Earlier today, a Muslim woman named Kenza Drider attended an unauthorised protest in front of Notre Dame de Paris cathedral wearing a niqab. She was promptly arrested along with another woman for taking part in an unauthorised protest and refusing to disperse.
These are the first arrests made in connection to France’s new ban on face coverings under the Bill Prohibiting Facial Dissimulation in Public Places, which came into effect today. Under the law, women found wearing either the burka or the niqab in public will be subject to a €150 fine. The bill was controversial from the get-go, when it was first debate in early 2010. The law has been condemned internationally, especially by the Muslim community – one French businessman has publicly urged Muslim women to commit acts of ‘civil disobedience’, saying that he will sell his €2 million house to pay the fines.
President Sarkozy says the veils are an affront to the values of equality and secularism and that they imprison women. Critics of the ban say it is proof of the levels of xenophobia and racism which France has reached and that the ban is a breach of a person’s fundamental humans rights to practice whatever religion they choose. Those against also claim that the French law is based on a general fear and lack of understanding of Islam.
These dissidents seem blissfully ignorant of French culture. Their moronic over-simplification of the situation to portray the French as nothing other than a bunch of mean racists is telling.
The French Republic was founded on the idea of ‘laïcité‘, the concept of a secular society, denoting the absence of religious involvement in government affairs as well as absence of government involvement in religious affairs. This deep belief in separation of church and state is one which French people are especially proud of. Far from persecuting any particular religion, the 1905 law famously states: “The Republic neither recognises, nor salaries, nor subsidises any religion.” The law also states: “No one may be disturbed on account of his opinions, even religious ones, as long as the manifestation of such opinions does not interfere with the established Law and Order.”
As I was educated in a French lycée, the above was part of my primary education. French children are taught the value of secularism early on and tend not to forget the lesson. As far as most French are concerned, the key to social cohesion is the elimination of religion from all aspects of life but the most private. This is why religious symbols were banned in schools across France in 2004.
One would be forgiven, reading the hysterical coverage by many media outlets outside of France, for thinking that the French government ignorantly swept in and decided out of the blue to make life difficult for a tiny fraction of the French population (only 1,300 women in France are thought to wear the burka). Not so. French, and indeed Western, culture does not have any place for what it sees as the imposition of male will over the female on grounds of religion. Critics may say that the state should try to be more understanding of the Islamic culture – why should it? Religion is not the business of the French state. Other religions don’t receive special attention and neither will this one.
Dalil Boubakeur, the grand mufti of the Paris Mosque, the largest and most influential in France, testified to parliament during the bill’s preparation. He commented that the niqab was not prescribed in Islam, that in the French and contemporary context its spread was associated with radicalisation and criminal behaviour, and that its wearing was inconsistent with France’s concept of the secular state.
Other European nations have tip-toed uncomfortably around this issue for fear of (God forbid) offending someone. France, on the other hand, has met the problem at every opportunity with a consistent line of thought and reasoning: that for every religious problem the nation has had over the past three centuries, secularism has been the answer and it’s not going to change now.