July 16th, 2010
02:12 PM ET

A French fairy-veil, sans happy ending

Jocelyne Cesari
Special to CNN

Examining France’s decision to ban Muslim face veils

Europeans are more sensitive than Americans when it comes to religious expression in public spaces. Many Europeans are averse to any public showing of religion. Nowhere is this more true than in France, where the lower house of parliament just made it illegal for Muslim women to wear face veils in public, and where Muslim school girls have been forbidden since 2004 to don headscarves.

These measures, which target Muslim women, are the product of three cumulated reasons; the first one specific to French politics, the other two shared by Europeans.

[cnn-photo-caption image=http://i2.cdn.turner.com/cnn/2010/images/07/16/cesari_jocelyne_web.jpg caption="Cesari: Only when we listen more and dictate less to Muslims will we achieve better relations with Muslims, including better integration in the West, and more progress abroad." width=292 height=320]

The first reason is the radical character of French secularism that has been hardening with the presence of Muslims. Democracies require certain secular principles, including the neutrality of public administration and the freedom of religious expression for all faiths. Of course, the legal and institutional arrangements of these principles vary greatly from country to country, but in France, where the French democratic State and the Catholic Church have competed against each other for power for centuries, people distrust religion and its influence in public space. Indeed, many French interpret Laicite – the concept of a secular society – to be a philosophy designed to ban public affirmation of religion.

With the growing visibility of Islam and Muslims in France, this view has become dominant in French political and media circles, pervading public opinion, and fueling the 2004 public school prohibition on head scarves, and this week’s niqab ban.

Such laws, however, reveal an authoritarian conception of secular principles that requires modern citizens to reject all public signs of religion. This authoritarianism cites protection of individual freedom, even against individual will, while imposing one definition of freedom of conscience that is based on a homogenous vision of society. In the French case, decision-makers impose a homogeneous view of freedom that seeks to “liberate” young Muslim women from the “oppression” of religious symbols, but fails to recognize another view, that of Muslim women who say headscarves and veils liberate them from sexual objectification and ogling. In other words, these laws decide what is good or bad for citizens, including the content or shape of their religious beliefs – something alien to the average American. Ironically, such an authoritarian style of secularism puts France in the same league as those Muslim countries that force all women to wear the niqab or the burqa.

There is more to France’s niqab ban, however, then an excess of authoritarian laicite. Similar debates and actions are found all over Europe. Some local municipalities in Belgium and Spain have already implemented burqa bans while some in the The Netherlands and the United Kingdom are weighing similar steps (see www.euro-islam.info). This highlights the two Euro-wide reasons that are behind such measures.

The second reason is a tendency in Europe today to see Islam as a security issue. However, not one French parliamentarian provided proof during debate that the niqab represents a danger for public order. Europeans view Muslims as threats, so their states respond with measures purporting to rid their lands of terrorism. The banning of scarves and veils, as well as the recent Swiss decision to ban the construction of new minarets, is based on an assumption that conflates Islamic religious symbols with terrorism. But by painting enemies in religious and cultural terms, these measures expose an incapacity to identify the enemy in political terms.

The third reason is a simplistic view of why some Muslim women wear headscarves and veils. Opponents argue that the burqa and niqab cut-off women off from social contact and undermine their integration into society. There is no doubt that, sociologically and culturally speaking, such a dress code suggests an attempt to be separate from mainstream society. At the same time, it confounds European notions of modernity which tend to associate progress with a decline of religion and sexual liberty. But is complete prohibition the proper response to this separatism? Unlikely. Furthermore, the niqab ban breaches gender equality because it deprives women who want to wear it from their right to do so.

Sadly, what has been lost in the commotion over France’s decision are the society-changing debates in the Muslim world over female dress. How many people know that scholars from Al-Azhar University, one of the pre-eminent Islamic universities in the world, have publicly condemned the niqab as an imported religious practice, while other Egyptian universities won’t pass female students who wear the niqab during exams? (see www.islamopediaonline.org). Only when we listen more and dictate less to Muslims will we achieve better relations with Muslims, including better integration in the West, and more progress abroad.

Editor's Note: Dr Jocelyne Cesari is director of the Islam in the West Program at Harvard University and John Hopkins University. (see http://www.islamopediaonline.org/content/jocelyne-cesari).

Her most recent book is Muslims in the West After 9/11: Religion, Politics and Law (2009, Routledge).

Filed under: Islam • Jocelyne Cesari • Opinion
soundoff (20 Responses)
  1. K S Verdi, San Antonio, TX

    Sorry that this got me so fired up....I plan to visit my sister in Germany and we also intend to visit other European countries. I don't want to walk around wondering who or what is hiding behind the Burqa...is it a woman? Is it a man? Is it an alien? You get my drift 😉

    July 19, 2010 at 1:40 pm |
  2. K S Verdi, San Antonio, TX

    Another thing: At least the Europeans have the guts to stand up and not let their heritage erode, otherwise before we know it EVERY female of EVERY European country is veiled! I immigrated to America and i do as the Americans. People who want to live in European countries and don't want to abide by that particular countries rules should leave! End of the story!

