In a move heralded by some citizens and criticized by some human rights groups, France recently banned all coverings that obscure the face in addition to the rest of the head. While officials say it has no religious tie, it’s no coincidence that the law seems to be directed at Muslim women who wear the burqa or the niqab (the burqa is a covering that covers everything from the top of the head to the ground, while the niqab is a head scarf that covers everything but the eyes). France is home to 5 million Muslims, the largest population in Western Europe. Of that number, only about 2,000 Muslim women wear the now-banned veil. Because of the new law, women who go out in public wearing any type of scarf that covers their face could be fined 150 Euros (about $215). Furthermore, people who force women to don a veil risk up to a year in prison and a 30,000 Euro (about $43,000) fine.
It’s another instance of the tensions between the French government and the rapidly changing religious make-up of the populace. In 2004, France passed a law banning most religious symbols in schools. While many assumed the law was aimed at banning Islamic head coverings, Christian, Jewish and other religious symbols also fell under the auspices of the legislation.
Government officials have said the new law is meant to protect women against discrimination and abuse, and it has enjoyed widespread support among the French population. But it also suggests a disturbing trend for France’s treatment of religious liberty, and not just for Muslims. France views itself as a secular state, but many wonder how a secular state can ban something explicitly religious—particularly when it doesn’t hurt other portions of the population. Many human rights organizations question the legitimacy of a government regulating what is necessarily a religious symbol. It raises questions about the role of the state in religious observances—and if religious identity is something that should be controlled by the voters.