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Life under the French veil ban is nothing like ‘living together’

On 1 July, the European Court of Human Rights upheld the French legislation banning the face veil in public space. As Frederick Cowell has observed, this will keep the French government from criticising…

Living apart? EPA/Horacio Villalobos

On 1 July, the European Court of Human Rights upheld the French legislation banning the face veil in public space. As Frederick Cowell has observed, this will keep the French government from criticising the Strasbourg court at a time when its judicial authority is under serious pressure.

But this institutional gain should not obscure the social costs of the verdict. Muslim women who want to wear the face veil are going to have a harder time in Europe. This can only have a detrimental effect on social “cohesion”; it is bad news for everyone in Europe.

Exposed

The verdict condones legislation which bans face veiling. If you are a woman who wants to veil yourself in this way, the criminalisation of your chosen attire makes your everyday life very difficult.

Every time you step out in public, you risk being fined. Any activity which takes you out of your house becomes a hazard, a potential cause for being humiliated, a journey which may go astray.

You try to avoid going shopping, because you fear being stopped by the police. You do not dare fetching your children at school, because you might never get to the school gate in time – or, if you do, your children may witness you being abused on the way home. You calculate the risks of being caught every time you step out of your house. Imagine that.

Some may think the solution to this problem is just to stop wearing the veil. This is not how it feels for the women who choose to veil themselves, something most of us regard as a drastic and bewildering step.

Research by the Open Society Foundations based on interviews conducted in France found women wore the veil for religious reasons, because it felt right to them in a particular moment in time, at this particular stage of their spiritual journey. No one had coerced them to take this step. They regarded it as the outcome of their personal decision. They did not impose it on anyone else.

The Strasbourg Court recognised that the applicant in the SAS versus France case was an autonomous woman, who had decided to take up the veil of her own free will. In stark contrast to previous decisions, the court thankfully avoided any argument that the veil was a symbol of gender oppression.

It also rejected the French government’s argument that the ban was necessary for security reasons: the applicant specifically said she was willing to take off her veil for example for identity checks. In order to justify the interference with the way the applicant wished to conduct her life, the court relied on a concept until then unknown in the Strasbourg case law: the requirements of “vivre ensemble”, or “living together”.

Living together

This unprecedented justification is highly ironic: in the name of “living together”, the court condoned a measure which makes it a hazard for Muslim women who choose to wear the face veil to go out at all, thereby isolating them in their homes.

Reading the judgement, one might get the impression that entering the public sphere means participating in a sort of big dance, where everyone joins in and talks to each other in equal terms and with equal enthusiasm. This is not how public space works in practice. All too often, we assume that a veil makes it impossible for us to interact with the woman who wears it, and that she would not talk to us. For some reason, we seem unable to just let veiled Muslim women be.

The court recognised that the French legislation was adopted after a parliamentary debate hardly devoid of Islamophobic remarks. Despite the poor quality of this debate, the court did not restrict France’s “margin of appreciation” (or “margin for discrimination”, as one commentator called it).

The judgement carries special weight because it emanates from the Grand Chamber, and it is almost certain to open the door to similar legislative bans in European countries which have so far successfully resisted the adoption of these oppressive and counter-productive measures.

Criminalising a way of presenting oneself and of living an everyday life is no way to improve social relations among Europe’s diverse population. We all need to learn to live with difference – that is the true meaning of “living together”.

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21 Comments sorted by

  1. Arata Yamamoto

    PhD Student at University College London

    Interesting article...

    You say that "We all need to learn to live with difference – that is the true meaning of “living together”. So, how do you think VEILED WOMEN should learn to live with difference? Remove their veil, maybe? Or should the "learning to live with difference" only applies to the native population of France/Western Europe?

    Unless you solve this dilemma of double standard, your argument will not appear persuasive to anyone, I'm afraid.

    So, what's your answer?

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    1. James Briggs

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Arata Yamamoto

      You want western woman to show their faces in public and Arab woman to wear veils. When we want them both to do the same thing you and say. “Unless you solve this dilemma of double standard, your argument will not appear persuasive to anyone, I'm afraid.”

