France Uncovered by Barbara Nadel

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Now here’s a thorny issue. France. Or rather a new French law that prevents Muslim (or any other women) covering their faces in public. If they do so they risk being fined and having to go on a course about French life and culture. Not exactly public execution but unpleasant and above all, I feel, discriminatory.

That said, I must say that I do balk at criticising the French too loudly. I am not after all, French myself and so I cannot know how strongly, or otherwise, they feel about this issue. I do know that France is and has been for a very long time, a secular country and that secularity is a, if not the cornerstone of their political life. That I can only applaud. Here in the UK we still, if minimally, retain involvement of the church in state affairs. This is not generally a problem and can sometimes even be of benefit except of course when politicians like ex-Prime Minister Tony Blair use the Almighty to justify an illegal war. But all that said, I would, given the choice, always go for secular rather than religious government – up to a point.

Those of us with secret and sometimes not so secret grey hairs will recall the old Soviet Union and its ‘enthusiastic’ pursuit of a secular utopia. It involved things like collective farms, a space programme, athletic prowess, Stalin, the ruthless suppression of dissent and religion and of course, the all conquering Red Army. And however much one wanted to believe that all the Christian Orthodox priests who managed to cling to life in the Soviet era were just rather pathetic reactionaries, one could never quite believe that or even begin to condone the cruel and unfair treatment that was meted out to them. It is also quite instructive to note that in modern times, post Soviet Russia is a place where the Christian Orthodox religion is now alive, well and at the centre of public life.

So how does this relate to covered ladies in France? Not for a moment am I saying that France is in any way like the old Soviet Union. In many ways it’s a far more free and easy place than my own country. But I do think that this new law is a bad move. What harm are these ladies actually doing? If we assume that they are all covering their faces out of free choice and because they want to honour their God in that way, then where is the problem? I accept that it is possible that some of these women may have been coerced into covering themselves by their male relatives, but then many people who adhere to all sorts of other religions are probably made to do things they maybe don’t actually want too.

I am not religious, what do I know? Well, I know that as a democrat in a democratic society, I value freedom of speech and of expression. The argument is often used that some of the countries that Muslims come from do not allow freedom of thought, word or deed and so we in the west are better than they are. But, even if true, is that any reason to institute laws that limit people’s freedom of expression? I don’t think so. I also don’t think that banning face veils will have any effect upon those people who like to live separately from the mainstream and who seek to practice a very austere form of their religion. Not all of those people cover their faces after all. Some people with extreme view look just like the rest of us. On the other hand, I have met numerous women over the years who choose to cover up but who are also active and engaged in society and have a sense of humour to boot!

I understand fear and I can totally relate to a preference to see someone’s face when you are talking to them. But that’s my preference and it isn’t all about me. Peaceful freedom of expression is one of the most valuable things that we have here in the west and we’re just about clinging to that by our fingernails anyway. This will not, I think, help in any way at all.

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