Sunday, June 28, 2009

Politics of the Veil bis

In his speech before the full French parliament on June 22, President Nicolas Sarkozy said
[the burqa] is not a religious problem, it is a problem of women's freedom and dignity. It is a sign of subjugation. . . . the burqa is not welcome in France.
Neither President Sarkozy nor the French government seem to have read either Beth Van Schaack's great post from last year, or the book that inspired its title, The Politics of the Veil (2007) by Joan Wallach Scott. As Beth mentioned, the French passed a law in 2004 banning the wearing of "ostentatious religious symbols" in public schools. The two arguments supporting the law were the French concept of laïcité, or separation of church & state, and the need to protect young women from being forced to wear fundamentalist religious garb. The law has the disparate effect it was designed to have on Muslim girls, who are forbidden to wear headscarves to school, and also affects Sikh boys. (In fact, many of Muslim parents also request that their daughters be excused from biology classes and mixed-sex swimming classes, for example. So while the law is limited to clothing, the underlying issue of mixing religion and public school is not.) Since most Orthodox Jewish children go to private schools, they are not affected by the 2004 law, which would? should? forbid boys wearing yamalkes, but perhaps not girls wearing tights, long sleeves and long skirts even on the hottest, muggiest days. They and other wearers of ostentious religious garb will also be unaffected by a new law President Sarkozy's government may table to ban the burqa (at least if it is imposed).
As I posted last August, France has denied citizenship to at least one woman on the grounds that she wears a niqab (face veil), which the Conseil d'État (supreme administrative court) considers incompatible with the essential values of the French community, notably with the principle of equality of the sexes. If the government actually does pass a law banning both the burqa (full body garment combined with hijab (head covering) and niqab (face veil)) and the niqab, it too will be upheld on the grounds that here in France, we prize dignity and transparency. It is argued that torturers and executioners cover their faces, that we can't have unidentifiable people picking up children from school, that we can't accept this obvious sign of female enslavement. Will forcing the few women who wear them (5% of France's Muslim population) to stay inside forever or move to a Muslim country save them from enslavement or give them dignity?


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