French Secularism Law Defies Toleration
By Rachel Brody
Staff Writer, CMC ‘12
“The burqa is not a religious sign. It is a sign of subservience, a sign of debasement… It will not be welcomed on French territory.” Ten months later, French President Nicolas Sarkozy’s words remain branded into government rhetoric and continue to inflame French-Islamic communities.
While issues of national identity loom large in the face of the government, French politicians have consumed themselves with an effort to reaffirm the constitutional values of the state. A so-called “crisis” of national identity has taken hold of the French public, and government officials are asserting the importance of equality under law. Nevertheless, this rhetoric has recently bred legislation limiting Islamic dress, causing some to question France’s true interpretation of equality.
The controversy surrounding Islamic dress is not new to France. In September 2004, a law came into effect banning the hijab – a headscarf typically worn by Muslim women – in French public schools. When first proposed, the ban generated heated debate over issues of religious freedom. Many against the law, including French Muslims and the Western press, maintain that the French government has breached students’ freedom of expression. Others claim the law is racist, almost exclusively aimed at Muslims. Though the law was intended to forbid the display of any obvious signs of religion (a large cross, for example), the ban on the hijab resonated most deeply with French Muslims, who deemed it an attack on their religion in particular. Rather than viewing the law as an infringement on religious expression, many Muslims believed it imposed on their religious obligations and their Islamic duty to live by the Qur’an.
French officials were quick to discredit such arguments, framing the ban as yet another step in promoting the secular values of the state. The French have long been championing the principle of laïcité, the separation of church and state. Yet the enforcement and interpretation of such secularism expands far beyond that of the United States, thus placing even more restrictions on the extent to which religion remains public.
Recent legislative action, however, has removed the veil of religious expression from the Islamic dress argument and placed it in the context of female emancipation. Jean François Copé, parliamentary leader for Sarkozy’s Union for a Popular Movement, has drafted a new law forbidding the public wearing of any clothing intended to cover the face: in other words, the burqa or niqab. Claiming that the proposed ban is strictly in the interest of Muslim women, Sarkozy and other backers of Copé’s draft have framed the bill as a reaffirmation of gender equality. Communist legislator André Gerin expressed support for the proposal, stating, “There are people in this country who are walking around in portable prisons.”
Lexie Burgers, a Claremont McKenna sophomore studying in Marseille, France, has found herself smack in the middle of this whirling debate. Marseille has an especially prominent Muslim community, which makes it the perfect laboratory for exploring the burqa issue. As a French and Arabic Studies dual major, Burgers understands that “on the one hand, [the niqab] is a barrier to truly being integrated with French society,” an element of French nationalism whose weight and importance are difficult to replicate in the American melting pot. Indeed, France places significant emphasis on uniting its people by culture. For this reason among others, Burgers’s French host mother has made her support for the ban clear.
While framing the law as a protection of women’s rights and individuality makes sense, the question remains whether the niqab ban will truly liberate women from the patriarchic society. “Is [the proposed ban] really going to be an effective way of liberating [women] when their husbands are already forcing them to wear [niqabs] in public?” Burgers wonders. “Are they going to let their wives out in public if the ban becomes law?” These questions aside, many Muslim women want to wear the burqa; their choice to cover themselves is personal and in many cases an act of female empowerment.
Amidst the many questions surrounding the burqa debate, the government in power has managed to curry favor with a large part of the electorate. Yet, as Burgers puts it, the government is “trying to distract from real issues with an essential non-issue,” using divisions over the burqa to gain political prominence. Perhaps what began as an earnest evaluation of equality in French political life has quickly become a messy electioneering tool, belittling very real problems of race and religion.