France's Irrational Ban on Muslim Veils

For a country that takes pride in rationality, the decision to ban head coverings doesn't make much sense. Pretending that the new law is a defense of women's rights is even more absurd.

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Mehdi Fedouach/AFP/Getty Images

I've never been one to participate in the American sport of French bashing. But after the French ban on the wearing of face-covering veils in public began last week, I'm ready to start ordering "freedom fries" at the drive-through. Referring to traditional Muslim coverings worn by some women -- which range from the nijab or niqab to the full, imposing and disconcerting burqa -- as a reflection of "male oppression," the French law prohibits some Muslim women in that country from fully exercising and adhering to their religious beliefs. If ever there were a symbol of male oppression and Western arrogance, it is the law enacted by patronizing Gaulists to support what they regard as "freedom" for Muslim women.

It's hard to fully articulate the scope of the insult and prejudice that so explicitly undergirds the new French law described by President Nicolas Sarkozy as supportive of the "dignity" of French women. The law does not ban the wigs worn by ultra-Orthodox married Jewish women, who shave their heads as part of their religious practice. Nor does it ban communion veils worn by young Catholic girls and women.

Extreme forms of dress by male religious figures are also left untouched. The one-shouldered robes worn by Tibetan monks are permissible, as are the elaborate, multilayered robes worn by Catholic priests (who are forbidden to marry by a church that has its own well-known, elaborate struggles with male oppression). It is only Muslim women who are targeted for the particular solicitude of a French law that reflects the growing right-wing tilt of French public opinion. 

Framing this law as a progressive women's-rights ordinance is absurd on its face. If the French were serious about banning from the public space garments that reflect male oppression, then the high-heel shoe and the push-up bra would have been abolished long ago. And the breast implant. And the face-lift. And Spanx.

Is the absence of gray-haired French ladies in their 40s and 50s a symbol of women liberated from the need to reflect their age through their hair, or the result of women who must appear perpetually young to maintain the interest and attention of their graying and balding husbands and male companions? What about the French fashion industry and its celebration of anorexic, yet fully breasted postpubescent models as "hangers" for clothes hand-sewn by considerably stouter, older seamstresses who remain behind the veil of an industry that traffics in male fantasy?   

But the French ban on face veils (like 2004's ban on head scarves in French public schools) can only be seen by Muslims as a targeted and transparent attack on the religious freedom of Muslim women. It is, in fact, a flagrant and retro example of the neocolonial perspective that animates a good deal of Western engagement with the Middle East and with Islam in particular. And it's this kind of obnoxious policy that ignites religious tensions and radicalizes otherwise moderate Muslims. 

The picture of the nijab-covered Muslim woman surrounded by French police and reporters on the first day of the ban was among the most incendiary, anti-Muslim images to emerge from the West in a decade. A friend remarked to me that one of the most disturbing aspects of the picture was that we couldn't "see her pain."

I thought, "We couldn't see how pissed she was." Because make no mistake about it, Muslim women will be offended and enraged by this ill-advised French law. When a culture that shrugs off grandmothers who shoot poison into their foreheads to try to avoid looking their age, and that permits women on beaches to take off as many clothes as they want, then tells women who choose to cover their faces in accordance with their strict religious observance that they must be liberated from male oppression, no one is fooled. It is bigotry, plain and simple, and paternalism at its most insulting.

The French law is ill-advised for another reason: It is likely to produce a result that is directly contrary to its purported aims. Supporters of the ban have argued that face covering is contrary to promoting an integrated French society. The best opportunity for the advancement of women's freedom from male oppression is to engage women from the East and West in pluralistic, open societies.

Targeting the practices of one religious group or another (unless those practices involve physical harm or violence) only encourages groups to become more insular. Muslim women banned from appearing in public with face-covering veils are unlikely to give up a mode of dress that reflects their religious beliefs. Instead, they are more likely either to protest it directly or to refrain from appearing in public. Thus, the French law is likely to have the effect of turning observant Muslim women in the country back into their communities, rather than outward toward daily interaction with secular French society.