The French National Assembly last week approved by a vote of 355 to 1 a measure which would ban women from wearing the burka and the niqab in public places. France is home to an estimated 5 million Muslims, or 6 percent of the population. An estimated 2,000 French Muslims wear the niqab. The less-restricted hijab, or headscarf, was banned from public schools in 2004.
Violation of the new ban would be punished by a fine of €150 ($190) and a mandatory citizenship course. Forcing a woman to wear a niqab or burka would be punishable by a year in prison or a €15,000 ($19,000) fine. A spokesperson for the government described the religious garb as “a new form of enslavement that the [French] Republic cannot accept on its soil.”
The ban enjoys considerable support among the French public, which approved of the measure by an 82 to 17 percent majority. Polls indicate that strong majorities support similar measures in Germany, Britain, and Spain. Two-thirds of Americans oppose such a measure.
Although the French measure still must be approved by the upper house and will likely face a constitutional challenge, the ban has already provoked considerable discussion. Blogging at Big Think, David Hirschman argued that claims that the measure was intended to protect women may actually wind up intensifying discrimination against Muslim women and further isolate and alienate French Muslims. In a rare moment supporting the French, Peter Worthington blogging at the conservative Frum Forum strongly supports the measure on the grounds of national security.
But among the most interesting has been Gideon Rachman’s blog at the Financial Times. For Rachman, the ban evokes questions of liberty that transcend both sides of the debate. For the ban’s supporters, the measure represents an effort to ensure the liberty of women, striking a blow for “republican values” like equity. For those who oppose the ban, the measure infringes on the individual liberty of women who choose to wear the niqab. Rachman’s solution is to develop a compromise in which face-covering veils in state-run locations like schools and government buildings. Like most compromises, however, Rachman’s solution is likely to displease all parties in the controversy.
So does the French ban protect or violate the civil liberties of the women it affects?