France’s Perennial Burka Ban Legislation

Burqa
Image by CharlesFred via Flickr

It appears that it is up for debate again.

This smells like a pretty transparent bit of Muslim-baiting in a country known for its antagonistic relationship with its Arab immigrants. But a friend of mine, in private conversation, noted that there is an ostensibly feminist argument to be made for the ban. Burkas can be, after all, a tool of oppression.

This is the position favored by French President Nicolas Sarkozy, who calls the burka, “contrary to the dignity of women.” But I’m not so sure the argument flies, at least in a liberal democratic society.

The problem is that while the burka is frequently—and, in France, maybe even usually—forced onto the wearer by a family member, it is not impossible to conceive of a woman voluntarily donning such a garment as an expression of her faith. Legislation banning such expression, when it does no direct harm to others, is incompatible with liberal democratic principles.

So maybe the trick is to target the family members who coerce women into wearing burkas, and leave women wearing them voluntarily alone. That’s not what the legislation does—in fact, even in obvious cases of coercion, the victim is punished along with the perpetrator—but let’s try this new and improved law out for the sake of argument. The problem then comes from the impossibility of proving coercion. If you come across someone literally forcing a woman into a burka, there are presumably other laws under which that person can be charged. Anything less and the case is, at best, founded on hearsay. At worst, you get into horribly vague arguments about the nature of coercion and what kinds of psychological and institutional pressure count as something stronger than mere persuasion.

More to the point, outlawing its most obvious outward signifiers isn’t a particularly effective way of combating abuse. I’m not sure what this actually does for women in France beyond denying them one possible avenue of self-expression. Abuse spouses and family members have plenty of other ways of being equally abusive. And given that a near-negligible percentage of Muslim women in France wear burkas in the first place, it seems the primary consequence of passing this legislation would be the needless antagonization of France’s Arab population.

Which, as I said earlier, seems to be sort of the point.

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