Do French Assimilationist Policies Undermine Muslim Women’s Rights?

By Angelina Kaneva

International Women's Initiative Staff Writer

(Photo Credit)

Last week, Laurence Rossignol, France’s Minister for Families, Children and Women, was widely criticised and accused of racism after comparing Muslim women wearing veils to “negroes who were in favour of slavery”.

This “slip of the tongue” occurred during her comment on the “burkini” that were introduced in the United Kingdom last month by Marks and Spencer and that cover all but the wearers’ hands, feet and face. Rossignol slammed the brand’s decision and described the promotion of the so-called “Islamic fashion” by Marks and Spencer and by certain other brands in Europe (such as H&M, Unqlo, Dolce and Gabbana, etc.) as “irresponsible”. Despite being a staunchly secular country for centuries, the burqa ban was only recently introduced in France – this happened in 2010 when the government claimed that face veils represent a security risk and encroach on the freedoms of all the women who are forced to wear them. 

“The issue of the burqa is not a religious issue. It is a question of freedom and of women’s dignity. The burqa is not a religious sign. It is a sign of subjugation, of the submission of women… I want to say solemnly that it will not be welcome on our territory… in the republic, the Muslim religion must be respected like other religions, but the burqa is not welcome in France… We cannot accept in our country women imprisoned behind bars, cut off from social life, deprived of identity,” commented the French President at the time, Nicolas Sarkozy.

After coming into force in 2011, the law that banned women from wearing the niqab and the burqa in public places was challenged by a young Muslim woman in France who claimed that introducing the ban amounted to a violation of the European Convention on Human Rights and the case was subsequently brought to the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR).

The ECtHR, however, upheld the legality of the law and came down almost entirely on the side of France with the majority of the justices ruling that there was no violation of Articles 8 or 9 (the right to respect for private and family life and the freedom of thought, conscience and religion). 

In its reasoning, the Court pointed out that the ban should be regarded as a legitimate way of preserving the conditions of “living together” and recognised thatfull-face veils that completely conceal one’s face breach the right of other citizens to live in a space of socialisation, thus making “living together” more difficult. The decision was widely criticised by many international human rights organisations which insisted that the niqab and burqa ban undermine Muslim women’s rights, interfering with their right to express their religious beliefs freely and their right to personal autonomy.

Full-face veils are often seen as a sign of extremism and, as unfair and inaccurate as this is, it is definitely not surprising that the ban was so widely supported amongst the French population, especially considering the rising power of the Islamic State. Nevertheless, there are a number of weaknesses in the theory claiming that wearing the burqa poses a threat to national security. First of all, criminals and terrorists do indeed use veils and face coverings to hide their identities but there are already enough powers that the French police have been granted and enough other practices put in place in order to respond to such situations.

For instance, the right to request a person to remove their face-covering for the purposes of checking who they are is a much more useful, sensible and proportionate approach for establishing a person’s identity than introducing the ban on full-face covering and making a criminal out of every woman who decides to wear the niqab or the burqa for entirely religious purposes while sitting in her favourite café.

Secondly, while it is true that coercion, violence, or the threat of violence, are often employed as strategies to compel Muslim women to dress in a certain way, the legitimate and much more appropriate way for the state to intervene would be an examination of each individual case through the family or criminal law system:

“The state response to this or any other form of pressure should not be to introduce a generalised ban that indiscriminately affects all wearers of face veils and denies them access to a host of services essential to the enjoyment of social and economic rights,” claim experts at Amnesty International.

And thirdly, international human rights law does allow for certain restrictions to the exercise of the right to freedom of expression and the right to manifest one’s belief, however, only when such restrictions meet a stringent three-part test – they need to be prescribed by law, they need to respond to a specific legitimate purpose permitted by international law, and they need to be necessary and proportionate to achieve that purpose.

International Women’s Initiative believes that a generally applicable ban on wearing the niqab or the burqa in public is neither necessary nor proportionate for any legitimate purpose. We are of the opinion that, in the absence of any demonstrable link whatsoever between full-face coverings and increased threats of terrorist attacks, general appeals on public safety should not be invoked to justify such a restriction on the freedom of expression and religion.

In a country like France, which prides itself on being one of the cradles of the democratic movement in Europe, both the government and society should be open-minded and tolerant enough to see the burqa and the niqab simply as an expression of a woman’s religious views and a proud celebration of her ethnic diversity.

As Renae Barker has pointed out, banning full-face coverings has not resulted in oppressed women “throwing off their veils and reveling in their newly-found freedom” but rather in their exclusion from society with their oppressors forcing them to stay at home.

Multiculturalism is what a democracy thrives on, assimilationist policies are what creates division among society and what nurtures the so-called ‘home-grown’ jihadists. Instead of encouraging tolerance, pluralism and respect, the burqa ban in France simply trumps liberty, marginalises all the women who personally choose to cover their faces and forces them to abandon an important part of their cultural traditions, religious obligations and political expressions. Therefore, we urge the French government to abolish this discriminatory law and to cease using the argument of coercion as a justification for the criminalisation of veiled Muslim women.