Discrimination in France: Banning the Burqa

by Rosamund Hunter

Protesting the headscarf ban in 2004, France. Credit: AP.

Since the French lower house of parliament recently banned the burqa—the full body covering worn by many Muslim women—human rights activists must step up to condemn this potential new law.

The French senate still must approve the controversial proposal before it will become law, but the initial support by parliament was overwhelming: the final vote was a whopping 335-1.   Unless the senate has radically different voting patterns, France can expect to be a burqa-free state soon after the September vote.  Not to mention, the French public supports a ban as well: 57% say they favor a ban with only 37% opposing.

The irony of imposing what could be described as forced “emancipation” is not lost for many feminists, human rights advocates, and anti-racist activists.  Certainly for feminists, this is another case where the notion of “women’s rights” comes to justify the subjugation of other oppressed groups.  Feminist movements have a complicated history of seeking to improve the lives of already privileged women at the expense of other groups.  The proposed burqa ban in France is rooted in a history of racism and discrimination directed at the French Muslim population.

French historian Joan Scott addressed many of these issues in her 2007 work, Politics of the Veil, arguing that France’s 2004 law banning headscarves in schools stems from its history of secularism and its homogeneous idea of Frenchness.  Many feminists saw the veil as a symbol of oppression while the government viewed it as an attack on the separation of church and state. Yet Scott digs deeper to uncover that these reasons are superficial; behind the debate surrounding the veil is a long colonial history of racism and the sexualization of French citizens of North African descent—who cannot shake the label of “immigrants”—as well as all people of Arab origin, both in and out of France.  Scott observes that—for many Muslim women—wearing the headscarf is a choice and an opportunity to exercise agency.  Outsiders and supporters of the legislation perceive those women who wear the headscarf or burqa to be decidedly without agency.  Scott first presents her reader with France’s colonial history in an attempt to cut to the core historical understanding of what the veil symbolizes.

France’s colonization of Algeria, a country that gained its independence only in 1962 after a brutal war, created a binary in which the French thought of themselves as civilized and looked upon Algerians as uncivilized.  Both Algerian women and men were characterized as highly sexual and unrestrained.  Yet to celebrate victory, women were routinely raped by supposedly “civilized” French soldiers.  Scott quotes Theophile Gautier in 1845, speaking on veiled women: “One senses feline claws beneath their caresses.”  Scott explains that “[t]he pleasures and dangers of imperial domination and sexual domination were conflated in statements like these.”  According to Scott, French men were troubled that they could not gaze at a woman who was veiled while the woman, in turn, could still see them (to see without being seen).  Men were denied their “right” to gaze as they wished, an attack on their perceived rights as men.

The veil also carried historical symbolism as a way to hide more than just the female body.  During the Algerian War, veiled women could transport weapons.  When the French began frisking women, they instead dressed as Europeans in order to gain access and bomb the predominantly French sections of Algiers.  This use of “camouflage,” as Martinican psychiatrist and philosopher Franz Fanon described it, allowed the veil to be “manipulated” and used as a tool to fight oppression.  Scott observes, “If for the colonizers the veil was emblazoned with the stigma of ethnicity, for the colonized it became an antidote to domination.”  The French saw the veil as not only camouflage, but also as a “stigma of ethnicity,” and an object of fear for what it could conceal.   Its history reveals the source of some of the racist arguments that have come to typify the current debate concerning the burqa.

Since the headscarf policy implemented in 2004 as well as the current proposed burqa ban is aimed specifically at women, it is ironic that many French feminists would so adamantly support a policy that directly discriminates against women.  Yet many believe that Islam is an oppressive religion and that the headscarf and burqa are indicative of Islam’s subjugation of women.  Scott sees this hypocrisy: “It is as if patriarchy were a uniquely Islamic phenomenon!”  She argues that the French government boasts of its commitment to gender equality, but schools only integrated boys and girls in the 1960s due to financial necessity and not out of a commitment to feminism.

Scott also sees contradiction in the argument some feminists make against headscarves when viewed in relationship to the debate over whether girls should be allowed to wear a visible thong to school.  She writes that the same people who were not willing to take legal action against these girls practicing “self-expression” were nonetheless supportive of a policy making it illegal to wear a headscarf.  “That article of clothing was not about adolescent self-expression. . . .”  Scott argues that in this setting sexual emancipation was linked with “the visibility of the female body,” even though this was not the case when taken out of the context of the headscarf controversy.

Many of these feminists and legislators see the veil not as a form of agency, but as a symbol of victimization. Yet wearing the veil in France is discouraged and even illegal in schools, so this perception has its limits.  Scott notes that even if women wear the veil out of familial obligation, it allows them more agency: “Wearing a headscarf might be a way of adhering to community rules and asserting pride in one’s identity in the face of discrimination.”  Furthermore, even if women wear headscarves or burqas because of pressure to do so, by choosing to do so, they resist harassment and practice autonomy.  Not everyone may agree that participation as a means to prevent harassment is “choice.”  However, the counter-argument, that women have no choice, and thus no agency, ignores the autonomy of women.

In an exchange between two French Muslim women, Saida Kada, who dons a veil, and Dounia Bouzar, who does not, Kada states that the headscarf is not a sign of her submission to men, but to God.  She feels emancipated by the veil.  Bouzar disagrees and chooses not to wear a headscarf because she interprets it as submitting to men.  Yet both of these women have agency, and we can see that a state-issued ban on the burqa is only discriminatory by claiming that one way is the “normative” form of emancipation.

Women deserve choice, in every aspect of their lives.  Religious and cultural freedom is absolutely crucial to achieving human rights, and discrimination based on race, gender, and ethnicity is intolerable.  Proponents of the proposed law can claim that France is a wholly “secular” nation and that racism and ethnocentrism are not motivating the ban on burqas.  Yet human rights advocates will not be fooled when the history of oppression so clearly exhibits the opposite.  France’s proposed ban is a direct assault on women’s rights, and the criminalization of a veil is not only outrageous, it is also a hateful attempt to harass and intimidate an entire group of French citizens. ▢

Rosamund Hunter is a graduate student at Sarah Lawrence College and Editor of RE/VISIONIST.  She is a member of For The Birds Feminist Collective and currently works for The Nation magazine in New York City.

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