    July 19, 2010 at 1:35 pm |
  3. oblomov

    "niqab ban breaches gender equality because it deprives women who want to wear it from their right to do so"
    Untrue, men are also forbidden to wear burqas.

    July 19, 2010 at 12:53 pm |
  4. Obama Enemy List Wannabe

    Let's face it. Conservative muslims think women are possessions – they don't let let them drive, they don't let them vote in some countries, they can't hold property the way men do, and so on. They don't value women, and any protests to the contrary are politically correct nonsense. If we had a group of conservative Christian white men in the Midwest that were wrapping their women in sackcloth and restricting their rights, people would be up in arms. So, given that, any politically correct nonsense that veils 'serve to keep women from being sexual objects' is as stupid as legislating skirt lengths, or is as stupid as saying being kept barefoot and pregnant in the kitchen was somehow 'satisfying'. Veils should be illegal.

    July 19, 2010 at 12:44 pm |
  5. K S Verdi, San Antonio, TX

    When in Rome, do as the Romans.....or go home!

    July 19, 2010 at 12:43 pm |
  6. Sam

    The future of England, France and all of Europe is Nigeria then Darfur. The French figured it out while all those cars were buring in the streets. The veil ban is their way of making a point. Good for them. Wonder how long it will take for the rest of Europe to wake up? The Isalmic people living in Europe can always return to a country where Sharia Law rules. Why would good muslins want to leave that in the first place?

    July 19, 2010 at 12:33 pm |
  7. mavis murphy

    I agree with Dr. Cesari. The only times I disagree with women covering their faces is at airports, in court and in schools. I don't think scarves should be banned at all. I find the banning of scarves in France ludicrous. Maybe it's done out of fear.

    July 18, 2010 at 7:51 am |
  8. sundog

    I simply cannot accept any religious edict that places the onus of sexual morality so completely on how women dress, as opposed to leaving *that to exist within the alleged self discipline inside an individual's brain.

    Veils do not make a woman pure.
    Abayas do not prohibit men from being pigs.

    They are only symbols of purity and tabboo.

    If a man is going to impugn a woman's sexual character, or worse, sexually harass, or assault her, that decision is determined within his brain and is not ultimately affected by her modality of dress. Those items of clothing will not *stop him any more than a VPO will "Stop" a stalker.

    Muslim Men need to take resposibility for their own desires, and their actions and stop blaming women for their libidos. And Muslims in general need to respect the cultures that existed in Europe prior to their immigration there. They moved to France, France didn't move to Saudi Arabia.

    July 17, 2010 at 8:26 am |
  9. Shahrazad

    I'm an American Muslim who "covers" & the laws against Hijab & minarets are pure racism & Islamophobia that has no place in the 21st century.

    July 17, 2010 at 2:10 am |
  10. Leslie

    Recalling the atmosphere immediately after 9/11, all the girls wearing hijab in the large, diverse high school in West Los Angeles my daughter attended were bullied and taunted. Shortly thereafter, they either stayed home from class or came to school without the veil.

    Indeed, mixed feelings. While the concept of Muslim men using Sharia to control and oppress women via the mechanism of forced veiling is distasteful, I also appreciate the brilliant, empowered Muslim women I know who embrace Hijab proudly as a symbol of their dignity and respect for God. Indeed, as a Catholic woman who once explored a religious vocation, there are aspects of the veil, freely chosen, which I find quite attractive.

    Then there's the question of a free society. I agree with Dr. Cesari's suggestion that France's enforced secularism could also be deemed oppressive.

    In the Land of the Free and the Home of the Brave, I celebrate our right to freedom of expression while worrying over the seemingly daily erosion of our liberties as well as erosion of our moral responsibilities. Would that we could reconvene the original participants in the Continental Congress to avail of their groundedness, their wisdom, untainted by current events and "conventional wisdom".

    July 16, 2010 at 11:59 pm |
  11. Bill

    The author is entitled to her opinion, but I disagree with the second part of the headline, it is a happy ending as far as I am concerned.

    To me, this isn't about "religious freedom". This is about public safety. We not only have to be concerned about those who in recent years would stoop to any level to bring violence upon us (including dressing up as "innocent women" with bombs underneath, but even in these days of the need for positive identification, it is not beneficial to have people in public places with covered faces.

    As far as religious freedom is concerned, I feel that the original "freedom of religion" that our forefathers envisioned consisted of being able to build your own church, worship whichever religion you liked, and practice your religious practices "as long as it conformed within societal norms". Let's face it, anyone can "create" a religion and the rules surrounding it. Should we have our laws such that "religous views" take precedence over national safety? I think not. We would be allowing anyone, in the name of religion, to change our society.

    THERE ARE countries who allow the wearing of head scarves – and people who insist upon them should live in countries that not only allow but also accept them.

    My religion allows the consumption of alcoholic beverages. Yet I do not have plans to move to Saudi Arabia and insist that they change their liquor laws.

