French burqa ban has nothing to do with women's rights
The left in France has shown itself lacking, argues Peter Manson. We oppose state bans, just as we oppose the enforced veiling of women
The fact that only one French MP - a member of the rightwing UMP - voted against the ban on the burqa says it all.
On July 13, the bill prohibiting the “covering of the face in public” received the votes of 335 deputies. The bill does not specify Muslims or women, but everyone knows who the targets are - the less than 2,000 women in France who normally dress in the full-length burqa or niqab. After the law comes into force next year - it has yet to pass through the senate and may face a challenge in the constitutional court - those who continue to cover up will face a €150 fine and/or compulsory citizenship classes. Those who “force” a person to wear such attire could be looking at a €30,000 fine and a one-year jail sentence (the penalties will be even stiffer if a minor is made to cover their face).
So what happened to the left opposition in parliament? The Parti Communiste Français, Parti Socialiste and the Greens abstained - or rather they staged a boycott of the vote. Not because they could not bring themselves to be present when such an appalling attack on an oppressed minority was being adopted, but because they did not want to appear “pro-burqa” by voting against the bill. PCF parliamentary spokesperson Roland Muzeau said that the law had “nothing to do with defending women’s rights” and would “stigmatise Muslims”. But he led his troops out of the chamber all the same.
It is likely the PCF would have voted for the bill if it had been limited to people working in public services or shops - most, after all, voted for the 2004 ban on the wearing of the hijab by Muslim girls in state schools. As it was, one ‘communist’ deputy, the anti-migrant, anti-European Union nationalist, André Gerin, voted with the government. Gerin claims that to wear the burqa is to “renounce the republic”.
The behaviour of the PCF even provoked a mildly worded rebuke from John Haylett in the Morning Star: “… the collective failure of the parliamentary left to take a firm, principled stance on the right of women to decide for themselves what they wear will serve as an encouragement for the government and the racist far-right Front National.”
In May a similar law was passed in Belgium and there is a possibility of Spain following suit. In Britain Tory MP Philip Hollobone has tabled a private member’s bill to the same end - although all such legislation could fall foul of EU ‘human rights’ stipulations. Actually there seems little possibility of anti-burqa laws in Britain at present - immigration minister Damian Green has declared such bans to be “rather unBritish”.
That is not to say that the wave of Islamophobia that swept much of the west following 9/11 has now died down in Britain. You only have to look at recent polls. Back in January an Angus Reid poll found that more than 72% favoured banning the burqa in schools and universities, while the figure was even higher - 79% - for airports (as in France, the attack on a woman’s right to cover herself has been linked to questions of ‘security’). The same poll found that a substantial minority wanted the hijab banned too.
You cannot help feeling, however, that it all depends on the question asked. On the one hand, 67% agreed that garments that conceal a woman’s face are “an affront to British values”. On the other hand, 58% said the government should not be allowed to tell individuals what they can and cannot wear. However, last week the January findings were confirmed in a YouGov poll, which reported that 67% would favour of a ban on wearing the burqa in public.
As well as enhancing ‘security’, the French law is being hyped up as a blow for ‘women’s equality’. While this sickening posing is too much for the French left to swallow, far from denouncing all such bans on principle, for the most part the comrades actually go along with them in practice.
Take Lutte Ouvrière. Its July 9 statement declared: “Of course, you might think that a law banning the burqa would be a point of support to help women and girls resist family pressures and Islamist currents which use religion as a political instrument … But the present context - the security aspects tagged on by the government - goes in an opposing direction to that of the emancipation of those oppressed by reactionary religious symbols … we will not mix our demands with those of political leaders whose aim is not women’s emancipation, but a policy of concessions to anti-Muslim and security prejudices.”
You might also think that LO itself is numbered amongst those who believe a ban on the burqa would be a “point of support” for women who want to discard it. After all, that is exactly the argument LO used in support of the hijab ban in 2004 (which resulted in many Muslims removing their children from state schools, where the ban applies, to Catholic schools, where it does not).
In effect LO is saying that it is not the ban on the burqa per se that ought to be opposed - only the particular politicians who happen to be implementing it. You get the feeling that, if LO had any members in the national assembly, they too would have joined in the hypocritical left ‘boycott’, rather than voting against the bill. Note that, while LO pays lip service to opposing “anti-Muslim … prejudices”, it thinks the main oppression that needs to be combated is not the state’s vicious assault on the rights of this minority, but that of “family pressures” and “Islamist currents”.
In reality there is no contradiction in both opposing state attacks on freedom of expression (including the freedom of religious expression that the French and Belgian bans remove) and supporting a woman’s right to choose for herself what to wear or not wear, free from patriarchal pressures. I would not for a moment wish to understate the dehumanising effect of imposing the burqa. It reinforces the notion that women may not assert themselves on an equal basis to men; that they should be regarded as a man’s possession, not even to be looked at by other males. The burqa is designed to prevent them from interacting as full members of society.
