Taking secular values at face value

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By Harry van Versendaal

France’s decision to ban the niqab and the burqa — the latter being a version of the full-body veil usually associated with Aghan women who were repressed by the Taliban — has naturally drawn a shower of criticism from politicians, clerics and pundits in Muslim countries. An Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman promptly complained that “any kind of ban on observance of the veil means a lack of freedom and rights of Muslim women.”

But apart from the public rebuke from Iran — an unlikely defender of women’s rights and liberties — the French move has also come under fire from Europe’s liberal-left commentariat, which has denounced the ban as a wrongheaded breach of the freedom of expression or, more cynically, a political machination on behalf of President Nicolas Sarkozy’s party, the Union for a Popular Movement, aspiring to ride the burgeoning wave of anti-immigrant sentiment in the country of 65 million people.

But even if it passed the ban for the wrong reasons — which is debatable — Sarkozy’s party may still have done the right thing. What most critics seem to miss is that France has a long tradition of strict secularism or, what the French like to call, laicite. The legacy of revolutionary anti-clericalism, this peculiarly French doctrine differs from other European understandings of liberal pluralism such as, for example, Britain’s live-and-let-live multiculturalism which revolves around allowing all different cultures flourish in a multiethnic, multireligious environment.

The French are concerned that this shrug-your-shoulders-and-move-on type of religious tolerance works against social integration because it encourages the creation of social apartheids — parallel societies living according to their own norms and principles but never really mixing with each other. For that reason, the French elites have for over a century insisted on an unflinching secularist policy designed to purge religion from public life while safeguarding the three fundamental principles of the Republic: liberty, equality, fraternity. Being French is not about the right blood, color or metaphysics, but about endorsing these key secular values which by default stand above any ethnic, racial or religious tag.

It’s an inevitably imperfect and oft-betrayed ideal, but it is still an ideal. And it’s easy to see how this uncomfortable tent-like garment that reduces visual perception of the outside world to a burqa mailslot, falls short in respect to these values; in fact, in many ways it stands at the opposite end.

A symbol of inherent inequality and male domination, the burqa is the product of a bizarre notion of sexuality: gazing at the hair or faces of women arouses sexual desires in men; and the people who must punished for that are the women. Andre Gerin, the Communist deputy who chaired the commission that examined whether there was a case for outlawing the burqa, said the full-body gear is “the tip of an iceberg of oppression,” while Algerian-born minister Fadela Amara described it as “a kind of tomb, a horror for those trapped within it.”

As defenders of the practice like to point out, there are of course exceptions as some women claim to don the garment by choice. But so long as there are women out there who are beaten, stoned or disfigured by their menfolk for not covering their face, liberal societies in the West have an obligation to defend their citizens against this jailhouse garb.

And, whether some women actually like to wear the burqa or not, it’s hard to disagree with the fact that covering your body and face signifies something else than unwillingness to integrate with the rest of society. France, a country which includes 5 million Muslims, has good reason to worry given recurring reports of Muslim men who forbid their wives from seeing a male doctor, of women who demand female-only swimming pools or refuse to participate in school sports, and of pupils who skip history classes such as those on the Jewish Holocaust.

Instead of whipping our backs while trying to accommodate the most indefensible of customs in the name of a misguided anything-goes cultural relativism, we secularist liberals should have the courage to defend the animating principles that make the open society: freedom, equality, openness. Anyone who wants to join in must, at least, have the courtesy to show us their face.

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