To ban or not to ban the burqa

The circumstances surrounding France's veil debate are key, but so is the individual context for Muslim women

Published April 5, 2010 10:38PM (EDT)

Today's Wall Street Journal features a compelling argument for banning the burqa in France. Now that is quite a statement coming from someone like myself, an irreligious libertarian with a passionate belief in the freedom of religious expression. Where Peter Berkowitz, a senior fellow at Stanford's Hoover Institution, first gets my ear is in emphasizing the importance of "circumstances, not just principles" in the debate currently roiling France over President Nicolas Sarkozy's proposed burqa ban. A special attention to specific cultural, political and historical details? What an idea -- do go on.

The concept of such a ban in the U.S. may be unthinkable, but it isn't so in France, he explains. For starters, "the doctrine of laïcité -- which is inscribed in Article 1 of the French Constitution and proclaims France a secular republic -- separates church and state differently than in America," he says. "For many French, laïcité, roughly translated as national secularism, has acquired a militant meaning, according to which government must confine religion to the private sphere." That's the thinking behind the country's 2004 ban on headscarves in public schools.

Then there is the fact that Muslims make up roughly 10 percent of the country's total population. It's the "nonassimilating portion" that most concerns Berkowitz. He sees the burqa as a symbol of a "disdain" for freedom: "In France as throughout Western Europe, the full veil, along with cousin-marriage, polygamy and sexual violence contribute to a culture that secludes women and creates sizable barriers to assimilation," he writes. In other words, banning the burqa helps to protect Muslim women's personal freedoms and to preserve France's cultural and political identity.

These are important points -- you just can't ignore the influence of France's unique history, population and brand of secularism. This is a fundamentally different debate than the one we would be having stateside. That's why Berkowitz's argument is so persuasive to someone like myself: He acknowledges the principled arguments against a veil ban but goes on to consider the specific context of the debate. Only, I'm ultimately unconvinced by his argument.

Consider how for but a brief moment he argues against a veil ban by comparing it to "the view advanced by radical feminists in America ... that pornography should be banned because it degrades women by portraying them as sexual objects":

In ordinary circumstances, the response to both bans would be the same. Whether the veil and pornography degrade women, freedom -- of women and men -- is unacceptably imperiled when government is invited to determine which clothes and photographs, films and books, and eventually words and gestures respect the dignity of women.

I could not agree more! Only he quickly discounts his argument with a single line: "But ordinary circumstances may not obtain today in France." That's because, he says, "freedom is in special jeopardy when a substantial segment of the population embraces a way of life that fails to cultivate the virtues of freedom while teaching disdain for freedom's practices and principles." Just how large is that "substantial segment," though? Well, an estimated 1,900 French Muslim women wear the burqa. There are 6 million Muslims in France. So, we're supposed to toss aside those well-defended political principles because there are fewer than 2,000 veiled women in France?

I have a hard time believing that banning those couple thousand girls and women from veiling will increase their personal freedom in any meaningful way. Even in cases where the veil is tied to serious, measurable violations against their personal freedoms -- like a controlling patriarch who restricts access to education or vital public services -- it's hard to see how a ban will increase their freedom. In those cases, it is hardly the veil that imprisons them. Take away their option of covering up and they just might be forced to become even less visible. Rather than addressing the illness, such an approach merely covers up the symptoms.

I keep on coming back to those damn principles -- namely, the right to freedom of religion. When we talk about "full-body veiling" being "incompatible" with France's culture of political freedom, what do we mean? The implication is that there are no circumstances under which a woman can freely and meaningfully choose to veil. We aren't talking about women who choose to veil and women who are forced to veil -- no distinction is made between the two. There is no allowance for personal agency or alternate perspectives. Forget the woman behind the veil, that piece of cloth itself is taken as an unwavering symbol of oppression. That's why I can't fully get behind Berkowitz's argument: He emphasizes the context of France's attempt to ban the burqa, but fails to appreciate the context of French Muslim women's decision to veil.

By Tracy Clark-Flory

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