A number of comments have been published recently in major English-speaking newspapers and websites, reacting to the enforcement of France’s new law banning the wearing of the niqab in public spaces. This law has more often than not been presented as another sign of the French government’s undeniable move towards the extreme-right and its obvious xenophobia and Islamophobia. The fact that many French citizens have not questioned this law, or have even supported it, has in turn been interpreted as a sign of the French population’s growing racism and intolerance.
The French ban on wearing the niqab has provoked intense discussion both in France and abroad. Photo flickr/davidden
That the French extreme-right is gathering new support under the leadership of Marine Le Pen, the historic Front National leader’s daughter and political heir, and with the unwitting help of President Sarkozy’s controversial four years in power, is not to be doubted and extremely worrying indeed. There have unfortunately always been about 15% of the French population attracted to the Front National’s populist, fascist and xenophobic discourse – a fact the reflects poorly on France, always eager to picture itself as the country of human rights and universal values. Whether this proportion is growing will need to be assessed in the 2012 presidential and legislative elections, rather than by the current series of surveys, which have in the past shown their limited capacity to offer a genuine assessment of the state of the French political scene.
That the current debate about ‘laïcité’ (the word has no perfect English translation even if it is often defined as ‘secularity’) is solely the result of this new wave of government-led xenophobia and racism, however, is very questionable and one can only regret that so many commentators found it natural to link the two as if one was the direct result of the other. The concept of ‘laïcité’ is a republican principle (Art. 1 of the French constitution establishes that ‘France is an indivisible, “laïque”, democratic and social Republic.’) to which most French people feel deeply attached. ‘Laïcité’ originally meant a clear separation of the state and religion – something that translates, for example, into the education system, where no parent will be asked about his/her religious beliefs when registering a child with a school, be it state-run or nominally religious. The concept has evolved, however, and many French citizens now understand it as a desirable separation between a ‘laïque’ public sphere and a private sphere, where one is entirely free to express and celebrate a religious faith or spirituality – or not.
Beyond this religious dimension, the niqab issue has also often been portrayed as one of individual freedom and women’s rights in English-speaking papers. Certainly, the notion of individual freedom figures les prominently in the French constitution and political, social and intellectual life than it does in Britain or the US. French citizens tend to accept more willingly than their British and American counterparts that the state interferes in their lives and limits their individual freedom in the name of a common social project and values. The French state, however, is not the only one in expecting – and making sure that – its citizens to adopt or at the very least respect particular, moral values.
Feminists who openly criticise any stand against the niqab seem to forget that the niqab, beyond its religious dimension, is also, very clearly, a sign of women's inequality and inferiority
This debate around individual freedom and the role of the state should not let us forget, moreover, that we are talking here about a very specific garment. As a French feminist, I am surprised to see English-speaking feminists defend women’s right to wear the niqab. The niqab may be a religious symbol (something that is still, however, the object of much debate among specialists of Islam) and one that is (sometimes freely) worn for religious reasons. Those feminists who so openly criticise any stand against the niqab, however, seem to forget that the niqab, beyond its religious dimension, is also, very clearly, a sign of women's inequality and inferiority. This, rather than an anti-religious feeling or Islamophobia, accounts for the French ban and for the call, voiced by some French personalities, on Muslim women to renounce wearing the niqab. Pierre Perret, a popular left-wing singer whose best-known song, ‘Lily’, described the plight of a young African female immigrant facing French racism, thus reminds us, in his new song entitled ‘La femme grillagée’ (‘The gated woman’) that the niqab and burqa are often synonymous of inferiority and submission and are the symbols of a Manichean, man-led world (Quand la femme est grillagée, toutes les femmes sont outragées, les hommes les ont rejetées dans l’obscurité – ‘When a woman is gated, all women are offended, men have rejected them into obscurity’).
Similarly , Elisabeth Badinter, a prominent French feminist and notorious leftist, reminded us in 2009 that while Western Muslim women defended their right to wear the niqab, many of their sisters in the Middle East and Asia were unable to choose not to wear it. Badinter called on free, Western women to set the example by rejecting a symbol of gender oppression. She also asked: ‘Are we thus despicable and impure that you refuse any contact, any connection, and even the simple sharing of a smile?’. For this is one last dimension that is too often forgotten in the current simplistic rejection of the French position: Many young Western women wearing the niqab do so with a clear desire to provoke and in the pretence of rejecting the society in which they live. Whether the expression of such feelings should be banned altogether is certainly a matter to be debated (it has been in France, where public personalities questioned the legitimacy of a law targeting a very small minority of women). But it should not seem unreasonable to call on women wishing to wear the niqab in the West to take their responsibilities as women living freely and to think about the symbolism of their choice – rather than to simply and blindly accept it in the name of individual religious freedom.
Whether we should give this very small minority of women a louder voice than they proportionally represent – there have, after all, always been conservative women opposed to women’s rights and gender equality – should at the very least be the object of a debate. A debate that remains essential in a world with a majority of pre-feminist societies where women have no freedom at all – something Western feminists seem to forget all too easily. And a debate in which France, with its specific perspective on the state, religion and women, deserves to be heard rather than simplistically caricatured.
 See for instance ‘French ban on full viels sparks protests’, International Herald Tribune, 12th April 2011; ‘Government-Enforced Bigotry in France’, New York Times, 11th April 2011,http://www.nytimes.com/2011/04/12/opinion/12tue3.html?_r=1&scp=3&sq=veiled%20bigotry&st=Search; Naima Bouteldja, France’s False Battle of the Veil, The Guardian - Comment is Free, 18thApril 2011,http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2011/apr/18/france-false-battle-of-the-veil; Stuart Weil, ‘We must let Muslim women who wear the veil speak for themselves’, Open Democracy, 12th April 2011,http://www.opendemocracy.net/ourkingdom/stuart-weir/we-must-let-muslim-women-who-wear-veil-speak-for-themselves.
 On this, see Andrew Brown, Behind the Burqa Ban’s Reasoning, Comment is Free, 12th April 2011,http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/andrewbrown/2011/apr/12/france-burqa-ban-reasoning.
 Elisabeth Badinter, ‘Adresse à celles qui portent volontairement la burqa’, Nouvel Observateur, July 2009.