Tuesday, 13 July 2010

France moves closer to burqa ban

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As expected, French MPs have this afternoon voted in large numbers to pass a law outlawing the wearing of the full Islamic veil in public. If passed by the French senate in September, and then ratified by France's Constitutional Council, the law would leave women facing a €150 fine for wearing the burqa, while men found guilty of forcing women to wear it would face fines of €30,000 and a year in jail.

The ban has the backing of President Sarkozy, who said last year:
"The problem of the burka is not a religious problem, it's a problem of liberty and women's dignity. It's not a religious symbol, but a sign of subservience and debasement. I want to say solemnly, the burka is not welcome in France. In our country, we can't accept women prisoners behind a screen, cut off from all social life, deprived of all identity. That's not our idea of freedom."
As things stand, we're planning a proper consideration of this subject in the next issue of New Humanist, in which we'll look at both sides of the argument. As with the bans under consideration in other European countries, such as Belgium and Spain, it will be interesting to see how the French ban, if passed, stands up to legal challenges, particularly in European courts. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the French police union has already expressed concern over how officers will be expected to enforce a ban.

As a prelude to covering this in the next issue, I'd be interested to know what readers make of bans on the full veil. Is it right that liberal, Western democracies should draw certain cultural lines of this nature, in order to protect the rights of women? Or does a ban violate the rights of women in relation to a key Western secular value – the right to express their religion as they see fit, so long as it does no harm to others? In Sarkozy's view, the veil does not represent an expression of religious freedom, but rather the oppression of its wearer by a men. What do you make of that interpretation?

A great deal has been written about this online this week. Here are some links to dip into:
This isn't an easy issue – personally I feel as though I need to read a great deal more before I could place myself as firmly for or against. Please do share your views with us by commenting on this post – I think it would be a very useful exercise to gain a sense of what humanists/atheists/secularists (and anyone else) have to say about this.

Update: I also should have linked to this 2008 New Humanist piece by Joan W Scott, in which she considered the political reasons for France's ban on head scarves in schools.


Embololalia said...

Datapoint from an atheist feminist who generally doesn't have much time for arguments about 'religious sensibilities' but thinks institutions need an unbelievably good reason to interfere with what people do with their bodies:

Frankly, if Sarkozy is going to defend child rapists, I don't believe he has the interests of women at heart at all. The interests of his government making a mountain out a numerically very insignificant minority of women, sure. But you don't liberate women by forcing them to either wear or remove their clothes. I think social expectations for women to shave off most of their body hair and cover their faces with makeup are often oppressive but am not about to ban that.

I thought Mona Eltahawy's piece was the most interestingly argued article on the subject I'd read and it raises some good points, but my view is that the bill is patronising to all women and likely to further isolate those Muslim women who do wear face coverings, whether it's of their own volition or due to social/personal compulsion.

(A few further links - http://www.heartlessdoll.com/2010/04/nicky_sarkozy_wants_to_protect_your_dignity.php http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/belief/2010/apr/22/belgium-niqab-ban-women http://www.religiondispatches.org/archive/international/1631/banning_the_burqa_isn%E2%80%99t_the_answer http://www.religiondispatches.org/blog/humanrights/1617/take_it_off%2C_or_we%E2%80%99ll_make_you%3A_on_sarkozy%E2%80%99s_proposed_burqa_ban/)

Sarah said...

I think that banning the burqa isn't the best approach and like you said, goes against the key secular value of allowing people to express their religion.

I don't necessarily agree with women having to wear the burqa, or the enduring attitude amongst some Muslims that it is necessary. However, non-Muslim governments enforcing a ban is hardly the way to go about instigating a change in attitudes and values. The changes need to come from within and do so in an evolutionary way, rather than in a forced way.

As liberal, secular values permeate Muslim communities living in Europe, attitudes may change. Forcing them won't result in a genuine change in attitudes towards Muslim women, it will merely result in worsening relations between secular Europe and the Muslims living here.

Embololalia said...

PS - I hope you illustrate your article/magazine cover with something more imaginative than the generic shot of a niqabi woman with heavily made-up eyes. It's a really tired Orientalist trope. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Orientalism)

Paul Sims said...

Embololalia - that is a very good point, so much so that I've removed the image. It was just a quick web grab to illustrate the post, but that Slate article demolishes any justification for running a stock pic like that. We would, of course, put more thought into illustrations in the magazine, but that's no excuse for not doing so on the blog.

rogerrodeo said...

On balance I don't agree with such a ban. What we wear and do is driven by all sorts of things, including religious beliefs, so where would this end? eg. we could argue that women wear short skirts only because of the effect male-controlled western society has on them. Always more complicated than that!

It is probably as wrong to argue for the ban as it is for Islamic extremists to force women to wear headscarves etc in certain countries/regions.

acidfairyy said...