      Come back when you learn English. A double standard means two standards. A system where Western woman don't wear veils and Arab women do wear veils means two standards, one for western women and the other from Arab women. Two standards is the meaning…

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    2. Arata Yamamoto

      PhD Student at University College London

      In reply to James Briggs

      Haha, James Briggs, I think your English's terrible too. Read my comment above again. Where did I say that I want people to be beaten into believing what they are told to believe?

      From your comment that "When westerners go to Islamic countries they follow the law. That is how people live together.", it seems that it's YOU who want "people to be beaten into believing what they are told to believe."

      Dear me!

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    3. James Briggs

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Arata Yamamoto

      I am surprised you don’t demand that I address you in Arabic, which is the same as wearing a veil. Another English lesson as you won't deal with my point. That point is having one standard for western woman and another for Arab women is a double standard. Now to your accusations, your statement "Where did I say that I want people to be beaten into believing what they are told to believe?" Nowhere and I didn’t say you did. Here is what I said, "I know how people are persuaded in Islamic countries. They are beaten into believing what they are told to believe." Your name appears nowhere. As I said your English is limited. Then you say I advocate beating people. Now I wonder if you thought I was arguing in favor of Islamism all the time. There is no point in continuing as you have no idea what I am saying and I have no idea what you are saying.

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  2. John Doyle

    architect

    I read a comment from an observer in France who criticised the face veil because it signified a rejection of the society by the wearer. I am sympathetic to that. Western society, which the muslims have joined by living in a western country is open and does not have clothing that hides the identity of persons there.
    If a muslim chooses to live in a western country they have chosen to integrate to the extent they can adhere to the norms of that country.
    It's not different from a western woman living in Saudi Arabia and having to cover up. They are not free to not do that there. It's not a double standard when the converse applies in a muslim society.

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    1. Alexander Hellemans

      Science journalist

      In reply to John Doyle

      Well, the veiled women you see in France aren't in general free to not wear a face veil as well, it is imposed upon them by their husbands and relatives. These women can only go out for food shopping, the rest of the day they stay inside. The veil is just another way to keep these hapless women locked up, and isolated from society around them.

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    2. Marie-Bénédicte Dembour

      Professor of Law and Anthropology at University of Brighton

      In reply to John Doyle

      I would just like to repeat that social science research conducted in various European countries with women who wear the face veil suggests that these women are not coerced by their husband or anyone else to wear the veil. It is very instructive to read their testimony. See e.g. http://www.opensocietyfoundations.org/reports/unveiling-truth-why-32-muslim-women-wear-full-face-veil-france

      Now, if we were to assume like Alexander and John do - presumably without hard evidence? - that some women in Europe are actually coerced to wear a veil, I still fail to see what is being achieved by making it even more difficult for them to resist oppression and be able to leave their house without risking being fined.

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    3. Alexander Hellemans

      Science journalist

      In reply to Marie-Bénédicte Dembour

      I knew a moderate Islamic family in Antwerp, Belgium, which has a very large Muslim community, and to their horror, their daughter got engaged to a fundamentalist Muslim. This meant that the mother and sisters would be forced to change their dress code as well. Also, in the Muslim areas in Antwerp, you only see men sitting in coffee shops or park benches, no women. So there is definitely something wrong. The women are either actively repressed in their social life and interaction with the community at large, or brainwashed. The same is true for the women of the large Hasidic community in Antwerp. Abrahamic religions are not kind to women.

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  3. Marie-Bénédicte Dembour

    Professor of Law and Anthropology at University of Brighton

    Hi Arata and John,

    Thanks for your comments and question.. How we should live together in society is a big question which of course my article could not make justice to.

    But perhaps a few additional points might explain my perspective further:

    1. It is important to stress that, here, we are not talking of the pros and cons of a particular behaviour/attire, but of actual criminalisation - which means women cannot go out without risking being fined over and over again for the same thing. In fact…

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    1. John Doyle

      architect

      In reply to Marie-Bénédicte Dembour

      I am not criticising your commentary. I just remembered the french official's opinion expressed at the time the ban was being considered, and it is relevant to the discussion.
      I only take issue with the total face covering headwear. The hijab is not a problem any more than the headwear nuns used to wear.
      Here in Sydney many young muslim women look extremely elegant and stylish in their garb. No one remarks on it now. Your point 2.
      There is certainly no excuse for criminal conduct or even stereotyping by virtue of a religion based outfit. One that signifies rejection or similar is more likely to invite repudiation, however.

