Sunday, August 20, 2017
Photo of Noëlle Lenoir

Many French citizens consider gender segregation and face covering to be repressive.

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The Burqa and French Values

PARIS – Many Western media outlets were highly critical of France’s 2010 law banning face coverings, such as burqas that cover a woman’s face and entire body, and local decrees adopted this year banning full-body “burkini” swimsuits on public beaches have drawn further negative attention. French-bashing in the press is nothing new, but those who criticize these measures ignore the historical and sociopolitical reasons for why most French people support them.

For starters, secularism – or laïcité – is a defining principle of French society. Under the French Constitution – which upholds freedom of conscience as well as freedom of speech – all citizens may choose any religion, or none at all; alternatively, they may criticize and mock religious beliefs and customs.

In 2004, the French Constitutional Council deemed the French Constitution to be compliant with the European Union’s Charter of Fundamental Rights. In order “to reconcile the principle of freedom of religion and that of secularism,” the Council ruled, “the Constitution forbids “persons to profess religious beliefs for the purpose of noncompliance with the common rules governing relations between public communities and private individuals.”

In France, recent events seem to pose a direct challenge this principle. In 1765, the agnostic French Enlightenment philosopher Voltaire wrote: “Those who can make you believe absurdities, can make you commit atrocities.” The Charlie Hebdo cartoonists and journalists who were murdered by two Islamist radicals in January 2015 were carrying on the Enlightenment tradition Voltaire helped start, and that attack had a chilling effect on a distinctly French form of free speech. The death threats against Charlie Hebdo are still rolling in, most recently following its publication of cartoons depicting the burkini debate.

Alongside French secularism is feminism, a principle also enshrined in the Constitution. Since 1999, Article 1 has established a gender balance in all French decision-making bodies, from the National Assembly to local government bodies, boards of directors, and so forth. While the proverbial glass ceiling hasn’t been shattered entirely, there are now more women in high-level leadership positions in France than ever before.

Like secularism, this institutionalized gender parity is at odds with conservative interpretations of Islam, which often call for modest dress and gender segregation in hospitals, swimming pools, and driving schools. And, in many French Muslim communities, conservative imams have more influence in shaping the status of women than do school teachers or other local leaders.

With France’s strong culture of feminism, many French citizens consider gender segregation and face covering to be repressive, even when they are said to be a woman’s choice. France has a history of welcoming immigrants, especially between the two World Wars; but it has never before been confronted with attitudes and behavior that not only violate its constitutional principles, but openly defy them.

French law forbids data-collection based on ethnicity or religion, but it is estimated that 8-9% of France’s 66 million citizens are Muslim – alongside Germany, the largest Muslim population in Europe – and half are believed to be younger than 24 years old. Most French Muslims are not new arrivals, but came during the Algerian, Moroccan, and Tunisian independence movements in the 1960s, meaning that young Muslims today belong to the third generation of that immigration wave. Many have been very successful, especially the young women, who are excelling in an increasingly competitive labor market.

However, many young Muslims feel frustrated with their living conditions and betrayed by the French promise of equality, leading them to question and challenge French principles. As a demographic group, they feel the weight of endemic unemployment, which averages 25% among young people and 40% in the banlieues, the housing estates surrounding many of France’s major cities, where many Muslim families live.

Under these conditions, it is common for young people to blame society, which they believe has given them short shrift, for their poor school performance and other adverse outcomes. For some, alienation finds an outlet in hatred of France, violent anti-Semitism, and rejection of French values, to the point that they come to define their identity more through an extreme interpretation of Islam than through French citizenship.

For decades, French governments have tried to paint over the problem by pouring billions of euros into so-called “urban-policy” programs to fix up dilapidated housing projects. But there can be no painting over the heinous crimes perpetrated in France over the past two years by disenchanted young Muslims who had embraced radical Islam.

The list is alarming. After the attacks on Charlie Hebdo and a kosher grocery in January 2015, there was the mass murder committed at the Bataclan theater and other Paris sites in November 2015; the truck attack on Nice’s Promenade des Anglais this summer; the subsequent murder at a Catholic church in Normandy of a beloved priest, whose throat was cut during mass; the attack on a private home outside Paris, where a married couple of police officers were murdered in front of their child; and the stabbing of a Jewish man in Strasbourg this month.

These incidents are reinforcing populist movements in France and throughout Europe. In France itself, such attacks are being used to justify more anti-Muslim rhetoric from politicians such as Marine Le Pen, the leader of the far-right National Front, who could make it to the second round of next year’s presidential election.

