Some thoughts on the French public ban on veils that cover the face:Background: Last year, a number of European countries banned (or started discussion on banning) forms of veils (primarily Islamic) that cover the entire face. France was among them; typically a smallish fine (around the order of an expensive parking ticket) is applied, and in the case of France there's the option of forcing those guilty of the offense to undertake a basic civics class. On first investigation, this is troubling, although after careful consideration, I approve of it.
Why a ban? There are many reasons behind the law, some good and some bad
- Fear of Islam - This is a bad reason, but no doubt the far-right supports the law because they have a broad and blanket fear of Islam, and see this as a small step towards expressing their views. I reject this; while there are forms of Islam that cannot coexist with western society, and others that would exist only in tension, being a Muslim and being French are not necessarily mutually exclusive. It is acceptable to deny a place to some forms of Islam and brgrudge the place of other forms, but Islam as a whole (particularly liberal/western forms) cannot be the enemy.
- Public safety - This may be a good reason; full veils make maintaining a public identity very difficult, and make it more difficult yet to track anyone who may misbehave (not to say that muslims are more likely to misbehave). Sufficient numbers of people with all identifying features removed is almost equivalent to having public availability of invisibility devices, which might reasonably be banned under the same reasoning.
- Cultural struggle - France is more a melting pot than a cornucopia. Maintaining a cultural flavour is an aspect to many parts of french law, and several social institutions. I believe this may be valid, and making unwelcome the flavours of islam that require full covering of the face is a societal statement of value that I think is permissible. By-and-large, I believe that the covering has a very strong association with subcultures that have a very strong contrast from French (or more broadly Western) values. Symbolic struggles are something I believe states should be reluctant to enter (and I condemn categorically any anti-flag-desecration or anti-leader-insulting laws), but in this case I think it's justified.
- The strongest reason for me is that women are often forced, through culture or explicitly by their husbands, to wear the veil, and state intervention is appropriate to prevent this. Were this more often an area where conservative Muslim men only have a preference, this point would be weaker; as is, in (the particular conservative) Muslim subculture in France women are raised to expect to wear it, community policing provides consequences for not doing so, and on marriage it is frequently demanded by men of their wife. By banning the veil, it becomes impossible for communities and men to do this to women (at the cost of the autonomy of those few who might choose to wear it of their own accord).
- Counterissue: There may be members of the subcommunity of conservative forms of Islam who are not permitted to leave their house, as a response to this. This is a serious concern. Ideally social workers would be able to deal with this
The apparent contradiction is complex in this case; we have a law that restricts in order to prevent a worse restriction that happens behind closed doors. I recognise that I am standing against Amnesty International on this issue; they suggest that it is possible to separate the freedom of expression issue from the coercion issue. I believe this is impossible, particularly as under liberal society the state lacks the reach to inform or ensure choice for those within distant subcultures. Likewise, I feel that it is illegitimate for entire subcultures to arrange property and social relations so as to attach such a cost to removing one's veil that it is effectively not a choice (likewise with allowing sharia courts for mediation). Amnesty International's idealism can only result in a state that permits grave injustice; we must reject their stance.