Posted Under: Culture,Democracy,Identity,Religion
Last week the French cabinet approved plans to ban the burqa in public places. Women who wear the veil in public face a fine of $185 dollars and compulsory classes in French values, along with imprisonment if they do not comply.
It goes without saying that a woman wearing a full face veil – her identity hidden from those whom she encounters – can be a ridiculous and depressing site. Yet the basic issue here is one of liberty and democracy. As far as possible, the state should not impose dress codes upon its citizens.
Most worrying is the way in which “french values” have been invoked. A parliamentary resolution supporting the ban justified the move on the basis that the veil was “contrary to the values of the republic.” Sarkoxy mean while insisted that:
“We are an old nation united around a certain idea of human dignity, and in particular of a woman’s dignity, around a certain idea of how to live together. The full veil that hides the face completely harms those values”
The point is that when one talks of “French values” or “British values” one usually invokes a somewhat dubious ideological construct. Modern societies are characterised by many competing and contradictory values. Those values which are deemed to reflect the essence of the nation are generally those which happen to be most popular or most powerful at a given point in time. As such, by denying people the right to express themselves – or to adorn themselves – in a manner which contradicts “french values”, the government is in reality denying people the right to dissent from that which is hegemonic. In asserting that people must conform to “French Values” the government is in reality asserting that people people must not diverge from the mainstream.
There has been a whiff of this here too in Britain. Jack Straw, a few years back attacked the veil,not because he considered it oppressive to women but because it was a “visible statement of separation and of difference” (my emphasis). Ye, people ought not to separate themselves from the rest of society. But since when was it a crime to express difference, or for an individual to indicate that they are not like everybody else. Indeed the ability to stand out from the crowd is at the heart of what makes are democracy worthwhile.