Does the French burka ban really liberate women?

France has voted for the ban on the Muslim veil by a majority of 335 votes for and only one against. The ban, which comes with strong public support, would make it illegal for women to wear garments such as the niqab or burka, which incorporate a full-face veil, anywhere in public. Ignoring the ban could land offending veil-wearers with a fine of up to €150.00.

The ban has come amid a wider debate regarding ‘French identity’ and Justice Minister Michele Alliot-Marie has called it ‘a victory for democracy and for French values… “Values of freedom against all the oppressions which try to humiliate individuals; values of equality between men and women, against those who push for inequality and injustice.”’

The tone taken by the government assumes they are liberating women from their veiled prison. It does not consider the fact that Muslim women may actually freely choose to dress this way. Freedom of Expression and of Religion are human rights protected by European and International law that France is party to, so does the ban not constitute a violation of those rights?

The law envisages two separate situations; women who opt to wear the full-veil may receive a fine of €150, while men who force their wives to wear the garment face a hefty €30,000 fine and a prison term. The latter may well ‘liberate’ women from oppressive husbands, but the former surely seeks just to limit the way in which they freely express their religious values? Afterall, not all Muslim women fit the stereotyped ‘oppressed woman’, and in fact, assuming she is such is simply a paternalistic form of discrimination.

The ban could be found to be unconstitutional and there is every possibility that a case may be brought before the European Court of Human Rights as a violation of Freedom of Expression. In the meantime, the debate will continue as to whether the ban constitutes a celebration of French identity and secular values, or instead denies Muslim women the opportunity to manifest their own values in the way they dress.


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