Today, for the first time in French history, it will be illegal to wear the burqa, or full-length Islamic veil, in public. Predictably, as an Englishwoman I have mixed feelings about this law. On the one hand I agree with Sarkozy’s former minister, Fadela Amara, who, like the majority of her fellow French Muslims, objects to the burqa as a symbol of religious extremism and patriarchal oppression. On the other, I believe that laws targeting religious practices ought only to be considered if they represent a threat to individual or public safety.
My first instinct in moments such as these is to ask my French-born children what they think. My 23 year-old daughter sees me coming. “My opinion,” she begins, “is quite radical. And quite French.” (She approves of the ban.) “When I see a woman walking down the street in a full veil I immediately picture the husband who is making her wear it.” Behind the burqa my daughter sees a life of ostracism and male domination. My son is also for the ban. “The form of Islam that suggests a woman’s face must be covered in order to preserve her decency implies that women are intrinsically indecent, an idea that is not only disgusting but contrary to the fundamental values of this country.” I can understand both these positions. The trouble is, I’m deeply suspicious of the motives behind this new legislation.
Unlike the law of 2004, which banned the Islamic headscarf (hijab) in French state schools, the wording of this new law is deceptively simple. “No one may, in a public place, wear a garment designed to conceal the face.” No mention this time of religion, or values, or of that s…