The Burqa in France

According to the BBC, in the latest twist in l’affaire du foulard/voile, a French parliamentary committee has recommended a ban on women wearing Islamic face veils in public [Correction: the proposal applies to public facilities, such as hospitals and mass transit, and not walking about the street]. The reasoning behind the report seems to be that face veils are contrary to the values of the republic, as symbols of women’s repression and extremist fundamentalism.

The proposal strikes me as a very bad idea in a number of ways. I don’t see how the law liberates women from whatever social pressure there exists to wear a veil. Will wearing a balaclava in public be illegal too? If not, then won’t the law just force a change of attire? Nussbaum has some discussion of this general issue in her Liberty of Conscience, pp. 346-53, invoking the ability of Chicagoans (and the Dutch, and presumably the French) to conduct normal social interactions with their faces covered in winter.

What if feminists who believe that make-up is just a manifestation of the objectification of women in patriarchy, and hence symbolic of repression and degradation, are right? Is there a way to support the veil ban, but not think that this claim about make-up would justify a make-up ban?* How about t-shirts with sexist imagery and messages? Quite apart from dress codes, we can recognise prostitution as degrading, and hence contrary to the values of an egalitarian republic, without thinking it should be illegal, primarily because making it illegal may very well just make the lives of those women, so degraded, even worse.

So, a question: can anything be said in support of this proposal (from ideally a feminist perspective), that does not run into these and other problems?

*[I should add I think having to wear a burqa is worse than feeling compelled to wear make-up.]

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About Simon Cabulea May

Simon Cabulea May is Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Florida State University. He received his PhD from Stanford University. His present research project generally concerns conflicts of moral convictions in public deliberation.
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2 Responses to The Burqa in France

  1. I agree Simon. Hypothetically though, I could imagine a ban on one symbol of women’s oppression that did not justify a ban on ALL symbols of women’s oppression. There are all sorts of ways to separate the things symbolic of women’s oppression and reasons to ban some of them without banning all of them. But, the fact that the reasoning for this particular ban doesn’t even attempt to make such distinctions is evidence that it’s simply racist/xenophobic. Which seems to me to be a reason against the ban that trumps the reasons for the ban.

    Furthermore, there are now feminist women in the West who use veils and headscarves as symbols of their opposition to the kind of racism/xenophobia that motivates these bans, just as a woman in Iran might use red nail polish to symbolize her opposition to Ahmadinejad. The political significance of clothing is contextual, and when we realize that I think it makes a French veil ban seem pretty disingenuous, in the manner of the colonialist fantasy of “saving” the colonized.

  2. I suppose that different kinds of symbols could be distinguished in terms of the cogency of the reasons to ban them, but I’m not very sympathetic to banning symbols at all, except insofar as they are used in the ways that speech can be used to incite violence, etc. So “no swastikas at a football match” seems fine, but not “no swastikas anywhere.”

    The kind of consideration that I do think has to be taken seriously is that some prohibitions can emancipate individuals from private domination. So if the veil law did have this effect, then I would be at least sympathetic to it. But I can’t see how it will actually do that, or be plausibly thought to do that. So I agree, I think this has much to do with the veil being “foreign” rather than sexist.

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