Burqa Ban a Boundary to Multicultural Impulse?

France's newly enacted law banning face coverings in public reinforces the idea we explored last year that waves of multiculturalism are receding for now.
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France's newly enacted law banning face coverings in public reinforces the idea we explored last year that waves of multiculturalism are receding for now.

Arrests have already been made — albeit the stylized arrests that accompany much protest in the West — as France enacted its long-discussed ban on face coverings in public.

French authorities cite dignity and curtailing patriarchy in its law, while opponents cite religious freedom. Objections so far, in France and beyond, have been measured, especially given reactions to say, umm, cartoons. A reasonable take was offered by a Saudi housewife opining from Jeddah: "If women are made to dress a different way and wear their hijab in Saudi Arabia and we respect it, then we should respect the laws of the French constitution. Why treat them differently when we have laws that are most distinct to any other country?"

While it doesn't single out Islam, the ban on the veil is squarely aimed at a minority of Muslims in France who sport a niqab or burqa. It follows on a 2004 law that banned wearing conspicuous religious signs — think headscarves, but also yarmulkes, big crosses, Sikh turbans — in public schools; that law, which clearly affected Muslim girls, passed muster at the European Court of Human Rights because it didn't identify specific religions. In that, it echoed an earlier decision allowing the Turkish state to ban "religious symbols" on campus under the banner of the principles of secularism and equality.

In the French case, authorities argued that the presence of the scarf was coercive: "an ostentatious act that would constitute a source of pressure and exclusion," presumably on other, less observant Muslim girls. A similar ruling was made barring Sikh boys from wearing the keski (turban), but there no mention was made of coercion.

Wearing a veil in public could be compared to getting a traffic ticket — there's a 150-euro fine and a requirement to attend citizenship classes. Anyone who forces a woman to wear a veil, however, faces much more draconian penalties.

Last year Keelin McDonnell wrote for Miller-McCune.com that in some quarters the veil is an act of fashion rebellion.

As she wrote at the time: "In a paper recently published in the Journal of Consumer Research, Ozlem Sandikci and Guliz Ger propose that the veil is 'a choice that runs against the grain of consumer socialization.' The study, 'Veiling in Style: How Does a Stigmatized Practice Become Fashionable,' examines how a distinctive Turkish headscarf called tesettur morphed from a religious eccentricity to an almost ubiquitous fashion adopted mainly by well-heeled urban women. Once subversive among the ultra-secular middle class of Turkey, time has cemented it as a mainstream style."

For what it's worth, both Sandicki's and Ger's Web pages show their hair fully unfettered.

Meanwhile, Miller-McCune's European Dispatch correspondent Michael Scott Moore wrote extensively about veiling the veil last year around the time Belgium attempted its own burqa ban. (Belgium's government collapsed from different cultural tensions, and they still haven't sworn in a new one ...)

"It is necessary that the law forbids the wearing of clothes that totally mask and enclose an individual," Moore quoted a Belgian parliamentarian. "Wearing the burqa in public is not compatible with an open, liberal, tolerant society." Some, Moore hinted this year, in noting the influx of Tunisian refugees heading north, may use the rejection of the burqa as a symbol of intolerance as state leaders shy away from multiculturalism.

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