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Taking the veil in France: Racism or secularism? Liberation or imprisonment?

Taking the veil in France: Racism or secularism? Liberation or imprisonment?

The effects of French laws passed in 2004 and 2011 banning veils worn by Muslim women, as well as other public dress expressing religious views, seem to be snowballing in ways that are restrictive rather than freeing, and conducive to anti-Muslim action ranging from community enforcement and proposal of legislation:

Mainstream politicians continue to push for new measures to deny veiled women access to jobs, educational institutions and community life. They often say they are doing so for the benefit of public order or in the name of laïcité, the French term for the separation of church and state.

…Veiled wom[e]n — like anyone else wearing obvious signs of religious affiliation — are officially barred from working in the public sector because of the original laïcité laws. There is little doubt that, in practice, this restriction has broader impact on Muslim women who cover their heads.

to outright abuse and violence, according to a story in The New York Times:

…observant Muslim women in France, whose head coverings can vary from head scarves tied loosely under the chin to tightly fitted caps and wimple-like scarves that hide every strand of hair, say the constant talk of new laws has made them targets of abuse, from being spat at to having their veils pulled or being pushed when they walk on the streets.

In some towns, mothers wearing head scarves have been prevented from picking up their children from school or from chaperoning class outings. One major discount store has been accused of routinely searching veiled customers.

Some women have even been violently attacked. In Toulouse recently, a pregnant mother wearing a head scarf had to be hospitalized after being beaten on the street by a young man who called her a “dirty Muslim.”

Muslims make up approximately eight percent of the French population, and somewhere between 500 and 2,000 Muslim women in France are veiled; politicians and private citizens alike have been increasingly anti-Islamic, prompted in part by such events as the killings at the newspaper Charlie Hebdo.

The more recent 2011 law is more restricting, banning veils that cover the entire face; however:

In the three years since the law took effect, only about 1,000 fines, which can go as high as 150 euros, have been issued. Several women, it seems, have enjoyed goading the police. One woman received more than 80 fines. Few paid themselves. A wealthy Algerian businessman created a fund to pay for any ticket issued.

France’s laws: A legitimate attempt to discourage a practice seen by non-Muslims as restrictive? When does secularism cross the line into racism?

Posted by Cara Ellen Modisett


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JC Fisher

I can’t help feeling that’s there’s nothing prejudicial about banning FACE coverings. Haven’t face coverings been banned completely apart from the niqab? Face covering seems to me to be detrimental to a civil society (think of bank robbers, think of the KKK). The hijab is completely different, and absolutely should NOT be banned.

Rod Gillis

Re J.C., face coverings are only an issue in those very rare instances where identification is crucial, like a passport photo. In all most instances it’s a western cultural bias. The comparison with the clan or masked criminals is false equivalency, and frankly, a rather sensationalist negative comparison.

Women in traditional garb are not intending harm to others, but merely trying to assert their own integrity according to a different cultural motif. In fact, traditional clothing, the niqab, hijab, chador, burka, makes women more vulnerable in a western setting.

There is a very interesting and sometimes heated internal debate among Muslim women in North America about face coverings etc. That is for Muslim women to sort out. It’s not for western males, and especially western males in government or positions of power, to tell them what they can or cannot wear.

Special forces personnel and S.W.A.T officers sometimes cover their faces to protect their identity and that of their families. Are they to be compared to the clan or bank robbers?

Rod Gillis

Prohibitions against the niqab and the hijab are an offense against liberty and freedom of expression. It’s a form of discrimination. In Europe one routinely sees religious habits, both male and female, in public. Have you not seen the good nursing sisters in the order of Malta at airports? Why not religious or cultural dress from the middle east? Are we going to tell a Dominican he can’t wear his habit in public? Are Anglican churches going to ban Franciscans from wearing their habits? What could possibly be more culturally distinctive than a ( royal) purple shirt and a huge gold pectoral cross? Have you not seen bishops and other prelates in their Harry Potter like get up outdoors in procession or on ash-Wednesday in the subway?

David Murray

Generally speaking, France since the Revolution has sought to reduce the influence of religion in French society. This has been given differing weight since 1789, but the current issue of Islam in French society is, in part, related to that tradition. However, France is concerned about members of the Islamic tradition that is not part of the larger French society.

It has some merit. Head covering, while a part of Islamic tradition, does has a wide degree of meaning. However, for myself, I am comfortable with the covering that covers hair but allows the face to be seen. This allows enough space for the tradition, but also allows the person to be seen. This seems an balanced allowance for all concerned.

Let’s us not forget that as Americans, we have (so far) been blessed to not have as many radical members of Islam as is the case in Europe. Europe has a problem. It is a problem with a variety of reasons, but French concern does have merit. It is the same in the Low countries of Holland and Belgium. Friends of mine of all these nations report to me having had abuse, and these are native nationals with deep roots. There is merit for concern.

Marshall Scott

Nancy, I believe religious habits and clergy collars have been restricted in France for some time, and not only in France. Can any of our other readers speak to this?

Nancy C Lea

how about Catholic nuns? Are they going to be required to retire their headgear? How far is this going to go?

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