France’s ban on religious headgear goes too far

This article was originally published in The Clarion Call.

On April 11, France became the first country in Europe to ban the hijab, the veil that some Muslim women wear to cover their faces according to religious custom.

The law, passed last fall by the French Senate by a near-unanimous vote of 246 to one, prohibits any clothing that covers the face to be worn in public.

Though controversial, the measure is popular in France, where anti-Muslim sentiment runs high amid fears of an increasingly Islamic Europe. Women in violation of the ban are subject to a 150-euro fine (about $217) and a mandatory “citizenship course.”

Perhaps those who are in favor of stripping their fellow citizens of the right to wear whatever they want and freely practice their religion (about three quarters of the French population according to polling) are the ones in need of a refresher course on citizenship.

Supporters of the ban say that they are fighting against the religious oppression of women. There’s some truth to that — the law imposes prison time and a much larger fine for those who would force women to wear the veil — but why should women who choose to wear the hijab without coercion be subject to fines and harassment?

Supporters will counter that Muslim women who don’t wear the hijab face shaming and harassment from their religious communities, so they don’t really have a “choice” at all.

While this may be true in some quarters (and it is certainly not true in all quarters, if the millions of Muslim women across the world who don’t wear the hijab are any indication), it’s not the government’s place to decide which religious customs are allowed and which aren’t.

This blatant disregard for the religious freedom of its citizens reveals an ugly truth about the French majority’s paternalistic attitudes toward its Muslim neighbors. Some conservative, Christian and Jewish sects also require women to wear head coverings — citing the same religious tradition as Muslims do — as anyone who has been to Amish country or Squirrel Hill can attest.

Would the French be as gung-ho to ban these more European (read: white) religious headdresses? Will they next go after Jews and Christians who circumcise their sons (after all, at the end of the day it’s forced genital mutilation)?

It’s a slippery slope, and at the bottom is a divided society full of hate and mutual distrust.

The French Republic should look back to its founding principles of Liberté, Egalité and Fraternité on this issue, not to the sumptuary laws of the Middle Ages.

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