    I believe there are more countries than France that prohibit the wearing of the face masks in public, and I certainly hope to see a lot more.....it would make me quite happy if Canada and the USA were to invoke such laws.

    Let me get this straight..the author feels that people should be able to cover themselves up in public, so they cannot be identified by others – what if they commit a crime? they are hiding just about all of the "unique identifiers" that would allow themselves to identify themselves in court.

    Vive la France!

    July 16, 2010 at 11:50 pm |
  12. Cheyla

    Finally, a nation stands up for the rights of women!

    July 16, 2010 at 11:21 pm |
  13. Annie Kate

    Having a government decide what you can and cannot wear sounds like too much government to me; diversity should be encouraged and the understanding of that diversity and the background behind it communicated and appreciated. Not all of us are alike and one person's expression of religion, even to what they wear, should not be infringed on no matter the country (think of the Amish in the US and the Catholic nuns the world over as well as Catholic women who still wear mantillas on their head for mass). I don't think this new law will do anything but drive a further wedge between the Muslims and the non-Muslims in the country.

    July 16, 2010 at 10:54 pm |
  14. Garthe Kindler

    Considering that Dr. Cesari is described as the director of the Islam in the West Program at Harvard University and John Hopkins University, I'm not surprised she believes we should "listen more and dictate less to Muslims" in order to form a more perfect union with them. Evidently, it's part of her job description to make apologies for muslim behavior. But it is also symptomatic of the liberal, politically correct, multicultural nonsense she espouses to blame western societies for muslim misconduct. When muslims blow up buildings and people, when they behead hostages, when they try to impose Shariah, it's only because they have been antagonized by the dhimmis in the West who have not yet learned their place. I hope people in the West do "listen more" to muslims. If we listen closely and often to what they are saying and what their holy book tells them, we shall realize that the only hope we have of preserving any semblance of humanity is to "dictate" even more to muslims and to tell them to either accept the principles on which western society is based or stay behind the veil of their own medieval societies.

    July 16, 2010 at 8:36 pm |
  15. Bob

    So, based on the last paragraph, the french decision is in line with the thinking of eminent islamic scholars and consistant with the practice of Egyptian universities.

    Could it be that the french authorities are aware of what Muslims want after all ?

    July 16, 2010 at 6:59 pm |
  16. programmergirl

    If Muslim women want to cover their faces, bodies, heads, whatever, they can certainly do so. In Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, Libya – pick a Middle East country and move there! They'll be right at home. If they choose to remain in Western countries, then they need to abide by OUR laws, customs, etc. I do not like or trust Muslims and wish they would ALL move out of the USA. And take their terrorist attitudes and actions with them!

    July 16, 2010 at 6:29 pm |
  17. Rhonda Echavarria

    If the French Govt. can ban Muslim head scarves, etc. isn't it only fair that they then ban Christians wearing crosses on their necks, or jewish people wear yamulkes on their heads, & the Star of David as necklaces? How is that these other symbols of religion seem to be allowed in public places such as schools, but not the head scarves? Unless I'm wrong & they are banned as well.

    July 16, 2010 at 4:17 pm |
  18. Alex Valiao (DMLK, NJ)

    France's fight against secularism, religion, and terrorism maybe aggressive but very high-handed. France may claim they are fighting secularism but in essence, they are already secularly modified that their tolerance to other ethnicities and religious beliefs are very limited. For a country who is boasting of advance liberalism, they couldn't stand/accept the fact that perhaps there are other "rituals/fashion" that exist outside their norm of life. The fight for women's liberation among the Muslim sector has been a hot debate. However, taking the rights of women to choose on how they want to live their life is just another prison devoid of clothes. Islam is a way of life for Muslims. Women empowerment through education, jobs, and the freedom to choose are a better and long-lasting methodology. Pure arrogance and the intolerance towards co-existence has been fueling disagreements, tensions, wars, and jihads. These are the same platforms that extremists/terrorists use to recruit/attack innocent people.

    July 16, 2010 at 3:45 pm |
  19. Jess

    I find this debate interesting and see and understand both sides of the argument.

    For the women who truly want to wear the veil in the pursuit of religious practice cannot and I think that must feel like a very heavy handed government. But, women who would be forced by family, etc. can be free of it because of the law (though an article I read a while ago from the Netherlands said that many of these women are now just kept at home by their husbands/fathers/brothers, because they can't be properly veiled in public).

    Reading a book recently by an American trained British-Muslim doctor about her time in Saudi Arabia, she found that the abbayah actually caused men to act more desperately and out of line because it made women's faces, bodies, etc. such a a taboo.

    July 16, 2010 at 3:05 pm |
  20. Vanessa

    I'm extremely conflicted. On the one hand I would love to celebrate any initiative that bans the niqab. I do not even like the idea of seven year old classmates of my daughter in Brooklyn wearing head scarves. Like the author, however, I see some danger in what is pushing for some of these bans. We need to come to cultural understanding and respect or we'll push each other further apart.

    July 16, 2010 at 2:27 pm |