France Bans Burqa, Fueling Further Debate

British commentators weigh whether to follow suit

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On Tuesday, France's Senate voted nearly unanimously to ban the public wearing of burqas. The law will take effect this spring, assuming that it "passes constitutional muster" with the Constitutional Council. In addition to causing outcry from commentators who have been following the bill closely, this final move has thrown fuel on the fire of debate on burqa banning in other countries--especially Britain. Here's a roundup of reaction to the French ban:

  • 'By a Vote of 246 to 1,' writes David Rothkopf at Foreign Policy, "the French Senate voted ... to excise the word's liberaté, égalité, and fraternité from the country's soul. ... Combine this with the French government's recent treatment of Romas and you have a pattern of behavior that echoes many of the darkest motifs in European history. Forcing my father to wear a yellow star on the streets of Vienna when he was a boy is the flip side of this coin."
  • Burqa Ban a Political Distraction for Sarkozy The real political issue in France right now is not burqas, but pensions, argues Philippe Marlière in The Guardian, but this situation is fraught with difficulties. "Hence the hardening of [Sarkozy's] traditionally tough stands on security issues. These are manifest smokescreens aimed at diverting the attention away from the pensions reform." The burqa ban is one example, as is "the targeting of the Roma population" and "the law stripping nationality from naturalised citizens who deliberately endanger the life of a police officer." The "gimmicks" aren't improving Sarkozy's approval ratings, but he's trying them nevertheless.
  • Should Britain Be Considering Its Own Ban? Yes, writes James Jackson at Taki's Magazine, calling the burqa "an extremist statement" whose use in an "open-faced democracy" is itself an expression of intolerance. The same arguments about "preserv[ing]" women's "dignity" that are used with the burqa were also used in "denying women either education or the vote." Yasmin Alibhai-Brown, writing at New Humanist, agrees, pushing back against the notion that "real liberalism means accepting illiberal choices." Liberty is not merely about choice, she says, pointing out that "if a group of girls were ready to hurl themselves off a cliff, proclaiming their right to do so, the most libertarian of warriors would surely try to stop them." Here's the catch in the burqa-defenders' argument, as she sees it:
Muslim defenders of the burqa never support a woman's right not to cover up. Instead women like me are branded "Western whores" who will burn in hell. Is the veil a declaration of girl power? No. Ardent veilers are proxy Taliban agents and have no conscience about their sisters in Afghanistan, Iran and elsewhere--women who long to show their faces and wear whatever they want. We have them here too, those forcibly shrouded females, negated further in the narrative of choice. ... Bans may be hard weapons. But sometimes they are necessary. It is perfectly legitimate to require that faces must be visible in public institutions. And surely it's a defence of human rights to insist that pre-pubescent schoolgirls are protected from restrictive and inhibiting coverings.
  • The Absurdity of the French Burqa Debate "The burqa should have no place in a 21st-century society," agrees Kenan Malik, also at New Humanist, "But is the medievalism of the burqa best confronted through the illiberalism of a state ban?" He compares the burqa to similarly "demeaning ... practices and rituals that Western societies tolerate," like the Catholic ban on female priests. Burqa ban-advocates say the burqa prevents integration, but "given that a burqa is almost as rare in Paris or Amsterdam as a bikini in Riyadh or Karachi, it can hardly be held responsible for problems of integration." Nor does Malik buy French philosopher Bernard-Henri Lévy's argument that "'what is at stake is the Enlightenment ...'" Responds Malik:
The idea that the entire weight of the Enlightenment tradition should rest on banning a piece of cloth worn by a few hundred women shows how absurd has become the debate about the burqa. It has become a symbol of the crisis of identity that besets many Western nations. Unable to define clearly what it means to be British or French, politicians have often taken the easy step of railing against symbols of "alienness".
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.