The French Parliament has approved a ban on face veils in public, in what proponents say is an effort to keep the state secular and detractors say is a grievous affront to religious freedom. The measure still needs to pass the French Senate to become law, but with little open opposition in France, at least from politicians, it is likely to be ratified. The law would fine women for wearing a niqab or a burqa, which both conceal parts of the face, and could heavily fine or jail men who force female relatives to wear such coverings. Other European countries are considering similar bans.
According to the AP, the language of the bill tries to paint it in broad, non-religious strokes, claiming that it applies to everyone, while making exceptions for almost every other instance one can imagine for a woman to cover her face in public, like wearing a motorcycle helmet or costume. No one has to say that it's aimed at Muslims.
At the same time, the reasons women wear burqas and other coverings are complex, and I don't pretend to know all of the arguments. It's also the case that some things are wrong (forcing your wife to wear something she doesn't want to wear, lying, verbal abuse, cutting in line) but not able to be legislated in a free country (although people who cut in line should be scolded severely by the nearest grandmother, in public).
While this raises a whole host of issues (including: Is the burqa making Muslim women fat?), the one I'm most concerned about is the fact that so many people think it's okay for their government to dictate what people can and cannot wear. France claims to have a secular government, but they're not banning yarmulkes or crucifixes. True, these religious symbols don't have the same effect on those outsiders who view the wearers, but they're still symbols of a particular religion.
Islam is not the only religion that, when practiced in its orthodoxy, encourages and sometimes requires extreme modesty of its women. Hello, nun habits? Parents force their children to wear Catholic school uniforms. Conservative Christians wear long skirts and even higher necklines. Orthodox Jewish women don't show any skin aside from the ankles, wrists and neck, no matter the weather. Not all Muslim women wear a full burqa; they wear variations of head coverings dictated by their particular sect of Islam and their regional and cultural heritage. So we can point them out and decry the practice as barbaric, but you know what they say about those who throw stones.
The slippery slope is real, folks. Civil liberties erode and will eventually crumble if they are not upheld forcefully. It's not overreacting or being paranoid or leftist to believe this. If France does it, so might Spain and Belgium. If the European Union does it, so might the United States. And if the U.S. decides that burqas are oppressive, and that we as a country ought to tell women they can't be worn, we will have crossed the already too-blurry line that separates church and state.
In a free country like France, women can choose to practice Islam or not. For some, wearing the burqa is an integral part of their religion. I personally don't agree with that philosophy. No one in the French Parliament has to, either. But banning face coverings isn't going to change an oppressive culture, it's only going to engender even more hatred from radicals who see the West as the enemy, and make life harder for Muslim women.
The Vatican has opposed this kind of ban, for the somewhat self-serving but still valid reason that if majority Christian countries don't respect Muslim minorities' right to practice their religion, Christians in majority Muslim countries could see their own rights taken away. Catholics as individuals are not always so open-minded, but in this case, I'd urge us all - Catholic or not - to side with the Pope on this one. Our right to practice Catholicism - not right now, perhaps not for several generations, but surely some day - will depend on it.