In April of 2011, France passed a ban on all full-face veils. Although this has been an issue of contention since its initiation last year, it is reaching attention again as its relevance and appropriateness are being tested and questioned. Many times when stopped, French Muslim women will simply lift their veil for police officers. However, many people consider this a violation of their religious freedoms. On July 24th this past year during the holy month of Ramadan, a woman in Marseille standing outside a mosque refused to lift her veil for the police, and many supporters and bystanders joined in, culminating in the arrest of four people. Although the ban was worded as a non-specific security measure (it says it is to prohibit anyone from wearing anything “intended to hide the face”), it then goes on to set prison sentences for anyone “forcing another to wear a face veil”, an attack clearly aimed at Muslims. This is indicative of a common pattern of sexism aimed at Muslim women disguised as an attempt to “save” them. It ignores that many Muslim women wear the niqab out of choice and see it as an important expression of their faith and their culture, and sees them as oppressed – it assumes that if given the choice, all women would not wear the veil. This is explicitly not true, as evidenced by the women in the article. Kenza Drider is a Muslim convert who wears the veil and refuses to remove it for police. When given a fine and told she was not to wear the niqab in public settings, she told them to just continue to fine her. The other woman in the article says the law has allowed other French citizens to feel like they are justified in confronting her: she has tales of being spat upon, beaten, and assaulted while carrying a child.
Different things are being done to combat this bill – a wealthy businessman named Rachid Nekkaz has offered to cover all fines incurred by Muslim women wearing the veil, but notes that many instead stay home. He says astutely, “The law was meant to protect women but it has imprisoned them instead.” The second woman I mentioned, Ms. Ahmas, is appealing one fine and arrest to the high courts in hopes of then taking it before the European Court of Human Rights. However, this appeal will likely take years and many Muslim officials think it is important to work on other issues – within the past years there have been troubles regarding halal fast food and food in schools, minaret height, and prayers in the streets when mosques overflow, and many people think these issues of religious oppression are more pressing. However, this human rights violation is also very important, as it intersects issues of both religion and gender, and should be given serious consideration in both the public and private spheres.