Here at Universal Life Church Monastery, we have been following closely the situation of Muslim minorities in Europe and looking at the conflict between Muslim and secular European values. In a recent post, we discussed the passage of a law banning minarets on mosques in Switzerland and what this might say about both freedom of religious expression and freedom from religious imposition. Now, French Prime Minister Francois Fillon has called on a collaboration between France’s parliament and its top court, the State Council, to draft a law banning the full veil—the niqab and the burqa—in government-operated French public spaces.
Where exactly to draw the line between freedom of expression and imposition has posed a problem for the French government, which has had to consider the constitutionality of the proposed legislation. According to Agence French-Presse, the thirty-two-member commission seeking the State Council’s help “stopped short . . . of calling for legislation to outlaw the burqa in the streets, shopping [centers] or other public venues after raising doubts about the constitutionality of such a move”. Indeed, many parliamentarians have exercised great caution over the proposed law in order to avoid violating the very principles they are aiming to protect: supporters of the ban posit that the full veil is being used by radicals to insinuate an extremist form of Islam into French society, while others counter that very few Muslim women actually wear the full veil, and hence it poses little threat to the equality cherished by French society.
France is not the only country where the trend toward banning veils has been growing, however, and other western European democracies have followed suit. “The Netherlands and Austria”, reports Agence French-Presse, “are considering a ban on the full veil, while Denmark said . . . it would limit the use in public of the burka and niqab veils although stopping short of an outright ban”. Increasingly, the proposed bans seem to be serving as a sort of “baptism“, “consecration”, or initiation into secular European society, a backlash against the fundamentalism slowly pervading the European continent and diluting its endangered Enlightenment philosophy. But, inevitably, the constitutionality of such bans becomes questionable, and as more governments consider legislation restricting use of the full veil, greater specificity will be required to delineate between freedom of and from religion, insofar as such a distinction is a part of a given country’s political tradition. (Not all secular democracies have the strict institutional separation of church and state that the U.S. has.)
How exactly the law protects women is not entirely clear. The French government’s attempt at preserving traditionally French values by restricting the public exercise of religious belief—whether Protestant, Catholic, or Muslim—might create a contradiction in the eyes of critics, who warn against an equally evangelical secularism. After all, does a law truly protect women’s rights if it dictates a woman’s choice in dress? On one hand, politicians who endorse a ban on full veils by citing sex equality may in fact be challenging a woman’s right to dress as she pleases; on the other hand, it is possible that women who wear the full veil do not choose to do so, but are coerced into doing so by male relatives. According to the BBC, the purpose of the parliamentary report backing the ban “is to make it as impractical as possible for women in face veils to go about their daily business”, which, ironically, allows women very little liberty; however, the BBC also reports that the French government has refused citizenship to a foreign national because “he forced his wife to wear the full Islamic veil” and, according to Immigration Minister Eric Besson, “he was depriving his wife of the liberty to come and go with her face uncovered”. Then there is the case of Faiza M, a Moroccan immigrant denied citizenship by the French government because, according to social services, she lived in “total submission to her male relatives”. But one may argue that by denying Faiza citizenship to a country that protects women’s rights, the French government has actually denied her a life of liberty. In such a case, is the French government liberating women, or oppressing them?
Organizations such as ULCM embrace both the contributions of diverse religious traditions and the full equality of women and men. Does this approach create a contradiction for churches like ULCM, and is it necessary to settle on a compromise between the accommodation of religious custom and sex equality? The Anglican Communion, for example, has attempted to resolve this problem within its own ranks by gradually eliminating patriarchal hierarchy and including women as priests while preserving the church’s broader spiritual message. Perhaps it is possible to embrace a religion’s essence while rejecting individual discriminatory practices within that religion; in this way, every religion still has its own unique, yet also universally applicable, values to contribute to the church. Feel free to share your thoughts on what stance progressive, ecumenical churches should take towards this question.