France creates paper trail in campaign against Muslim veils
France is building up an interesting paper trail in its campaign to ban full-face Muslim veils. The latest twist in this story is that Immigration Minister Eric Besson has denied citizenship to a foreign man said to have imposed the wearing of a full-face veil on his wife, a French citizen. “He was depriving her of her liberty to come and go with her face uncovered and rejected the principles of secularism and equality between men and women,” he said in a statement on Tuesday. On Wednesday morning, Prime Minister François Fillon said he would sign a decree Besson had drafted to make this kind of constraint an obstacle to naturalisation.
This is not the first piece of paper on this trail. A veiled Moroccan woman was denied citizenship in 2008, a decision the State Council upheld on appeal. That occurred before the “ban the burqa” activism that led to the parliamentary commission that recommended last month France explicitly outlaw the full veil. The argument in the 2008 case was not about the veil itself, for example as a security risk because the person cannot be easily identified, but about a “radical religious practice that is incompatible with the essential values of the French community.”
According to the newspaper Le Figaro, the man is Moroccan and needs French citizenship to settle in France with his wife. It says they are both members of Tablighi Jamaat, a deeply conservative Islamic missionary movement whose members strive to live according to the model of the Prophet Mohammad. Le Figaro said the man argued that his wife should either stay at home or leave home only if fully covered, and the wife agreed to this.
In approving Besson’s draft decree, the State Council did not mention the veil itself, but rather the husband’s behaviour which it said was incompatible with French values, Le Figaro said. Again, the argument is defence of women’s rights and gender equality, not religious or individual rights.
Fillon pushed the paper trail back even earlier than 2008. “This has been French law for a very long time. The Civil Code says one can refuse naturalisation to someone who does not respect the values of the Republic,“ he said in his radio interview. “This case is about a radical religious person … He has imposed the burqa (on his wife), he imposes a separation of men and women in his own home and refuses to shake hands with women. So, that’s it, if this man doesn’t want to change, he has no place in our country. Anyway, he doesn’t deserve French citizenship.”
This is interesting. Readers of this blog will have read and heard my argument that the only issue I think can stand up is the security and identity question — should people be allowed to walk the streets fully masked? In the anonymous mass of modern society, individuals have to be easily identifiable and the face — “nature’s identity card” — is the best way to do this. Recognising a face is important to identify friends, detect hostile intentions or otherwise communicate with another person. If it were not, why are our brains hard-wired to recognise faces separately from other objects our eyes see? When we’re in public in a Western democracy, we interact primarily as equal citizens, not as people of a certain race, creed or political affiliation. A Muslim woman can still wear a hijab, just as a traditional Catholic nun can still wear her veil and wimple, and show “nature’s ID card” to others (while also clearly signalling her faith). A burqa or niqab breaks this human communication.
Defending women’s rights and gender equality is an excellent goal, one that clearly upholds the values of modern Western democracies against more traditional views such as those preached by the Tablighi Jamaat. There is a clash here and it is hard to see a middle ground on which the two sides could agree. This leads to some interesting questions, both for Muslims defending the niqab and for the French fighting it:
- Should the Tablighi Jamaat and other such groups that effectively preach against French values be banned in France?
- Should other new (for France) religious groups, such as the Mormons or African evangelical churches, also be investigated to see if they uphold women’s rights and promote gender equality?
- A bit closer to home, what about the Catholic Church or many Jewish and Protestant groups that bar women from their clergy? How about asking how much égalite (equality) they allow in their ranks? Should the French state be as vigilant with them as it is with Muslims?
- And, while we’re at it, what about the French National Assembly itself? It has one of the lowest proportions of female members among all parliaments in Europe.
Liberté, égalité, fraternité (liberty, equality, fraternity) is one of history’s great political battle cries. It is also one of the hardest to live up to. When the French decide to argue the issue on these terms, it warms their hearts and rallies many of them around the tricolour flag. However, every shortfall in realising any of the three goals becomes a stick to beat them with. Questions such as those above are bound to come up once the National Assembly gets down to writing that veil ban. Legislators supporting a ban will try to bulldoze their way through the thicket of contradictions with Gallic panache, but we can expect sparks to fly in France and outside when they do.
Here is Fillon’s interview in French in an Europe 1 video. The question about the man denied citizenship starts at 3:09: