Earlier yesterday members of the French parliament approved with 336 votes for and 1 against a controversial law banning the voile intégral (the burqa). The vote has not come as a surpise as it has been discussed and anticipated for several months. Although the reasons put forward in support of the ban consider the burqa a “prison for women” and a “sign of their submission to their husbands, brothers or fathers” and therefore identify Muslim women as the target of this law, the legislators crafted the law in such a way as to ban any face-covering material, to “forbid concealing one’s face in public.”
On the surface, a gender blind piece of legislation whose authors claim no intention to discriminate against Islam, the law curiously contains elements that clearly negate the declarations of its sponsors. In a display of determined arrogance that totalitarian regimes would envy, the law stipulates that, alongside a fine of €150, women who will be caught covering their faces will be required to attend citizenship classes, presumably to become molded into the citizens the French state requires. In many ways, the law reveals the perennial contradictions of French Republicanism whereby citizen sovereignty and state tutelage of public (and, increasingly, aspects of private) life are doomed to cause frictions and cause a permanent democratic deficit.
Despite assurances about its gender, religion and culture blindness, the bill also seeks to regulate the behaviours of husbands, fathers, and anyone convicted of forcing someone (presumably a woman) to wear the burqa by imposing prison sentences and fines.
All this happened despite the fury and frustration of French Muslims who, regardless of their attitude towards the burqa, feel that the law singles them out and cancels the principle of egalité, as well as against the advice of the Conseil d'État not to pursue a ban on the burqa in public spaces as this would lack a sound legal foundation.
The unconvincing reassurances uttered by the French legislators as to the neutrality of the law, the broader European context - a fortnight after Barcelona introduced its own unconvincingly neutral statute, a few months after the Swiss electorate became seduced by populist islamophobic politicians into voting against the erection of minarets in the country's referendum, at a time when Belgium and Spain, followed by the Netherlands are prepared to introduce similar anti-burqa legislation on the grounds of various justifications - indicate an unwillingness to recognize and address Europe's and Europeans' uneasiness with Islam but also with migration, and the multiple fiscal and financial crises that affect European societies. More importantly, the recent confrontational attempts to 'deal' with Islam betray a fundamental inability to think of ways to incorporate diversity and difference in our democracies whose 'blindness' to particularism that was supposed to safeguard equality for all has shed its clothes and revealed its fundamental deficiencies and inbuilt bias.