From the time President Nicolas Sarkozy declared in June 2009 that the burqa was “not welcome” in France, it has been clear that his government was serious about introducing a ban on the veil worn by some Muslim women and on another more severe garment called the niqab, which leaves only the eyes uncovered. The French government is now closer to this after the National Assembly approved legislation for it. It has to be passed by the Senate next, and a constitutional Council could yet void it. The proposed law is very much in line with France's inspiring secular traditions that keep religion strictly out of the public sphere, where the social contract is based exclusively on universal values enshrined in the country's laws. In April 2010, similar legislation was approved by the Belgian parliament's lower house, and a vote by the upper house is awaited later this year. Other European countries are also mulling a ban on the veil. But France, which passionately values a secular national identity over the ethnic or religious affiliations of its immigrants, has never shied away from forcing the pace on complex issues relating to religion and their place within the larger national identity. If this was first aimed at checking the influence of the Catholic church on public life, the spotlight is now on Islam. The proposed ban makes eminent sense through a feminist lens. The burqa (not to mention the niqab) is unquestionably an oppressive garment that seeks, as Mr. Sarkozy pointed out, to keep those who wear it imprisoned “behind a screen.” It is nowhere prescribed in the Koran but has been imposed on millions of women by sections of the clergy — all of them male — who have interpreted religious texts to suit their backward-looking religious or political agenda. That many Muslim women seem willing to embrace the veil these days as a symbol of their piety, modesty, and virtue, or as a political statement of their Muslim identity, is no indication of female agency. It speaks more of their successful co-option in a misogynist project that is the antithesis of liberté, égalité, fraternité — values that go back to the French Revolution and are the proclaimed national motto of France.
However, there is a serious downside to the move to ban the burqa and the niqab. In the post-9/11 atmosphere, such a law is likely to be viewed as an instrument to persecute and humiliate Muslims. It could lead to further radicalisation within the fold and inflame tensions between majority and minority populations in Europe. The reality is that only a small number of women in France's estimated five million Muslim population wear the veil. Fears that a ban could end up criminalising Muslims in European societies are not misplaced, given the Islamophobia in the west. The right-wing French government's unfavourable disposition towards immigrant populations does not help either. In March 2010, the Council of State, which will examine the proposed ban for its constitutionality, observed that a complete ban might, in fact, violate the French Constitution and the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Conventional Freedoms. It seemed more comfortable with the idea of a limited ban rooted in reasons of security. But even if the Council strikes down the law, the intriguing social, philosophical, and political issues the burqa and the niqab raise will not go away. For literary guidance on what might happen if the tension between an uncompromisingly secular state and radical religious identity assertion — focussed in this case on the mysterious phenomenon of the “headscarf girls” committing suicide in Kars in Turkey during the early 1990s — is allowed to sharpen and grow, there is no better text than Orhan Pamuk's magnificent novel, Snow.