As signalled by SATC2, the burqa is losing none of its attraction. In Australia, a Christian Democratic MP, the Reverend Fred Nile, has tabled a bill aimed at prohibiting women from wearing the burqa which will be debated by the New South Wales Parliament in September, despite opposition from the Premier. Elsewhere in Australia, the Northern Territory Anti-Discrimination Commission is investigating a case in which a woman was asked to remove her niqab during a job interview . In Canada, the case of N.S.v. R in which a sexual assault complainant who has asked that she not be required to unveil while testifying, has come up for hearing before the Court of Appeal for Ontario: see here, here , here and here and see the Canadian Council for Civil Liberties here.
We have written about France and the veil several times (see here) but, unfortunately, this issue is not going away. There seems to be a new development every week. Last Wednesday, the French government approved a draft law banning the wearing of garments which cover the face in public spaces. It is clear from the public discourse surrounding its development that the law is aimed at Muslim women who wear the niqab and the burqa. Under the terms of the Bill, women punished for wearing such garments in public would be fined or compelled to undergo citizenship training. Penalties including a term of imprisonment would also be established for those convicted of forcing a woman to wear a veil (though compulsion would be difficult to prove). A six month grace period would apply before the law came into full force and the government aims to work with community and faith groups to ‘persuade’ individuals who support women’s wearing of face veils that a ban is legitimate. Some questions remain as to whether these provisions can be enforced. For example, the French police union Alliance has expressed skepticism about its members being required to enforce any new ban.
On International Women’s Day, the EU Commissioner for Human Rights, Thomas Hammarberg released a viewpoint which argued against restrictions on women’s religious dress. He stated that:
Those who have argued for a general ban of the burqa and the niqab have not managed to show that these garments in any way undermine democracy, public safety, order or morals. The fact that a very small number of women wear such clothing has made proposals in such a direction even less convincing. Nor has it been possible to prove that these women in general are victims of more gender repression than others. Those who have been interviewed in the media have presented a diversity of religious, political and personal arguments for their decision to dress themselves as they do. There may of course be cases where they are under undue pressure – but it is not shown that a ban would be welcomed by these women.
Hammarberg seems to be in something of an unfashionable minority.In the past fortnight, three significant stories have broken about the regulation, in France, Belgium and Quebec, of the niqab and burqa worn by some Muslim women.
The French Conseil d’État, in its capacity as advisory body rather than as administrative court of final appeal, yesterday issued a lengthy report, on the request of the Prime Minister, on the “legal possibilities surrounding the prohibition of the full veil.” This follows controversy and debate in France in recent months surrounding the wearing of the burqa in particular, the publication of the Gerin parliamentary report in January, and the report today that Belgium appears likely to become the first European state to legislate on this issue. In a measured, comprehensive and nuanced report, the Conseil concluded, somewhat predictably, that an outright prohibition on the wearing of the full Islamic veil would like contravene a number of provisions of the French Constitution as well as the European Convention on Human Rights (the report is published online here and the very useful summary here; it is unlikely, however, that either will receive an official translation into English).
Jean-François Copé (pictured left), of the conservative French political party, the UMP, has recently tabled legislation that would make wearing the burqa or niqab in public an offence punishable by a fine of 750 euro. The draft text reads: “No one may, in spaces open to the public and on public streets, wear a garment or an accessory that has the effect of hiding the face.” André Gerin, chairman of a parliamentary inquiry into the use of full face veils in France, ruled out the possibility of a total ban in November of last year. We blogged about the Gérin Commission here. It is expected to report some time this month. The New Zealand Herald translates an interview which Copé gave to Le Figaro explaining the rationale behind his proposal:
“The parliamentary resolution will help to recall the fundamental principles of respecting the rights of women as a key element of the Republic. The law will respond to the question of security… How can we imagine that a teacher can let a child go out of school and be handed over to someone whose face cannot be seen?… At a time when we are developing the means of video-protection, how can we think of people walking around with their faces covered?..Exceptions to the ban would be made for “carnival or cultural events” where people were masked, he said.
As news comes that France will follow Britain’s lead in launching a ‘national identity’ project, I am reminded to check in on the country’s latest foray into the regulation of Muslim women’s dress: the National Assembly’s Mission d’information sur la pratique du port du voile integral sur le territoire nationale. The mission was created on June 23rd at the instance of André Gerin – with the support of a number of right wing deputies – and met in July, September and October of this year. The hearings will finish in December and the final conclusions should be available in January. Transcripts of the sessions of the mission so far are available here and videos of the sessions are here. The transcripts of the mission’s hearings – which include testimony from hospital professionals, mosque representatives, feminist groups, mayors, philosophers, anthropologists, historians and others – certainly make for interesting reading. The main points are summarised after the jump.
Against the backdrop of much fanfare and polemic, France’s controversial prohibition on face-veiling comes into force today. The law has met with derision and scepticism internationally, and internally, from a surprising source, in the guise of a police union which “denounced” the law as “unenforceable”. The law, which was passed by the Senate in September, was motivated by a number of political concerns. First, it was rationalised with reference to the value of gender equality, and the concern that the republican state should take a stand against the symbols of gender oppression in the public square. Second, it was motivated by an idea that the much-cherished principle of laïcité, or secularism, should preclude “ostentatious” or threatening displays of religious affiliation in the public square. Third, it was thought that the imperative of republican civility, or what feminist Elisabeth Badinter bizarrely termed the “obligation of fraternity”, precluded the practice of hiding one’s identity in public. Fourth, and far from least, the recent populist turn of the French government and president, under pressure from the new leader of the resurgent National Front, has fed a parallel discourse surrounding the imperative of integrating Islam in French society. By this light, the “full” veil was perceived as an ostentatious marker of difference or segregation, an indication of creeping “balkanisation” or “communautarisation” of French society.
The Conseil Constitutionnel, France’s Constitutional Court, handed down its ruling yesterday on the constitutionality of the legislative prohibition on the wearing, in public space, of “any dress intended to cover the face” . This does not directly refer, but is nonetheless broadly intended as encompassing, the Islamic burqa and niqab – the objects of much polemic in France over the past year. The prohibition is wider than that recommended by the Gerin commission report which had recommended a partial ban in schools, public transport, etc; furthermore, the validation of the Conseil Constitutionnel comes despite the earlier warning by the Conseil d’Etat, in its advisory capacity, that any such general prohibition might contravene the Constitution as well as the ECHR.
On 23 March 2010, Mary White TD was appointed as Minister of State for Integration, Equality and Human Rights at the Department of Community and Gaeltacht Affairs. She controls a budget of 5.35 million euro. On March 27, she made this brief speech, setting out her aims for the new post. In that speech she said:
We are all aware of the inequalities which remain in our society – be they economic or social. We know there are the homeless – short-term and long-term – on our streets, day and night. We know many families are struggling with unbearable financial stress. We know there are many travellers living in appalling conditions, with poor facilities and limited access to basic needs. We know many women in this country flee to refuges seeking protection from violence or abuse. We know people are still insulted, ignored or exploited because of Continue reading
This post features an interview with Prof. Sherene Razack, conducted by our regular blogger Mairead Enright. Sherene Razack is professor, Sociology and Equity Studies in Education, the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education of the University of Toronto. Her most recent book is entitled Casting Out: The Eviction of Muslims From Western Law and Politics.