Now that the French Senate, as well as the lower house, has voted to ban the niqab, and French president Sarkozy will surely sign it into law, it’s a good time to point out Chiara’s very strong post at Chez Chiara on the political background of the niqab ban. The niqab is the full face veil worn by some Muslim women, where only their eyes show. By next month, it will almost certainly be illegal in France, and local jurisdictions are already fining women who wear it.
While France has a long tradition of laicité (which is not quite the same as our “secularism”) the ban on the niqab stems at least as much from far-right persecution of Muslims, for which the French invoke both the medieval history of the crusades and the 20th century history of the Nazis (apparently some French people have forgotten that their grandparents were victims of the Nazis).
It is important to be clear–about what is being proposed, by whom, and why, in the French context specifically–before jumping on the French “Ban the Burqa” bandwagon. This ban is against wearing the face veil any time anywhere in public–not just in public institutions, banks, government offices, or police stations, but walking down the street, going to the neighbourhood park, window shopping, giving the baby a stroll, taking out the garbage, anywhere. Transgressors are subject to fines, and then further legal penalties.
The ban was originally proposed last June 2009 by President Nicholas Sarkozy. From the right to the left, all pundits and politicians consulted by their supporting newspapers then stated that this was an election ploy on his part to garner votes from the far right in order to assure his own (more centre right) re-election, and a majority Parliament, which would then include a Prime Minister on the right as well.
This manoeuvre of course makes Sarkozy more beholden to the far right who have a clear agenda against immigrants, Muslims, Arabs and Africans; and, think they should all be “sent home”, even though by now Maghrebi immigrants recruited in the 50’s and 60’s (government planes were sent to villages in Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia, to hire labourers for France by the plane-full) have 2nd and 3rd generation descendants. They also believe that children born in France to Arab/African-French citizens have no right to French citizenship.
This, of course, mirrors far-right hatred of Islam in the United States and the rest of the western world, although it takes its own shape in every country.
It’s very common for Western feminists to have complicated reactions to the niqab and other forms of religious headscarf. It’s a complicated question. Here’s how I feel:
1) Many women wear the Islamic veil out of their own examined choices and their own beliefs. While some women may be forced into modest dress by a patriarchal society, there’s no way to tell by looking at a woman what her motivations are, and it’s not my (or your) business to try. The right to choose one’s own clothing extends to the right to choose religious clothing–although France has issues with crosses and Jewish yarmulkes, along with headscarves, nonetheless the freedom to observe one’s religion is a key freedom and should be supported everywhere.
2) Extremist hatred of Islam (and all hatred of Islam), like any other kind of bigotry, cannot be tolerated by our governments, let alone supported. Just as we in the U.S. must work to get past vile concepts like “anchor babies” and the completely inaccurately described “Ground Zero mosque,” the French also have obligations to each other. When hatred is allowed to thrive, everyone is in danger. Sarkozy is allowing himself to get in bed with hatred, and you always wake up changed when you do that.
3) Because Muslim women dress in ways that visibly mark their religion more frequently than Muslim men do, this ban unfairly targets women and young girls and is, in and of itself, a sexist law.
No one in the U.S. should be patting ourselves on the back about this one; it’s worth looking at from here as a cautionary tale, not as grounds for superiority.
Thanks to delux_vivens for the pointer.