Earlier today, French legislators introduced a draft law that would prevent Muslim women from veiling in public. In addition to introducing smaller fines for appearing in public in Muslim veils that cover the face, the measure creates a new offense, “inciting to hide the face,” which would heavily fine anyone who forced women to veil (to the tune of just under $20,000) and could even result in jail time. The bill will go to Parliament in July.
Nicolas Sarkozy, who has been one of the most outspoken proponents of the bill, claimed that Muslims should not feel “stigmatized” by the bill. Rather, he said, it simply ensconced French values into law. “We are an old nation united around a certain idea of human dignity, and in particular of a woman’s dignity, around a certain idea of how to live together,” Sarkozy explained. “The full veil that hides the face completely harms those values, which are so fundamental to us, so essential to the republican compact.”
Veiling has been a hot-button issue in France for some time; as the European country with the largest Muslim population, methods of integration have revolved around the extent to which immigrants must physically blend in. Some question whether the legislation is even constitutional, while organizations like Amnesty International protested that such a law would violate women’s freedom of rights and expression. Whether the ban would protect Muslim women is uncertain – some point out that it might open the floodgates for more intensified racism.
Six women met with reporters yesterday to talk about the ban, and expressed their extreme disapproval. One woman said, “They are giving people the right to attack us”; another pointed out that their “sisters,” other women who veil themselves, would hide out in their homes so as not to be caught breaking the law. She added that she would take her case to the European Court of Human Rights, if arrested.
The threat of physical violence seemed to be realized, also, by a violent attack against a veiled woman in a clothing store. The police refer to these incidents as “burka rage.” A physical altercation occurred when a 26-year-old Muslim convert overheard an older woman making “snide remarks” about her burka; according to the Daily Mail, “the lawyer said she was not happy seeing a fellow shopper wearing a veil and wanted the ban introduced as soon as possible.” The older woman then allegedly ripped the veil off, before the younger woman punched her.
I worry that incidents like this are too easily portrayed as catfights, when the reality is much more complicated. I certainly agree that the burka ban would violate religious expression in an extremely dangerous manner, and I hope that women would continue to assert their right to wear the burka. The issue of whether the men in women’s lives (husbands and fathers primarily) are forcing them to veil is more complex, and ultimately not answered by a simple ban. Instead, the ban uses a faux concern for women’s rights to prop up what is ultimately a racist piece of legislation. I hope that more women stand up for their rights, and that discussion of the proposed ban doesn’t shy away from dealing with these complicated issues.
Photo from Flickr.