Told you so..

Today’s Guardian has a piece looking at the effects of the French burqa ban. In a nutshell:

France’s burqa ban: women are ‘effectively under house arrest’
Since France introduced its burqa ban in April there have been violent attacks on women wearing the niqab and, this week, the first fines could be handed down. But a legal challenge to this hard line may yet expose the French state as a laughing stock.

I have to show off about my predictive skills here, although anyone with at a week’s experience of living on this planet could have predicted the outcome.

But still, in June 2009, I said…

Some members of the public will demand police action against women wearing burqas. At the very least, insulting women as they go about their daily lives will become more, not less, common. Burqa-wearers will be afraid to appear in the street.

…Exactly the consequences that today’s Guardian report talks about…

There’s some shame for atheists in this story

Secular France has a complicated relationship with the veil. In 2004, all religious symbols including the headscarf were banned in schools. Even among Sarkozy’s opponents there are very few feminists or socialist politicians who would defend the right to wear niqab in a country where secularism is one of the few issues that still unites a fragmented left. Barely a handful of people came to Notre Dame cathedral to protest against the law in April. (from the Guardian)

I refuse to see how interfering with women’s chosen modes of dress “for their own good” can be in any way feminist.

It makes me really uncomfortable to see secularism used as a smokescreen for racism.

I thought I was at least in favour of the French banning all religious symbols in schools but I’ve started to even reconsider that, when I look at it logically. I hardly think it’s a battle worth fighting. It’s basically unenforceable without causing religious believers to become even more entrenched in their sense of having a beleaguered cultural identity.

How do you define a religious symbol in order to ban it? What are the boundaries of religion?

What about an innocent wearing a piece of jewelry with a Chinese Buddhist symbol? The English youths tattooed with Maori warrior symbols for gods they’ve never heard of and couldn’t pronounce even for real money?

Does it only count if you know what the symbols mean? In that case, most wearers of religious insignia would be OK.

What if you know what the symbols mean but just don’t believe in them? (I’m looking at you, all you people with silver rings carrying Egyptian ankhs.) You might have bought a tourist T-shirt printed with a scene from the Sistine Chapel. You might be wearing a reversed cross as a fashion item. You might even be wearing a religious item ironically (like the plastic rosaries incomprehensibly fashionable a couple of years ago)

More seriously, what about dreadlocks? They can be read in dozens of different ways. Locks have religious significance for some rastas. They also have several forms of cultural resonance for many people wearing them who wouldn’t subscribe to the religion – from people who see them as symbols of African heritage to eco-warriors. Some people wear them for purely aesthetic and fashion reasons. Are they banned in French schools? Would they be acceptable for people who could prove they didn’t follow the religion?

However you follow through these ideas, they become nonsense.

If secularist are to subscribe to the idea of banning religious artefacts worn on the body, how can we be sure that any given object doesn’t have religious significance?

By the way, this might be the time to mention that I have recently joined a religion which venerates the holy lounge suit. We are a small religion but utterly fanatical. All men in our faith are required to wear a lounge suit, with the tie of the Eternal Cosmos wrapped around the neck in a complicated knot that represents the interconnectedness of all life.

I sincerely trust that this doesn’t cause more than minor inconvenience in the French parliament.

2 thoughts on “Told you so..

  1. Its a big difference though between for exampel rastahair and and burqa/niqab. The latter is a political symbol which is used in a troubling way – muslim children are learning at their mosqe that if you don’t use iut you are not a muslim but a kafir, non-believer. What happens in school and in the streets is that muslim womens choosing to not wear this headgear are threathened, harassed etc. Even at schools there is a lot of problems with children getting harassed by other children – told to do so by the grownups. This is a negative developement for democrasy caused by political Islam – working over years through their Quran school for children which all muslim kids attend, at least in the bid citys. By the way – I’m a teacher in primary school (most of the pupils are immigrants), Oslo, Norway – and this has become a problem in the city of Oslo. So far we have not banned it – but with more incidents from what we call ” The burqa police” – fanatic muslims (they come in all colors and shape from small girls to elder women, boys and men – all told at the mosque to do their part) threatening muslim girls/womens in the street because they don’t dress properly (properly according to fanatic muslim men, that is) – their will probably come a ban. Its not only the girls/womens but homosexuals get threatened/beaten up by the same fanatics. This is actually a serious problem and in France people got enough of seeing the fundament of democracy – be free, be who you are, respect others – dissappearing bit by bit from their citys. When that is said – to banning the burqa/niqab will probably make more differences and problems – but many ordinary people feels it time for a confrontasion. Enough is enough. Will have to wait and see what happens. This is far from the end of the story.

  2. Ove
    Thanks for responding.
    I agree with your concerns that local religiously-based communities may put pressure on individual women or threaten gay people. However, I think that this is something we should be able to address in democracies, by supporting the rights of anyone suffering in that way. For example, European institutions such as schools should demonstrate that they will always defend their pupils’ freedom of choice. The police and social services should show they will defend the rights of muslims, where family and community pressure are denying them human rights. I don’t think we can help anyone in that situation by victimising them further.
    If we really want to promote certain fundamental democratic values – which are, as you say, “be free, be who you are, respect others” – we need to start respecting people’s choices, even where they seem ridiculous to us.
    To behave otherwise is not only morally wrong but also counter-productive. A climate in which supposedly liberal democracies are contemplating banning styles of dress is a climate in which muslims are increasingly marginalised, which hardly seems like a sane way to achieve integration.
    I can barely think of any religion that doesn’t have unpleasant consequences for its believers. The more fanatical the religion the worse the consequences. But I still don’t feel that we can help believers by stopping them expressing whatever they believe through the medium of dress. No matter how silly their beliefs seem to me or you.
    And my point about locks was meant as part of a reductio ad absurdum. I was trying to show that we can’t easily determine the full meaning of any given form of cultural expression. So, even something that seems as self-evidently good as banning religious symbols in schools is both unenforceable and certain to lead to unforeseen injustices.
    This would be true even if the burqa ban wasn’t basically just trying to plaster a layer of pan-stick over the ever ugly face of racism. Which it is.

    Banning state sponsoring of devisive religious schools, yes.
    Making gestures that are inherently ridiculous in the name of secularism, no.

Comments are closed.