Laws punishing women for wearing the burqa and the niqab in public were passed by the Belgian lower house of parliament on April 29. A similar law has been discussed by French President Nicholas Sarkozy, and the French National Assembly passed a non-binding resolution in favour of a ban on May 11.
These laws have been pushed by right-wing governments on the basis of security needs and protecting national identity, but the laws have also been justified as promoting equality for women. On this basis, the laws have received support from sections of the left and the feminist movement.
The Belgium legislation states no one can appear in public “with the face fully or partly covered so as to render them no longer recognisable”. The new law, which replaces existing bans under regional bylaws, would impose a fine of up to €25 Euros or one to seven days’ jail.
It was passed almost unanimously and just two members of the house abstained.
Its passage in the upper house has been held up by the collapse of the government, but is expected to pass once a new government is formed after June 13 elections.
Sarkozy told the French parliament in June 2009: “It will not be welcome on French soil. We cannot accept, in our country, women imprisoned behind a mesh, cut off from society, deprived of all identity. That is not the French republic's idea of women's dignity.”
The May 11 French National Assembly resolution was supported 434 to nil (there are 577 seats) — 30 Communist deputies walked out of the chamber prior to the vote in protest.
t is unclear what the legislation expected to go to the National Assembly in July will include. However, the April 30 Connexion reported that there would be a €150 fine for wearing a burqa and a fine of €15,000 and a year in jail for anyone who “imposes the burqa on someone through violence or threats”.
The move to ban the burqa is part of a wave of measures by European countries to “defend their national identity” against Islam.
These include the ban on minarets on mosques imposed in Switzerland in February, the ban on wearing the hijab in French public schools in 2004 and similar bans in several German states.
In 2004, the French parliament passed the Law on Secularity and Conspicuous Religious Symbols in Schools, which banned the wearing of ostentatious religious symbols in French public schools. This included yarmulkes worn by Jewish boys, turbans worn by Sikh boys and hijabs.
However, the ban primarily targets young women wearing hijabs. The legislation was passed by a large majority (494 for, 36 against, 31 abstentions). Support also came from sections of the French far-left.
The ban was justified on the grounds of both liberating women and defending the secular character of French society.
The impact of the law means women who refuse to stop wearing the hijab could be excluded from the French public education system. In the first semester of its operation, 48 students were expelled from public schools for not complying with the ban. All were expelled for wearing the hijab, except for three Sikh boys, and a Muslim woman who refused to stop wearing a bandana she wore for aesthetic reasons, but which was deemed a religious symbol.
The decision of the New Anti-capitalist Party (NPA) in Vaucluse to stand Ilham Moussaid, a 21-year-old feminist activist who wears a hijab, as a candidate in the 2010 regional elections caused a major controversy across the whole spectrum of French politics.
The NPA was accused by the right seeking to cause a controversy to obtain publicity during the election campaign. Criticisms also came from other left parties and from within the NPA itself.
Left Party leader Jean-Luc Melenchon said: “You can’t call yourself a feminist while showing off a sign of submission to the patriarchy.”
Moussaid told the March Socialist Review: “These feminists say that it’s a symbol of oppression, of submission. For my part, I’m not submissive: it’s a personal choice. I'm a feminist. I fight for women's rights with my women comrades.
“I fight for equality between men and women. I fight for the right to abortion, the right to contraception. It’s true they see it as a symbol of oppression, but unfortunately they forget that there are women who wear it out of choice.
“A certain number of women are obliged to wear it, of course, I don’t deny that, and I’ll fight for these women.”
In locating the decision to wear a burqa entirely in the domain of men, proponents of the ban strip women of all agency and pose the solution in terms of who should have the right to control what women wear, their “patriarchal husbands, fathers or brothers” or an enlightened state.
Moreover the focus on banning the burqa also tends to promote racism and undermine the struggle for women’s oppression.
The focus on the burqa as a source of oppression results in the broader oppression faced by migrant women in France — oppression with its roots in the poverty pf the communities in which they live — being ignored. Furthermore, attributing sexism to Islam allows the sexism of French society to be ignored.