France and the burqa

1/08/10: French draft bill to fine burqa-wearing women

I have been following the French politicking around headscarves and the wearing of religious symbols in schools, and the proposal to extend that ban into all government agencies. I find it interesting to think about where do the legislations of a secular state infringe on freedom of expression. How can a state rule what one chooses to wear or not wear on their body, especially in a country that ensures religious freedom in its constitution? Who defines the boundaries of decency? And how to define that within the separation of church and state? How can decency be defined outside of religious dictates on the body, modesty and sexuality? There is nothing inherently shameful about the body. Does the wearing of these items upset the balance of society or infringe on the free exercise other citizens' rights? Do they threaten the secular state or pose a security risk?

Sarkozy says that the burqa represent the enslavement of women: “The issue of the burqa is not a religious issue. It is a question of freedom and of women’s dignity,” Mr. Sarkozy said. “The burqa is not a religious sign. It is a sign of the subjugation, of the submission, of women.”  But what about the women who choose to wear it and wear it with strength and pride? How can one determine which women chose to wear it and which women feel enslaved, as well as the many women who reside somewhere in between? If three women wearing headscarves walked into a government building in France, and one woman was Muslim, another undergoing chemotherapy, and other decided to wear a headscarf because she likes the look of it, would only the Muslim woman have to take hers off?

In any event, the NYT’s article, Burqa Furor Scrambles French Politics  (8/31/09)  is an interesting article in the France/burqa issue, especially when viewed along with these great articles from the BBC, which give the history of the niqab (which the French mean when they speak of “burqas”—the often blue full coverings often seen in Afganistan.) and hijabs.

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