French Burqa Ban Sparks Debate

Does France’s proposed ban on burqas strike a blow against sexual oppression or infringe upon citizens’ freedom of religious expression?

The French Council of Ministers, apparently uncomfortable with France’s increasing population of Muslim citizens, approved a measure to ban the wearing of full-face veils in public. The ban must now be approved by parliament.

The Council of Ministers’ approval of the bill is the latest step in France’s efforts to ban the burqa, niqab and other Muslim garments that cover a woman’s face. Justice Minister Michele Alliot-Marie introduced the measure in the council Wednesday.

A panel of French lawmakers recommended a ban last year, and last week lawmakers unanimously passed a non-binding resolution calling the full-face veil contrary to the laws of the nation.
“Given the damage it produces on those rules which allow the life in community, ensure the dignity of the person and equality between sexes, this practice, even if it is voluntary, cannot be tolerated in any public place,” the French government said Wednesday.

The bill envisions a fine of 150 euros ($190) and/or a citizenship course as punishment for wearing a face-covering veil. Forcing a woman to wear a niqab or a burqa would be punishable by a year in prison or a 15,000-euro ($19,000) fine, the government said, calling it “a new form of enslavement that the republic cannot accept on its soil.”

I am conflicted about this.

It is the government’s job to protect its citizens from oppression, but are burqas oppressive, even to those women who wear them voluntarily? If a woman’s religious values prompt her to hide her body behind a burqa, is it any of the French government’s business?

I’m pretty sure it isn’t. I’m also pretty sure that this particular ban will only serve as fodder for Muslim extremists’ assertion that the West is “at war” with Islam.

But at the same time, I can understand the conflicted feelings of an entire nation of people who value equality between the sexes and yet are confronted by growing numbers of veiled women—to them, a symbol of sexual oppression—in their public spaces.

Though France, the Church’s “eldest daughter” has largely rejected Catholic values in recent decades, its people still most readily identify with a Christian culture. It’s easy for many of us to sit over here in the U.S. clucking our tongues at the French government’s suppression of religious expression, but I wonder how many of us would feel differently if our nation had a larger percentage of Muslim citizens.

If we ran into burqas at the post office, the grocery store, in schools, and around every street corner, might we not feel our cultural identity threatened by the Muslim religion? Might we not want to take steps to preserve our nation’s cultural identity?

While I think that many of us would, the “steps” we have a right to take probably would not include an outright ban on veiling. The “steps” every one of us should take is to more fully embrace our Christian values and spread the Good News of Jesus Christ to all nations, beginning with our own.

Related: a photo gallery of women wearing veils and protesting the ban on head coverings