After a long process of approval that began last summer when the French Assembly overwhelmingly passed a bill banning the burqa, niqab and other full-body robes worn by Muslim women, the French ban on these garments went into effect, and immediately sparked protests. The police detained two fully veiled women outside Notre Dame in Paris, although they claimed that the women were arrested not because they were veiled, but because they were engaging in an unauthorized protest.
The ban, which will affect approximately 2,000 of France’s 5 million Muslims, targets a very small population but has nevertheless been extremely controversial. Anyone who is caught breaking the law will be fined and required to take a citizenship course; the penalties are much higher for people found to force women to wear the veil, including prison sentences and heavier fines. The ban also applies to people visiting France.
The politicians who supported the ban said that it was an important move to preserve the sanctity of French values and identity. French President Nicolas Sarkozy explained during the debates, “The burqa is not welcome in France because it is contrary to our values and contrary to the ideals we have of a woman’s dignity.”
Others have said that this is an act of discrimination against a rapidly growing minority population. A French Muslim property developer, Rachid Nekkaz, says that he is beginning a fund to pay veiled women’s fines. As the ban went into effect, he called “all free women who so wish to wear the veil in the street and engage in civil disobedience.” He and a veiled woman were arrested in front of President Sarkozy’s residence.
Because the ban affects so few women, it’s hard not to see it as a blatant political message, attacking the women who choose to visibly express Muslim piety, rather than protecting them. Although it’s a knotty issue, and coercion can certainly play into it, it’s remarkable to see how conservative politicians, who rarely have a great amount of concern for women’s rights, have jumped to the “defense” of veiled Muslim women with this ban.
Photo from Wikimedia Commons.