Monday, 11 April 2011

French burqa ban comes into force

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France's ban on the wearing of full-face coverings in public – aimed at preventing women from wearing the burqa – comes into force today, with campaigners promising to defy the ban and risk prosecution. Under the new law, men found to be forcing women to wear the burqa will face a fine of €30,000 and a year in prison, while women themselves will risk a €150 fine and compulsory "citizenship classes".

The ban, which opponents are planning to protest against in Paris today (two women have already been arrested, according to the Telegraph), has proven highly controversial, with embattled President Nicolas Sarkozy accused of courting votes from the far-right, and it remains to be seen how firmly it will be enforced. The press agency AFP carry a quote from the deputy head of a police union, who expressed his reservations about imposing the law:
"The law will be infinitely difficult to enforce, and will be infinitely rarely enforced. It's not for the police to demonstrate zeal. If [women] refuse, that's when things get really complicated. We have no power to force them. I can't begin to imagine we're going to pay any attention to a veiled woman in a sensitive area, where men are proud."
It's an issue that tends to divide opinion among humanists and secularists, both inside and outside of France, with views split between those who would welcome sanctions against what they see as a symbol of the religiously-justified oppression of women, and those who oppose the state interfering with religious freedom and the basic right of citizens to dress how they please. We carried a debate on the issue in New Humanist in September last year, around the time that the law was passing through the French parliament, in which Yasmin Alibhai-Brown argued in favour of a ban and Kenan Malik against, which is well worth revisiting now for a clear outline of the arguments. We polled online readers alongside this, asking whether Britain should follow suit and introduce a ban, and found a more-or-less 50/50 split in opinion.

Now that France has actually introduced the ban, it'd be interesting to know whether opinion has shifted. Perhaps it's something we can debate in the comments below. To offer my view, I've always been opposed to the idea of banning the burqa. It may carry uncomfortable connotations for women's rights and social inclusivity, but the notion of the state imposing a ban on an item of clothing seems to me to be draconian and profoundly illiberal. I was particularly struck by the "citizenship classes" that women breaking the French law will be required to attend – the idea that citizens failing to conform to a state-endorsed form of French identity can somehow be "reeducated" into doing so serves to highlight the confused nature of the debate over national identity in contemporary Europe. There seems to be an assumption within governments (including here in Britain, highlighted by David Cameron's remarks on "state multiculturalism"and the need to promote a stonger "British" identity) that national identity is something that can be imposed from above, rather than something which develops organically. Of course governments can, and will, try to promote greater social integration, but attempts to do so negatively, as France has through a sanction on the burqa, seems likely, to me, to only increase division and resentment.

What do you think? Please do share your thoughts below.
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