This is a position paper I wrote last year for a class on globalization. I wanted to post this on my blog for serious comments, critique and advice. I welcome any additional sources which may help me further develop this argument. Please be honest and let me know your thoughts on this topic. Thank you.
Burqa Ban in France
Citizenship and Islam, Extremism and Choice: How French Nationalism, Women’s Rights and Secularism Negate Religious Freedom
In this paper I will examine the very recent controversial subject of the burqa, or full-face veil worn by some Muslim women in France. I argue, that while the politicization of women’s bodies, specifically Muslim women’s bodies is not a new issue in the world or even in Western Europe, this new discussion of the full-face veil is purely Nationalistic and Islamophobic, as well as directed by the state itself. According to my findings, I will dispute the popular rhetoric employed by some state officials as well as French citizens (Muslim and non-Muslim alike) such as claims that women who wear the burqa are: extremists, devout Muslims, forced by male family members to wear the full-face veil, and are not French.  Due to the lack of scholarly research on the burqa ban as it is a very recent phenomenon, I look at a few works on the hijab or headscarf ban which first appeared in the French public debate in 1989 (Giry 2006, 91).
The last two presidents of the French Republic, Jacques Chirac and Nicholas Sarkozy have taken the idea of a secular state to a new level, revealing new bans on “religious symbols” which disproportionately affect both Muslim women and Sikh men. What began as a ban of wearing religious symbols in schools, has now expanded into the public realm. As stated earlier, the politicization of Muslim women’s bodies is nothing new, as it has been practiced since before the time of Prophet Muhammad (over 14,00 years ago). However, I will show that due to globalization, the French government has seen it necessary to re-assert its Frenchness and to chose a scapegoat for the slowly disappearance of “French culture,” which generally means secularism and whiteness. France has been playing this game for quiet some time, with its infamous discrimination against the Roma, and the racism against African migrants which still prevails in its society today.
In connecting this issue to globalization, it is evident that the emerging cosmopolitanism of France, due to mass immigration from North Africa, The Middle East, and Eastern Europe has been unfortunately paired with xenophobia and religious discrimination against Muslims. According to the report, Unveiling the Truth: Why 32 Muslim Women Wear the Full face Veil in France, the first controversial affair concerning a French resident wearing the full-face veil was in July 2008 after Le Monde reported that France had refused citizenship to Faiza Silmi, a Moroccan resident on grounds of a “deficiency of assimilation” and her alleged “radical practice
of Islam (2011, 28). While this may be the first case in France of denying citizenship based on Muslim garb, this issue may be viewed even further back as in 1870, when Algeria had a two-tier system under which local Catholics and Jews could become French but Muslims could not (Giry 2006, 92). It is obvious that Islam was seen as a barrier to Frenchness even then, but the feeling has been even more evident in a post-911 society. According to a report by Joel S. Fetzer and J. Christopher Soper, attitudes in France on issues such as the hijab and Islamic schools changed dramatically from July 2001 June 2002 when respondents were asked the same questions. Surprisingly so, the amount of individuals who identified as Muslim also went down significantly from this time. While terrorism is a legitimate global concern, it has been used as a reason for further marginalizing Muslims in France, and in the recent burqa ban we see this manifested in the guise of women’s bodies.
Because France is beginning to emerge again with political importance in the EU and other international bodies, it is choosing to pinpoint one very visual and symbolic threat to its very secular existence: the full-face Muslim veil that a small portion of its population choses to wear. While this is just one physical example of the hyper secularization of the state, we see the mirror effect occurring in Saudi Arabia and the Islamic Republic of Iran, where women are forced to cover their bodies (to a lesser extent in Iran) by the state. With nation states effectively deciding from the highest level of government how its citizens must dress, and especially with a religious connotation is a dangerous ideal which unfortunately is practiced in many countries today. However, the example of the French burqa ban is unique in that it is a very recent controversy and it holds little validity for its existence besides vague claims of nationalism and framing the ban as a legitimate way to stop radical Islamist ideology and therefore, terrorism.
The French media as well as many state officials have caused up a large stir with the burqa ban, even though barely 1900 women wear the full-face veil in France. According to one study which interviewed thirty two women who wear the burqa in France, twenty nine of these women were born in France (Unveiling the Truth 2011, 24). This is not meant to generalize all Muslim women who wear the full-face veil, but this study provides incredible insight into the reasons why some women chose to wear it such as the fact that none of the women interviewed wear it to please their husbands and fathers, and also all of the women were willing to remove the burqa for security reasons. It is my opinion, that this ban is unlawful and although it may be attributed to France’s law of laïcité, or official state secularism which became a law in 1905 (Giry 2006, 87) it has now been used to fuel the fire of Islamophobia which plagues France and most of Western Europe.
Fetzer, Joel S., and J. Christopher Soper. “The Roots of Public Attitudes Toward State Accommodation of European Muslims’ Religious Practices Before and After September 11.” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 42.2 (2003): 247-58. Web. <http:// www.jstor.org/stable/1387840>.
Giry, Stéphanie. “France and Its Muslims.” Foreign Affairs 85.5 (2006): 87-104. JSTOR. Web. <http://www.jstor.org/stable/20032072>.
Unveiling the Truth: Why 32 Muslim Women Wear the Full-face Veil in France. Open Society Foundations. Apr. 2011. Web. 20 Apr. 2011.