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Opinion

In the name of human rights, France should not ban the veil

The burqa is part of an individual’s religious beliefs. It’s strikingly contradictory therefore that France, in order to liberate women from perceived Islamic oppression, has to violate their universal human rights.

By Taraneh Ghajar Jerven / June 3, 2010



Faro, Portugal

There’s a misguided race to ban the face-veil in Europe, and France is taking the lead.

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On May 19, the French cabinet approved legislation to ban women in France from wearing full Islamic face-coverings, the burqa, and niqab, in public areas. France, which contains Europe’s largest Muslim population, has been headed in this direction for a while.

In 2004, the government banned students and staff from wearing veils in schools. At that time, the rationale was French secularism. This time, as French President Nicolas Sarkozy says, the rationale for the ban is that it saves women from “subservience and debasement.”

IN PICTURES: Behind the veil

But banning women from wearing a veil trespasses on their rights as much as the repressive restrictions that force them to wear a veil.

Historical precedents show that many Muslim women who veil choose to do so. In 2003 when some German states began banning head scarves in the classrooms, the teachers opted to retire instead, stating that wearing a head covering was their personal preference.

Turkey had a series of formal and informal bans, which culminated in the 1990s. But by 2008, thanks to backlash, the government was forced to introduce a constitutional right to wear the veil.

Iran experimented with forced unveiling of women under Reza Shah Pahlavi in 1936. Then, following the White Revolution in 1963, Empress Farah Pahlavi, who did not veil, became a public symbol of Iranian female emancipation. The backlash against the Pahlavi attempts to liberate religious conservatives arguably led to the Islamic Revolution, in which many conservative women actively participated to overthrow the monarchy.

Another assertion made by those in favor of banning female veiling is that the women who choose to veil after immigrating have not been exposed to Western society long enough to realize, as Eric Besson, France’s hard-line immigration minister put it, that “the burqa is unacceptable and contrary to the principles of national identity, of sexual equality, and of the French Republic.” This, however, assumes that the state has a right to interfere with personal autonomy, specifically religious clothing, when it perceives it’s for someone’s own good.

But according to Article 18 of the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights, “Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion … freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.”

The burqa and the niqab are part of an individual’s religious beliefs. It’s strikingly contradictory therefore that France, in order to liberate women from perceived Islamic oppression, has to violate their universal human rights.

To be sure, given that France’s face-covering ban will only affect 2,000 citizens out of 62.3 million, the imminent interdiction is more a symbolic issue than a practical matter.

So why can’t the French tolerate the burqa or the niqab?

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