There has been quite a lot of criticism over France’s new ban on women wearing veils that cover their faces in public. The issue is intriguing on many levels and should make us consider our own standards for laws. The law is generally sound, even though it presents a slippery slope for laws affecting the right of expression of individuals.
Much of the criticism is somewhat misleading in that it suggests the new French law is some kind of knee-jerk reaction driven by anti-Muslim bigotry. However, the law was first proposed more than two years ago and was thoroughly debated in public and the legislature.
It is also important to understand the reasoning behind the law, which was to protect the dignity of women in general, not to offend the purported dignity of Muslim women. Hiding the face is not required by the Qur’an, and it has become a symbol of the inequality of women in the Muslim world. The discrimination in the Muslim religion is antithetical to the values of the French people as a whole. Remember, they’re the ones who gave the world the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen, one of the foundations of international human rights law. Consequently, the French absolutely have the right to make laws that protect their citizens from the symbols of that discrimination in French “public life.”
In addition, one of the reasons for the law was to free women who would be forced to wear the garb by their husbands or other male relatives, but who did not choose to do so on their own. France does not have different laws for men and women, and this law is an attempt to prevent the establishment of different standards under the law by way of cultural norms. More precisely, it is an attempt to prevent Muslim women from being subjugated by their male relatives, effectively turned into second-class citizens, through cultural pressures.
It is actually a very difficult dilemma – How do you protect a class of women at risk of being subject to severe discrimination in such an insular society? From the French perspective the question is how do you prevent Muslim men from preventing Muslim women from participating in French public life on an equal footing with all other French women? Should Western nations in general allow an individual’s freedom to live his/her own culture to undermine the public policy in favor of individual freedoms? The issue is not whether Muslim women should be allowed to choose to be subjugated by their male relatives, it is whether the law will encourage and protect women who choose not to follow cultural pressures that would be illegal if enacted as law.
“Police arrest veiled women at ‘burqa ban’ protest,” France 24, 11 April 2011
Niqāb, Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia, 6 April 2011