Don’t follow France’s burqa ban. It has curbed liberty and justice

The Observer - 22 September 2013

Join me in a criminal court in suburban Paris on almost any weekday and I’ll show you exactly where national debates about female face coverings end up.

Ever since France introduced its “burqa ban” in 2011, there has been a constant stream of wretched cases involving the handful of Muslims who choose to wear such garments. Not only are perfectly upstanding women being fined for their choice of dress, principally the full-body niqab, which leaves a slit for the eyes, but an increasing number of defendants are being tried for attacking them.

One case involves two self-styled “patriotic vigilantes” who targeted a pregnant 21-year-old in the commuter town of Argenteuil, north-west of Paris, in June. The new law persuaded the men to shout racist insults before putting the woman in hospital, where she lost her baby. Another three reported cases on the same council estate over the course of just one month this summer saw full-veil wearers assaulted as their attackers shouted: “Dirty Arab, dirty Muslim.”

Those calling for a veil ban in Britain have clearly ignored such depressingly routine cases. They do not realise how the legislation introduced by President Nicolas Sarkozy’s government has not only stigmatised Muslim women, but somehow legitimised physical attacks on them. The ban in France is a hateful assault on basic freedoms, one that has been seized on by an unlikely alliance of rightwing politicians and feminists.

The myth around which France’s burqa ban was formulated is hugely offensive. It suggests that a cartel of faceless bogeywomen dressed in medieval black personify an alien religion, one whose values threaten those of the secular French republic and, by implication, those of all civilised nation states. There is no evidence for such a deceit. Just as no one in Britain can produce a veiled woman in the National Health Service who has unsettled patients, or teacher who refuses to take off her niqab in front of children when asked, so there is not a single French Muslim who deserves to be criminalised for covering up in public.

The reality is that the vast majority of niqab-wearers can be as sensibly pragmatic as anyone else when it comes to dealing with day-to-day objections to their face covering. If it upsets anyone reasonably, which usually means in an official context, they will remove it. Unreasonable objections, from louts in the street for example, should not be entertained under any circumstances.

Feminists who preach freedom for all women except for Muslims claim that their sisters are intimidated into wearing veils. In fact, of the 354 women “controlled” for covering up in the first year of the French ban, all said it was their own decision to do so. Men caught forcing women to wear veils face prison under the burqa ban, but such harassment was always covered by the criminal justice system anyway.

The truth is that it is mainly “patriotic” men who rally around the burqa ban, viewing it as a legitimate reason to persecute a religious minority.

As Britain faces up to a wide range of divisive issues involving allegedly alien groups, it would do well to beware a French-style burqa ban. The legislation has done nothing for liberty and justice. As an increasingly sorry caseload within France’s court system testifies, it is a petty issue blown out of all proportion, one that ultimately creates nothing but hatred and violence.

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