A Philosopher's Blog

France’s Burqa Ban

Posted in Ethics, Law, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on April 12, 2011
Women wearing burqas in the street

Image via Wikipedia

France imposed its “burqa ban” yesterday. This law does not, of course, specifically ban burqas. Rather, it bans people from covering their faces (presumably mimes get a special exemption). However, it is understood that the law is, in fact, specifically targeting Muslim women.  Interestingly enough, Muslim women in France generally do not wear burqas. Rather, they tend to wear the niqab. There are also relative few Muslim women in France who engage in the practice at all.

The main motivation for the law seems to be Sarkozy’s desire to do something to improve his dismal approval ratings. By appearing tough on Muslims he, perhaps, can counter the growing appeal of the right. His military adventures in Libya also seem calculated to that end.  Obviously enough, this reason hardly justifies the law.

The main stated justification for the law is that it is intended to protect Muslim women from oppression. The idea seems to be that Muslim men in France force women to wear the veil. As such, it is a sign of male oppression. This line of reasoning has been used to win over support on the left in France.

This does have some appeal. After all, Islam does not have the best track record when it comes to the treatment of women. It is also the case that some Muslim women are forced to cover themselves against their wills.

However, the law does not  merely forbid forcing women to cover up. Rather, it also outlaws appearing in public while covered. While the fine and jail sentences for forcing someone to cover up are greater than those to be imposed on those who are caught covered up, it seems reasonable to question the claim that this law is aimed at protecting women from oppression. A law aimed at protecting women would, it seem, only punish those who forced women to cover up. Women who freely chose to cover themselves should, one would imagine, be exempt from such punishment. After all, a person who chooses to dress in a certain way would not seem to be the victim of oppression-even if others might not approve of her choice.

While many Westerners probably assume that Muslim women must all be forced to cover up, this is not the case. Some women apparently do this by choice and regard the right to do so as protected by the Western notion of freedom. While some might be skeptical about whether the choice is actually free, it does not seem unreasonable that some women would, in fact, freely decide to cover up in this way. After all, if some women are willing to freely expose lots of flesh in public, then it seems no less unusual that some woman would want to cover up much more.

Some people might argue that women who cover up too much and those that cover up too little are all victims of male oppression and are not really making free choices. While it is reasonable to believe that social and cultural factors impact dressing behavior, it seems unreasonably to claim that all these women are incapable of choice and are mere victims of the patriarchy. In any case, to force someone to dress or not dress a certain way because of some ideology about the patriarchy would also seem to be oppressive as well.

It might also be argued that just as there are laws against being completely naked in public, there should also be laws against being completely covered. After all, a woman cannot walk the streets of France with only her eyes covered, so why should a woman be allowed to do so with only her eyes exposed? Both, it could be argued, create public distractions and violate the general sense of proper dress.

While this might have some appeal, this justification would require having laws against anything that created a distraction and anything that went against the general sense of proper dress. This, one might suspect, would justify a far too broad range of laws.

As a final point, there is also the religious aspect. While many scholars of Islam contend that covering up is not actually required by the faith, this mode of dress does seem to be an expression of faith. To ban it would thus seem on par with banning Orthodox Jews and Catholic nuns from wearing their distinctive clothing in public. Such bans would clearly be attacks on religious freedom and hence the ban in France should also be regarded as such.

While I am not religious, I do recognize the importance of the freedom of faith and its expression. While there can be legitimate grounds for limiting such expressions (like banning human sacrifices), when a practice does not create harm, then there seems to be no real ground for banning it. As such, the ban in France seems to be completely unjustified and also an infringement of both the freedom of choice and the freedom of religion.

While some might point out that some Muslim countries do not allow such freedoms, my easy and obvious reply is that these countries are in the wrong and we should certainly not want to be like them.

(Shameless self promotion: 42 Fallacies)

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