Burqa, niqab ban makes sense
Recently France put into effect a law that bans the public wearing of the niqab and burqa, two facial coverings used by conservative Muslim women, and began arresting and prosecuting women who wear the veils. To briefly paraphrase the law, women are being arrested because the facial coverings are a new form of religious enslavement that oppresses the civil rights deserved by and granted to French citizens by their government. The debate is centered on one question: Does a government that fights for and protects the freedoms of its citizens maintain the right to apply law to personal dress choices in an effort to legalize what their constitution would deem is "right" for them?
In the United States, the answer would be tricky. According to the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, people are allowed to dress in any way they see fit, as long as it doesn't pose a threat or seem indecent. The problem is similar in France. People can feel free to wear whatever they want on their shirts, pants or other clothing articles unless it poses a threat to society. Citizens are not free to roam the cities in their birthday suits, nor in Ku Klux Klan robes, as these are respectively – and arguably – threats to decency and public safety. However, if one were to wear a shirt with a cross or Star of David on it, the Constitution protects that citizen's right to religious expression.
The waters sully when the mode of religious expression – in this case wearing of facial veils like the niqab or burqa (not the hijab, which covers no part of the face) – is seen by the French government as a threat to secular society, forcing religious views onto the public and oppressing to women who are forced to wear the veil. According to statistics from the French government, only about 2,000 women in the country wear facial coverings, and most of them are converts. As such, there is little ground to argue that familial and societal pressures are as strong a factor in those who wear veils as they are in countries like Saudi Arabia where there is severe legal, social and familial pressure to cover the face.
The French government can still argue, however, that in the French Republic veils are a threat to the native way of life, and that covering of the face as condoned by religion is in fact a violation of civil liberties and detrimental to personal expression. The veils also create problems if women are in need of identification from some form of government. At one time, a Muslim woman – also a convert – in Boulder, Colorado, refused to take off her veil after being arrested for drunk driving and was taken to the station for her mugshot. After three hours of arguing with the police, it was eventually decided that a mugshot would not be taken, but there would be the possibility for harsher sentencing when court time came. Drinking alcohol is forbidden in the Qur'an, but it has been shown that many converts pick and choose which rules to follow. Some wearers of the burqa or niqab may be pointed out in opposition. Clearly their successes must be proof that women who wear facial coverings can become successful. However, association takes its toll, and most women who become successful are viewed as successful women who wear headscarves. They are viewed by non-Muslims in a specific frame. This goes beyond mentioning that they are extreme outliers, and most women who wear scarves are sapped of their agency by the same association.
From a secular perspective, it is easy to justify a ban on facial coverings. The justification for facial veils is found nowhere in the Qur'an and is only enforced by conservative Muslim schools of thought. Saying that this law affects all Muslims is akin to saying that a ban on Christian headscarves affects anyone besides Quakers and other sects of conservative Christianity.
While the ban is difficult to implement peacefully, it's one of the first steps taken by Western nations to ban what is viewed as oppressive Islamic attire. Similar moves were made by Mustafa Kemal and Mohammad Reza Pahlavi in their respective rule of Turkey and Iran. Not only were decidedly "Muslim" clothes banned, but Western attire was a necessity, and harsh punishments were assessed to those who refused to change. The situation in France is clearly different, since Muslims are a minority, and niqab/burqa-wearers make up only about 2,000 citizens of the country. While it is most likely impossible that the democratic rule of France will be toppled like the governments of Turkey and Iran were, protests are already occurring in France.
The protests seem out of place and a bit hypocritical. In countries like Saudi Arabia and Iran, all women – visitors included – face the possibility of public flogging for not wearing a headscarf of some sort. Immigrants are expected to respect that norm, but Muslim immigrants to France aren't expected to respect the new law? For too long religion has attempted to make itself the exception to common rule: genital mutilation of children, draft-dodging, opposition to women's choice, etc., are all modern forms of religious exclusion, where it is in bad taste socially to enforce a law that opposes one's religion. What is it that makes religion so untouchable? While it may be viewed in bad taste or Islamophobic, the fact remains that in most cases, the headscarf and its associations sap Muslim women of agency, and the French government is correct in seeking to remedy this.
Cody Gorman is a School of Arts and Sciences junior majoring in political science with a minor in general history.