Wednesday, March 31, 2010

The Niqab: A Smokescreen For Political Leaders on Both Sides of the Atlantic

Menton, France: On Monday, the members of the National Assembly, Senators and Euro-Deputies of the mainstream right in France assembled to consider their future political course. High on their list of priorities is the introduction of a law in the National Assembly that would withhold a host of government services from Muslim women who wear the niqab (a veil that covers the face). The move by the parliamentarians in the party of French President Nicolas Sarkozy came just eight days after the second round of voting in regional elections across France, in which the mainstream right suffered its lowest voter score since the creation of the Fifth Republic by Charles de Gaulle more than five decades ago. For Sarkozy, the defeat was a humiliating rejection of the policies he has been implementing since he was elected three years ago.

In a live post-election broadcast, Jean-Francois Cope, President of Sarkozy’s party in the National Assembly, the Union pour un Mouvement Populaire (UMP), said that to reignite the political fortunes of the right, the government needs to reassure the people of rural France by grappling with the issue of the burka (niqab). Daniel Cohn-Bendit---Danny the Red in the late 1960s, and now Danny the Green---a spokesperson for the French ecologists who are in a political alliance with the Socialists and others on the left who won the elections, was another guest on the broadcast. He warned the spokesperson of the UMP that by mentioning the burka in response to the defeat of his party, he was in danger of promoting the values of the extreme right.

In the wake of a defeat at the polls, why is the French government going after the niqab, worn according to the most reliable estimates by no more than a few hundred women in the country?

In rural France, the niqab is about as common as the penguin. Even in Paris, you would have to spend days of patient people-watching to spot one.

A major reason Sarkozy and his Prime Minister Francois Fillon plan to press ahead with a law that would prohibit the wearing of the niqab on buses, at airports, or in banks, is that the UMP needs to win back votes it lost to the extreme-right Front National of Jean-Marie Le Pen in the recent elections. They are looking ahead to the presidential and national assembly elections in 2012, and for the first time in years they believe the Socialist Party poses a real threat. To counter this, they think a crack down on wearers of the niqab and by implication on the Muslim fact in France is a way to convince traditionalists that they care about the preservation of France’s national identity.

The European debate about the niqab is not limited to France. Other countries, such as Denmark, are considering what to do about the garment. The tempest about the niqab in Quebec and the decision of the Charest government to introduce an anti-niqab bill is evidence that the issue has traction on both sides of the Atlantic.

Many feminists argue that they favour banning the niqab because it is a symbol of the demeaning of women in highly repressive societies. While they’re not wrong about that, the response is hugely disproportionate. Closing the doors of schools and even hospitals to women wearing the niqab is hardly an effective way to win such people over to an alternative set of values.

The governments and political parties that are intent on pushing the issue have their own axes to grind. Invariably, what they have in mind is distracting the attention of people from the issues that really bother them---unemployment, falling living standards, the diminishing career prospects of their children---to get them focused on the “other” in their midst.

Dressing such legislation up in the garb of rights for women is just a way of trying to make xenophobia appear benign. But it’s never benign for the state to take aim at a tiny and powerless minority.

I remember the efforts of schools in the early 1960s to tell students how long they could grow their hair or what clothes they could or could not wear. The kids always made the schools look dumb in those fights. The same will happen to legislators who are hiding behind the niqab to achieve their nefarious goals.


Bill Bell said...

Thank you for writing this, Dr Laxer. I am extremely concerned that recent decisions made in Québec denying women the right to wear the veil will support the belief that some Canadians have that we have more to fear from those of us who are Islamic than anyone else.

Dame said...

I am an Open Minded Socialist/Liberal.
This face Covering upsets me with no end . I object it strongly just as I would object Complete nudity on the streets.
it is Inhuman it should not be tolerated.
Politics or not I object it just as I Object The whole saria-law Culture. We have to put the limits in it is our Country with Our Culture. take it or leave it.

Anonymous said...

What a bunch of nonsense. Who cares if only a few hundred women want to wear the Niqab. This is an issue being used to divide the people. Seems like Charet is as morally corrupt as the rest of the right wing. As Israel now has so much influence on Canada and the U.S., perhaps Canadian men will soon have to drop their pants to prove they are circumcised or not circumcised....depending on which way the wind is blowing. This would be as ridiculous as the issue over the Niqab.
Living as a Muslim in Canada, the U.S. or the rest of the Western world is extremely difficult. Populations are allowing themselves to be manipulated and divided from one another and hate is being deliberately instigated by governments. We are almost all in the same & struggling under morally corrupt governments which are now turning fascist. Worry about that and do something about it instead of picking on a handful of young women who probably don't really care much about this particular item of their clothing in the first place. They are using it to make a point as they grasp for a some sense of pride. Muslims are being treated very unkindly since 9/11 which was probably a black-op terrorist act done by the Bush people and not Muslims. If, in fact, there were some Muslims involved they were probably deranged or mentally ill and were used by some people close to Bush. This all stinks to high heaven.

Northern PoV said...

"The kids always made the schools look dumb in those fights. The same will happen to legislators who are hiding behind the niqab to achieve their nefarious goals."

didn't take long:

Anonymous said...

We don't let Sikhs carry sharpened knives and I don't see why we should allow people to go out in public wearing masks. Wearing a mask is illegal in some English-law jurisdictions, as it should be. Furthermore, niqab is founded on the idea that women are possessions that must be protected from other covetous men. But women are not possessions, at least not in Canada.

One of the ways in which a free person takes responsibility for his or her life is to go about in ways that allow him or her to be identified by everyone.

The divisive aspect of this dispute is that not all religions are treated equally. In France, for example, you can't wear hijab to school, but you can wear a small cross.

Anonymous said...

Actually Anon, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled in 2006 that banning Sikhs from carrying a Kirpan violated an individual's freedom of religion protected by section 2(a) of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

or the case of Multani v. Commission Scolaire.

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