Following a law passed in 2004 banning the hijab (Muslim headscarf) and other symbols of “religious affiliation” in state schools, the French government is now discussing a proposal to ban the wearing of the burqa (the full body veil) in various public spaces, including on public transport. It takes place as part of a concerted government campaign to assert a secular French “national identity”.
While Workers' Liberty is against all forms of religious compulsion — particularly those which apply only to women and have historically been used as instruments of patriarchal oppression — we opposed the 2004 law because we think top-down, state sanctions against religious practices are more likely to increase the levels of loyalty to religion and its institution than to help people break from them.
Furthermore, laws which are seen to specifically attack the religious practices of France’s Muslim and immigrant communities feed into a general and growing climate of racist hostility. We are against attempts to foster crude “national identities”; we believe workers all over the world should identify with each other, rather than bosses and the rich within their “own” national group.
We believe the left and the workers’ movement should oppose such laws on the basis of a consistent fight against racism and for a society in which women can choose how to dress free from compulsion by brother, husband, father, church, mosque or state. The following article we reproduce for information and discussion is from Tous est a nous, the journal of France’s New Anti-Capitalist Party (NPA).
No to a law against the burqa
In parallel with the campaign on “national identity”, supporters of a law against the burqa (and other full-body veils), are trying to create a superficial alliance between secularists, feminists and real racists. They aim to cast the net wide in advance of the elections. Andre Gerin, PCF [French Communist Party] deputy from Bouches-du-Rhone, who started the campaign, immediately received the support of the right-wing.
Is it really an emergency? Is the Republic in real danger from a few hundred women who are covered head-to-foot?
You might be shocked or revolted to see them. You might be convinced (and we are) that the burqa represents an attack on human dignity, on gender equality, and that it must not become normalised. But we cannot combat this phenomenon by introducing an inapplicable and authoritarian law. Will these women be banned from walking the streets freely, at the risk of trapping them in their homes and subjecting them to greater arbitrary police presence in their daily lives?
What’s more, such a law would make these women into martyrs and would risk creating an enthusiasm for the burqa as a reaction... and it would reinforce the stigma against Muslims in general by fostering an identification of Islam with fundamentalism and terrorists.
In concocting a specific new law, Sarkozy is not in any sense defending the dignity of women — indeed, he tramples on the dignity of women daily by dismantling public services, asphyxiating groups for the defence of women’s rights, or by encouraging the spread of precarious work. He is also not defending secularism, given that he is attacking state schools for the benefit of private schools, from primary to higher education. With this law, the government simply wants to divert the public's attention away from fundamental problems (jobs, homes, health, public transport, etc.)
That is why the left must refuse to partake in this campaign in any way, or indeed to vote for any resolution at all which might give the impression that we on the left share the values of this government.