France: Burqa ban a sexist, racist law

September 24, 2010
Photo: Neuro74/Flickr

On September 14, the French Senate passed legislation that will make the wearing of either a burqa or niqab — Islamic dress worn by some Muslim women that covers the face — illegal in public.

The ban was motivated by President Nicolas Sarkozy as an important step in winning equality for women. Opponents of the ban labeled it racist, but, importantly, it is also fundamentally sexist.

The law, which will go to the Constitutional Council for a final ruling, will come into effect in six months time. Once in effect, any woman wearing a burqa, niqab or other full faced veil in a public place will face a fine of €150. They will also potentially be forced to attend an education course in France’s “republican” values.

Anyone found to have forced a woman to wear a veil will face a €30,000 fine and up to a year in prison.

The law was passed with 246 votes in favour and only one against. The only vote against was Centrist Union Senator Anne-Marie Payet. Socialist Party (PS) Communist Party (PCF) senators largely predominantly abstained, with 46 of the PS’s 116 senators voting in favour.

The Left Party’s (PG) two senators voted in favour of the ban. In an article on the PG’s website on September 16, PG Senator Agnes Marie La Barre said: “Nobody is fooled by the xenophobic context in which the law is passed. However our senators felt that the struggle for women’s rights requires the passing of the law.”

The decision by most PS and the PCF senators to abstain reflects that both parties support restrictions on the burqa. The PS support a ban that would be limited to public services and shopping centres.

The PCF have raised concerns that a specific law would further stigmatise Muslims and that the law is an attempt by Sarkozy to win the support of the far-right.

Supporters of the ban have argued the legislation is necessary to free women from what Sarkozy labelled as “a sign of subjugation, of the submission of women” and to instill republican values.

Sarkozy has argued the ban is not an attack on Islam. He told a cabinet meeting in May: “I’m thinking in particular of our Muslim compatriots, who have their place in the republic and should feel respected.”

However, the ban is obviously about Islam.

The ban only affects a small group of France’s Islamic community — less than 1900 women, out of an estimated 5 million Muslims living in France. But the law is aimed at the insecurity felt by many in France over the economic situation and directing this fear towards a scapegoat.

The aim is the same as Sarkozy’s proposals to strip migrants of their citizenship if they are convicted of deliberately endangering the life of a public official or police officer.

But the ban is also sexist on a number of levels.

By allowing the state to determine what women can or cannot wear, women are stripped of the right to wear what they please. They are stripped of their self-determination.

It is undoubtedly true that some women are forced to wear burqas and niqabs as a result of threats of violence or exclusion by their fathers, husbands, brothers or other members of their communities.

But this ignores the fact that some women would freely choose to wear it. This is anticipated by the law, which is why women are the primary target who are fined in the first instance.

The law, which is supposedly aimed at the liberation of women, is likely to result in greater levels of exclusion of those women who wear it.

The law is both sexist and racist as it locates sexist behaviour within a small marginal section of French society. It hides the broader experience of sexism by women in France.

It also hides the extent to which women in France’s Islamic community experience oppression due to racism — which results in higher levels of poverty and unemployment throughout the community.

Other countries are set to pass similar laws. Belgium’s lower house passed a similar bill in April.

In July, the lower chamber of Spain’s parliament rejected a resolution banning the burqa. The Senate subsequently passed a motion supporting its banning.

Similar debates are likely to develop in other countries.

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