Most Americans consider the right to freedom of religion a fundamental human right. A freedom we are born with, and one often taken for granted, but one that is not absolute. The United States has repeatedly violated this freedom, undermining cultures and aspects of religion while most recently turning “Islam” into the enemy in media. Across the pond, the French government has taken the fear, hatred, and ‘reverse anti-Semitism’ towards Muslims a step further by banning burqas and niqabs. Prohibiting women from wearing the burqa is a direct violation of religious freedom—a right explicitly given in the French constitution as well as a goal of the French Revolution. The religious freedoms and rights of women have been violated by France’s decision to ban the wearing of burqas.
Since passed in 2011, Muslim women in France have not been able to don the burqa—a traditional garment upholding the values of Islam and Muslim culture. Initially the law banning face coverings was designed to prevent crime and insure national security. Passing of the legislation would make it so that the faces of people shoplifting could be seen on camera or on a larger scale, reducing the threat of terrorism. If women, or men disguised in burqas, were forbidden from wearing the Muslim attire, airport security would be much simpler, requiring less time, funds and fewer complaints of racial profiling. Muslims in France and around the world believe that the law is targeting followers of Islam and is an attempt to discourage Muslim immigration. The Grand Mufi of the Paris Mosque pleaded to French Parliament explaining that the burqa was not required in Islam and how French media has depicted the burqa as an anti-national symbol of fear and radical Islamic destruction. Parliament, however, believed remaining a secular nation was more pressing, having had previously banned all religious apparel in government buildings, schools and now face coverings such as niqabs and burqas on the streets. Policymakers believe concerns for national identity and national security outweigh concerns for tolerating a negative mien affiliated with Islam, stating that the law will “liberate women” while also noting that could potentially “inflame religious extremism.”
As expected, the policy has heated tensions. Hind Ahmas, a 32 year old mother, was one of the first women to be fined for breaking the law—facing the consequences for violating the ban: a fine of 150 euros ($216) and/or lessons in French citizenship (Sabloff 1). Ahmas describes daily struggles, walking out of her house she risks being attacked by strangers on the street. Already people have attempted to rip the niqab off her face and she has received a punch to the face in front of her daughter for wearing the burqa (Chrisafis 1). Since passing the policy, women like Hind Ahmas have fell victim to attacks on the street, being denied entry to stores and restaurants as well as on busses and into courtrooms.
Receiving similar, if not more grave, attacks is Latifa, a pseudonym for the Afghan writer, who authored My Forbidden Face: Growing Up Under the Taliban: A Young Woman’s Story; a memoir of her childhood under the Taliban. Latifa describes the Taliban’s take over and how they were robbed of “videos, TV, family photographs, movies, newspapers, whistling tea kettles, cosmetics, Western-style clothing and the family pets, including a bird and a dog” (Latifa, Hachemi 139) As the Taliban reigned, women, including Latifa, were forced to give up education and medical care. Recalling the events, Latifa shows parallels between genocides such as the Holocaust and Killing Fields of Cambodia describing her experiences as “the extermination of the Afghan woman” (Latifa, Hachemi 157) Also “it’s not so much the burqa (“this isn’t clothing, it’s a jail cell”), but what it stands for” (Memmott 1), regarding forced wearing women feel the Taliban is “killing us stealthily, in silence locking us out of society no more school for girls, no more health care for women, no more fresh air for any females. It’s an absolute denial of individual liberty, a real sexual racism.” Face coverings, as the Grand Mufti of Paris (the highest official of religious law in a Sunni or Ibadi Muslim country) stated earlier, are not religious, rather they serve as a weapon and vehicle for oppression and are a symbol of the silent genocide of women transpiring everyday without media attention.
Reactions to the legislation have differed vastly, gaining both positive and negative feedback from political leaders in the same nations, around the world. The US State department in their International Religious Freedom Report for 2011 documented the policy, with Hillary Clinton commenting, “When it comes to this human right — this key feature of stable, secure and peaceful societies — the world is sliding backwards.” The US State Department, under the Obama administration has condemned France for its actions against Muslims as it violates their freedoms and contributes to European hostility towards Muslims. Laura Bush and Elanor Smeal (Head of Feminist Majority Foundation) would argue that the legislation is doing the opposite. These two women are trying to publicize the taliban’s war on women (Rosenberg 455). They emphasize their support for the policy, demonstrating that the war on terrorism is “striving to save women and children from the grasp of barbaric,
premodern men, and then to uplift them” (Rosenberg 456). While the US has not taken such liberal actions as seen in France, United States’ politicians are aware and some supportive towards an act to counter terrorism and victimization of women and children. Feminists have established forthright support for the law as the burqa is symbolic of the Taliban’s countless crimes against humanity.
While following hijab—islamic dress code—is only officially mandatory in two nations, Saudi Arabia and Iran (formerly Afghanistan), there are vast social pressures for women to cover their faces throughout most of the Middle East and Muslim island nations of South East Asia. In these nations, women are inferior. Additionally the burqa causes “Muffled hearing, restricted vision and poor maneuverability from the heavy hot tents” (Barrow 1). The social pressures in Islamic communities are comparable to “Japanese foot binding” (Barrow 1). In these communities around the world, men throw “acid in the faces of women” (Manzano, Manzano 7) without burqas and niqabs, women have had their noses cut off for laughing and are denied an education and medial care. Without the ban, women who choose not to wear the burqa fall victim to sexual assault and physical abuse, which is then covered by the burqa. France has taken a step towards becoming a “safe haven” for Muslim women looking to escape the oppression and brutality of the customs enforced in the Middle East, and those not banned in westernized nations. Also, France is not alone with regards to this legislation; Israeli feminists and lawmakers have considered the policy. Australia as well as Italy, Belgium and the Netherlands have followed in banning the burqa.
French President Sarkozy states that the burqa is “not welcome” in France, it. If the face covering is not a religious deity as the Grand Mufi and Muslim scholars say it is, than why can it not be banned? Before proposing any legislation, it is imperative for American politicians to closely follow the successes of the banned burqa laws throughout Europe, only after it has seen greater success should the US draft a policy including the positives seen in Europe as well as acknowledge the negative or failing aspects and improve those for implementation in the United States. But the US should also be cautious of the possible repercussions, “al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb issued a statement on Web sites vowing to ‘seek vengeance against France’” (Sabloff 2) and may react similarly to the US. France is for Muslim women what the United States has always been for people seeking freedom for religious persecution. Religious freedom cannot be absolute at the expense of women. America is a nation founded upon the principle of religious tolerance and has become a leader in advocating women’s right around the globe and therefore should consider the policy adopted by France and many other nations, concurrently furthering gender equality within religious tolerance while also promoting a ‘woman’s right to choose’ in more aspects of society