Thinly veiled threat to freedom
The French Government has introduced plans to ban women from wearing Muslim veils in public buildings and parks.
The new laws could be in place by the summer and are causing a stir in Muslim communities world wide even though many Muslim women don’t wear veils.
Only around 2,000 French women wear veils in public out of a Muslim population of 5 million, but to many the move must feel like an attack on all of Islam.
President Nicolas Sarkozy brought in the change because he sees the burqa and niqab as signs of women’s oppression rather than religious garments.
Ever since the forming of the republic in 1789, France has been keen to keep religion and state separate.
This secularism (laïcité) is designed to make sure that no religion can exert undue influence on workings of the Republic.
At the same time the Declaration of Rights of Man and of the Citizen preserved freedom of thought and religion. The French don’t mind what you believe, so long as you believe it in private.
France has always striven to break down perceived barriers between her citizens. You are French first and foremost, everything else comes later.
While this aim is commendable it seems out of touch with the diverse and fluid world that we live in today.
People cross borders for work or pleasure with such regularity these days that closing down Northern Europe’s airspace for a couple of days in the wake of volcanic eruptions on Iceland seemed like a continental catastrophe.
This always amuses me about anti-immigration arguments.
“They’re just coming here for a better life” I hear people say.
People have always followed jobs and money to make better lives for themselves and their families.
If the money goes down south, people in Burnley pack up and move to London or the South East.
If the money goes to Dubai people jump on planes, boats or trains to earn the big bucks.
To suggest that money should be able to move freely around the globe while people can’t seems absurd.
Legally or illegally, people move across borders regularly. These people often keep a firm hold of their cultural identities, especially if they face marginalisation in their new country.
Since 911 it's doubtful that anyone has been more marginalised in western societies than Muslim communities.
Whether it’s retaining a Jamaican accent generations after your ancestors arrived in the UK or wearing a veil, showing your identity can give you a sense of belonging.
Loyalties can be shared and nations don’t have to jealously guard their subjects from the advances of other countries and cultures.
In the same way as it’s possible to be a Londoner and a proud Brit, it’s possible to be a proud Englishman is proud of his Pakistani roots, no matter what Norman Tebbit said.
Faith is just one of the ways that people keep the links to their communities strong.
Announcing the ban, a Government spokesman said:
"The ban on the full veil must be total in all public places because women's dignity cannot be watered down.
"Everything must be done to ensure that no one feels stigmatised because of their faith or religious beliefs.
"The president and the prime minister have asked all members of the government to commit to this point."
Oh, well that’s ok then. When the police arrest a young Muslim woman for wearing a niqab in a public park and drag her away, the angry mob watching on can be assured that no offence was meant.
Culture and law always make difficult bed fellows.
Campaigners fighting violence against women in the UK often claim that fear of being culturally insensitive has stopped the police from tackling domestic violence and ‘honour’ killings effectively.
But for the French government to decide that women wearing veils are being oppressed, even when those same women say they aren’t seems strange.
British journalist and Islamic convert, Yvonne Ridley said the French decision was "driven by Islamophobia - not the freedom or liberties of women".
She said she did not know anyone who had been forced to wear the niqab or burka.
"Muslim women in Britain are more empowered than their sisters on the continent."
She said she understood why some people found the veil "unnerving", but insisted "everyone should have a choice".
Only a tiny minority of Muslims wear the niqab in the UK, and Ridley says most of these are "white Western converts who you could not say were quiet, suppressed women."
"We can't allow legislation against the niqab.
"If we let it go the hijab [simple head scarf] will be next.
"Everyone should have choice.
"Where would it stop, hair dye, face piercing?”
It's the question of wear to draw the line that will make most people uneasy.
Why stop at niqabs, why not ban other 'harmful' or 'oppresive' clothing?
For every argument against the veil, there is a stronger one against high heels, which can damage women’s feet, inhibit them from moving as freely as other ‘sensibly-shoed’ women and are solely to make a woman’s leg look more shapely.
There’s also a strong argument that women in the West are ‘forced’ to wear high heels by a society that says flat shoes are unwomanly.
Can you imagine the uproar if anyone tried to ban high heels or wonder bras or any of the other ‘freedoms’ that women in the West enjoy?
There is a debate about veils in the Muslim community with lots of different interpretations of the Koran but I can’t help think that this is a decision for individual women, and not the state, to make.
A Good Society allows all the freedoms it can while protecting all the rights it has to.
If there’s any evidence to show that Muslim women don’t want to wear veils but are forced to by oppressive men then there is an argument that the ban is just.
If there isn’t then it just seems like racism wrapped up as concern.
Do you have a view on this proposed ban in France?
Do you think Britain should look at something similar?
Let me know.
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Maurice Mcleod, editor of Engage magazine, discusses news and views from the whole of civil society.