France’s Veil Ban
By Taylor Marvin
On September 14, France’s Parliament overwhelmingly voted to ban face-covering veils in public. The bill enjoyed wide public support in France: according to a recent survey , 82 percent of the French public supports the ban, with most supporters citing concerns over women’s rights and the erosion of France’s secular society. What is interesting is just how deep the support for the law is across French society. Unlike many other social legislations, the ban enjoys wide support among both French youth and the elderly and is backed by both the French political left and right. It’s important to remember what this law is at its core—France has just banned the public wearing of a specific type of garment, a restriction largely unprecedented in Western democracies.
While France is the first state to move towards a formal ban, restricting Islamic facial coverings is not unheard of in most European societies. While the ban is most popular in France, Britain, Germany, and Spain, all support the restriction by wide margins:
It is interesting to note how much lower the support for such a ban is in the United States: here, only 28 percent of the population supports a restriction while 65 percent disapprove. Moreover, American approval for a ban on facial veils remains low despite increased anti-Muslim sentiment and recent public opposition to mosque construction. What contributes to the vast differences between American and European support for a veil ban?
Differences in veil ban approval on both sides of the Atlantic seem to be rooted in demographics, not overall political culture. Support for the ban tends to be correlated with the percentage of Muslims in each country’s society:
Support for restrictions on Muslim religious clothing is likely tied to demographics because a popular narrative of a minority religion’s threat to the social status quo is more credible in societies with a large and visible minority population. This view is supported by European demographics: France, where support for the ban is nearly universal, leads Europe with a 5-10 percent Muslim population (accurate statistics are hard to come by because most liberal democracies don’t request religious census information), while in Germany and the UK, where the ban is less supported but still widely popular, Muslims number between 5 and 2 percent of the population. Spain’s 2 percent Muslim population likely contributes to its lower support for a ban. In America the Muslim population is much less than one percent of the population, despite its high media profile and controversial image in public society, and this small size likely contributes to the strong public opposition to a ban.
However, national culture does probably play a role in shaping public support for a veil ban. The American Muslim population is much more integrated into wider society than their European counterparts. Many European Muslims, especially in France, live in ethnically segregated areas and suffer from incomes far below the national average. Additionally, despite a recent rise in public acceptance of anti-Muslim attitudes in American society, anti-Muslim sentiment and concern over the future of Islam in Europe are much more prevalent in Europe than the US. All of these factors likely contribute to the wider European approval of a public veil ban, while the American history of wide immigration and the US’s varied ethnic makeup seem to help blunt these concerns.
The wide European support for a veil ban tell us a lot about the problems of integrating a growing and highly visible minority into democratic societies. France’s veil ban is unjustified and wrong. While France’s concerns over women’s rights and a secular society are valid, a broad ban on a specific type of clothing is clearly a violation of individual rights. If a woman chooses to express herself and her beliefs by adopting a certain manner of dress, a liberal government clearly has no justification in stopping her. Additionally, while a commitment to public secularism is an important part of French national heritage and public culture, no one can argue that this commitment requires restricting private citizens’ right to express their religious views. Women’s rights are clearly an important guarantee of any liberal society. However, restricting the veil does not strengthen this goal. Continuing to permit the veil would not legalize domestic abuse, and a women’s freedom of choice over her own wardrobe is clearly a fundamental part of her own personal liberty.
Ostensibly, the French proposal to ban the veil is based on French values and civil traditions. No one would deny that countries have a right to restrict the habits of immigrants, even if this contradicts immigrants’ cultural values. There are some cultural practices that have no place in liberal societies—female illiteracy or sex-specific abortion come to mind. However, banning the veil clearly does not meet this criteria. Instead, this ban is rooted in Europe’s long challenge of adopting to a multicultural society inhabited not exclusively by European ethnic groups and cultural practices. While European nations do have a responsibility to protect their liberal traditions and a right to preserve their basic social traits, this can’t infringe on the private rights of their own citizens. The veil ban is clearly such an infringement, and has no place in the liberal, pluralistic societies Europeans pride themselves in building.