Against this backdrop of collective trauma, many French citizens believe that the survival of the Republic itself is at stake. And they see no reason why France’s characteristic pluralism and tolerance should become the means of its destruction.


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Photo of Peter Singer

Where are we to draw a line between the widely, if not universally, accepted requirement that women must cover their breasts and the greater degree of coverage of the female body required by several religions?

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Ban the Burkini?

MELBOURNE – My parents came to Australia as refugees, fleeing Nazi persecution after Hitler annexed Austria. They arrived in a country eager to assimilate immigrants into its dominant Anglo-Irish culture. When my parents spoke German on a tram, they were told: “We speak English here!”

Assimilation of that kind has long disappeared from Australian government policy, replaced by a largely successful form of multiculturalism that encourages immigrants to retain their distinct traditions and languages. The “burkini” – a swimsuit that covers the body from the top of the head to the feet, though not the face – is one aspect of that multiculturalism. It was invented by a Muslim woman in Sydney to enable observant Muslim girls to join their school friends and other children in the beach activities that are an important part of Australian summers.

Australians find it hard to fathom why some French seaside towns should seek to ban the burkini. Without swimming costumes that comply with their religious beliefs, observant families would not permit their girls to go to the beach. That would reinforce, rather than reduce, ethnic and religious divides.

The burkini bans in France (some of which have since been overturned by courts) follow other French restrictions on clothing and ornamentation. Students in public schools cannot wear conspicuous religious symbols, which is usually interpreted to prohibit the headscarves worn by Islamic women, as well as the yarmulkes (skullcaps) worn by Jewish boys and large crosses worn by Christians. A full face veil – a burqa or niqab – cannot legally be worn anywhere in public.

France is often seen as a special case, because of its long history of strict separation of church and state. But last month, Germany’s interior minister, Thomas de Maizière, proposed banning the burqa from public places such as government offices, schools, universities, and courtrooms, raising the possibility of such prohibitions spreading beyond France. It is, de Maizière said, “an integration issue,” and Angela Merkel, the German Chancellor, agreed: “From my point of view, a woman who is entirely veiled has hardly any chance at integrating.”

The pendulum is therefore swinging back toward assimilation, and the key question is how far that swing should go. Should a country that accepts immigrants also allow them to retain all their cultural and religious practices, even those that are contrary to values that most of the country’s people consider central to their own way of life?

The right to cultural or religious practice cannot be absolute. At a minimum, that right reaches its limit when such practices may harm others. For example, children must be educated, and even if the state permits home schooling, it is entitled to set standards regarding the knowledge and skills that must be taught. In extreme cases, like forms of female genital mutilation intended to reduce sexual pleasure, almost no one supports allowing immigrants to adhere to tradition in their new country.

In France, it has been argued that allowing burkinis to be worn on beaches tacitly endorses the repression of women. To require women to cover their heads, arms, and legs when men are not similarly required is a form of discrimination. But where are we to draw a line between the widely, if not universally, accepted requirement that women must cover their breasts (also not required of men), and the greater degree of coverage of the female body required by several religions, including Islam?

It is also dubious that integration is best served by banning religious dress in public schools. At least as long as private religious schools are permitted, this is likely to cause observant Muslims and Jews to send their children to private schools. If we really want a secular, integrated society, there is an argument for requiring every child to attend a public school; but in most Western societies, that argument has been lost.

If a society is to be more than a collection of discrete individuals or groups living within common territorial boundaries, we can reasonably want a degree of integration that enables people to mix and work together. We should reject cultural relativism – the example of female genital mutilation is enough to show that not all cultural practices are defensible. A society is justified in saying to immigrants: “You are welcome here, and we encourage you to preserve and promote many aspects of your culture, but there are some core values that you must accept.”

The difficult question is to determine what these core values should be. Not harming others is a minimum, but racial and sexual equality should also be part of the core. That becomes tricky when women themselves accept restricted opportunities because of their religious beliefs. They may be the victims of a repressive ideology, but Islam is not the only religion that teaches, in at least some of its forms, that women’s role in life is different from that of men.

John Stuart Mill, the great nineteenth-century liberal, thought that society should use criminal law only to prevent harm to others, but he did not think that the state had to be neutral vis-à-vis different cultures. On the contrary, he thought society has, and should use, the many means of education and persuasion available to it, in order to counter false beliefs and encourage people to find the best forms of living.

Mill would argue that if we allow sufficient time for immigrants to be exposed to the influences of education and proximity to different ways of life, they will make good choices. Given how little confidence we can have in other options, that path remains worth trying.