A French lawmaker is stirring up controversy with a new proposal to ban women in France from appearing in public with veils or other coverings over their faces:
PARIS (AP) — A top lawmaker from President Nicolas Sarkozy’s conservative party filed legislation on Tuesday to bar Muslim women in France from appearing in public wearing veils that hide their faces.
The bill by lawmaker Jean-Francois Cope, who heads the UMP party in the National Assembly, or lower house, has sparked criticism from some of his political allies. The speaker of the lower house, Bernard Accoyer, called Cope’s move “premature.”
Cope’s proposed law follows in the footsteps of a 2004 law that bans headscarves and nearly all other religious clothing and accessories from French public schools.
Why would such a ban be warranted? The Associated Press tells us:
Only a tiny minority of Muslim women in France wear the more extreme covering — which is not required by Islam. However, Islam is the No. 2 religion in France after Roman Catholicism, and authorities worry that such dress may be a gateway to extremism. They also say it amounts to an insult to women and to France’s secular foundations.
Even as I am a strong believer in promoting secularism in civil society and a strong wall between church and state, as a matter of principle I am opposed to laws restricting individual religious expression, especially one so wide-ranging as to ban a type of religious clothing from any public display whatsoever. This is an affront to religious freedom, which must be guaranteed in any democratic society.
But let’s consider a little more what the consequences of a ban such as this would be. French law enforcement officers would be empowered (and indeed required) to enforce certain standards of dress on the streets of French cities, towns, and villages. And who would be singled out? Muslim women. Picture for a moment the image of French police stopping a Muslim woman and giving her a citation for wearing a veil, which is an item of clothing that she either is being pressured to wear by her culture, religion, and family, or wants to wear under her own volition. And for this religious and cultural expression, whether or not it reflects her own desires, she receives a fine that the Associated Press reports could amount up to €750 (US$1,070).
How do you think that would make her feel? How do you think that would make other members of the French Muslim community feel? Would they feel welcome in France? Would they feel like that had a greater role to play in French society? Or would they feel singled out due to their religion?
I’m sympathetic to the argument that face coverings are a sign of the oppression of women within Islam. I think that this is frequently the case, and anyway, face coverings are fundamentally unequal because Muslim men do not have to alter their appearance in such a way to appear in public. But banning face coverings is not a helpful response, because it does nothing to empower women. It removes a visible sign of France’s growing Muslim population from the streets (which, in my opinion, may be one of the author’s chief goals), but what about directly improving the lives of women?
You cannot empower women by instituting a law telling them what they can and cannot wear in public. To be truly empowered, Muslim women in France need access to the educational, cultural, and economic resources that give them the opportunity to flourish as women of their own respective cultures, their own religion, and as members of the greater society and culture of France.