According to the French law, wearing a face or body-covering veil—of which the burqa is one example—in a public space (e.g. public building, side walk, public parks, etc.) is punishable by a $190 fine (150 euros). Women’s rights, “sophisticated” tolerance, and social cohesion have been offered up as reasons for the law.
The French are the trend-setters here, being the first European country to ban the Islamic veil in public places. And it looks like some European localities are aspiring to follow in France’s footsteps.
One British imam, Dr. Taj Hargey of the Muslim Educational Centre of Oxford, wants to launch a campaign to pressure politicians to pass a similar measure in Britain. Dr. Hargey opines that Muslims in Britain and across Europe should support the ban because such clothing “imprisons women, threatens social harmony, fuels distrust, has grave health implications and is a potent security risk.”
Naturally, there are those who have opposed the French ban since its inception in 2010. One self-described secular feminist has criticized the ban as a “flagrant exhibition of institutionalized bigotry,” arguing that it is possible to reconcile the view that the burqa is an obstruction to a woman’s social and physical freedom with the belief that adult women are well-equipped to make decisions of their own—good or ostensibly oppressive.
Thankfully talks of burqa bans have not been making their rounds in the American public discourse (to my knowledge, anyway). And, you know what? I hope it stays that way.
Despite France’s palpable zeal for women’s equality, the law strikes me as fundamentally anti-liberty, undercutting the commitment to individual rights and religious freedom that has been a salient feature of Enlightenment thought. In my view, this is not just about Muslim women, or Muslim communities, but every individual’s right to live accordance with any set of values—so along as, you know, they don’t hurt people or take their stuff.
The French have been very assertive in keeping religion out of the public sphere. And not the banning-displays-of-the-Ten-Commandments-on-courthouses variety; the French government’s secular banhammer includes a prohibition against wearing other “conspicuous” religious symbols such as the crucifix, the yarmulke, and Muslim headscarves in public schools.
Being pro-woman—in this case being pro-freedom and equality for Muslim women—should mean respecting the choices that individual women make and leaving it entirely up to them to juggle familial, religious, secular, and societal commitments as they see fit. Tolerating a woman’s expression of her value commitments is respecting her autonomy.
Sure, to those of us who do not practice Islam or do not regularly come into contact with anyone from the Muslim community, seeing someone wearing the burqa or the niqab may look like an uncomfortably, self-effacing practice. It may be that a woman is pressured by her family, community, or husband—at the threat of being ostracized or shunned, perhaps—to cover herself. But that should not matter. I think it comes down to an individual woman’s conscience and choice.
We should not be treating an individual wearing a religious symbol on their own bodies as equivalent with allowing the lawns or halls of Capitol Hill to be festooned with religious symbols. There is a difference between a private individual comporting themselves in public spaces and the public spaces themselves.
This is not just about the free exercise of religion for Muslim women—it is about every individual’s choice to act on their conscience, free from state interference.
If you, like me, believe that religious expression is inseparable from the uncontroversial bundle of individual liberties (here in the US), cracking down on a Muslim woman for making the decision to live in accordance with religious values (e.g. by choosing to wear the burqa) should sure as hell look like the French state is overreaching. Here in the US, we have our own squabbles about religious freedom, but we should not take any cues from France in settling them.