France’s Burqa Ban, Hatefully Mansplained

Illustration for article titled France’s Burqa Ban, Hatefully Mansplained

Today I read an op-ed in the New York Times that made me so angry it took me a good couple hours to calm down after reading it. I'm still fuming.

In the piece, entitled "Tearing Away the Veil" (no violent or rape-y overtones there!), the leader of the French National Assembly, Jean-François Copé, tries to argue why the impending ban on the burqa and niqab is not only necessary, but a good thing for France and democracy. In doing so, however, he manages to uphold every single negative stereotype about French politics and culture. His essay is absolutely breathtaking in its snobbery, xenophobia, chauvinism, privilege, and unabashed hateration.

The ban would apply to the full-body veil known as the burqa or niqab. This is not an article of clothing - it is a mask, a mask worn at all times, making identification or participation in economic and social life virtually impossible.


Except that women wearing the niqab and the burqa participate fully in economic and social life every single day, in France and elsewhere. It in no way prevents them from interacting with people or going about their business…unless someone is discriminating against them.

This face covering poses a serious safety problem at a time when security cameras play an important role in the protection of public order. An armed robbery recently committed in the Paris suburbs by criminals dressed in burqas provided an unfortunate confirmation of this fact. As a mayor, I cannot guarantee the protection of the residents for whom I am responsible if masked people are allowed to run about.

Masked people! Allowed to run about! WON'T SOMEONE THINK OF THE CHILDREN????

This public safety argument is patently alarmist and ridiculous. France is hardly overrun with burqa-wearing criminals, and even if criminals might wear burqas as disguises, that's no reason to ban all burqas. I'm sure in France criminals also wear hoodies, ski-masks or stockings pulled over their heads to disguise themselves, and yet no one proposes a ban on those.

The visibility of the face in the public sphere has always been a public safety requirement. It was so obvious that until now it did not need to be enshrined in law.


It's a public safety requirement has never been imposed before, or on non-Muslim French. But now that there are some Muslims around-who just don't get how obvious it is-the French need to enshrine it so they have a legal pretext for forcing their customs on Muslim immigrants…in the name of safety, of course.

But the increase in women wearing the niqab, like that of the ski mask favored by criminals, changes that. We must therefore adjust our law, without waiting for the phenomenon to spread.


So I assume he's banning ski-masks? Because he just totally made the argument to ban ski masks AND implied women in niqabs might be criminals….in the same fucking sentence! Oh, and France must do it now, without waiting for the phenomenon to spread. It's important to deprive citizens of their civil rights now instead of waiting for a legal basis for doing so! When white men start talking about the need for pre-emptive strikes, you know nothing good will follow.

Individual liberty is vital, but individuals, like communities, must accept compromises that are indispensable to living together, in the name of certain principles that are essential to the common good.


It's not a compromise if a group of people is being forced to give up something and getting nothing in exchange. That's a sacrifice. Copé expects French Muslims to willingly sacrifice their civil rights in the name of certain principles that are essential to the common good. He's tellingly silent about what exactly those principles are, or what constitutes the common good. The fact that he can't offer up a single specific example of how Muslim women would benefit from the ban means it's not a compromise at all, nor is he thinking of the good of those women or their community. It's simply the majority's need for conformity being forced on the minority.

But here's the part where I totally blew my top. Boldface mine:

How can you establish a relationship with a person who, by hiding a smile or a glance - those universal signs of our common humanity - refuses to exist in the eyes of others?

Finally, in both France and the United States, we recognize that individual liberties cannot exist without individual responsibilities. This acknowledgment is the basis of all our political rights. We are free as long as we are responsible individuals who can be held accountable for our actions before our peers. But the niqab and burqa represent a refusal to exist as a person in the eyes of others. The person who wears one is no longer identifiable; she is a shadow among others, lacking individuality, avoiding responsibility.


Wow. Just wow. According to this French elected official, a woman in a burqa is not a human being. Because the white man can't see her face, she ceases to exist. If he can't gaze upon her to his satisfaction, according to his own cultural standards, she has no individuality, no rights, no responsibilities. She becomes a non-person to him. How fucking wrong is that?

I mean, really, I don't know how you can recover making a statement that blatantly wrong-headed. But he tries:

From this standpoint, banning the veil in the street is aimed at no particular religion and stigmatizes no particular community.


Except the one it's aimed at: the French Muslim community.

What makes this obvious bigotry even more appalling to me is that Copé is the son of an Ashkenazi Jewish father and an Algerian Jewish mother. Belonging to more than one minority group-groups with very rocky histories in France-doesn't seem to have given him even a smidge of tolerance or compassion for other despised minorities.

Indeed, French Muslim leaders have noted that the Koran does not instruct women to cover their faces, while in Tunisia and Turkey, it is forbidden in public buildings; it is even prohibited during the pilgrimage to Mecca. Muslims are the first to suffer from the confusions engendered by this practice, which is a blow against the dignity of women.


Muslims are the first to suffer from the confusions? How fucking patronizing is that? The French authorities are only banning Muslim dress so those poor silly Muslims won't cause any confusion to their neighbors! As opposed to educating the neighbors about tolerance and Muslim custom, of course. And in the same breath, he actually says that this paternalistic, condescending bullshit actually upholds the dignity of women?

Through a legal ban, French parliamentarians want to uphold a principle that should apply to all: the visibility of the face in the public sphere, which is essential to our security and is a condition for living together. A few extremists are contesting this obvious fact by using our democratic liberties as an instrument against democracy. We have to tell them no.


I think I know who the extremist is here: the elected official who uses democracy as a pretext to insult, patronize and even dehumanize the fellow citizens whose customs and religion are different from his own.

I'm going to go farther than "tell them no." Jean-François Copé, I'm telling you: ferme ta guele.


This post originally appeared on the blog The Pursuit of Harpyness. Republished with permission.

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1. It's NOT about religion

There are many aspects of Islam, Judaism and Christianity that are absolutely tolerated in Western Society. Burkas are simply not one of them.

2. It is NOT about gender.

If it was men who were forced to or voluntarily chose to wear burkas, we would still have a problem with it.

3. It is NOT about safety.

If you wear a ski mask in public, you will be asked to remove it unless it's absolutely freezing cold outside. And even then, if you go into a store or something, you'll be asked to remove it. The same should go for burkas.

Arguing that it's an abuse of women's rights or that it's a legitimate or illegitimate expression of religion or that it's an issue of public safety just confuses the issue. It IS about covering your face. In Western Society we consider covering your face to be anti-social and therefore unacceptable. The ability to see another persons face is considered to be a natural right by Westerners. It is a very large part of our communication and identification process. It is also a means by which we feel connected to our fellow citizen. Covering your face is a sign of disassociation from the society in which you are a part of. And no one (man or woman) has the right to go about disguised. If women living in Western Society are being "forced" into wearing a burka by their husbands, they have the recourse of reporting this abuse to police. If it is the women themselves who voluntarily wear the burka, they should understand that they live in Europe or America, etc and as a part of our culture, we do not accept it. If this is a religious choice made by a woman and she considers it an affront to her beliefs to go against it, then she should move back to the Middle East where it's acceptable.