Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Racism veiled as liberation

by Madeleine Bunting

July 14, 2010

It sends a shiver down the spine. France's lower house has passed a law banning the wearing of the full Islamic veil – covering the face – in public places. The hope has to be that this extraordinary decision never actually reaches the statute book given that France's highest constitutional body, the council of state, warned some months ago that a ban would infringe constitutional rights and the measure could be challenged in the European court of human rights. Belgium and Spain are also considering bans on the veil. What makes the decision in France so disturbing is that it fits into a pattern emerging across Europe of a particular paranoia, as an open letter published today on Comment is Free and signed by more than 30 academics and commentators warns.

The veil debate is making it entirely legitimate to pillory, mock and ridicule a tiny number of women on the basis of what they wear. French politicians described the full veil as a "walking coffin"; on comment threads online there is contempt and sneers for the full veil and those who wear it – "hiding under a blanket", "going round with a paper bag over your head". In France it is estimated there are only 2,000 women who cover their faces with the burqa or the niqab out of a Muslim population of five million. The response is out of all proportion.