John Stuart Mill raised two fundamental questions regarding the authority of the state over the individual: Where does the authority of society begin, how much of human life should be assigned to individuality, and how much to society. Mill asserted that the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others. The alleged harm that the full veil has caused has been based on speculations of what is seen as ' oppressed Muslim woman' and the threat to French identity.
After long controversies, the French government has finally officially banned the full-length veil and resulted in the arrest of two women found violating the new law. The events have inevitably led to major controversy worldwide, as France becomes the first country in the world to enact laws banning the burqa. Despite many arguments that have been put forward regarding the threats to French identity, both sides are using the ban to their own advantages. France has done the right thing in the wrong way.
The French have claimed that the full veil is a threat to what it means to be French and France's vision of a secular state while some Islamic sects have preached that one essential form of a woman's faith is reflected in covering up and have blamed Islamaphobia as the engine of this law.
Others have argued that many women believe in a myth of covering up as they are 'brainwashed into looking to the afterlife.' Many critics are interfering in the wrong way by backing a law against what can be seen as a myth by observers while being part of the identity of that group. This idea of looking down at the world from an objective lens has been refuted by two famous anthropologists Boas and Benedict who for long argued the relativity of cultures and ways of seeing.
From now, any person publically covered up in a burqa will face retribution by being fined up to 150 euros. This of course is not restricted to France. Syria in fact banned the country's students and teachers from wearing the burqa since July 2010 for what it claimed to be a 'protection of Syria's secular identity.' Where ironically, just a couple of days ago on April 6th, Syria reversed the ban on teachers wearing face veils in which it was seen as an 'attempt to reach out to conservative Muslims ahead of calls for pro-democracy demonstrations.' Similar cases had even spread to Jordan where the government tried to 'discourage them by playing up reports of robbers who wear veils as masks' and cases in Turkey where Muslim headscarves were banned in universities due the feeling that Turkey's secular laws are being attacked does threaten the legality of the burqa.
If the debate is on security and reasserting secularist values, then these should not trample on the liberties of dress codes. Ironically, we are talking of democratic constituencies that are now violating the constituted rights of an individual who is not threatening the general welfare of society. The burqa does not threaten the safety of the society as a whole and is not an offence for an individual to be punished by law. In this case, the person's conduct does not affect the interests of other persons beside himself. In such a case, the individual should be free legally and socially to wear what one wants.
Government officials have stated that 'the ban does not target the wearing of a headscarf, head-gear, scarf or glasses, as long as the accessories do not prevent the person from being identified.' The enactment of the law will lead to a 30,000-euro fine and one year imprisonment on the people who will force a woman to wear a niqab or a burqa. Forcing a minor to do the same thing is punishable by two years in prison and a fine of 60,000 euros.
Of course this is not to deny the tragedy of many women who are forced into wearing it or that the burqa exercises the greater good of society in any way. However, the state is interfering in dangerous zones as it decides to ban the full veil that many women choose to wear and dictate a law against it. In this way, the state is infringing on another person's individual choice and freedom. In fact, what the state is doing is seizing the liberty of many women who consent in wearing the burqa in order to protect a group of people who are unfortunately coerced to wear it.
The issue is not the safety of society but rather a question of identity, which has been an ongoing debate in Europe since the introduction of multiculturalism. A couple of months ago in October 2010, the debate was raised in Germany after Angela Merkel made a speech that the multicultural approach has failed. She said: 'This multicultural approach saying we simply live side by side and we are happy about each other has utterly failed.' She added: 'the demand for integration is one of our key tasks for the time to come. Foreigners should be integrated rather than accommodated.' The state cannot interfere in every aspect of society in a multicultural democratic constitution, it should be left to the community and the individuals to have the autonomy over their decisions when it comes to what one should wear or practice. This concept of multicultural identity is seen as a threat to the nation state framework defined by Weber where society is made up of homogenous cultural and political entities. Ali Hossaini argued in his article 'Beyond the multicultural ghetto' that societies should work toward assimilation. He argued that there is a lack of coherence in societies that have separate ethnic or identity groups who do not share a set of values.
Many Muslim families understand the necessary adjustments to assimilate in a modern European society and if the family is to force a young girl to cover up, the state then should interfere in individual cases and impose a fine rather than punishing many of those who freely choose to wear the burqa. It is time that the state reassesses its position in passing a law that tramples upon the freedom of many woman who express their identities by wearing the burqa.
Joanna Aniel Bidar
Lebanese/ French journalism student currently studying at Sciences po Paris