France “Burqa Ban”: Just Anti-Islam or Anti-Women Too?

France, by popular claim, is a secular republic where religion is treated as a personal and private matter. Hence, the French feel that anything and everything that symbolizes a religion must be kept off the streets. Therefore, in 2004, the French parliament introduced a law that prohibited women from wearing headscarves in public schools. This law was an amendment to the French Code of Education.  In 2010, they introduced a new law called, Loi Interdisant la Dissimulation du Visage dans L’Espace Public, which translates to, “Act prohibiting concealment of the face in public space”. This law further prohibited wearing Burqas and face covering veils in public spaces (funny how all these specifically pointed at Muslim women-but I’m sure that wasn’t their intention). The law imposes a fine of up to 150 Euros for those who violate the law. The bill also penalized with a fine of 30,000 Euros and a year in prison for anyone who forced another to wear face coverings. Anyhow, according to the politicians who introduced such laws, these steps would ensure “gender equality” and protection of the “dignity” of women.  Yet, ironically enough these ‘laws’ have become one of the most common reason why women in France are going through discrimination and harassment.

Oh but wait, there’s supposed to be a knight in a shining armor here that is more commonly known as “International Human Rights Law”, but unfortunately the ECHR i.e. the European Court of Human Rights doesn’t want to play the role of the knight, especially when the subject is a woman and the religion is Islam. Take for example, the famous S.A.S v.France case. S.A.S, a Muslim woman living in France contended that the ban on full face veils violated the European convention on human rights and it was against the right of freedom of thought, conscience and religion. It must be kept in mind that this woman wore a veil of her own choice and furthermore she did not challenge the requirement to remove scarves and veils for necessary security checks. However, the ECHR rejected her argument and agreed that the state was absolutely right in promoting a certain idea of everyone “living together.”

Ever since these laws have been enacted, Muslim women have become the most favorite target of oppression in France. They are terrorized as soon as they step out of their homes; they are humiliated because of wearing something that has been prescribed to them by their religion. In most cases, women have been attacked because they wore niqabs in public. People have tried to rip off their full face veils, bus drivers refused to carry women wearing headscarves or veils, shop keepers have barred entrance to such women as well. In short, a woman needs to prepare for battle if she decides to step out of her house in a veil. Now this really is “freedom of religion”–hats off to the French laws!

And it’s not only France, mind you. There are a lot of countries following France’s lead. For example, Belgium, Italy, Denmark, Austria, Netherlands and Switzerland have all started introducing legislations to ban the Burqa and headscarves. So, it’s not just Islamophobia that is at work here, there’s a pattern here that’s quite visible: it’s the women who are being targeted in all these areas i.e. the “weaker” gender of the “weaker” community living in foreign lands. I find it horrifyingly amusing that a dress code of one single community can actually cause so much turmoil, debates and legislation on a global level.

What’s happened here is that women have been effectively put under house arrest, because they don’t really have many options. Either they take off the veil or they face discrimination. Since none of these options are actually agreeable, most women choose to stay at home where they can wear what they want when they want to. So once again, the law has been used as a discriminatory tool; it hasn’t provided justice or equality as it should have.

The main point of resentment here is that we are living in the 21st century where it is quite understood that everyone has equal rights and women’s rights must be protected and guaranteed in the same way as men’s rights are, and it is also understood that law must deal with everyone equally and without discrimination. Yet, the way in which the world is working now, the sort of laws that are being drafted are actually going against all these other ideas which preach justice and equality. More and more people need to realize that this is not how laws are supposed to work and everything humanly possible has to be done to counter such laws.

Saadia Farooq

Author: Saadia Farooq

The writer is a student at Kinnaird College for Women University, Lahore. She has also interned for CourtingTheLaw and is a scholar under CourtingtheLaw’s National Scholarship Program.