremist ideologies.
For the Muslim women who view covering their face as a sign of respect and service to God, forbidding them from doing so is an affront to religious freedom.
By enacting this law, the French government is contributing to a frightening wave of Islamophobia sweeping across Europe and the United States. While a similar law is unlikely to ever be enacted here, the new French edict is symbolic of bigotry and xenophobia.