Foreign Policy Blogs

Veiled Questions

France houses over 65 million people – 5 million of whom are reported to be Muslim. Of these 5 million, only 2,000 wear a full face veil. In a country of 65 million, legislation that is targeted at 2,000; is this behavior not reminiscent of school-yard-bullying?

Islam is the second largest religion in the country but another study showed that within the next 10 years, most Europeans will not associate themselves with any organized religion. That being said, “second largest” implies a majority of some kind; and democracy teaches us what?

Although the niqab, or face-veil, is not unanimously agreed upon amongst Muslim scholars; for instance, a member of the clerics at Al-Azhar in Cairo (one of the most reputed Islamic Schools), has said there is no place for the full face veil in the Shari’ah; it remains still, a cultural norm amongst most that choose to wear it.

Be it a right claimed in the name of religion, or a cultural practice, the fact of the matter is that Muslim women are the only ones that wear a niqab. Their right to cover their faces falls clearly under Article 4(2) of the Declaration On The Elimination Of All Forms Of Intolerance And Of Discrimination Based On Religion Or Belief, 1981; thereby making signatory states (France included) duty bound to  enforce.

People have argued that the legislation, although seemingly aimed at emphasizing the secular standing of France, is more of a political play to gain support. We’ve seen religion being used as a tool for popular support in most countries, many of which consider themselves Muslim nations (e.g. Pakistan); but we have also seen that such discrimination has only further fueled personal prejudices and intolerance.

In the meantime, two niqab-wearing-protesters were arrested outside the Notre Dame in Paris on Monday – apparently because they were part of an “unauthorized demonstration” and not because of their veils. It is reported over a dozen people gathered there – but only the two wearing a veil were arrested. Is this not harassment?

The law itself is a bag of confusion: people who force women to don a veil are subject to up to a year in prison and a hefty fine and possibly which will be doubled if the veiled person is a minor. But what if the woman wants to wear it herself? Apparently she will be fined $200. In an attempt to garb the targeted law as something applying to all faiths [see also: Frances ban on “religious symbols” in the classroom 2004 – which basically only hurt women wearing a Muslim head-cover, or Hijab], it also bans people from wearing masks or full balaclavas, except during fetes, artistic performances or sports events – so just Muslims women, Darth Vader and thieves posing as skiers are generally not allowed to walk the streets of France. But if Darth or the thief is riding a motorbike, they too are exempt. Basically, it’s just Muslim women or others who constantly don a veil. So, just Muslim women.

The way I understand “secularism” and “democracy” was that the state itself would not prescribe to a particular religion – but that it would also not discriminate against its citizens for choosing one and freely practicing it. This ban, if nothing else, goes against these concepts. Insolent much, Sarkozy?



Sahar Said

Sahar, who grew up in Lahore, Pakistan, has obtained her Master of Laws degree from The George Washington University Law School, and worked with a non-profit in New York. She currently writes from Germany.

Sahar can be followed on Twitter @sahar_said.