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France’s Burqa Ban and Conflicting Principles

Tuesday, April 12, 2011, 12:37 EDT Leave a comment Go to comments
Burqa cartoon

Pardon the delay, I didn't know what to wear.

I am seriously conflicted about this:

French police arrested two veiled women protesting the country’s law banning face-hiding Islamic burqas and niqabs Monday, just hours after the legislation took effect.

The arrests outside Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris were not for wearing the prohibited garments. Police say the women were instead arrested for participating in an unauthorized protest. But the incident reflected the high passions the ban has incited among some Muslims.

[ . . . ]

The ban pertains to the burqa, a full-body covering that includes a mesh over the face, as well as the niqab.

It doesn’t sound to me as if the law was designed to ban traditional Muslim attire. Head and body coverings that do not hide the face are not prohibited. The intent appears to be to prohibit coverings that make it difficult to identify someone. So despite the way the story is being reported, it does appear that the law is religiously motivated, despite the fact that the only religion I know of that uses such attire is Islam and only women are affected, Islam being such a strongly chauvinistic religion.

But that doesn’t mean the law isn’t troublesome. If the law bans face coverings, does it also ban ski masks used in extreme cold weather, or a scarf that is wrapped around the face as protection from the wind? What about sunglasses? If a virulent flu epidemic strikes France and people begin wearing surgical masks, as some Japanese do, would they be violating the law? More generally, should any government be allowed to proscribe certain pieces of attire, even (or especially) in the name of “national values?”

On the other hand, I do see a legitimate public safety purpose, in this age of crime and terrorism, in being able to identify someone in a public place. A burqa makes it impossible not only to identify an individual, but also to see the person most basic characteristics. The body could be fat or thin, male or female, any color or ethnicity. Particularly worrisome in the age of terrorism, the person could be wearing an explosive vest or carrying some type of chemical or biological weapon that would be undetectable to even the most observant bystanders. And then there are the sexist implications of attire designed to render women visually neuter, the basis of which being that a woman’s physical attractiveness is to blame for men behaving badly.

As for the French reasoning that the ban is in accordance with cultural norms, I am sympathetic to the concerns of those who are alarmed by the lack of integration of Muslims into western society. Unlike previous immigrant groups, Muslim enclaves in western nations tend to cling to tradition not only in their homes but in public life as well, sometimes going so far as to demand a separate judicial system operating under Islamic law. I know of no answer besides more restrictive immigration policy, which raises a host of additional concerns.

Perhaps the solution is found in our overall attitude about western culture. Even as discrimination and inequality have waned, we have become more, not less, obsessed with our differences. In the name of inclusion, we have paradoxically forced ourselves to tolerate the mores of other cultures that are deliberately exclusive and intolerant. No longer is it presumed that immigrants come here to be American; instead, they come here and create closed communities that mimic their homelands while availing themselves of the benefits of American society. They demand concessions from their new country but make none in return. By “they,” I don’t mean all immigrants by any means, just enough to do damage. The damage can only be prevented, not fixed, so by the time we see the problem, it’s already too late.

So the French, like the British and Dutch and probably many other western nations whose cultural conflicts haven’t made the news, find themselves in a no-win situation. Their new law, whatever the motivation, won’t solve any problems because the problem isn’t the burqa or niqab. The problem is that people who come to France don’t want to be French. And no law will fix that.

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