Sunday, May 9, 2010

Stripping (Women) of Veils, and (Men) of Citizenship

Almost a year ago, I posted on the Sarkozy government's plan to introduce a law prohibiting women from wearing the burqa (right, credit) in public. In February, the government did just that, but on reviewing it, the Conseil d'Etat found there was no "indisputable legal basis" for a comprehensive ban and advised limiting the ban to public buildings. President Sarkozy will nevertheless submit a bill to the council of ministers later this month that contains a blanket ban: "no one may wear in public clothing designed to hide the face," under penalty of a 150-euro fine and/or "citizenship training." The ban would therefore include bandannas and masks worn by protesters, as well as niqabs (left, credit) such as the one worn by a French woman arrested in late April in Nantes for "driving in uncomfortable conditions" (French Vehicle Code art. 412-6). Officers claimed her niqab obstructed her vision; others say motorcycle helmets obstruct vision just as much.
The arrest came shortly after President Sarkozy announced his support for a full ban and intent to try to get around the Conseil d'Etat. Heating up the debate, the Interior Minister announced he would seek to have the woman's companion stripped of his citizenship for possible polygamy and child-welfare benefits fraud, whereupon the Minister of Immigration and National Identity announced plans to provide for a new citizenship-stripping procedure. Such pronouncements have of course been ridiculed: the companion is married to only one of the 4 women with whom he lives and has children. In a land where adultery is not a crime and extramarital relationships, including those that produce children, abound, threatening to strip people of their citizenship for such behavior is comical to say the least. But coming at the same time as Joe Lieberman's plan to strip Americans who join terrorist organizations of their citizenship, you have to wonder if there isn't some kind of nationalist trend afoot: unAmerican, unFrench, un(fill in the nationality) criminal behavior warrants not a criminal penalty, but exclusion from the nationality--a penalty deemed so counter to human dignity that the US Supreme Court held it violated the 8th amendment, as it constituted "the total destruction of the individual's status in organized society" (Trop v Dulles, 1958).
Clearly, a more dignified solution must be found, as anti-Muslim laws stigmatizing women are spreading across Europe. Just last Monday, a veiled woman was stopped in a post office in Novara, in north-western Italy and fined 500 euros for violating Novara's new by-law prohibiting clothing that prevents immediate identification in public. While Italy has banned masks or clothing that makes identification impossible since 1975, the measure is designed to prevent terrorism and the exception for "justified causes" has generally been interpreted as allowing veils. Local governments have begun to introduce stricter measures, however, and the Northern League has submitted a bill to parliament to specifically prohibit Islamic face veils.
Belgium seems poised to win the race to ban veils, however: its law prohibiting masks and veils in public passed in the lower house and is waiting to go before the Senate. Meanwhile, a German Euro-deputy has suggested enforcing such a ban across Europe.
In France, one of the major arguments made against face veils is that they are "an outrage to the dignity of women." Robert Badinter, therefore says he is "entirely in favor" of criminally prosecuting anyone who "pressures a woman into wearing a burqa." This is at least consistent with the principle of protecting women's dignity. But what to do about women who choose to wear veils? And more particularly, women like the driver in Nantes, a French adult convert to Islam whose freedom of choice cannot be said to be compromised by family practices?


Pausanias said...

Without going into the whole issue of integration, and the fact that covering your face in western culture is associated with bank robbers and clansmen, i'm baffled by how naive one has to be to believe there's ever been a right to wear anything one wants in public. Yes, you must wear in public places what society deems acceptable.

Anyway, religious issues dressed up under legal pretenses is more than stupid, it's a cancer on rational governance. Just because people want to please imaginary beings doesn't give them any rights; this reduced mental competence should give them less.

Pausanias said...

Sadly, this is the disturbing message that women face: