Debating a burqa ban with a French MP — in English

July 9, 2009

f24-bothFrance 24, the French international television channel, invited me to debate the proposed ban on burqas and niqabs today with one of the parliamentary deputies leading the campaign. That’s me on the left. On the right is Jacques Myard, deputy for President Nicolas Sarkozy’s centre-right UMP party and a spirited defender of French interests. Myard wanted to ban full facial veils in France two years ago but could not muster enough support at the time. The mood in the National Assembly has changed since then and another deputy, the Communist André Gerin, got together 58 deputies from different parties to launch the inquiry that began work yesterday.

Here’s the video on the France 24 website. It’s about 20 minutes long. Myard presents the French case for banning burqas and niqabs very clearly. If you’ve read about this debate and can’t understand it, he is worth hearing to get a good feel for how many French people state the case for a ban.

Myard puts the debate squarely in the context of laïcité, the quintessentially French way of separating church and state. That separation is such an important principle in Western countries that even the Vatican — history’s big loser in this debate — now supports it. However, this principle is interpreted in different ways in different countries.

In France, it is seen through the lens of French history, where the Catholic Church was so powerful that the parliament passed a law in 1905 officially separating the two and banishing religion to the private sphere. It is meant to protect the state against the power of religion — exactly the opposite of the American view that the separation protects religion against the power of the state. Religion, more specifically the Catholic Church, was very powerful in France in 1905, but nobody would argue that now. In fact, the civil religion of laïcité is much more powerful now.


(Photo: Woman in niqab, 17 Jan 2004/Mohammed Salem)

Defining the burqa/niqab issue in terms of laïcité frames this debate as a religious one. It widens a practice by a tiny minority of ultra-conservative Muslims into the stéréotype du jour of the Muslim minority (about 8 percent) that makes France so uncomfortable. In a Western society, having people hide their faces in public and refuse to show nature’s ID card even for driver’s licences or wedding ceremonies is a problem. Even at its strictest in centuries past, Christianity covered up its nuns but left their faces open. This is such a basic cultural fact in an open Western society that politicians should be able to appeal to this simple rule to outlaw such masks in the public sphere.

That would mean striking out into new territory. It would mean leaving the well-beaten and reassuring path of debate about laïcité, where one is assured of support, for a more challenging but more egalitarian approach based on the duties of a citizen in an open society.

Leaving the studio, France 24 had a taxi waiting to take me home. The 30-ish driver asked me if I’d been in a television discussion and what the topic was. When I mentioned the burqa, he asked Are you for or against this freedom?” His tone and choice of words made it clear he was a Muslim opposed to a ban.

french-muslim-protestOnce I explained my position, he said he was shocked to see some women appearing fully veiled at the Saturday market in his Paris suburb. This was not the Islam he knew, he said. He was not in favour of burqas either. However, he was deeply suspicious that the burqa ban was only a smokescreen for a wider assault against Islam itself. “Islamophobia is institutionalised in France,” he declared.

(Photo: French Muslims protest against Danish Prophet Mohammad cartoons, 11 Feb 2006/Vincent Kessler)

By the end of the short ride, we had ironed out our differences and more or less agreed. We parted on that positive note that one-on-one dialogue can bring. I’m afraid we will not see that kind of dialogue in the coming months, but a polarising debate that misses the main point. Let’s hope I’m wrong.

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much of the persecution of the anabaptist movement was concerned with anabaptist refusal to take oaths, thereby casting doubt upon their veracity as witnesses and honest brokers. even in the us, amish construction workers must still abide by osha safety laws and buggies must display warning triangles and have lights – all to protect public saftey, which is part of fulfilling the golden rule of loving one’s neighbour. concealing one’s identity – especially in a post-911 world – might be a religious position, but does or should that translate into a civil right?

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Tom Heneghan wrote (on Facebook):
“Would you at least agree the reasonable balance rules out completely covering up a person? If a woman wants to cover her hair, that’s her decision. But completely covering the face negates the beneficial social interaction you mention. And also — do you really think that only women consciously or unconsciously try to compete for attention in the sexual marketplace?”

“completely covering up a person? ”

When you phrase it this way, it implies that one person is covering up another and that it is not willingly done by the wearer. Since a ban on the veil would affect even those women who wear it quite willingly, I am going to address their situation. I think we agree that compulsory veiling is undesirable in our context.

“do you really think that only women consciously or unconsciously try to compete for attention in the sexual marketplace”

Certainly not; men do as well. But there is a huge difference in how the sexes go about this, and how they are perceived in the public sphere, hence the different standards. Women are judged much more strongly, by both sexes, on the basis of their appearances, whereas men are judged, by both sexes, more strongly on the basis of status symbols. Most bluntly, this is why men are consumers of visual pornography (naked women) but women have relatively little interest in photos of naked men, instead preferring romance novels featuring successful males. More subtly, this is why TV newsrooms and magazine covers (both men’s and lady’s) are dominated by attractive young females, and to a lesser degree powerful men of any age, but rarely feature older women. Sarkozy and Berlusconi didn’t choose their female equals as mates; they selected much younger, beautiful women, and the women who selected them surely preferred them for their wealth and power, not their washboard abs. Angela Merkel is not as likely to be caught staring at a young man’s bum or frolicking with an intern or escorts at her estate.