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    2. Arata Yamamoto

      PhD Student at University College London

      In reply to Marie-Bénédicte Dembour

      Hi Marie,

      Thank you very much for your kind reply. There are some powerful arguments you presented and they made me re-think my current views on full veil, for sure. Here is what I now think.

      (1) About the repeated fine - if the full veiled women immediately removed the veil after the first fine, then they wouldn't pay the fine repeatedly, surely? It's the women's unwillingness to adhere to the law of the land that other law-abiding citizens are unhappy about, I presume.

      (2) But surely you are…

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    3. Marie-Bénédicte Dembour

      Professor of Law and Anthropology at University of Brighton

      In reply to Arata Yamamoto

      Hi Arata,

      Thanks for engaging with my arguments one by one. And let’s continue this conversation. After all, this is surely what ‘The Conversation’ is all about!

      Let me start with where you end: why could not the women who wear the face veil emigrate to a country where this practice is celebrated?

      Leaving aside the fact that migration processes often involve more than one person and lots of different considerations, so that emigration may not be a realistic, feasible or attractive option for…

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    4. Arata Yamamoto

      PhD Student at University College London

      In reply to Marie-Bénédicte Dembour

      Hi Marie,

      Thank you very much for your most generous and insightful response. I am with you 100% when you say that we need to continue discussing this important issue as so many people, on both side of the argument about the full veil, feel so passionate about debating on the subject, feeling empowered and marginalized in the process.

      I am glad also that we agree on the point that, at the heart of our disagreement, lies the notion what it means to value pluralism in a democracy. In other words…

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  4. James Briggs

    logged in via Facebook

    The verdict condones legislation which bans face veiling. If you are a woman who wants to veil yourself in this way, the criminalisation of your chosen attire makes your everyday life very difficult

    It's not chosen and they know it. To spite what they say criminals don't want their hands chopped off and women don't want to be stoned to death. The veil is actually the cornerstone of culture based on rape. The very same people who claim that western culture is based on rape also oppose the ban on veils. They wish to impose a rape culture on our society so they can blame it. Let's clear they claim that no woman will appear in public without a veil. It turns on that one does. Then we should chop off the hands of those who oppose the ban.

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  5. James Briggs

    logged in via Facebook

    People move to the west to escape their old oppressive culture and try to change the west into the very culture they escaped from. It is no coincident that women in Israel are adopting the veil as Israel is turning into poverty stricken oppressive theocracy. Veils are part of a whole. They are part of a movement to enslave and impoverish the people.

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  6. Mervyn Hagger

    Academic Research

    This is 2014. This Planet is populated by human beings who all came into existence by the coupling of a male with a female. Each human being was born without a preloaded cultural memory. Stick any two young kids from any combination of races together, and if their minds have not been poisoned with bogus cultural hateful ideas, they will play together without a care. This is 2014 and the last thing kids need is a load of cultural claptrap foisted on them by their parents. The world of John Lennon's "Imagine" is possible, if only stupid adults would pause long enough to stop abusing the minds of children. The veil belongs in the dustbin marked 'Cultural Claptrap'. Wake up and smell the roses, look at the sky and see reality and understand that the universe didn't create veils, human beings did in order to create the illusion of power. But those same powerful bods will all die, just like their subservient slaves. What a silly world this is. The real G

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    1. Mervyn Hagger

      Academic Research

      In reply to Mervyn Hagger

      od is laughing... (I didn't want you to miss that bit which I accidentally chopped off.)

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    2. Mervyn Hagger

      Academic Research

      In reply to John Doyle

      Why? Its a universal idea behind religious brainwashing that you start with the mind of the child and soon you have young men joining causes and carrying guns and women cheering them on... unless they have decided to also join in. This religious garb factor is merely a manifestation of the brainwashing process because it is a uniform in support of a dogma. In 2014 its time for all of this madness to end. The Pope needs to take off that ridiculous fish hat and shut up about issuing political statements. He is also part of the problem and not a part of the solution. Uniforms were designed to be divisive and separate "them" from "us". But underneath all of these rags we are all just ordinary human beings.

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    3. John Doyle

      architect

      In reply to Mervyn Hagger

      It's only off topic because the thread is about the criminalization of veil wearing. So child abuse is related to face covering but really needs its own blog. I'm not disagreeing with you otherwise.

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