I agree with the ban. I do not like religion and although I respect people's rights to believe what they want, I don't really want to be reminded of it every time I go shopping in Birmingham (for example).

I find it horrifically restrictive and the only reason I can think of for a woman wearing it out of choice is because she knows no different and is scared of showing her face.

I think the burqa is a relic of an outdated religion and it has no place in a liberalised, secular country, where women are equal to men.

The Dark Power said...

Never mind Muslims, how are French Ninjas supposed to retain their anonymity whilst going about their stealthy kung-fu ways?

On a serious note, women visiting Muslim countries appear to be required to wear some form of head scarf (or maybe it's just Kate Adie). I believe that that rule is enforced in some places by a religious police, so it doesn't seem too much to ask people to respect french culture (by law) when out and about in France and not wear a veil.

Anonymous said...


Anonymous said...

I'm not a fan of banning anything behavioural, frankly.

Yes, there are many women who are forced to wear a burqa against their own will. There are also women who want to wear them. Whether they want to wear them because of some deep cultural pressure to do so or because they honestly wish to express/assert their religious and/or cultural identity, they still *want* to wear them, and outright banning them reeks of the attitude that the ban is supposed to combat.

You could argue that cultural and religious pressure to wear a burqa is a reason to ban them to begin with, even if said pressure results in the women wanting to wear them in the first place. But as Embololalia said above, western societies have social pressure for women to shave, dress in a certain way, behave in a certain way etc... but there aren't any campaigns to ban leg wax.

To be honest, the oddest and most damning part of the law for me is that women wearing a burqa are fined €150, and men forcing women to wear a burqa are fined €30,000... implying that these are two separate situations. Why do you need the first part of that law? Why not just the second part? For that matter, I'm almost certain that French law must have something covering forcing a behaviour onto others, which makes it even more weird that they've apparently added a subsection for burqas.

The whole thing just feels like more hysteria and penis waving from politicians, targeting a well used European scapegoat: the Muslims. Whether or not a burqa ban is morally right, I'm 99% sure that morals aren't the main motivating factor in these laws.

Embololalia said...

@Paul Sims Thanks for such a quick reply and taking my point on board! I tend to just link to stuff other people say on orientalism cos it's not something I have personal experience of, but hopefully everyone can agree that stereotyping a group of women as Passive and Oppressed But Oo A Bit Titillating is bad. :)

Forgot to say I'm looking forward to the magazine, of course! I'm obviously fairly firmly down on one side, but I appreciate you showcasing the diversity of humanist perspectives.

db said...

I haven't made my mind up about this ban yet. Part of me thinks people should be able to wear what they like. The exception to this being when proving who you are. E.g. Passport control, in the bank etc.

One angle which is seldom mentioned is respect for the culture you are visiting. I would expect a French woman to wear a head scarf when visiting Iran so perhaps those moving to France should respect their culture by not wearing a burqa?

Like I say. A difficult one to strike a balance.

Catriona Robertson said...

Re comments on imagery (and who is supposed to relate to it and in what way) by Embololalia & Paul Sims, see current front cover of Stern magazine http://www.stern.de/magazin/heft/stern-nr-28-08-07-2010-frauen-im-islam-1580744.html

marcas said...

Sometimes, legislation can cause welcome changes in behaviour. In Ireland, plastic shopping bags disappeared almost overnight when a small levy (only 15 cents initially) was introduced. Similar arguments could be made for smoking bans. And what about forced integration and positive discrimination laws in the States?

I abhor any domination of any class by another. Constituitions, and hence legislation, should ensure that. The hard trick is the balance of personal freedom.... with that caveat, I agree with the burqa ban.

kvetner said...

My understanding is that the French legislation is targeted against all forms of face covering, not just burqas. According to the Scotsman newspaper, exceptions include motorcycle helmets, masks worn for health reasons, fencing, skiing or carnivals. I assume anyone wanting to wear a balaclava in cold weather would have to remove it.

In general, I think legislation should be couched in a way that it neither favours nor disfavours a particular religion. While that's seemingly the case here (burqas are reportedly not mentioned in the legislation), it's clear from the political rhetoric that they are in reality targetting only one religion and one sex.

I think the rights and wrongs of that are indeed difficult to discern (although personally, I think muslim women should be able to choose what they wear, as with everyone). I think it's sufficient to oppose this legislation not by arguments on religious freedom or promotion of feminism, but simply on the grounds that there is no compelling case for a government to restrict everyone's right to wear what they choose, and everyone's right to maintain their privacy by covering their face.

It should not be illegal to conceal your identity in public: who you are and where you are is your business, not the state's. If there are specific instances where you must reveal your identity (e.g. use of air travel, being questioned by the police, opening a bank account), those should be individually legislated or negotiated.

