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On banning the Muslim veil

The issue of the French ban on the hijab occupies the international public discourse for years now. Many say that it’s a just law, protecting the French culture against erosion through contact with a deeply foreign civilization in the country with the highest percentage of Muslims in Europe, while others insist that this law illustrates a conservative and xenophobic strand in a society that only pretends to be an open one. With all this rhetoric for and against the ban it’s worth considering that such ban doesn’t actually exist.

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Let’s take a small step back. In Islam there are, mainly, three garments that are used to cover the female body, particularly the head. The hijab, otherwise known as the head scarf, is the most commonly used, the burqa covers the woman’s entire body along with the face, while the niqab covers the head of a woman (hijab + veil) –the two latter ones may be accompanied by a separate, thinner, cloth to cover the eyes. So, the hijab is not banned in France, only the burqa and the niqab are. Further on, neither of the two was explicitly ever banned in France. The 2010 law prohibited the concealment of the face in public spaces, which meant a ban on helmets, ski masks, burqas and niqabs, among others (exceptions are made for bike helmets while riding a bike and special workers’ helmets, among others). The fine is 150 euros and can reach up to 30,000 euros for someone who forces another to cover his or her face.

Is this a problem? What is the nature of this issue? Does it concern tolerance of diversity, religious freedom or multiculturalism?

The law was voted in for security reasons, and the fact that no one would find it unreasonable for anyone to be stopped from entering a bank or an airport wearing a ski mask makes the point about religious freedom rather irrelevant. To allow the face veil in public spaces poses a risk for all of us; it is not uncommon for terrorists to elude the authorities wearing the burqa.

To allow, then, the burqa would constitute a state of affairs that merits a religious practice over a law of the state. To exempt from the law any religious clothing would not mean to respect or tolerate a religious practice or to protect a religious minority but to offer privileged treatment for a religion. It would anyway be probably impossible to expect the betterment of a minority’s position by promoting its privileged treatment. The results would more likely be quite opposite. Wouldn’t such treatment constitute evidence that this minority was different from the rest of the society? Wouldn’t it show a desire or a demand by its members for special treatment by the state?

In reality, it was foolish articles with titles like “French Senate votes to ban Islamic full veil in public” that misdirected the public by presenting a secular law as a law of a religious (or anti-religious) nature.

Moreover, beyond the security issues (which should be enough to end the debate), concerning the social issue of the Muslim veil, there are obviously women who wear the veil voluntarily and others who are forced to. Muslim and ex-Muslim women describe the veil as “a coffin”, “a prison”, “inhumanity”. This is not difficult to understand, since for a woman to wear a full face veil means that even her neighbors might not be able to recognize her. It would also mean that it would be practically impossible for her to form relationships with a portion of the population while she would perhaps want to. In a way, the veil makes the woman invisible (one might argue that this is the point). Therefore, to wear a veil forcibly, is obviously disastrous for a woman.

On the other hand, there clearly are women who choose to wear it and such a law certainly intrudes upon their personal choice to do so. Anyone should have the free choice to dress as they like, and Muslim women should be free to even cover their eyes, and thus, hiding completely their figure, conceal their identity in the public space if that’s what they want. But in the real world there are only two eventualities. When the veil is banned a part of the population has a legitimate grievance and when it isn’t the rest do. But which of the two is worse?

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This particular law is not explicitly banning a religious garment. It was never doing that, except in the eyes of journalists hungry for a spicy story and for the illiberal Muslims, who are in the business of promoting a rhetoric that has little to do with solving a problem but rather of launching accusations of “islamophobia” and racism, which only bring tensions among social groups. But the most unexpected aligning with such accusatory practices comes from otherwise liberal fellow citizens (in France and the rest of the West) who don’t seem capable of differentiating between the infiltration in politics of the theocratic mentality and the defense of a sensitive minority.

It is always tempting, of course, to defend the rights of a minority, especially in our times when the far-right is rising in Europe and when its most prominent exponents are too willing to particularly and collectively attack Muslims, asking even for the banning of the Koran (as does Geert Wilders in Holland). But who will defend the minorities within the minorities? Who will speak for the rights of those Muslim women who do not wish to wear any distinguishing garment of their religion and are forced to such an extremely oppressive and isolating behavior?

The issue, therefore, concerns the decision of a secular state to pass a law relating to the security of all its citizens –the ban of anything that conceals the face of a citizen; whether man or woman, whether Muslim or not. To make an exception for the veil for the sake of the religious sensitivities of Muslims would mean to nullify the law, since the burqa (by concealing the entire body) could be used even by a man in order to avoid recognition by the police (as has been done in the past and happens more often in countries where the burqa is more widely used than in the Western world). Such an influence by a religion –any religion- in the legislation of a secular state constitutes a regression from humanist values and must not be allowed.

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