As of this week, it has become illegal for people in France to wear face veils in public – that means that Muslim women who cover their faces for Islamic purposes (burqa) are no longer able to do so without being subject to paying a fine. If it comes to the fore that she was forced to do so by her family or husband, the fine gets even heftier at €30,000. And as predicted, the internets were buzzing with a host of responses.The best comment of the day happened to be this very simple one liner: “It is gonna be tough for ninjas in France now.” Why a favourite of mine? Well, because in a few simple words, the messenger managed to capture the absolute absurdity of this entire debate.
So for that reason, I am going to position myself and say, for the sake of sanity, I will no longer debate whether or not the ban was right. While I may be guilty of having participating in it already on the BBC World Service (http://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/console/p00fvmmj) the day the ban went into effect, from here on out, I just want to say: Sarkozy, if it makes you feel better to ban the face veil for whatever reason you provide, then good for you.
Instead, I’d like to mirror back on a few observation points. The rationale we are fed for this ban is that there is a concern that the burqa is a symbol of male oppression. On the surface such motivation may appear altruistic. But I don’t buy for a second that Nicolas Sarkozy nor the nationalist right wingers Sarkozy is attempting to pander to are motivated by their benevolent heart strings. To the scrutinising eye, this move hardly appears to reflect a genuine concern for Muslim women’s rights or for general womens rights for that matter. That’s why the entire debate is a debacle. Whatever complex rationale for or against the ban the multitude of talking heads have managed to conjure, the original talking point remains flawed. So the entire debate is null and void as far as I am concerned.
We only have to look at France’s very own recent human rights records of targeting its smallest minorities. Last autumn of 2010, France expelled approximately 2,000 Roma – mind you, that included men and women. The figure 2,000 should sound awfully familiar – yes, that is the approximate number of women in France estimated to wear the burqa. In other words, there is a repeated pattern of French officials bullying their most vulnerable minorities and then providing a host of excuses as to why it’s not bad policy. Pierre Lellouche’s scoffed at those comparing the Roma expulsion to World War II deportations when he said that the Roma were being relocated to a nest egg with “a plane ticket going to their native country within the EU: these are not death camps, these are not gas chambers.”
Let us not forget that this is not unique to France. While France may have been the first country in the European Union to actually implement this type of ban, they were certainly not the first ones to institute one. Belgium was. Now the Netherlands is considering following suit with a similar ban.
Let us also not forget the greater context in which these bans are being instituted. European officials who appear moved by the plight of Muslim women are also simultaneously vociferously debating the place of Islam in Europe. As we speak, such a debate is taking place in France – leaving European Muslims with a bad taste in their mouths, because to them, what they’re hearing is “do Muslims even have a place in Europe?” Prime Ministers and Chancellors have been repeatedly telling their respective Muslim populations that their culture is at odds with European values and that multiculturalism has failed. These debates are deeply patronising to the European Muslim ear.
Finger pointing at the Muslim communities of Europe has fashioned a deeply hostile environment in which Islamophobia has taken a very firm root at the centre of European sensibilities; the sensibilities that now view the burqa as distastefully anti-European because it symbolises Muslim male oppression, and is, thus, something to be feared. We hear an imperial flavoured feminism that assumes Europeans can save Muslim women from Muslim men and that the answer to this distasteful dress is to disrobe the faces of these women in order to equalise them and set them free from Muslim male oppression.
I cannot help but to point out the fickle nature of concern for Muslim women. Muslim women as a whole, in burqa, or just a headscarf (hijab), and even Muslim women who show their hair, encounter Islamophobic gender abuses on a regular basis in Europe. Anti-Muslim hostilities often result in women who wear the hijab being subjected to racial slurs of all sorts. Muslim women have reported to being spit at, having eggs and stones thrown at them, and even having their hijabs violently ripped off. Yet concern over the rising tide of Islamophobia that threatens the safety of Muslim women across Europe remains invisible; while the over concern for Muslim women wearing a burqa by French officials is merely politically motivated positioning, where Muslim women are being used as a tool and therefore, entirely dishonest.
The imperial feminism that seeks to save burqa wearing Muslim women from their miseducation and indoctrination into believing in a world that has been interpreted by and for the benefit of men needs to be reevaluated. Painting Islam as the overriding patriarchal institution in Europe where the Muslim women are left needing to be reeducated about gender equality and self-respect in order to undo Islamic patriarchy is disingenuous and only continues to marginalise European Muslims and dangerously isolates Muslim women from the broader feminist discourse concerning the subjugation of women under masculine structures. I for one think every woman in Europe – scratch that, on our planet – could highly benefit from such reeducation as this concern is universal. How about we women of all colours and religious or non-religious backgrounds start out with undoing the effects of marketing and mass media right here in Europe?