How to be French

In the land of Chanel, Dior and Yves Saint Laurent, a land where the spirit of female beauty is relayed by a je ne sais

quoi attitude and casually adorned in haute couture, veils covering a woman’s face have become prohibited — a faux pas, apparently objectionable by the French government to the notion and essence of French identity. For me, this law, which went into effect this week, raises a number of questions regarding rights, feminism, and identity.

From a human rights perspective, this law is clearly in violation of the freedom of religion and expression: a woman can no longer choose to wear a niqab or burqa should she want to. Yet the more I read about the feminist perspective on this, the more confused I become. The idea of the niqab or burqa in its essence is a disproportionate restriction on Muslim women, and the donning of these covers transforms the individual to a collective, almost invisible identity, identifiable, first-hand, only as being a “conservative Muslim woman” and perhaps nothing else.  Of course the right to choose such a form of individual expression should lie in the hands of each woman and such a choice should be protected by laws that safeguard the freedom of expression and religion. But what to do in the case that this is not an individual choice, but based on coercion or a form of oppression? Apparently the French government thinks it has this one answered.

It is difficult for many women (and men too) to imagine that a woman would voluntarily choose to wear a niqab or burqa. The truth is that this is a personal choice in some cases, just as it’s a personal choice for a woman to wear a bikini, which in many parts of the world, is viewed as an invasive display of one’s most personal, physical self. Therefore, the wearing of a niqab or burqa, like wearing a bikini, can and is sometimes based on a woman’s personal choice. It is part of her identity and how she wishes to express it. I certainly can not be a judge of such a choice.

In the case of France, it appears that the country as a whole is attempting to protect its collective identity by stripping individuals of the right to express themselves as anything but “French.” Clearly this approach excludes the multicultural identities of the many thousands of immigrants who also identify as French despite their choosing a burqa over a bikini or couture for that matter.

The duty to protect individual rights and freedoms lies in the hands of the State, whereas here, the State has developed its own identity that apparently needs to be protected.  According to Nicolas Sarkozy, “we have been too concerned about the identity of the person who was arriving and not enough about the identity of the country that was receiving him.” How can the identities of a couple thousand veiled women go up against the collective identity of an entire country? And how far will this “concern about the country” go to trump individual rights and freedoms?  It’s difficult not to think that this discourse will end with a disproportionate impact on women who choose to weir niqabs or burqas.

Read also Behind France’s Burka Ban by Jane Kramer, The New Yorker and Banning the Veil, Loving the Face? By Rafia Zakaria, Guernica

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