The Burqa Ban is an Attack on Democracy

This post was written by Reuben Bard-Rosenberg on May 21, 2010
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.

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Reader Comments

Good analyses mate. I like the way you linked specific examples to its ‘generic’ meaning and implications. Love it!

I’ve been thinking for a while that, what i term, ‘the minoritisation of the citizenry’- where one is excluded or marginalised for difference – it tends to compromise the interests of everyone in the long run. That would be because everyone becomes a ‘minority’ at some point in their lives, i.e. a minority suffering a disease, unemployment, old age whilst being a member of the underclass, etc, and hence susceptible to exploitation or marginalisation.

With the assault on the ‘generic idea’ of egalitarianism through specific instance of the said, ‘minoritisation of the citizenry, people are gradually trained to turn the apathetic cheek in the face of a ‘minority’s’ interests being compromised. Hence, the elite can always ‘subsidise’ the losses incurred in one arena by gain in others. This applies both to financial and perspectival aspects as well.

#1 
Written By ed on May 22nd, 2010 @ 4:34 pm
julia

Very interesting piece and I agree that the state should not be telling people — well, women actually — what to wear and what not to wear. But the argument does need to go further and look at the other side of the coin. When religion is used to define minority communities (in the case of Britain, Asians are now defined as Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs for example) and those communities are themselves under pressure from racism, state imperatives to assimilate (as Reuben has described eloquently), poverty, and so on, this hands power to those who emerge as religious leaders to represent and control “their” people. Women are particularly vulnerable, because control of their sexuality is seen as the key mechanism for assuring the future and maintaining the so-called “traditions” of that community. In this context, we need to champion the right of women within minorities to dissent both from the state and from their husbands, fathers, brothers and religious leaders telling them how to dress and represent themselves to the world.

#2 
Written By julia on May 22nd, 2010 @ 8:48 pm
DavidR

Absolutely agree that it is no business of the state to tell people what to wear or not.

Also hope it is absolutely clear that wearing the Burqa is an act of oppression of women.Women who choose to wear it are making that “choice” in a situation where their religious leaders have much greater power than they do.

So while we campaign against state interference, there would be nothing remotely radical or progressive about promoting the burqa just because the French state is against it.

#3 
Written By DavidR on May 22nd, 2010 @ 9:16 pm

Cheers ED agree very much with what you say especially benefits. Certainly Pastor Neimellor rings in ones ears sometimes.

oops godwins law.

#4 
Written By Reuben on May 24th, 2010 @ 3:23 pm
3genders

Since one of the claims that Sarkozy makes is that he wants to ‘ban the burka’ on the grounds that it’s sexist will he, likewise, also be banning certain employers from forcing male employees to wear ties and female employees to wear skirts?

Or is forcing someone to wear specific items of traditionally, patriarchally-approved clothing purely on the grounds of their biological sex only sexist when Muslims do it?

#5 
Written By 3genders on May 25th, 2010 @ 1:06 pm
Reuben

3genders perfectly highlights the chauvanistic, majoritarian aspect of this move

#6 
Written By Reuben on May 25th, 2010 @ 1:56 pm

Cheers ED agree very much with what you say especially benefits. Certainly Pastor Neimellor rings in ones ears sometimes.

oops godwins law.

#7 
Written By Steve on May 28th, 2010 @ 3:23 am
vincent

All that intellectual twaddle written by Mr Rosenburg on the burka without even a mention about safety of the conmmunity or about criminals escaping justice disguised and hidden under the burka.
Think again Mr Rosenburg

#8 
Written By vincent on February 22nd, 2014 @ 2:38 pm
vincent

All that intellectual twaddle written by Mr Rosenburg on the burka without even a mention about safety of the conmmunity or about criminals escaping justice disguised and hidden under the burka.
Think again Mr Rosenburg.

#9 
Written By vincent on February 22nd, 2014 @ 2:39 pm

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