By Chloé Meley
The sanitary crisis we currently find ourselves in has done much more than simply create a novel array of challenges countries have had to rise up to; it has also revealed a number of existing fissures in the political, social and economic fabric of the world. Whilst a range of new problems have appeared, the old ones have not conveniently receded into the background. Indeed, Covid-19 has brought to the surface many underlying issues, exposing the cracks in healthcare systems across the globe, shedding light on stark social divides, and making it abundantly clear that lofty rhetoric cannot replace responsible leadership. As countries have had to adapt to a new normal, contradictions and hypocrisies were laid bare. Among them is France’s ban on Islamic face coverings.
For years, politicians and the public have been debating whether the burqa – and by extension, Islam itself – is compatible with the Republic’s values; or whether both are in fundamental opposition with French identity. Then, in 2011, the verdict was finally issued: France became the first European country to ban full-face veils in public spaces. President Sarkozy justified the decision on two fronts, weaponising both feminist discourse and secular principles. First, he contended that the law would counter the subjugation of Muslim women, who apparently are completely devoid of agency and in need of being saved from Muslim men’s oppression. Secondly, he declared that “the Republic lives with its face uncovered”, arguing that to conceal one’s face violates the republican principles of equality, freedom and human dignity, as well as prevent full participation in society.
But the Covid-19 pandemic has come to challenge such rhetoric. On the 10th of May, amid the incremental easing of lockdown restrictions, the French government strongly urged citizens to wear masks in public spaces, and made it mandatory to wear them in public transport. The Republic that lives with its face uncovered is now living with its face obstructed, whilst the burqa is still banned. The country therefore finds itself in a predicament that would almost be funny if it weren’t so revelatory of its hypocrisy: France has made face coverings both compulsory and prohibited. A Muslim woman wearing a burqa boarding the Parisian metro would technically be required to remove her veil and replace it with a mask.
Having made one’s belonging to the nation dependent on garment, France is now left to reckon with how nonsensical that concept is. The pandemic has shown that the French way of life can and does accommodate the concealment of one’s face when circumstances force it to do so. Given that republican values are not threatened by face coverings of any kind, there is simply no denying that the 2011 ban was ostensibly about constricting Muslim religious expression. The veneer of justification offered for the full-face veil ban has been peeled off, revealing the subtext that many knew was always there: it was never about participation in society on equal terms, it was always about the exclusion of veiled Muslim women from national identity.
France has always had a difficult relationship with Islam, a tension that has occupied the political imagination of the country for decades, and which often manifests in debates over Muslim women’s decision to wear hijabs, burqas, and other face coverings. The first controversy of many erupted in 1989, when three high school students refused to remove their hijabs in class. Much later, in 2004, the display of religious insignia in schools was outlawed. Officially, the legislation was implemented to instil secular beliefs in pupils, whose understanding of and allegiance to the nation’s fundamental principles must be forged early on. But the law was undeniably about policing those of Muslim faith: almost all cases of expulsions in 2004 and 2005 concerned hijab-wearing school girls. Attempts to constrain the practice of Islam have steadily continued since 2004, just as anti-Muslim rhetoric gained more traction through the ascent to the mainstream of voices such as Marine Le Pen’s. The latest example occurred in summer 2016, when the country became the object of international ridicule for its crusade against Muslim women wearing burkinis on beaches.
France’s proud commitment to secularism – which is central to its self-vision and republican tradition – often acts a smokescreen that conceals the country’s genuine motivations when it comes to regulating religion. Indeed, whilst secularism is supposed to guarantee the right to practice one’s religion in peace, successive governments have somewhat altered that definition, making it less about freedom to observe one’s faith and more about freedom from religion altogether; with the exception of Catholicism, whose continued influence is deemed acceptable because historically significant. The concept of religious pluralism therefore gave way to the notion of assimilation into a Catholic-tinged – but proudly nonreligious – French culture.
Veiled Muslim women are consistently treated as other in France. They are infantilised and vilified, stripped of their agency and kept out of a narrow understanding of national identity. French secularism thus creates an exclusionary definition of Frenchness, which in turn organises the citizenry in two groups: those who belong and those who are yet to be integrated, those who live in accordance with the values of the Republic and those who threaten it.
Up until now, French leaders could appeal to the notion of protecting Republican values to legitimise the marginalisation of Muslim women who choose to wear veils. But that excuse doesn’t hold up anymore, as public life continues, driven by a sea of covered faces. The idea that dignity and freedom hinge upon the visibility of one’s facial features was already quite disputable; it has now been completely disproven. As the pandemic redefines our ways of doing and being, may it prompt us to re-articulate a new French identity, one which does not rest upon the weaponisation of secularism for the sole purpose of exclusion.