Jim said...

This law is supposedly about defending the oppressed. It also happens to criminalise anyone appearing in public anonymously.

I expect it will be applied during forthcoming riots, to summarily convict anyone in a balaclava.

This is oppression, thinly veiled.

Richard said...

My position on this is summed up perfectly by this tweet from @suzannemoore197: "Rules on how women dress are RULES. You don't liberate them with more RULES."

joshkutchinsky said...

It is an unnecessary infringement of an individual liberty. Those women, and there are no doubt some, who are being forced to wear a burqua by members of their family will no doubt be further imprisoned by being made to stay indoors and out of public places. Those who choose of their own free will to wear the burqua will find that the French state will now prevent them from doing so.

Anonymous said...

Let us hope that the situation in France doesn't descend to the vilification and abuse that many women visiting Arab countries receive. Let us also be quite clear that the burqa has nothing to do with religion and is not mentioned in the Q'uran, it is an interpretation on tradition.

Eiskrystal said...

It is not the government's job to tell women how to dress. This is clearly the wrong way to deal with this.

That being said, we shouldn't have to deal with something this stupid in the first place.

Jourdemayne said...

What a conundrum for a liberal - torn between the presumed anti-female/feminist symbolism of the veil, and the imperative to let others do as they please provided there's no harm to third parties.

Faces are remarkable: a sophisticated and nuanced evolutionary product for communication. How can you cover them without, to some degree, covering the person behind them?

But the French law is sanctimonious bullying.

Details at the blog:
'Faces & Statutes' (also at the Pod Delusion and Lay Scientist).

Anonymous said...

So here we are in a world of amazing equality that stems from brutally demolishing all differences. The world has tried long enough for peace. Now, it is time to have just one understanding of freedom. The mass murderers and colonizers of the 20th century are the leaders in this chest thumping bravado of superiority. The world must bow in respect. There is freedom only in certain postures of this confine but this is the new world. Where nations are hoodwinked in to sending their armies and now ever-growing mercenaries to countries to "liberate" people. At least the ones that manage to live. Hearts and minds were promised. The fine print was that they were referring to cadaveric samples. But no amount of words can reason with the hypocrisy that this new arrogant world order breeds essentially because they actually believe in it. At least the elites of their society.

Anonymous said...

There is no use trying to bring to their attention the convenient fluidity of their unshakable moral grounds. The similarity of a girl being denied education for not covering herself in Afghanistan and a girl being denied education in France for covering her head. The perplexing argument of the need to spread "goodness" in Afghanistan when the "state" forces a woman to wear a burqa and "goodness" of their hearts stripping a woman of her burqa in France. Who decides how we answer our questions about our curiosity about the universe. Who decides what is the way to please our "higher power"?
I am convinced today that the elites of this world are bent on leading nations in to conflicts. A fourth of humanity is dispensable to them. Planting hate for generations to come is accompanied by a mocking smirk conveying "there now that I have told you how much I hate you I feel good"
So President. Sarkozy claims to be the new god? Would only be fitting for a nation whose leaders are so convinced of the way we need to choose our eternity. Perhaps the French sisters who wear head scarves should look to the goddess - who else but Mrs. Sarkozy? Also known as Carla bruni. In addition to being a part time goddess she is also a wonderful "precision artist". A recent nude portrait of her sold for $91,000 on which one "critic" complimented her on "covering her modesty with just one hand". That is so liberated I think it will take us mortal beings a life time to be this comfortable with it. Some of us have been "trained" in Abu Ghraib" to be comfortable with our nudity but I guess our hearts and minds were elsewhere.
Muslims all over the world are expected to carry the guilt for the actions of a handful of individuals. With puppet democracies in place any rebuttal of this racism, let alone a demand for control of their own resources seems like a far cry to these arrogant elites. Mossadegh's of Iran should act as deterrents. History starts when nations like the French want it to. The plundering of resources of other nations and their subjugation on their way to greatness is too remote a memory. Perhaps Ben J. Wattenberg in his book "the First Universal Nation" best summed up the insecurity of the European governments (not people - for public opinion is easily manipulated in today's world) against Islam. After all the "spread by the sword" myth can hardly be applied to the peaceful growth and assimilation of Islam in recent times. Mr. Wattenberg in this book, written in 1991, long before 9/11, noted in a section titled "Islamic explosion":

"In 1950, there are 375 million Moslem in the world. There are 983 million Moslems in the world today. By the year 2020, PRB projection show almost 2 billion". He then goes on to write "The key question is: Is there are something about the growth of Islam that is seen as a potential threat to other nations and culture?" Furthermore, he writes "As Moslem immigration in Western Europe has increased, anti-Moslem sentiment has grown. Some European nations are not only trying to keep Moslems out, but are trying to oust those who are already there" and lest any one think he was referring to a lack of "integration" he also noted that "Most Moslems have moved quickly in to the American middle class".

