Monday, February 22, 2010

The End of the Burqa in France?

In a recent New York Times op-ed piece entitled “Behind the Burqa,” Sandeep Gopalan questions the French government’s recommendation to ban the burqa. Gopalan believes that recent events in France are trying to send a message to Muslims: “Frenchness” needs to be returned to the streets.

On January 26th, 2010, a French parliamentary commission recommended a partial ban on burqas that would go into effect in hospitals, schools, government offices and on public transportation. Women who defied the ban would be denied public services. The government report argues that “’the wearing of the full veil is a challenge to our republic. This is unacceptable. We must condemn this excess.'” However, it is estimated that less than two thousand Muslim women wear these head coverings. It is hard to imagine that this small number of women would be capable of challenging the French republic.

I agree with Gopalan when he writes that the proposed ban is a serious invasion of personal liberty. While this liberty can be challenged in cases that may involve crime prevention or security, this issue does not seem to be the case. In a country like France which prides itself on its secular ideals, it is confusing that the government would take the stand that it has in regards to the burqa. The author of the article makes an interesting point as he describes the implications of this ban; like many of the issues that we have discussed, there is a slippery slope in regards to religious liberties. Should turbans, yarmulkes, saris and long skirts also be banned? Would a government ever ban jewelry containing crucifixes? As the Swiss have banned minarets in recent weeks, it is hard to understand why Muslims in particular are under attack.

In my opinion, France has crossed the line in regards to the separation of church and state associated with a secular state. What scares me is that this may become an issue here in the United States. While our government continually tries to stay out of religious affairs, there seems to be many issues that the government does get involved with. I do not believe it is a government’s responsibility to interfere in the practice of religion. If women want to wear a burqa, they should be allowed to, unless it creates a dangerous situation for the individuals or others in the community. The fact that the French government has singled out one specific group, makes it that much harder to understand. As the French government debates whether to pass a law officially banning the burqa, it will be interesting to see how the French people react, as well as if other countries follow in the same direction.


Shannon H. said...

I remember France trending in this direction a few years ago when they prohibited girls’ hijabs in public schools—one brave girl shaved her head rather than let males see her hair, which is against her religion. A potential extension of that law by banning burqas in public places is even more worrying. I read another article where the Catholic Church in France condemned the possible ban—if France bans burqas, what is to stop Muslim countries from banning the practice of Christianity? I don’t think that America will ever be at the point of banning the outward symbols of deeply held religious faith (or at least I hope not), but there have been issues of Muslim women’s dress coming up against American practices; I can’t remember the exact article but there was one a few years ago about a Muslim woman that had to remove her veil for her driver’s license photo and she and her family were very upset.

Vincent said...

It seems like there's a confusion here between substance and rhetoric. There is a conflict between a rhetoric of pluralism and a rhetoric of orthodoxy (not in the strictly religious sense; including political or cultural orthodoxy). Each rhetoric is often treated as more than rhetoric, as substantive, and defended as orthodoxy (for Americans to question the 'right' of each individual to choose his or her own religious practices or beliefs is blasphemy, plain and simple). It seems much more problematic to treat a rhetoric of pluralism as orthodoxy than to treat a rhetoric of orthodoxy as orthodox. The latter case makes critique possible; the false consciousness of the former case prevents any critical engagement because the actual orthodoxy is hidden, and disclaimed, by the purported pluralism.

That some French politicians are willing to be up front about defending laïcité without hiding behind a rhetoric of pluralism is entirely admirable. Yes, people get hurt. People always get hurt, that's the way the world is, fallen. But at least that pain can be acknowledged, and mourned, and can animate critique; the pain inflicted under the rhetoric of pluralism is just as serious, probably more, but it can never be acknowledged, or mourned, and it can never fuel critique.

Justin M said...

I think that a lot of this issue has to do with the structure of social policy in France. It isn’t clear that the French government has suggested a ban on burqas simply because they disagree with certain religious tenets. France has a history of protecting the “French pride” of its people in a secular state. Because of this, in France it is actually illegal to collect data concerning the numbers of different religious affiliations in the country. The logic behind this is that it lessens tensions between groups of individuals by seemingly not acknowledging that they are actually affiliated with a group. (Religious, racial, etc.) In short, the French want their citizens to be considered “French” above all else. Because of this, a burqa may be viewed as differentiating an individual from the overall French population. Nonetheless, I still believe that when an individual wants to be identified in a certain way it is problematic when the State attempts to take this right away from them.

jpeterson said...

I agree with the other posts that the French government has crossed a line here in intervening in a religious matter. When you stop and think about it, what is really the difference between refusing service to a Muslim woman wearing a burqas and then refusing service toward a Black man because of the color of his skin? Both are based on appearances. Somehow, the human race and governments in particular seem more tolerant of religious persecution and the limitation of religious freedom than of racial injustice. Why is that? Are we more likely to scream inequality when persecuted for our race rather than our religion? Or do people in general have a greater fear of standing up for their religious beliefs? I believe that people are often times afraid of revealing their religious preference to others, much less of "making a scene" by fighting for the right to continue to practice as they wish.