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Back to the Burka

In an earlier post, I criticized the French government for its plan to ban the public wearing of the burka. It won’t liberate women, it will drive the issue underground, it sacrifices religious freedom to nothing more than public sensibility, and so on.

But what about the government’s recentĀ decision to deny citizenship to a Muslim man whose wife is veiled? Is that equally indefensible? I don’t think so. The guy’s comments about his power over his wife amounted to an almost cartoonishly chauvinistic litany. According to the official with responsibility for the decision, the less-than-enlightened hubby said: “My wife will never be able to go out without the full veil; I don’t believe in gender equality; women have inferior status; I will not respect the principles of the secular society.”

If that’s really what he said, the government made the right choice. This is quite a different situation from the one presented by banning the burka in public. Here, the government has to decide whether to accept, as a French citizen, someone who openly rejects gender equality, one of the principal pillars of modern, secular society (at least rhetorically, anyway). The burka that his wife wears is but one tangible expression of his repressive behavior, and the government should no more approve his application than one filed by a domestic abuser. To gain membership in a secular democracy, there are certain principles by which one agrees to abide.

So what’s different about the “no burkas in public” rule? It’s all a matter of degree, of course, but I think the cases are quite different. Although the burka is certainly a marker of women’s inequality under religious law, it’s more than that; for some women, at least, it might be a deeply felt expression of their own religious belief, uncoerced at least in any obvious way by their husbands. A society should be open enough to accommodate the kind of conversation that the burka invites, even if it makes many (including me) uncomfortable. But a potential citizen who openly sneers at the very foundations of gender equality, in 2010, should be rejected — both on the merits and as a symbol of France’s willingness to take a stand in favor of women, and against those who would oppress them.

  1. NY Liberal Conservative
    February 7th, 2010 at 00:18 | #1

    What about ‘native’ citizens who openly reject the principal pillars of modern, secular society – can the state take away their citizenship? Should a state be capable of taking away their citizenship? Will this man be allowed to stay in France as a non-citizen? Will his children born in France, and raised to hold his backwards morals/values, be ‘native’ citizens? How can it be acceptable to a modern society to hide all identifying characteristics of certain members in public? Isn’t a society allowed to be able recognize/identify who is within it? I think these fundamentalists are asking to have their cake and eat it too, or more likely they’re trying to trip us up in our own magnanimous tendencies.

  2. February 7th, 2010 at 20:56 | #2

    This comment raises provocative and probably unanswerable questions. I do think that the state can distinguish between those who are already citizens to whom it has responsibilities and those applying for citizenship. The latter requires, in all societies that I’m aware of, some basic agreements with the governing ethos of the nation. No government would allow an advocate of genocide to gain citizenship, even if there were some stated religious belief supporting this position. States don’t usually divest their citizens of their citizenship, on the other hand, but choose instead to prosecute criminal actions (e.g., acting on the genocidal impulse) when it occurs, or at least gets close enough to occur that the state can step in and stop it. Part of this is practical: Someone applying for citizenship is already a citizen somewhere, whereas the French citizen might end up as a “person without a country” if stripped of citizenship for political views, however abhorrent.

    And that’s the easy part of the comment to answer!

    The tougher issue is clearly set forth: Should a modern society allow people to mask every identifying feature about themselves? Let’s say there was no religion that taught that women (or anyone) should be completely veiled, and that some random citizen simply decided to go about in public that way. I think a state might want to pass a law prohibiting such behavior (I can think of several justifications), even over an objection that doing so stifles freedom of expression. So how is the issue changed by adding religion? It’s a good question.

    If France said: “No one shall appear in public with full face covering,” that might be seen (using American legal principles here) as a neutral law of general application, and therefore permissible. Saying “no one shall wear the burka,” on the other hand, might be seen as targeting a particular religion and therefore impermissible, or at least subject to a difficult level of scrutiny.

    The last sentence of the reader’s comment is very effective, and worth further reflection.

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