Oppression through the policing of clothing

France’s lower house of parliament recently approved a bill to ban the wearing of a burqa or niqab in public. People caught wearing garments “that hide the face” will be fined 150 euro and those who force women to cover up could be fined up to 30,000 euro and face a one-year jail term.

Some of those in favour of the ban say it stems from the French concept of laïcité, a model of secularism which upholds freedom of and freedom from religion so that religious practice is a strictly private matter for each individual. Others say it is an attempt to liberate and protect Muslim women from an oppressive practice, or that the wearing of the burqa prevents integration of immigrant communities, that veils are intimidating and that they present safety or security risks.

This ban will only impact on a tiny minority of people; those Muslim women who wear either the niqab or burqa. Many of these women are from immigrant communities and many are disadvantaged socially, politically and economically.

Is the clothing worn by these marginalised women really more of a tool in their oppression than all the other forces against them; sexism, Islamaphobia, racism, classism? If a woman is forced to wear the garments under duress, how will the ban help her?

It is likely that anyone with enough power over another to dictate her dress will be able to decide on her freedom of movement too. The punishment of women for their appearance is itself oppressive whether it is forcing them to cover or expose themselves.

This law would severely limit the freedom of Muslim women from the minority, highly conservative practices of Islam to go out and about and interact with others. For those women who choose this form of dress, the negative perceptions and reactions of other people is what is oppressive and divisive, not a thin piece of material.

What is important here is not so much the reasons why women wear the burqa or the effect of religion on their lives, but the decision by European state to impose a dress code on women in their public life. Safety and security concerns are meaningless. Are over-sized sunglasses to be banned too?

What about the wearing of surgical masks in public, or wigs and caps pulled low to cover the face? In one debate a clever chap from Northern Ireland asked if it would be OK for him to walk around Belfast wearing a full face black balaclava; bless him for not recognising the difference.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy’s has expressed his view on the burqa; “It will not be welcome on French soil. We cannot accept, in our country, women imprisoned behind a mesh, cut off from society, deprived of all identity. That is not the French republic’s idea of women’s dignity.”

How is the French republic’s idea of women’s dignity upheld by forcing her by law not to wear certain clothes? Sarkozy speaks in the guise of women’s rights, but ignores the voices of the women who would be affected by this law. Neither do I understand how policing women’s clothing choices could in any way serve to promote social and cultural cohesion in France or elsewhere.

Conservative MP Philip Hollobone hopes to ban the burqa and niqab in the UK. Thankfully he has little chance of success; immigration minister Damian Green has said banning the full Islamic veil in public would be “at odds with the UK’s tolerant society”. Hollobone has also said he will refuse to meet his constituents who wear face coverings, when he’d be better off ensuring he is representing them and their needs as best as possible.

I’m not a Muslim woman and don’t claim to speak for them. Instead I credit them with the ability to fight their own battles while I would ally myself with their efforts to wear what they want when they want, free from coercion from state or family.