In France, about .00003% of the population wears a full-face veil–this using the highest reported estimation I could find of 2000 practicing face-hiders out of a population of 65 million people. The move to forbid the niqab or burqa in public places by European governments, including Sarkozy’s center-right UMP party in France, always struck me as ridiculous, cynical, and exploitative, reminiscent of calls in the US promoting the invasion of Afghanistan and escalation of the war in order to protect the rights of women.
The big question: Why give the state the right to make rules about what women can wear?
Face-hiding for fundamentalist religious reasons is just one case of many sexist injustices in Western society. Forbidding the burqa implies that Muslim women in particular need the state to protect them because they can’t protect themselves. Apart from showing contempt for these women in this way and putting the burden of the injustices of fundamentalist religion largely on their shoulders, supporters of the total ban in public—which amount to only about one-third of the French public, according to Le Figaro—either disregard the possibility that women themselves may want to decide to wear the burqa or another form of strict religious garb, or they reason that Muslim women cannot freely make their own decisions due to oppression in the private sphere. Either way, the choice of clothing is judged to be contemptible and unethical, with the prescription being state intervention into family decision-making. There are also probably some supporters among political elites who don’t care much about women’s rights but see an opportunity for fear-mongering and/or an opportunity to change the subject away from more pressing issues, of which there are many.
Before banning the burqa, why not ban plastic surgery, symptoms of eating disorder, hard-core pornography and any number of other violent behaviors against the self that a patriarchal society teaches women to engage in that are unhealthy and inhumane? I actually do not think these things should be banned, but reduced as much as possible through education and democratic social changes that will make them less attractive–less imperative–as alternatives. In the end, what a women wears or thinks or does with her body is up to her; it follows that the state, a husband, or any other authority has no justification to forbid such behavior. Instead, we need education around feminist issues for men as well as women, and progressive political changes moving towards equal rights. The goal should be to increase the range of possible decisions and minimize the kinds of social and economic situations where choices such as hiding one’s face in public, cutting oneself, or selling oneself seem better than the alternatives.