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 recent 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.