This week the French cabinet approved legislation to ban the wearing of full-face veils, including the burqa, in public and this will go into law in September. Amongst my circle there are plenty who are delighted with this news and only wish the UK government would have the guts to follow suit and ban what they see as oppressive, uncivilised and extremist clothing. However, in passing this law the French are setting a dangerous precedent, sacrificing individual freedom of choice and religious expression for the sake of apparent community cohesion.
The French Republic prides itself on its ethos of equality and liberty, so it seems ironic that, to protect their cultural ideals, they are removing a woman’s right to dress how she pleases. It may not be ‘French’ to make a public show of one’s faith, but these women should have a right to express their faith and dress according to their personal convictions. Personally, I think it is wrong to ask a devout woman to give up the burqa if she sees it as an act of obedience to God and there is just not enough evidence that this clothing is forced upon women by male relatives. On the other hand, in making Muslim women give up their burqas, the State could be forcing them to compromise their beliefs and identity for the sake of cultural homogeneity. Laïcité, the French concept of a secular society was supposed to ensure the absence of government intervention in religious affairs - not just keeping religion out of government. As such this authoritarian stance seems misplaced, and seems to exist more for the sake of calming public concerns over the rapidly growing Muslim population in France than to protect women’s rights.
Whatever the justification, the State in France shouldn’t arbitrarily force their values on their citizens – religious expression and dress simply isn’t a matter that any government should get involved in. It’s a personal matter and the government should step back and let things take their course without positive or negative discrimination. It’s not about the government making a shrine to the ideal of multiculturalism, but rather they should let individuals do what they want aware of the repercussions for them in their community. Businesses should be free from employment rules which may force them to positively discriminate for Muslim or burqa’d women, and women should be free to dress how they please, but be prepared for the fact their burqas may make them socially isolated in Western society.
This to me seems the only solution and may, in time, lead to a decline in the amount of women wearing burqas without the government needing to intervene. Ultimately, a society is healthier where people are free to choose what they wear and do and as such I believe it’s important that politicians do not let their personal prejudices lead to the loss of fundamental civil liberties.