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May 12th, 2010, by Caroline Fourest

Caroline Fourest

View Caroline Fourest’s GEF profile here

One always wishes that a debate as complicated as the one on the burqa takes place in an environment where there is neither an opportunistic, polarized discussion on national identity, nor a vote against minarets in a neighboring country. All of us would rather live in a world where there is neither fundamentalism to fuel racism, nor racism to fuel fundamentalism.

But we do not live in an ideal world. The burqa debate has entered the public sphere, and now must be addressed.  Parliamentarians have decided to tackle the issue, which is perfectly legitimate in a democracy. Yet the real reason for this issue to be dealt with now, is that the burqa represents something quite shocking in France, a secular country committed to equality. Seeing the shadows of women haunting some neighborhoods is an unsettling sight. Hopefully we will never get used to.

Does this mean banning can resolve everything? This is where the debate becomes more complex. It is possible to ban a religious symbol in public schools, as well as in public utilities and places representing the Republic, in the name of emancipation. But what about the street? Here the choice of an individual – even if alienating – is most important, as long as it does not undermine security or public order.

A symbolic law against the veil would be disadvantageous in that it would be sectional and also possibly unenforceable. In this affair, there is need to distinguish two things – the reasons why you want to fight the full body veil (women’s dignity) and those that can be cited to restrict this sectarian uniform (security). This is what would help make a wise combination of an official resolution with a set of broader regulations governing the duty of identification.

The solution is for Parliament should express its rejection of any sign undermining women’s dignity. To be fair, such a move will not be credible unless it is unanimous and transcends factional divides. Left wingers should be closely involved in this legislative step.

In terms of enforcement, measures should be taken to empower businesses and public places to display regulations requiring any person entering the premises to be identified for security reasons. In 2006, a black-hooded man strolled into the video-monitored London Underground. He was arrested. Why would a woman have the right to wear a hood concealing her face? Because she believes God asks her to? God mustn’t be a blank check… A few weeks ago a Marseilles-based jeweler opened to people he thought were a couple, including a figure wearing a full veil. They were actually two robbers. He was promptly robbed.

In many cases – whether to pick up one’s child, a parcel from the post office, take the bus, walk into a store or area under video surveillance – a fully veiled woman must agree to be identified under threat of being booked. Apart from these situations, it would be free for her to wear a veil to uphold her beliefs or protect herself against influenza A, and it would be free for others as well to keep saying what they think.

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