People rarely realize that traditional Muslim men have dress restrictions that Muslim women do not. Most strikingly, at the Hajj, all men must wear only simple white cloth, whereas women have an unlimited range of options of colours and materials. Even in everyday life, men may not wear gold, silk, or other items deemed ostentatious displays of wealth or power; women are free to wear such garments. We might also add that the beards which traditional Muslim men wear obscure the jawline, which is one of the primary signals of raw male sexuality. So generally speaking, the hijab somewhat equalizes all women in the public eye, and the requirement of modest materials somewhat equalizes all men in the public eye.

“But completely covering the face negates the beneficial social interaction you mention.”

Actually, I mentioned “beneficial social interaction” to distinguish from “social interaction” generally. Social interaction is not always beneficial, and everyone (veiled or unveiled) removes themselves from social interactions that they deem of no particular benefit. Modern women usually won’t smile back at strange men on the subway, or they may avoid the subway entirely. The rich withdraw themselves from the riff-raff, both on the street and in gated communities. We isolate ourselves by building our houses much farther apart than traditional Arabs do. Yet we would regard it as an unthinkable impingement on our rights if the government tried to prevent such self-exclusions.

Similarly, there are many Western subcultures that are based on at least a partial rejection of the mainstream public sphere. The whole purpose of convents is to cut off the inhabitants from the outside world. Dress like a punk or a skinhead and you’re also marginalizing yourself, probably intentionally. I for one am not going to approach an ominous looking hippie biker with a full body tattoo and piercings, nor will most employers. Yet no one speaks of outlawing convents or counterculture dress styles.

Third, there are many groups unwittingly marginalized by modern societies, most notably the elderly, who often have no choice but to live alone with their cats or in some dehumanizing elder care facility. Modern society is rife with such exclusions and loneliness; there’s a rich body of literature on this from Reisman’s “The Lonely Crowd” (1950) to Putman’s “Bowling Alone” (1995). In France, Houellebecq keenly observed (as indicated in this NYT review of his work) that:

Human interactions of all kinds, especially those that involve caring for others, appear less and less worth the trouble. Houellebecq is fascinated by young couples who have pets instead of children, and by the French heat wave of 2003, which killed thousands of senior citizens who were forgotten by their vacationing children and abandoned by their vacationing doctors. Daniel1 mocks the newspaper headline “Scenes Unworthy of a Modern Country.” In his view, those scenes were proof that France was a modern country. “Only an authentically modern country,” he insists, “was capable of treating old people like outright garbage.”

In traditional societies, where people are less distracted by trivial interactions of the public sphere and attention is directed towards maintaining the ties of kinship, the old and the less-than-beautiful don’t face this sort of unthinking ostracization. Anthropologists and some feminists (e.g., Greer, Irigaray) have observed that these veiled women often have richer lives, private and public, than their Western counterparts. Naomi Wolf’s 2008 article in the Sydney Morning Herald is an eloquent elaboration of this argument: d-the-veil-lives-a-thriving-muslim-sexua lity/2008/08/29/1219516734637.html

(I won’t quote from the article as it is short and I recommend it in its entirety.)

Bottom line: I don’t think we can forbid the niqab simply because some of us feel it robs them of beneficial social interaction. First, we may be mistaken in paternalistically assuming that these women don’t have rich social lives; the evidence seems to state otherwise. Secondly, for fairness and consistency we would also have to forbid many tolerated Western behaviours that reduce people’s exposure in the public sphere, which we are not about to do.

What are reasonable limits? Genuine security risks are one. Safeguards to ensure that is the willing choice of a community of females is perhaps a good idea. And I can understand some people’s desire to have a teacher that speaks to them face-to-face, but that’s something to be hashed out between the relevant parties themselves.

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Although, I personally am so far to the left that even the democrats appear to me to be “right-wing,” I consider myself to be a strict constitutionalist. It is my opinion that since its inception there has been an organized and systematic assault by the conservatives in the United States on the civil liberties written into the US Constitution. The “War on Drugs”; “War on Terror”; “War on Communism” and a host of other wars waged by the right wing are really nothing more than a War on People–an excuse to erode civil rights to the point of non-existence. I invite you to my website devoted to raising awareness on this puritan attack on freedom:

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[…] As readers of this blog will know, I think that open societies, where citizens have to navigate through large anonymous crowds every day and be concerned about issues of public safety, cannot allow people to walk the streets daily with masks on.  The common good requires that individuals accept certain limitations in the interest of public safety. But making a national law for a few hundred veiled women is like using a sledge hammer to swat flies. It will probably force them to stay at home altogether, which can’t be a welcome result. And it will do little to solve the problems for which the niqab is only the symbol. […]

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