Thinly Veiled Persecution

This week the lower House of the French parliament voted to ban French residents from wearing the Niqab –the full face veil. Of the 337 members of the French national assembly taking part, 336 voted for the bill and one against. The majority of members of the Socialist party refused to participate in the vote.

This is a piece of legislation which specifically targets a minority group, approximately 2000 Muslim women in France who wear the full veil.  If the bill gets through the Senate in September, Women who wear the Niqab in public will be taken by the police back to their homes where they must remove it, or face a fine. Those found to be forcing women to wear the veil will risk a prison sentence. There are two issues which these measures apparently address: the control over women’s physical appearance, and the protection of women from oppression.  If this piece of legislation sought only to prevent women from being forced wear particular dress by others, it would render itself illegitimate since it simply moves the power of force away from family over to state.  But this is not about female oppression. It is about the state sponsored persecution of Muslim women as part of a wider European trend of politically endorsed Islamophobia.

When we begin to pick apart the argument of ‘force’ or ‘coercion’ around women’s dress the whole thing begins to crumble. Should girls be forced to wear school uniforms which they hate against their will? Should workers be forced to wear any uniform against their will because of the economic necessity of staying in their job? Are many women coerced into injuring their feet, backs and knees by wearing high heels under the weight of social and cultural pressure?  Trivial examples perhaps, but do any of these examples of ‘force’ or ‘coercion’ seriously warrant national legislation?

But of course, the French state is not concerned here to protect women from being forced to wear certain clothes because of social, cultural or economic pressure. People with copious body piercings are not going to be escorted home for their own protection against the coercion of the cult of a youth sub-culture. No, this is about the threat posed by these 2000 women to the French way of life and the values of the liberal state.  If they choose to express their religion in this way, they cannot possibly be French. If their are forced against their will to reveal their faces, an act which for some is comparable to being forced to walk around topless, then France will be more cohesive, more homogenous, less at risk from terrorism. Do any of these arguments stand up to even a moment of scrutiny? Will the targeting of Niqab wearers really make Muslims in France feel more integrated, less in inclined to join a radical terrorist group and bomb Paris?

The most likely outcome of this legislation is that Muslims in France will feel even more persecuted than ever before. Muslims, but especially Muslim women who choose to wear the head scarf (or if they dare, the full veil) will feel targeted for surveillance and less welcome in France, less a part of French society, than ever before. What is especially worrying is that such targeted oppression of women, and violation of their rights in international law, apparently garnered support from the majority of the French population, and there is no reason to believe that it would not be so in other European countries.  Indeed, there is already widespread support for a similar measure in Belgium. Liberty, equality, fraternity this is not.

Where next for a region of the world which continues to cultivate an image on the world stage as the home of freedom, democracy and justice? Whose entry criteria include strict rules on the protection of minorities and civil liberties? We can only hope that the veil of hierocracy is lifted sooner rather than later.

The ban on face-covering veils, or niqab, will go to the Senate in September, where it is also likely to be passed. Its biggest hurdle is likely to follow when it is scrutinised by the French constitutional watchdog scrutinises it.

The main body representing French Muslims says face-covering veils are not required by Islam and not suitable in France, but it has expressed concern that the law will stigmatise Muslims in general.

France has Europe’s largest Muslim population, estimated to be around 5m of the country’s 64m people. While ordinary headscarves are common, only around 1,900 women in France are thought to wear face-covering veils.

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