In France, a bill recently passed through both legislative chambers and currently awaits the signature of President Nicolas Sarkozy. This bill will make it illegal to publicly wear a full-face veil, like the niqab or burka. The legislation was approved by the Constitutional Council last week, passed almost unanimously in both chambers and enjoys widespread public support. But quite apart from the ban's level of public favour is whether or not it is just.
Supporters of the ban say they are upholding the noble themes of women's rights and of secularism. But one wonders if this is true and what is being undermined in the process of this supposedly virtuous undertaking-- namely freedom of expression or conscience and freedom of religion.
In liberal societies, it is up to each individual to determine for themselves their values, projects and ways of life. We have notions like freedom of expression and of religion because it is not up to the state, or to a particular majority of citizens, what a person's beliefs, values and lifestyle should be. Certainly there are limits but these limits are usually drawn at the level of harm to another person or infringing on their autonomy and other rights. There is also a recognition that there must be a certain overlap of basic convictions among the diversity. Otherwise, a stable polity is not possible.
So the question here is whether or not it is just for the state, backed by a majority of citizens, to prevent people from wearing certain items of clothing which express the religion of their choice in the manner of their choice.
As noted, women's rights are often invoked to justify this intervention into personal lives. It is true that the full-face veil seems an affront to female freedom. Certainly, if a woman is forced to wear one against her wishes, a crime is being committed. But this is no different from someone forcing a woman to do anything at all. No special law need be created here. It is also true that Islam does not require a woman to hide her face but whether or not face-covering is required by Islam is beside the point. Those who wear the veils, if they are not forced to do so, consider it required for their expression of their way of life, informed by their religion.
There is an underlying presumption here that women are, if not directly forced by their husbands or fathers to wear a veil, then more subtly forced by their particular religious beliefs to do so. They believe that it is required of them and in this way they don't have a choice. But this is no different from the fact that some Mormons, to pick an example at random, are "forced" to refrain from drinking coffee (even if their religion is not explicit about this). It is essential to our convictions that they "force" us to do things.
It might be argued that whether one drinks coffee or not is immaterial, but that a belief which requires women to cover themselves up completely in public is a far more serious and alarming issue. It is true that this practice contributes to the marginalization and oppression of women. But so, of course, do many Western cultural practices which French politicians would never think of banning, such as certain types of advertising that objectify women.
The way to deal with this issue is not with the power of the state, but with the power of reasonable discourse and positive policies. There must be passionate and reasonable arguments made to show that the wearing of the burka and niqab harms the status of women. These arguments will most properly be carried out within the community of Muslims but that does not mean that others cannot take part. Additionally, convincing someone to change her practices of her own accord is always preferable to forcing her to do so. Thus a ban is not the answer as it only undermines freedom of conscience and religion without attacking the causes of the practice. If we provide for open debate, excellent education and the freedom to exit situations in which women feel threatened, people will make the right choice for themselves. If they do not, and if there is no harm being committed to others. There is little that can be done. Claims that women are physically harmed by wearing the burqa (for instance, the lack of vitamin D causes rickets) still doesn't justify banning such clothing: many things are legal and also bad for us, but the choice to engage in those activities is still ours to make.
Secularism is not a reason to support the ban. There is a very big difference between a separation of church and state and an entire separation of religion from all aspects of public life. The state is neutral regarding religion and this is as it should be. But this is not the same as prohibiting people from displaying their religion in public. For the reasons given above, people should not be limited from expressing their beliefs, verbally or otherwise, in the public square. Secularism at its best is just pluralism within a religiously-neutral state.
Not only this, but French secularism is often simply discriminatory, placing unequal burdens on non-Christians. For example, school dress codes prevent one from wearing a religious head scarf, yarmulke or large cross. But the first two are deemed obligatory by observant members of the respective religions, whereas Christians are not obligated to wear crosses and certainly not "large" ones. This unequal burden (not to mention unequal advantage to small-cross wearing Christians), as well as the new ban, only further contributes to the racism and xenophobia sweeping Europe. This, as we have seen in recent months, is much to the delight and electoral success of far-right parties (such as the Party of Freedom in the Netherlands). We in Canada must be careful, as our own flirtations with laws regarding Islamic veils have so far walked a fine line. The law in Quebec, which requires veiled women to show their faces to receive public services, may or may not have found a compromise position. Pluralism is always a delicate balance, but we must not use the power of the state to prevent people from freely expressing themselves. As distasteful as one may find the practice of face-veiling, the proper reaction is not legislative, but dialectical.