The Weekly Ringer

The University of Mary Washington Student Newspaper

France's Ban on Veils Raises Ethical Questions

4 min read


Earlier last week, France’s ban on the public use of veils, such as the burqa and niqab, took effect because it represented a legitimate threat to their secular ideals.  The ban has already resulted in the arrests of 59 people, including 19 veiled women.

With an estimated 4 million to 6 million adherents, France has the largest Muslim population in Western Europe.  While French citizens overwhelmingly support the ban, there are some who worry that this ban will further stigmatize and alienate a Muslim population that, according to the Hoover Institute’s Peter Berkowitz, is already, “inclined to anti-Semitism, sympathetic to political Islam and alienated from French social and political life.”
The niqab is generally characterized by the concealment of the face, leaving only the eyes exposed, while the burqa is the complete concealment of the women’s face and body with only a mesh arrangement around the eyes.  These two garments are different from the hijab, which covers only the hair, forehead and shoulders.  All three are used in Islam to maintain their standards of female modesty.

Clearly, the complete concealment of one’s face represents a tremendous barrier in the Western world, where citizens, regardless of gender, are encouraged to take active roles in economic and social activities.

French politician Jean Francois-Cope states that women who wear a full body veil essentially become, “a shadow among others, lacking individuality.”  Already, there have been inquiries concerning whether or not America should also ban the burqa because of its perceived connections with the degradation of women.

While I have sympathy for this particular viewpoint, and I do agree that concealing one’s face makes it virtually impossible to become fully assimilated, it would be unthinkable for such a ban to exist in America.

Although both France and America have provisions that ensure separation from church and state, this ideal manifests itself in different ways.  The doctrine of laïcité, which is in article one of the French constitution, proclaims that France is a secular republic that seeks to confine religion to the private sphere. In America, religious and secular interests co-exist in a delicate balance. In this instance, a federal burqa ban would represent an unwarranted encroachment on religious freedoms.

There are many people who worry that having a permissive attitude toward full-body veils will encourage men to further oppress women, because for them, the burqa represents the visual repression of women. However, the way to achieving an egalitarian society and resisting subjugation is not to institute a ban. There are also those who claim that a veiled face may constitute a threat to public safety, but there are ways of dealing with potential security threats without infringing upon civil liberties.  The government should be able to reasonably expect a women to temporarily remove the veil in instances where identification is required, or when a police officer requests to see the woman’s face.

The real security issue lies in further stigmatizing Muslims and lending credence to extremist claims that the West is at war with Islam.  To be sure, by curtailing the liberties of individual rights we are allowing extremists to dictate how we behave.  The United States has a strong history of absorbing immigrants into our culture, as well as a strong foundation of freedom and justice.  Women who refuse to show their faces in Upublic may not be desirable, but they do not constitute a threat to our way of life.

The burqa has earned the right to be questioned and criticized.  It is associated with countries that are some of the worst abusers of women and human rights, such as Afghanistan, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia. There, women have virtually no rights and are essentially owned by men. It would be intellectually naïve of us to simply shrug our shoulders and say, “That’s just their religion and their way of life.”

Junior Shirin Afsous states, “while the countries that incorporate the burqa into their societies argue that it is a defense mechanism for the women and it serves to keep them modest, I wonder how subjugating women to the lowest possible degree provides them with any sense of honor.”

The Quran requires women to dress and behave modestly, but says nothing of completely obscuring a woman’s body.  This is perhaps why other Muslim nations such as Syria and Turkey have also banned the veil in public buildings. However, at least for now, the burqa itself does not represent a compelling reason for the United States to curtail religious freedom.  In America, we should encourage immigrants to become a part of our culture and to do useful work.  And we should also encourage active participation in social activities that conform to our Western standards, but fighting perceived oppression with real oppression is not in our national interest.