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There’s a movement afoot to ban the burqa in Europe. And it just scored another political point in France. On July 13, the lower house in the French Parliament voted overwhelmingly to outlaw wearing burqas and niqabs in public. But will this move help prevent terrorism or does it constitute oppression of religious freedom?
On the eve of Bastille Day, which marks the birth of the secular republic of France, the French National Assembly passed a bill to ban full face veils with 335 votes in favor of the bill and only one vote against it. Members of Parliament from the Socialist, Green and Communist parties held a more pro-veil sentiment, desiring to limit the ban to public buildings. But, under pressure from feminist groups that support the ban, these politicians chose to abstain rather than vote in opposition to the bill.
The text of the bill “forbids concealing one’s face in public,” and includes exceptions such as wearing medical bandages after surgery. Women who violate the law will be subject to a fine of 150 euros or “citizenship classes” or both. Men who force their wives to wear burqas or niqabs through threats, violence, coercion, abuse of power or abuse of authority will be subject to a fine of 30,000 euros and one year in jail. The penalties are doubled for men who force minors to wear face veils.
Though the language of the bill is religion-neutral making no mention of Islam, burqas or niqabs, it is widely known that the bill is targeted at Islamic burqas (full body and face covering including a net over the eyes) and niqabs (full body and face covering with a slit for eyes to peer through). Indeed, the bill is colloquially referred to as the “anti-burqa law.” The fact that the bill includes a penalty for men who coerce female family members to wear full face veils acknowledges the gender imbalance in those who adhere to the strict ideology requiring this dress code. And, the fact that citizenship classes may be included in the penalty acknowledges that anti-western values are at issue. The bill will go to the Senate for a vote in September, where it is expected to pass. If it does, the bill allows a six month adjustment period for women to relinquish their full face veils without consequences. It should be noted that under this law, wearing the Islamic hijab (headscarf) and chador (full body covering with face showing) will remain legal.
French President Sarkozy supports the ban to further the goal of maintaining France’s secular identity. The bill is considered part of Sarkozy’s larger integration policy for disaffected immigrant communities. Most Members of Parliament view this bill as a means to liberate women from male subjugation and make a statement for gender equality. Feminist organizations in Europe agree. Critics, however, insist that Sarkozy is merely using xenophobic tactics to pander to right-wing voters. Socialist Members of Parliament argue that the bill is nothing more than discrimination against a minority group that retains different values from the mainstream French population.
In fact, only approximately 2000 women of the 5 million Muslims in France wear full face veils. So what’s the all the fuss?
Though worldwide there have been some incidents of men dressing as women in burqas and acting as suicide bombers, few believe that a burqa ban will serve as a direct link to terrorism prevention. Rather, proponents of the bill believe that the burqa constitutes an anti-assimilation statement rejecting both integration and western values. Burqas serve as a gateway for extremist activity in other areas, increasing the imbalance of power between men and women, between Muslims and non-Muslims, and some argue that in many communities it has been followed by an increase in violence. In the year 2000, a mere 200 women wore the face veil in France. Since then, it has increased ten-fold. If left unchecked, the number will continue to grow.
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