Introduction

The world is full of different religions: Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, and more. People practice their beliefs in all different ways, like celebrating holidays, going to places of worship, and eating special foods. Imagine if one day, a new rule was put in place that stopped people from doing one of these things. Even if it does not entirely ban a religion, this law would strip some people of their religious freedoms and prevent them from expressing their most important beliefs.

Explanation

Unfortunately, this scenario is a reality for Muslim women in France. As part of their Islamic faith, many Muslim women wear veils that cover the hair and face. One common covering subject to this ban is the burqa, which covers the face and body. The burqa and other similar coverings signify their modesty and show devotion to Islam. However, on April 11 of 2011, France enacted a ban on women wearing face-covering veils in public. 

Case Study: Ban of the Veil in France

The ban prevents women from wearing full-face veils in virtually all public spaces except for places of worship. Women who violate the law have to pay a fine or take a French citizenship test.

How It Works

As extreme or odd as this ban may seem, it is preceded by a history of similar laws. In 2004, France passed a law prohibiting public school students from wearing clothing with notable religious affiliation. Though this may appear to affect people of all religions, it disproportionately impacted Muslim students. Similarly, the current face-veil ban particularly affects Muslim women. Former French President Nicolas Sarkozy claimed that veils oppress women and threaten French secularism, or laïcité. 

However, opponents of the ban say quite the opposite. Many Muslim women see the hijab as an empowering display of their faith and feel the policy unfairly targets their community. Critics also note that the ban is contextualized by the recent acts of terrorism, including September 11, 2001. They argue that it is a result of unfair judgement that Islam is inherently linked to extremism. In 2018, the United Nations affirmed anti-ban protests, ruling that the law unfairly “harmed the petitioner’s rights to manifest their religious belief”. They contended that the ban did not “reasonab[ly] balance public interests and individual rights”. As a result of the ruling, France was given 180 days to revise the law. 

Why Care?

The case of the veil ban has had wide impacts on Europe and the rest of the world. In fact, it was the first of many European countries to enact such a ban. Firstly, this raises concerns about the possibility of losing religious freedoms in secular countries. In this case, Former President Sarkozy justified the ban by saying that wearing religious veils in public is not in keeping with French national identity. However, we must ask to what extent the government can limit religious freedom in the name of secularism. 

Secondly, it brings up a debate about women’s equality. While many advocates of the ban see the veil as something that oppresses women, Muslim women themselves have said they find the veil empowering and wish to wear it as a symbol of their faith. As long as wearing the covering remains their choice, Muslim women consider it to be a great expression of their faith. However, such a ban completely takes away their right to wear the veil if they choose to do so.

Thirdly, it brings attention to Islamophobia, which is an extreme fear of or aggression towards Muslims. Though Islamophobia spiked after the September 11, 2001 attacks, negative stereotypes about Muslims have been around since the Middle Ages. Bans like this one, which disproportionately affect Muslims, can promote such hateful sentiments. Even though this particular ban was challenged by the UN, similar policies still exist. We must think critically about these ideas and defend everybody’s religious freedoms, especially when people belong to marginalized faiths, like Islam.

    Learn More

    1. “France: Banning the Niqab Violated Two Muslim Women’s Freedom of Religion – UN Experts.” OHCHR, United Nations Human Rights Office of the High Commissioner, www.ohchr.org/en/NewsEvents/Pages/DisplayNews.aspx?NewsID=23750&LangID=E.
    2. Heider, Jennifer. “Unveiling the Truth Behind the French Burqa Ban: The Unwarranted Restriction of the Right to Freedom of Religion and the European Court of Human Rights.” Indiana International & Comparative Law Review, vol. 22, no. 1, Jan. 2012, pp. 93–130., doi:10.18060/17670.
    3. “What Is Islamophobia?” Bridge Initiative, Georgetown University, bridge.georgetown.edu/about-us/what-is-islamophobia/.
    4. Wing, Adrien Katherien, and Monica Nigh Smith. Critical Race Feminism Lifts the Veil?: Muslim Women … University of Iowa College Law, June 2008, lawreview.law.ucdavis.edu/issues/39/3/articles/DavisVol39No3_WING.pdf.

    Think Further

    1. One of the punishments for wearing the veil was being made to take a French citizenship course. What message do you think this sends about people who wear the veil and their French identity?
    2. Another closely related law discussed was the ban on wearing religiously affiliated clothing in public schools. Do you think this law is fair or does it raise the same issues as the veil ban? Are there any differences?
    3. The concept of laïcité was in fact formed to counter the overwhelming influence of Roman Catholic Influence during the French Revolution. Do you think laïcité has taken on a new meaning? 

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