Last Monday, France put into effect a new law banning wearing burqas (a loose enveloping garment that covers the face and body and is worn in public) and niqabs (a veil for covering the hair and face except for the eyes) in public. Women violating the law can be fined 150 euros, while any person found guilty of forcing a woman to wear a burqa or niqab will can be fined up to the equivalent of 20,000 USD as well as sentenced to one year in prison.
According to French Prime Minister, François Fillon, the reason behind the law is that “concealing the face…places the people involved in a position of exclusion and inferiority incompatible with the principles of liberty, equality and human dignity affirmed by the French republic.”
Wait a second, so who exactly is placing these women in a position of “exclusion and inferiority” again? Oh right, they’re doing it themselves—certainly the French government is not creating them as second-class citizens (if worthy of citizenship at all) with the new law.The intent of the law seems to be somehow legally mandating “true” French citizenship—you know, the enlightened, progressive modern, non-Muslim (and uh, white?) citizen. However, most of the 2,000 or so burqa or niqab-wearing women this law targets are French citizens. Wearing these garments is not antithetical to “Frenchness,” as these women and what they do and wear is a part of being French. The law delegitimates their citizenship and punishes them because they refuse to assimilate properly.
Contrary to convictions held by Prime Minister Fillon and many others (ahem, “feminists” wanting to “save” Muslim women from their oppressive religion), the practice of Islam in conjunction with wearing these garments does not equal compromised dignity. Feminism comes in many shapes and sizes, and there is many a radical feminist to be found among practicers of Islam.
The law reinforces the racist binary of “civilized Western woman” in opposition to “oppressed Muslim woman.” It points the finger outwards, saying: “look at how THIS culture oppresses women!” Such a gesture simultaneously claims that non-Muslim women in France are somehow completely unoppressed, totally free from sexism, rape culture, or anything else that stands in the way of being “liberated.”
However, these oppressions are not eliminated—and they will not become eliminated by passing a racist, Islamophobic law punishing a small, specific group of women.