In April of last year, France became the first European country to implement a ban on face veils. In keeping with the French tradition of using legislation to regulate the display of religious paraphernalia, the law subjects Muslim women who wear the burqa in public spaces to a fine of €150 or lessons in French Citizenship. Of course, the ban is divisive by nature and has flared domestic and international passions alike, causing a paroxysm of debate over its legal and ethical implications. These contentious discussions have resurfaced in recent months as the French government proceeds with the sentencing of Hind Ahmas, one of the first women arrested and arraigned for sporting the burqa in a town just east of Paris.
Though there has been ample coverage of the ban in the European media, much of it has been of a disappointing quality, focusing more on the winsome notion of religious liberty or the academic anxiety of a clash of civilizations rather than the logistics of the French quagmire. When pundits and social commentators do address the situation, more often than not it is to admonish the law as draconian and overbearing, if not racist and Islamophobic.
It is dispiriting to see the Fifth Republic attacked for using common sense legislation to manage its sizable Muslim population and the corresponding task of fostering social cohesion. Despite the attempts of many detractors to shame the French into disaffirming the ban, it remains widely popular with the French people, and so it should. The decision to ban the burqa was an intrepid one, not lightly made, and the government ought to be lauded, rather than rebuked, for its commitment to basic human rights and its dedication to safeguarding the French identity.
That the law is an infringement on religious liberty is one of the main gripes of its critics. Though it feels natural and rewarding to take up the side of religious freedom, the arguments are reflexive and ultimately half-baked. In any society in which multiple faiths hope to coincide, certain religious practices must be proscribed. Moreover, France is a country with a longstanding secular tradition that has routinely circumscribed religious activity. For almost a decade, it has been illegal to wear a kippah or large pendant of any faith in French schools. These objects have been deemed ostentatious religious garb, and therefore, a genuine impediment to an education.
Other things are banned, too. It is also illegal to have multiple spouses in France, a law particularly vexing to the recent influx of Malian immigrants that have entered France with a longstanding tradition of polygamy. Is prohibiting polygamy an infringement on religious liberty? Well, perhaps it is, but that’s largely irrelevant, considering it is not the purpose of government to mold itself to the crude shape of each and every religion within its border. The government should protect religious freedom, which by no means entails condoning every ceremony or practice justified by a holy book, especially those that are anathema to the national identity. It is also worth noting that the burqa is by no means mandated in Islam and can scarcely be called a religious tradition, appearing not once in Quran. Indeed, even in the autocratic theocracy of Iran women are required only to cover their hair, not their faces. It seems that France is being asked to relinquish its deeply entrenched tradition of secularism to accommodate a radical practice of an extreme faction lying at the fringe of one religion.
Many critics of the ban ask if a government should have the authority to dictate what its citizens may and may not don, insinuating that the answer is no. This question arises often and can lead to many new topics of discussion, but don’t be fooled; it is a textbook red herring. This law has nothing to do with regulating clothing. Rather, it is meant to explicitly deny people the right to cover their faces while in public, be it with a Halloween mask, a helmet, or a burqa.
Human society functions based on facial interactions. People recognize each other, communicate with one another, and express mirth and sorrow all through the contortion of their faces. The social contract mandates that people can see one another, and all social cohesion is derived from this basic, fundamental assumption. The proof is in the language. Consider phrases like, “It was great seeing you” or “I’ll see you later.” Or think about childhood platitudes like, “You have to face your fears.” Or constitutional rights and “the right to face your accuser.”
Universally, face-to-face interaction is the essence of human solidarity and the most basic indication of camaraderie between people. Consider the military salute, a simulation of medieval knights raising the visors of their helmets to reveal their faces as an act of dignity and respect. As children, we are instructed not to wear hats at the dinner table in the name of manners, and in old westerns, we see cowboys tipping their hats to women passing by, an act that is intended to reveal the face of the wearer as a gesture of amity and goodwill.
A popular idiom states that you cannot trust someone who is hiding in a closet. The logic at work here is that trust cannot be forged without visual recognition without identifying the person with whom you are interacting. The burqa is averse to the formation of trust between people, as it is to the formation of anything else. It is a partition between the wearer and the world, and by concealing her face, it obliterates her identity. Some have stated that wearing the burqa is a personal choice, and is done in the interest of modesty (though can you imagine anything less modest?). But when a person decides to permanently conceal their face, they preemptively end any social interaction not fraught with fear and suspicion, and in doing so, they menace the bonds that bind society.
The immortal Woody Allen once remarked that you can “never trust a naked bus driver,” a quip that is applicable in more than one way. First, it expresses with admirable brevity the notion that if something looks absurd, it probably is absurd, and that you cannot put your faith in something that is patently ridiculous. The debate over banning the burqa is too often couched in politically correct terms, and too rarely does anyone acknowledge the fact that the burqa is a portable penitentiary meant to relegate a woman’s sphere of activity to her home while making her a pariah and a prisoner on the streets.
If we cannot be honest with ourselves, and we insist on calling the burqa a religious tool that insures modesty rather than a sartorial dungeon, then we cannot expect to have an instructive discussion on the matter. The pun offers another service, though, by broaching the topic of nudity. Consider the fact that public nudity has long been prohibited in France, and for all the same reasons as the burqa. Nudity is offensive to unwilling spectators; it is an impediment to social interaction and a threat to social cohesion, and for those reasons, it is deemed unacceptable. The burqa is the moral equivalent of nudity, and the idea of shrouding a person from head to toe in black garb, leaving only their eyes visible, is as antithetical to human society as nudity. So the next time you hear someone defending the burqa or criticizing France for its draconian law, suggest that you continue the conversation naked, and see if you make any progress that way.