Gender, State & Society article

Contending Modernities in France: Muslim Expression vs. Secular Integrity

Last month, on April 11, 2011, France became the second country in Europe, following Belgium, to ban the wearing of the full Islamic veil or burqa. The law was approved in October 2010 after a year of intense debate. Nine out of ten French people support it, according to a recent survey. France had already banned the wearing of conspicuous religious symbols such as veils, Jewish skullcaps, and crucifixes in schools in 2004.

Under the new law, women who wear face-covering Muslim veils in “public places” in France face a fine of about $200, compulsory “special classes” on citizenship, or both. Husbands and fathers found to have forced women and girls to wear the full veil risk a year of prison and a fine of about $40,000, with both penalties doubled if the victim is a minor.

Within hours of the ban becoming law, two women wearing full face veils were arrested. Apparently, however, they were arrested for participating in an illegal protest—outside Notre Dame cathedral in central Paris—and not for wearing the veil. Police say they were released shortly after being questioned.

President Nicolas Sarkozy has described the burqa as a “sign of debasement.” Michele Alliot-Marie, the former interior minister, said it “cuts [women] off from society and rejects the very spirit of the French republic, founded on a desire to live together.”

This direct clash between the religious practice of some Muslims and a law that many French leaders and citizens believe is a logical extension of France’s secularism could not be of more direct interest to Contending Modernities. We therefore asked two of our regular commentators—M. Christian Green and Mahan Mirza—to offer their reflections on France’s burqa ban.

Timothy Samuel Shah
Timothy Samuel Shah is Editor of the Contending Modernities Blog. He is Associate Director and Scholar in Residence of the Religious Freedom Project at Georgetown University’s Berkley Center for Religion, Peace and World Affairs and Adjunct Research Professor with Notre Dame's Kroc Institute. With Monica Duffy Toft and Daniel Philpott, he is co-author of God's Century: Resurgent Religion and Global Politics.

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