Tuesday, September 21, 2010

France’s Burqa Ban – A Sexist and Racist Law

Lisbeth Latham

The French Senate on September 14 passed the legislation that will make the wearing of either a Burqa or Niqab in public illegal. The ban was motivated by President Nicolas Sarkozy as an important step in the equality of women. The ban has accused of being racist, but equally importantly it is fundamentally sexist.

The legislation, which will go to the Constitutional Council for a final determination, will come into effect in six months time. Once in effect, any women wearing a Burqa, Niqab or other full faced veil in a public place will face a fine of €150 and the possibility of having to attend an education course in Republican values. Any individual found to have forced a woman to wear a veil will face a €30, 000 fine and up to a year in prison.

The legislation was passed overwhelmingly with a vote of 246 to 1 against. The only senator to vote against was Anne-Marie Payet from the Centrist Union. The senators of the Socialist Party (PS), Communist Party (PCF), predominantly abstained on the vote with 46 of the PS’s 116 senators voting in favour. The Left Party’s two senators voted in favour of the ban, with Agnes Marie La Barre, explaining in an article on the PG’s website on September 16 that “nobody is fooled by the xenophobic context in which the law is passed. However our senators felt that the struggle for women’s rights requires the passing of the law”. The decision by the majority of PS and the PCF to abstain reflects that both parties support restrictions on the Burqa, with PS supporting a ban that would be limited to public services and shopping centres. The PCF have raised concerns that a specific law would further stigmatise Muslims and that the law is an attempt by Sarkozy to win the support of the far-right.

The Sarkozy government, and supporters of the ban have argued that the legislation is necessary to free women form what Sarkozy labelled as “a sign of subjugation, of the submission of women” and to defend republican values. At the same time Sarkozy has argued that the ban is not attack on Islam, he told a cabinet meeting in May “I’m thinking in particular of our Muslim compatriots, who have their place in the republic and should feel respected".

The ban is obviously is clearly about Islam. While only immediately affecting a small group of France’s Islamic community – less than 1900 women, out of an estimated 5 million Muslims living in France, the law is aimed at targeting the insecurity felt by many in France over the economic situation and directing this fear at a scapegoat other than the government. Just as Sarkozy has also done with proposals to strip migrants of their citizenship if they are convicted of deliberately endangering the life of a public official or police officer.

The ban is clearly sexist on a number of levels. First it robs women of agency, by saying that the state can determine what women cannot wear; women are stripped of the right to say what they want to wear. While it is undoubtedly true that women are forced to wear Burqas and Niqabs as a result of threats of violence or exclusion by their fathers, husbands, brothers or other members of their communities, it ignores that some women would freely choose to wear it (a fact that is actually anticipated by the law in that it is women who are the primary target of as they are the ones who will be fined in the first instance). Thirdly, the law which is supposedly aimed at the liberation and integration of women is likely to result in greater levels of exclusion of a section of the women who wear it. Finally the law is both sexist and racist as it locates sexist behaviour within a small marginal section French society, hiding the broader experience of sexism by women in France, and also the extent to which women in France’s Islamic community experience oppression as a consequence of the sexist and racist character of broader French society – which results in higher levels of poverty and unemployment throughout the community.

With the passage of the legislation through the Senate, other countries are set to pass similar legislation. Beligium’s lower passed a similar bill in April, while in July, the Lower Chamber of Spain rejected a resolution banning Burqa (the Senate subsequently passed a motion calling for a ban of the Burqa). With similar debates likely to develop in other countries, it is important that opponents of sexism in supporting the right of women to not wear the Burqa recognise the broader sexist character of the society in which we live and that the struggle against racist scapegoating of migrant communities, particularly Islamic community is essential to that struggle.


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Revitalising Labour attempts to reflect on efforts to rebuild the labour movement internationally, emphasising the role that left-wing political currents can play in this process. It welcomes contributions on union struggles, internal renewal processes within the labour movement and the struggle against capitalism and imperialism.

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