April 21, 2011

France Suppresses Fashion Freedom

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Everyone’s favorite frenemy France is back in the news again for a recent ban on public face-covering, which threatens citizens with up to a 150 euro — roughly 180 baguettes as a point of reference — fine for violation. The  law forbids the niqab and the burqa, and further stipulates that forcing someone else to cover his or her face — though it is unclear whether physical or mental blackmail is necessary to enact this provision — is punishable by a fine of up to 30,000 euro or even a year in prison.

France is a nation that now consists of somewhere between 5 and 6 million Muslims, and has long dealt with tensions between these citizens and their secular and Christian counterparts. This ban can be seen as representative of a point of friction between rivaling groups, despite the fact that only a tiny minority of French-Muslim women choose to wear a face covering.

Much of the support of the ban comes from feminist critics of Islam. Islamic law regarding head-coverings is notoriously ambiguous, and surprisingly, many Islamic scholars have come out in support of the ban, claiming that the misinterpretation of the commandment for Muslim women to “lower the gaze” has led to what many believe is Islam’s worst PR gaffe, the niqab and the burqa, two ultra-conservative varieties of face-covering veils.

Still, others have differing and less anti-Islamic explanations for the law. Some assert that face covering poses a security issue, although this explanation does not address the additional punishment for those who force others to cover up. Separately, many officials in the French government refrain from referring to Islam specifically, but instead advocate a concept of laïceté, French for secularity, that can extend beyond governance to the individual. These critics, however, have neglected to explain why the ban extends only to specific types of headdresses and not to all religious garb.

I believe that all of these arguments miss the crux of the issue. While the Islamic headdress does represent a sort of tangible inequality between men and women that, no matter whose choice it is to sport the covering, does entail discrimination between the sexes, it should not fall within the jurisdiction of the government. However you view this discrimination, one must admit that, unless the burqa or niqab is forcibly placed and bound upon a struggling Muslim girl’s head, the simple act of coaxing your child into wearing one should not be illegal. Parents push their children to wear ridiculous things all the time, as a trip to websites like awkwardfamilyphotos.com will show. Parental pressure alone, terrible as it can be, cannot explain the specificity nor the logic of the law.

Where the ban really breaks down is in the realm of freedom of fashion. What if I was on study abroad in France, on my way to an ironic costume party, to which I chose to wear a highly stylish niqab, with a silhouetted picture of my favorite French President Nicolas Sarkozy on the rear? Would I then be susceptible to this fine, just because of my awesome costume? Furthermore, what if there exists one, super trendy, fashion-forward French girl who has, for whatever reason, decided that she would like to wear a burqa on the first day of school? Can a country really legislate against this girl’s farfetched dreams of popularity?

The point I am trying to make here is that freedom is freedom, and while it can yield pretty terrible results — notably Florida Pastor Terry Jones decision to disrespectfully stage a public burning of the Quran — it is not the government’s place to step in and regulate dress code when people’s fashion choices are not causing any harm to others. While the French government has given the modern era its revolutionary credo of liberté, égalité, fraternité , it is now acting out of anti-progressive xenophobia. It was the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen, passed by the French National Assembly in 1789 and still held in high esteem by the French Fifth Republic of today, which taught us that “Liberty consists in the freedom to do everything which injures no one else.” I believe this must hold, even if it leads to some very poor fashion choices.

Original Author: Adam Lerner