An Unjust Law?

The French government is banning burqas.  Story here:

Reasons President Sarkozy:  “The burqa is not welcome in France because it is contrary to our values and contrary to the ideals we have of a woman’s dignity.”

I suspect I share Le Prez’s ideals, but I share the concern expressed by the sole dissenter in France’s National Assembly:

“To fight an extremist behavior, we risk slipping toward a totalitarian society.”

Thoughts about this new law?  Anyone care to make a case for it, or is it just what it appears to be: a blunt violation of freedom of expression?

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5 Responses to An Unjust Law?

  1. Nates says:

    Very disturbing.

    As far as making a case for it, I suppose one might point out that we are OK with other restrictions on freedom of expression. For example, we generally don’t allow people to walk around completely nude downtown. Presumably the idea is that its justified to protect society from being confronted with certain kinds of shocking or outrageous behavior. Perhaps the French see the burqa, associated with very repressive treatment of women, as falling under this category.

    I don’t think this defense of the ban works, but I find it interesting.

  2. Lime says:

    While it is worth noting that the French tradition of laïcité is different in notable ways from Anglo-American liberalism, I agree with Nates that this law is disappointing. Muslim religious expressions are continually singled out while other traditions are overlooked. Public debate surrounding “The Headscarf Affair” reflected a remarkable ignorance of, and lack of interest in, how Muslim women in France actually conceive of the headscarf. While the burqa does raise different concerns, I worry that such an antagonistic stance toward Islamic tradition may hinder feminist goals. There is substantial evidence suggesting that minority groups (indeed groups in general) become more conservative when they feel threatened. This law may help “traditionalists” who wish to label Muslim criticism of the burqa as inauthentic, the result of being brainwashed by secular culture, etc.

  3. Josh says:

    Let’s not forget, though, that there’s arguably a legitimate interest in protecting women from the effects of the burqa. From one perspective, this is “singling out Muslims’ – from another, it’s protecting women. The argument is about which of those narratives is more relevant I suppose.

    As Nates points out, we have hosts of restrictions on individual liberty which we find perfectly acceptable, including restrictions on religiously significant behavior. Child molestation, for example, is not legal in the United States, regardless of whether any particular religious group advocates for it.

    Muslim women are encouraged and even required to accept the burqa long before they’re in an intellectual position to defend themselves. They internalize a lesser self-image and a set of ideas about their own bodies that are at odds with the rest of their legal rights and general equal standing under law. Is a burqa the same as child molestation? Probably not, but it’s in the same ballpark. I’m not sure how trustworthy individual women’s testimony is regarding the meaning of the burqa. Might not such testimony just be the sort of masochistic rationalization that often accompanies unequal social institutions? Sure – some of them may conceive of the burqa as a symbol of resistance, but one could imagine similar testimony being given by a victim of repeated child molestation – “we just love each other differently… you don’t understand.” At some point we have to be willing to override individual (or even group) protestations about the supposed empowerment of a behavior that can be seen externally to be violent, repressive and at odds with the other legitimate interests of democratic citizenship.

    I agree with Lime about the potential conservative backlash from members of the group in question – but there are times when such backlash is worth it. Gun-control laws in the US, for example, cause bizarre forms of firearms-obsessed resistance, but the existence of those groups does not per se invalidate a gun-control law. I imagine that for every restrictive law there is a group of people who feel threatened by it and grow more conservative because of it, even come to define themselves in opposition to such laws. But some laws are still a good idea.

    Now, if that backlash ends up jeopardizing the very aim of the initial restriction, then you have to wonder whether the initial restriction was necessary. But that’s much more of an empirical policymaking question than any of us are in a position to make a priori judgments about. And the backlash may just as well be because of the circumstances attending the enactment of the law as the law itself. They might also be short-term things that in 20-30 years would go away.

  4. David says:


    Welcome home! I think I agree with your comments in toto. I’m less sanguine now about the illegitimacy of the French law (or potential law).

    That being said, I suppose I could agree with everything you said and still ask whether the law is the best instrument for disabusing Muslim women of the ‘self-conception’ to which you allude. There is something heavy-handed about the French policy, even if I sympathize with the motives behind it.

  5. Josh says:

    I think such a law is more heavy-handed when exercised on adults than on children… Is it possible it would make more sense if the law were restricted to those 18 and under, or those attending public schools, or something like that?

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