Much of Western Europe Against the Burqa

I’m still rifling through the hundreds of emails in each of my three inboxes and feeling more than a little overwhelmed about all the things that didn’t get done while I was on vacation and all the things that may not get done before I leave again – this time, back to New York City (which feels less like traveling and more like coming home but with all the annoying chores of traveling nonetheless).

In addition to the email-rifling, there’s the blog perusing and laundry sorting (a tangent, yes, but that’s life). I’ve been doing all this (and more!) at once since 7 AM California time. But I’m going to stop multitasking for now to write a quick post on the recently-passed French bill that criminalizes veiling. Mimi’s been following the politics, rhetoric, problems, and popular and academic commentary regarding this bill since last summer. (These posts are archived under “Hijab Politics.”)

The actual language of the bill, not surprisingly, attempts to neutralize its Islamophobic and civilizationalist implications. Rather than directly prohibiting the wearing of the burqa or the niqab (practiced by about 1,900 French Muslim women or 0.1% of the Muslim population), it bans “the concealment of the face in public.” However, exceptions would be made for motorcyclists, fencers, skiers, and, uh, carnival-goers.

The colorblind language of the bill exemplifies neoracist legal and cultural formations that enables multiculturalism not only to exist alongside racism but to collude with it. Consider, for example, that French Prime Minister François Fillon has argued that the ban would save Muslims from wearers who would “hijack Islam.” And of course President Nicolas Sarkozy has insisted (rather hollowly) that the bill is really against the “enslavement and debasement” of women – which are contrary to French principles of equality. Colorblind racism ignores the history and ongoing fact of racism by resting its logic on a surrogate issue, or what Etienne Balibar calls in his essay “Is There a Neo-Racism?” a “secondary elaboration”, like immigration, national security, human rights, etc. The objectives of neoracist policies are not discriminatory, we are told. Their purpose is to expand and secure freedom, liberty, and democracy. The implication then is that Muslim women (or Latino immigrants or Arab Americans or Muslim Americans, and so on) are culturally rather than biologically (that would be the old racism) contrary to freedom, liberty, and democracy. They are antiliberal, antidemocratic figures who embody threats to the modern state and all the freedoms attached to it. So their containment is not a question of racism or state dominance but of freedom and civilization.

While John Dalhuisen, Amnesty International’s expert on discrimination in Europe has condemned such a ban, saying, “A complete ban on the covering of the face would violate the rights to freedom of expression and religion of those women who wear the burqa or the niqab in public as an expression of their identity or beliefs,” France’s lower house of parliament overwhelmingly approved the ban with a vote of 335 to 1. Yep, there was only one dissenting vote – from Daniel Garrigue of the French Communist Party (PCF). Women found in violation of this bill would face a fine of 150 euros ($194) and/or a citizenship course, underscoring the arrogant civilizing project that frames this bill. Men who are found to have forced women to wear a niqab or a burqa would face a prison term of one year or a 15,000-euro ($19,377) fine.

While the measure won’t go into law until the Senate approves in September, if the Senate goes along with the popular view on veiling, the bill will become law. (Some are predicting that the law will “be struck down, or watered down, by the constitutional watchdog of the French state, the Conseil Constitutionnel.”)

This bill, as a recent post on Jezebel mentions, reflects the popular view across Europe. In France, 80% of the population are for the ban; in Germany, 71%; in Spain, 59%; and in Britain, 62% (though immigration minister Damian Green has already called such a ban “rather un-British”). Belgium has already approved of a similar bill. Italy, the Netherlands, Austria and Switzerland are also considering bans. (Meanwhile, 65% of U.S. residents polled in a Pew Center study are opposed to such a ban.)

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3 Comments

Filed under FASHIONING THE HUMAN, HIJAB POLITICS, STYLE POLICE & STYLE GURUS

3 responses to “Much of Western Europe Against the Burqa

  1. Eliza

    I’m really torn about the ban and the contrasting cultural relativism I here from American liberals. Female genital mutilation recommended as a “slight nick” to soothe foreign parents from the American Pediatric Association received so much criticism. Why do we want to accomodate this practice? By labeling everything a choice – the veil, posing for Playboy, being a stay at home mother, breast implants – do we acknowledge freedom or turn a blind eye to legitimate concerns about social coercion and mixed messages?

  2. Hannah

    I’m from the UK, and I don’t agree with the ban. I suspect the 62% of the population figure doesn’t reflect this country’s true feelings. I’d hope not, anyway.

  3. bookgazing

    Who do they even ask when they produce these percentages? Another Brit who never even knew anyone was surveying this question.

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