Pas Ici: France may ban the burqa in public places. (Christopher Furlong/Getty Images)
In late June 2009, speaking to a joint session of parliament in Versailles (the first such address by a French president in 136 years), Nicolas Sarkozy, the French president, declared that it was time for France to think of prohibiting the wearing of full-body coverings known as burqas and favored by a very slim minority of Muslim women.
The French parliament liked the idea, but had a commission study the issue. The commission's report was due out later this month. The report, presumably, was to lend the debate some much-needed factual and analytical perspective.
Jean-Francois Cope didn't want to wait. The head of Sarkozy's conservative Union for a Popular Movement party (Union pour un Mouvement Populaire) on Jan. 12 introduced a bill that declares: "No one may, in spaces open to the public and on public streets, wear a garment or an accessory that has the effect of hiding the face."
The law wouldn't be as unique as it sounds. France already bans the veil (let alone the burqa) in state schools, as it does--in accordance with a 2004 law--any overt garment or display of religious signs. The law doesn't apply to state universities. Belgium bans full-body coverings in some municipalities. Britain is debating a national ban. The Netherlands is eying French law and may mirror it. (See a full list how the veil and the law tangle in European and North American countries.)
France is drawing a good deal of attention for its proposed ban because of the aggressive tone Sarkozy has taken on the issue--and his recent defense of Swiss voters choosing, in a referendum, to ban the building of minarets in Switzerland.
"In our country, we cannot accept that women be prisoners behind a screen, cut off from all social life, deprived of all identity," Sarkozy had told his Versailles audience last year to rolling applause. "The burqa is not a religious sign, it's a sign of subservience, a sign of debasement - I want to say it solemnly: It will not be welcome on the territory of the French Republic."
I don't dispute most of what he says. I do find the burqa, and the Muslim veil in general (especially as it applies to women and not men) as a sign of subservience and debasement. But I also find it reprehensible that governments would presume to tell an individual what to wear or not to wear in public. There is in short more presumption than wisdom, more aggression--read Islamophobia--that accommodation, in France's dealings with Islam. The consequences aren't likely to be beneficial. France has 5 million Muslims. More than 99% percent of them don't wear the niqab or the burqa, and only a small minority wears the veil. France has been doping a poor job of assimilating its immigrants, Muslims or not. Pulling a reverse scarlet-letter-tactic on them (because that's what this is) is likely to encourage the very thing France wants to discourage: fundamentalism.
I don't doubt that some of Islam's most secular women will now be tempted to wear the burqa as a political statement (as some already do in Turkey and other countries where secularism is more heavy handed and enabling than dismissive of its fanatics). And not just women. Or Muslims.
- Is Nicolas Sarkozy an Islamophobe?
- English Text of Sarkozy's Column on the Minarets Ban
- Islamophobic Swiss Ban Minarets
- Nicolas Sarkozy France and the Burqa
- Moroccan Woman Denied French Citizenship for Her Niqab
- Ban the Burqa? You Decide
- Switzerland's Far-Right War on Minarets
- France, Child Molesters and the Burqa
- What is the Burqa in Islamic Dress?