The day before Bastille Day, French symbol of justice and freedom, the French lower house overwhelmingly approved a law that is unjust and takes away freedom, banning face coverings in public places. And they have the gall to dress it up as a blow for women’s rights, despite saying “this practice, even if it is voluntary, cannot be tolerated in any public place”.
See that? Even if it is voluntary! We will make you free from freely making a choice.
OK, so some women are wearing burqas or niqabs against their will, or because of social pressure. On a raw utilitarian level, if we could determine with a reasonable degree of confidence that substantially more women are wearing face coverings unwillingly than otherwise, then an argument could be made to ban them. Imposing on the few would be outweighed by liberating the many. Is legislation an option, then? I don’t think so, since it’s impossible to tell who is in that category, and who is not.
What to do for those that (presumably) are being forced to wear clothes that, literally, efface their identity? Our options are limited, but the origin of the problem suggests a solution. Because face covering is a cultural practice*, the best method for ensuring it is only done willingly is to promote a cultural context that is open, non-prescriptive, and tolerant. Most importantly, however, a society where individual choice is respected. In that way we can induce change in minority cultures towards a more liberal perspective, by applying gentle social pressure of our own. A slow but steady approach, if you will. And who knows, perhaps the emphasis on modesty will percolate outwards and counteract some of the sexualisation of Western dress codes.
France’s burqa ban is the opposite of such a strategy, attempting direct social engineering as a quick fix for a symptom, rather than addressing the underlying problem. Even if you reject my proposed solution, the ban could be counter-productive on the French government’s own terms, by causing some women to be confined to home if they cannot leave it covered. It certainly won’t do much to help integrate Muslims into wider French society – passing laws against minorities only serves to make them feel more isolated, and more defensive, than before. I suspect the popular support in France for the ban isn’t in spite of such considerations, but because they are (sadly) trending away from that famous aphorism, vive la différence!
* Many make the mistake of thinking it is a religious practice. Islamic scholars have argued for centuries about what is halal and what is haram with regards to clothing. As with any religion based on a holy book, many interpretations are possible, and the book itself can be contradictory or unclear. This is why Muslims do not dress uniformly, and why the concept of hijab, in its many forms, is more correctly defined as a cultural practice. If you’re thinking, “But it’s still just a Muslim thing”, then I suggest you look up the use of veils in myriad faiths and cultures for the past several thousand years.