In this sense the Nouveau Parti Anticapitaliste (New Anti-capitalist Party) has a much more balanced position than LO. In a statement issued on April 24 it states: “While completely opposing this freedom-killing law, the NPA reaffirms its solidarity with women who struggle against all forms of oppression, such as the full-body veil. But it is first and foremost through fighting together for control over their own bodies that women will free themselves.”
Passing over the hint of women’s separatism that the second sentence contains, I must say that the NPA is right to stress the “liberticidal” nature of the proposed law. The targeting of Muslims (not just the tiny minority whose women wear the burqa or niqab) is the immediate issue the left must mobilise against. In doing so we also fight for oppressed women. We demand that women have the right to wear the hijab, the burqa or the niqab. That cannot be separated from the right not to wear such garments and is totally different from advocating the ‘right’ of Muslim men to oblige ‘their’ women to dress according to male instructions. In fact, by posing the question in this way we seek to empower women to assert their freedom to choose.
Why is the French left for the most part totally unable to see things in this way? The answer lies in the particular form its anti-clerical secularism has taken. Based on opposition to the all-pervading influence of the corrupt Catholic church, this Jacobin anti-clerical secularism was based on a thoroughgoing statism.
In actual fact the left’s ‘secularism’ is an impostor. Secularism demands not state bans, but state non-interference in the citizen’s religious or non-religious beliefs and practices. The state must not accord privileges to a particular religion (as in the UK with the Church of England) nor discriminate against others. Genuine secularism insists on the equality of all in the eyes of the state, whatever their religion or lack of it. In other words, all citizens must be free to practise their beliefs - otherwise such ‘equality’ is totally meaningless.
While we insist on the state’s neutrality, we communists are not neutral. We are convinced of the power of our Marxist, materialist world view, which is diametrically opposed to religious obfuscatory idealism. However, we also recognise the power of religious ideas - they cannot be banned out of existence. The prohibition of religious or religious-inspired practices and attire is possible. But it is almost always counterproductive, serving to drive religious believers deeper into the arms of the priests and imams.
The only religious practices that should be outlawed are those which are clearly harmful to others or are carried out against their will. Nor is the right to wear what you like an absolute. For example, we support the trade union demand that all workers on a building site must put on protective headgear, footwear and clothing. It is also clear that certain jobs - the teaching of young children or the welcoming of guests at a hotel - cannot in general be carried out satisfactorily by people who completely cover their face. It is reasonable to insist that those who do so may disqualify themselves from such jobs.
It has to be said that, just as the PCF and LO view the question of the burqa ban in a hopelessly one-sided way, so too does the Socialist Workers Party. But in the SWP’s case it is a question of championing religious rights at the expense of women’s emancipation. The headline to Jim Wolfreys’ article in the latest Socialist Worker, ‘French veil vote will boost Islamophobia’, identifies pretty clearly where the SWP is putting its emphasis.
Comrade Wolfreys is correct to state that “Islamophobic legislation acts as a substitute for measures which the government has been unable to implement and deflects attention from its own shortcomings”, including the latest corruption scandal. He also notes the weaknesses of French anti-clericalism and republican ‘secularism’: “Once a weapon against the wealth and privilege of the Catholic church, republican secularism has become a means of scapegoating France’s oppressed Muslim minority.”
He condemns the “myth” that “women have more freedom when the state tells them what they can wear”. But he has nothing to say at all on women’s oppression and whether Muslim women have a particular problem in this regard, contenting himself with dispelling another “myth”: that “Muslim extremism is a greater problem than Islamophobia”.
Unlike comrade Wolfreys, the editorial in the same edition does take up the question of women’s oppression - only to dismiss it as completely irrelevant: “How can this be a question of ‘women’s rights’ when it begins from denying women the right to choose what they wear?” This, of course, is correct - the French establishment is completely hypocritical on this point. But the editorial ends by asserting: “The left should never buy into arguments that one religion or another plays a special role in oppressing women. We have to identify such propaganda for what it is - anti-Muslim racism and an attack on us all.”
Why should we not “buy into” such arguments if they happen to be true? Look at the clerical states of Iran and Saudi Arabia. Do they not also deny “women the right to choose what they wear”? Do they not restrict women in all manner of ways - what job they may take up, what sexual relations they may enjoy, whose company they may keep? This is not to say that religion - still less “one religion” - is the cause of women’s oppression. But it is surely undeniable that Islam has a “special role” in enforcing it - not only in such states, but also in many Muslim communities.
The job of socialists is not to turn a blind eye to such realities, but to strive to empower oppressed minorities, and oppressed women in particular. We do this to unite and strengthen the working class, to weaken the power of the state and the system of capital. And part of that fight involves breaking the grip of the mosque and the Muslim establishment over their flock.
- Morning Star July 17.
- Socialist Worker July 24.