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France’s “Burqa Ban” Enforcing Not Solving Inequality

It is now a year since the French government implemented a ban on the wearing of face coverings in public spaces, aimed at women who wear the full-face veil, popularly and incorrectly referred to as the “burqa.” Advocates of the ban argued it would protect gender equality and help maintain public order. A year later, it has done neither.

The legal application of the ban means women found wearing a full-face veil can face a fine of up to €150. This can be accompanied or replaced by a mandatory “citizenship service.” In an interview with Le Monde at the beginning of 2012, French interior minister Claude Gueant stated that, although 237 women had been stopped by the police, only six had been convicted. It is thought that today the number of convictions stands at around 20 women.

Outside the confines of the law, many more women are being singled out for unofficial “sanction.” According to a French civil society organization a growing number of Muslim women in France—veiled and unveiled—are victims of physical or verbal assault. The Collective Against Islamophobia in France (Collective Contre l’Islamophobie en France), recently released statistics from their forthcoming 2011 annual report. They estimate that 94 percent of victims of anti-Muslim physical and verbal abuse are women, and over 84 percent of all reported Islamophobic acts are targeted at women. Often these women are singled out because they are wearing the headscarf or niqab.

It is uncertain whether there is any direct link between the ban on the full-face veil and this rise in physical and verbal violence against Muslim women over the past year. Anecdotal evidence suggests that the intense debate and scrutiny surrounding the ban has provoked hostile and even violent reactions from members of the public towards women wearing the veil. In a report by the Open Society Foundations’ At Home in Europe Project published on April 11, 2011, 30 out of 32 Muslim women who wear the full-face veil in France stated that they had suffered some form of verbal abuse from members of the public prior to the implementation of the ban.

Those who had been wearing the veil for a long time believed that hostility towards them had increased significantly since the debate on the niqab started in 2009. A minority of women had been physically assaulted.  A worryingly large number of the women interviewed believed that spitting and name-calling was a relatively normal, everyday experience. Many women spoke about avoiding certain areas or places and taking care not to travel alone:

To start with, when I’m alone, when I return home on my own, I’m careful about the bus routes I take. I take certain "strategic" routes. I commute through places which are not very crowded to avoid any problems.

According to an article published in Deutsche Welle on the law's one-year anniversary, the ban on the niqab has not served to “liberate” women as is claimed. Rather, it has served to increase the sense of exclusion and restriction voiced by many of the women we spoke to before its implementation:

I particularly miss going out. Now you have to think twice before going out and I’ve really withdrawn into myself a lot because when you go out people are really very, very nasty. Before, it was kind of OK. You had some stares, sometimes people took liberties and said certain things, but not as much as nowadays, especially since it’s been covered so much in the media.

Legislating and subsequently criminalizing the visibility of religion in a public space was never going to achieve gender parity. Arguably, it was never truly intended to.  The absence of any comment from France’s political establishment on the anniversary of the ban speaks volumes.  A year later there is a lack of any evidence to endorse the ban and its original mandate.  It is time now to revisit the effectiveness and need for such a law.  In light of the number of women who suffer abuse and exclusion—both imposed and self-imposed—as a consequence of the ban, France cannot afford to wait.

The experiences of women who wear the niqab across the UK are the subject of a forthcoming report by the At Home in Europe project of the Open Society Foundations.

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