France’s Sham Veil Ban

On Monday, France’s controversial veil ban went into effect. Backed by President Nicolas Sarkozy, the law does not explicitly mention Islam, but it prohibits the act of covering one’s face in public and would outlaw the full-face veil, or niqab. Offenders must pay a fine of 150 € ($217.47) or take French citizenship classes.

Supporters of the ban argue that outlawing the niqab is necessary to ‘preserve French culture’ and to battle insular Muslim communities. Politics are heavily at play: Sarkozy, whose approval rating is currently hovering at an abysmal 20 percent, has launched a fight against ‘radical Islam’ that seems to be desperate to be a bid to pander to France’s anti-immigrant far-right.

In truth, the law is more show than substance. “The law will be infinitely difficult to enforce, and will be infinitely rarely enforced,” said police-union leader Manuel Roux to France Inter Radio. Other major union leaders concur, reports The Guardian. The process to arrest a woman for wearing a veil is time-consuming: police have been told not to ask women to remove their veils in the street and instead are to escrot them to a station where they would then show their faces for identification. Thus far, at least two women have been arrested, and were charged with unauthorized protest and later released.

If banning the niqab is, in fact, about protecting the rights of oppressed women, it is not a very effective solution. If a woman’s relatives are forcing her to veil her face outside of the house, a ban will not magically make her go out in a miniskirt. Chances are that she will be kept at home. Thus, the policy would further isolate Muslim women–an odd tactic if the bill is truly meant to battle ‘insular’ immigrant communities.

What is most problematic about this conversation is that it correlates a certain type of garment with oppression. Therefore, it is more about ‘looking French’ rather than fighting oppression. I wouldn’t be surprised if the ‘French citizenship classes’ include a mandatory makeover.

As a Muslim and a feminist, I think it is important to have an open dialogue about the gender and Islam. The reality is that Islam is sometimes used to justify inequalities towards women, and calling this out is crucial. But the debate over the veil treats Muslim women as a monolithic group, raising the impossible question of whether or not Muslim women who wear the veil are, as a whole, either oppressed or liberated. There is no straightforward answer to this question, because Muslim women are a diverse group. Some Muslim women choose to cover, and others don’t. Some Muslim women wear the niqab voluntarily, but others may be forced to do so.

What this ban ultimately shows is a lack of understanding of France’s immigrant communities. The real source of debate should be in defining the responsibility of the state in oppressive situations inside the home. What kinds of services should the state provide? When it is appropriate for them to intervene? Ultimately, any solution requires that the French government build relationships of trust with immigrant communities–rather than enacting policies to further wall them off.

Photo from Flickr user sittiealiah licensed under Creative Commons.


  1. nomadnoor says:

    Salaam alaikum Sarah!
    You nail the issue right on the head! Thank you very much for this well thought out and concise article.
    Wa alaikum salaam

  2. Interesting. I could never make up my mind about this, but your insight is much helpful as always.

  3. Susan gibbons says:

    So well put Sarah, thank you for your article, the law is too blunt an instrument for this issue, consultation with women who do and don't wear the veil is the important issue surely 🙂

  4. Effie Wkd says:

    Thank you for your well written article. As a Muslim woman who proudly chose to cover at the age of 23 after years of study and serious consideration of the social stigma being true to myself and my faith would bring, I strongly resent the sentiment that I and women like me need to be saved from ourselves. Like most other covered women in western countries, the pressure I receive comes from mainstream members of society who are uncomfortable with the fact that I refuse to compromise my beliefs in order to look more "normal." I find it deeply offensive that anyone would assume that adult women can't possibly have decided how they dress themselves each day just because some women choose to wear something that most people in a society would not have chosen to wear themselves. And although the law makes no direct mention of Islam, the fact that there is a provision allowing carnival masks and father Christmas beards shows that it isnt an issue of face covering and security at stake. There would be no need for a citizenship class if this was just an issue of identity and security.

  5. As Told & Proved " Those Who Eat Pork & Drink Wine " Suerly They Like Nudity. Whats Great If They R against Veil.

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