If you’re a woman and want to cover your face, then be prepared to face a fine of 150 euros whenever you do so in France. And if you’re a man and force your wife to cover her face, then you’ll have to pay a stiff penalty of 30,000 euros plus suffer a year in jail. France’s enshrined values of equality and liberty received a mighty but controversial boost when the country’s lower house of parliament recently voted for a bill banning the full veil or burqa in public. The anti-burqa sentiment is led by President Nicolas Sarkozy whose anti-immigrant stance as home minister some years ago struck a popular note among right-wing conservative voters. He now quotes what he says is the “true spirit of French culture and secularism” which cannot allow this “oppression” and isolation of women in society anymore.
Why is such a bill needed when there are only 2,000 women out of five million Muslims in France who want to strictly adhere to this dress code? Indeed, the debate about assimilation versus integration has just begun in earnest in Europe. The critical positive signal came from the opposition socialists who abstained from voting due to internal disagreements. The month of September will decide the fate of this bill when the Senate debates and votes on it.
Still, the iron is hot across Europe. Spain and Belgium have already passed laws against the full face veil, the latter being the first to take such a step. But due to a change in government there, the Senate’s approval is still awaited. Earlier, in a controversial display of fear and Islamophobia, the Swiss people voted in a referendum against allowing mosques with minarets. The French apparently picked up cudgels against the full veil when a Tory backbencher, Philip Hollobone, broke the ice in the UK (which has a sizeable Muslim electorate) by tabling a private member’s bill to outlaw the veil.
We don’t need to go to Europe to understand the power of the image. Syria, a predominantly Muslim country, has just banned the full veil in public in order to protect its secular values. Not so long ago, we too saw gun-toting black shuttlecocks at the site of the Lal Masjid in Islamabad and we cannot forget the audacity of Maulana Abdul Aziz when he tried to flee in a head-to-toe burqa. A new anti-veil vocabulary has also sprung up in Europe. “Walking coffins”, “walking paper bags on your face” and “hiding your face” are some of the expressions that Europeans tend to share after looking at the burqa. Meanwhile, Amnesty has denounced the French ban saying that it “violates freedom of expression and freedom of religion”.
It is a bad move to single out any one religion and discourage cultural diversity. The ban is also likely to provoke a hard look at Europe’s liberal immigration policies of the last 30 years that have encouraged Muslims from former colonised lands to make a home in Europe. Images of gun-toting shuttlecocks in far away Taliban and al Qaeda enclaves refuse to go away. The fear is that would-be suicide bombers could exploit the burqa and use it to mount attacks inside Europe. Thus this security issue seems to be one of the primary reasons for the ban. The other, of course, is European pride in an open society in all aspects of life.
Published in The Express Tribune, July 26th, 2010.