Even before I put pen to paper on this article – or rather finger to keyboard – I am approaching this subject with an overwhelming sense of trepidation. The fiery debate over the burqa has once again been reignited with the news that from today, any woman in France seen wearing either a burqa or a niqab will be fined €150 or be told to undertake lessons in French citizenship. This has sparked an outpouring of criticism for the country’s apparent lack of understanding towards religious minorities, and is being seen as an attempt to silence faith altogether.
Whilst on the surface I agree that this seems like an incredibly oppressive and intolerant thing to do, I cannot say that I am in the least bit surprised. The simmering racial tensions in France between the government and the high influx of Muslim immigrants have reached boiling point on several occasions over the last decade, with feelings of discontent amongst the latter failing to be resolved. This latest state action – the first of its kind in Europe – will certainly do little to pacify this malaise.
What is imperative to note, however, is that France is a proponent of laicité – the complete separation of the Church and state – and an entirely secular country. Religion is not taught in schools, and only discreet religious symbols may be worn there or in state-run work environments. Citizens are free to practice their faith, provided that it does not interfere with their work functions. Today’s decision has once again stirred up debate over whether we genuinely have the freedom to express ourselves as we wish, or whether we must obey the laws decreed by the country in which we live.
If this ban were to be imposed in England (as Jack Straw tried, and failed, to do five years ago), it would be simply unacceptable and an infringement of the open attitude towards religion that this country takes. In France, however, where secularity is widespread and encouraged, it is understandable. From the beginning of the last century, the country’s constitution has clearly stated that the state does not recognise any particular religion, and thus inhabitants must act accordingly. To those that argue that France is showing a disregard for its ethnic minorities, then, a contentious argument arises. It may seem somewhat backward given the (generally) liberal ethos of the Western world, but the country has made no secret of its desire to dissolve religion in the public eye to the greatest extent possible, and this latest move has been a long time coming.
Where grey area emerges is over why certain women feel the need to wear more prominent coverings, and others do not. Some Muslim women have been vocal in their support for the government in banning these symbols, viewing them as a tool of subjugation to men and segregation from society as a whole. Only 2000 of the five million Muslims in France choose to wear full body coverings, but even though this is a minority, to not allow them to express their religion as they wish surely fails to acknowledge their human rights.
We touched upon multiculturalism in a recent Philosophy lecture, and as I remarked then, to remove the outward signs of a person’s faith is to effectively publicly eradicate thousands of years of religious history. For those that devote their lives to what they believe in, a part time arrangement whereby they can wear what they like in the privacy of their own home and yet cannot do so in public simply will not do. As I have explained, I do understand France’s reasoning behind the ban, and their belief that the burqa and niqab can be intimidating to those around them. Ultimately, however, if vicious religious sects in America are allowed to picket the funerals of war heroes and spout vile abuse because the First Amendment says they can, then why people are unable to peacefully observe their faith in the way they choose seems both hypocritical and highly damaging to the very notion of freedom of self-expression.