When Laïcité Goes Wrong, or When Burqa Checks Start Getting Real

When Laïcité Goes Wrong, or When Burqa Checks Start Getting Real August 23, 2012

Since the anti-burqa law (or whatever you want to call it, I can’t anymore) was passed in France, women with “full cover” can be cited for non-compliance, and can be stopped for identity checks.  We all remember the story of the polygamous butcher and his many niqab-clad wives gleefully committing welfare fraud.  One of his wives was stopped while driving, and it was argued that she was pulled over, not for a traditional traffic offense, but because she was driving with a niqab on (which is why she was stopped). Last month in Marseille another lady, whose only crime up until that point was wearing niqab, was stopped for an identity check and to be cited for wearing niqab in public (an “offense” in France for which you have to pay a fine). This didn’t go down well with her and her entourage, and the story made headlines for after she bit a female police officer ; a similar incident  happened recently as well in the northern city of Roubaix.

It is useful to note, as an aside, that France has a long history of abusive identity checks where people who “don’t look French” get checked by police just for existing. So people of certain skin tones or ethnicities would get randomly stopped even before it was legal to be stopped for wearing face covering. Despite being whiter than snow, I got more than my fair share of “identity checks” in hijab and the comments that went along with it, like “we don’t wear headscarves here, this is France.”  So the context of these particular events is more complicated in France than it seems on paper.

While I can’t condone biting, ever, considering that just walking in the street in niqab is now a crime, I have to wonder what really went on and why it had to get to that point. I can’t see why someone who has never had any problems with the law before would bite someone unprovoked. Again, nothing justifies biting, but do they honestly expect us to believe that the cops were little choir boys and girls who said, “Please Madame, could I please see your ID, I’m so sorry to ask but pretty please?” and niqab lady could think of nothing better to do than chomp an ass? Also, as someone who used to cover, I remember being extremely uncomfortable removing any clothing. Having to dejab for my wedding at the mayor’s office in France made me physically nauseous, and this despite having lived 25 years without hijab up to that point. When we think about how charming cops are, and how charming French people are in general when it comes to Muslims and their clothes, I can conceive that these women could also have been coming from a position of discomfort or fear, perhaps due to the cops’ attitudes or perceived violence.  I cannot and will not ever understand why women’s bodies and how we clothe them are always the battlefield.

Which leads me to a point I have been thinking about for a while now: I truly believe, even as a long-time Francophile, that the anti-burqa law is part of a climate of islamophobia in France that is now part of the public discourse. I think it is politically correct to be “secular” in France now because it sounds better than just saying “I hate Muslims.” So I think this unfortunate incident occurred in a context of hate and frustration on both sides.  Likewise, I think the rather recent movement towards secularism, or laïcité, which its proponents like to say dates back to the turn of the 20th century but in reality (and in its current version) is a phenomenon of the past 30 years, is also a discourse meant to counter Muslims. This anti-Muslim discourse (because that is what laïcité and “covering” bans really are at the end of the day) has spilled over into other French-speaking countries, with the Parti Quebecois in Quebec most recently proposing its own head-covering ban.

It is useful to note that the authorities chose not to prosecute niqabi biter lady, because they “didn’t want to create drama during the sensitive Ramadan period” but that they reserved the right to call the parties back later.  Why be “culturally sensitive” if the entire purpose of legislating women’s clothing is allegedly to be culture-blind and remove us from the repressive chains of patriarchy? Why is it not ok to do that during Ramadan but ok the rest of the year?  Going further don’t know how much longer the proponents of the French model of secularism can maintain that laïcité does not equal discrimination while laws like the anti-burqa law, meant to protect France’s sacrosanct secularism in the face of creeping sharia, are considered in other places to be, in fact, discrimination.  How can being stopped for just walking in the street not be discriminatory? What is inherently wrong with a woman minding her own business whose face happens to be covered?  Religious plurality is a reality in France which its ruling classes choose to conveniently ignore unless it is election season. There got to be a better way than the French model of secularism.

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