Muslims know as little about when the elusive peace that we all hope for is achieved as a French wondering what business of the state is their facial hair or clothing. Muslims are asked to bear collective guilt for the actions of a handful with deliberate and provocative misrepresentation of their scriptures when elected governments have destroyed countries and ruined millions of human lives. A fourth of humanity can not be wished away. Nor can it be robbed of dignity. I have no doubt in the abilities of human beings to make amends. It's the delay of decades or even centuries before we acknowledge prejudices that I fear.

DavidMWW said...

A burqa, voluntarily worn on the streets of Paris or London, is a symbol of separateness, a refusal to integrate. But banning it goes against those very principles which it symbolically rejects.

It is much better to work on a social level to reject the rejection; to insist in the face of a rude refusal to integrate.

When you see a burqa in the street, give it a smile and a big friendly wink!

glenslade said...

Three reasons to ban the full veil in the UK are: 1. It is not illiberal to set rules on public attire. 2. It reinforces the boundaries on religious practice. 3. It asserts women's rights.

Full spiel at http://bit.ly/9iauLw

Iron Phoenix said...

I stopped reading Marta's New York Times piece when she compared a burka to wearing a scarf in the cold.

If someone can't tell the difference between a group decision to wear facial coverings based on a real need (I don't want my face to freeze off) and a cultural compulsion, I stop caring what they think.

What bugs me most about the entire argument though, is the vast swathe of middle ground being ignored here. A woman can easily dress 'modestly' without throwing a sheet over herself - high necklines, low hems, shapeless jumpers, etc. The Mrs does it all the time without any difficulty.

Similarly, the idea that a woman uncovered will always end up an anorexic, surgery-scarred barbie doll is similarly ridiculous 'all atheists are totally amoral' religious blather.

Nick Nakorn said...

A secular state must protect the rights of citizens to free expression; once the door has been opened for the state to decide what we wear, our basic freedoms of expression and association are curtailed.

As an Atheist and secular humanist, I’m most concerned that each person should have the freedom to develop their intellectual abilities, cultures and ideas: those we disagree with are open to our public censure under the same freedoms and human rights legislation that, on the whole, strikes the right balance. I am thus as much against those forces that might insist on religious garments as I am against those who would ban them.

The argument concerning ‘security’ is also mostly spurious as any disguise good enough to hide or change the face is as effective. The costs of having extra women staff to check IDs at ports and airports? What about the costs of taking women to court and policing the ban?

There are considerable practical points too; one example might be how one deals with elderly burka wearers.

Consider an older single woman living alonewho has never appeared in public without wearing her burka. Is she expected to suddenly change her habits of a life time and feel almost naked in the street? The chances are she will not go out and have to arrange for all her shopping and to be done for her. Her social life will have to take place at home and she might become so isolated that her life becomes unbearable, never mind the threats to her physical health; lack of exercise, not shopping regularly for fresh food and so on – it is forced disablement.

As for the supposed ‘right’ to see people’s faces and the idea that seeing the face is somehow crucial to communication and recognition – what rubbish. Blind people can have excellent and fulfilling relationships like the rest of us. If we are sighted, we can recognise the Burka wearing woman (if she is a close friend) pretty instantly by body language, style, gait, voice, height and weight and so-on. If she is not a close friend then seeing her face is not at all important anyway.

The sense of outrage displayed by those in favour of the ban seems to me to be misplaced at best and, at worst, just another way of undermining women.

If you wish to provide support for those against the ban, there are Facebook pages and the site started by Rachid Nekkaz. I think support from Atheists might carry some weight as many think it is only Muslims who object.

As for the repeated arguments supposedly in favour of women’s rights, I can only say that it is already illegal for adults to coerce other adults in to doing anything (unless they are the police or equivalent) and laws regarding domestic violence should be upheld. Fining a man a paltry sum for coercing a woman to wear what he chooses, in cases where that happens, undermines existing laws. What about the man who coerces his spouse or partner to wear a bikini in public under threat of violence? Are we to fine him a paltry sum instead of prosecuting him for intimidation with threats of violence?

Finally, if the French state, or any other, wishes to make serious improvements in the lives of coerced women perhaps it might be better to put greater effort into enforcing the existing laws designed to protect women from domestic violence; there’s hardly a lack of evidence for those crimes amongst non Muslims. As Tracy Chapman sang, “last night I heard the screaming, loud voices behind the wall, it doesn’t do no good at all, to call, the police, they always come late if they come at all.”

Lets get our priorities right.

Nick Nakorn.
more on this subject on my blog