France’s veil ban goes into effect, university looks for meaning

After the world’s first ban on Islamic face veils took effect in France on April 11, DePaul University saw many of its members call to question the law’s symbolic meaning.

The president of DePaul’s United Muslims Moving Ahead, Marwa Abed, said France’s veil ban is “a move in the wrong direction for women’s rights.”

It’s not the government’s place to decide the way people dress, said Abed, a senior majoring in Islamic world studies.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy says the veils imprison women and contradict this secular nation’s values of dignity and equality, according to the Associated Press. The ban was greeted with wide public support when it was approved by parliament last year.

“Even though some people think that the hijab and burqa oppresses women, it’s still a choice,” said Abed. “To take that away from them is even more oppressive.”

“This is totally going against the women’s movement,” Abed said.”Women’s rights is to have our own decisions,” she said. “Now, there are these rules by the French government telling women how they should dress and how their identity should be formed.”

Along with Islamic veils, the wearing of crucifixes, Jewish kippa skullcaps and other religious symbols are banned from public schools.

While the law makes it illegal to conceal a person’s face in public, it does not specifically cite gender or religious identities. Violators risk fines up to $215 (euro150) or attendance at special citizenship classes.

DePaul Academic Adivsor, Mallory Warner, said the idea of citizenship classes “raises a red flag in my head,” said Warner, who recently completed her master’s thesis on headscarf affairs.

“What are they really trying to do with it? Are they really supporting secularism, or rights of women, or just using the French republican values to target these women for their beliefs?”

Although the law does not explicitly state it, Abed said she feels the ban targets the Muslim community.

“It is telling them they are not French enough and that to be French,” she said, “you have to shed your religious and cultural identity to somehow fit in.”

According to Abed, these attitudes do not run parallel to those in the U.S.

“Although there is tension here and a rising xenophobia that targets and profiles Muslims,” she said, “we still praise individualism.”

Abed said that in Chicago, most of the violence over ripping scarves off Muslim women does not take place at DePaul University. “On campus there is a lot of appreciation for diversity,” she said.

When the veil ban was approved last July, a survey by the Pew Research Center found Western European countries to be in overwhelming support of the ban. According to the survey, 71 percent of Germans and 62 percent of British said they would support a similar law in their own countries. In contrast, 65 percent of Americans said they would oppose such a measure.

France was declared to be the most ‘militantly’ secular country of Western states in a BBC analysis of church and state relations:

Secularism is the closest thing the French have to a state religion. It underpinned the French Revolution and has been a basic tenet of the country’s progressive thought since the 18th Century.

To this day, anything that smacks of official recognition of a religion – such as allowing Islamic headscarves in schools – is anathema to many French people.

Along with Islamic veils, the wearing of crucifixes, Jewish kippa skullcaps and other religious symbols are banned from public schools. France defines the right of freedom of religion as a liberté publique (public liberty), rather than a civil right (as interpreted in most other countries).

University President Rev. Dennis Holtschneider said banning face veils has never been considered at DePaul. “That conversation doesn’t exist here,” he said.

“Our Muslim student population has grown in recent years, and it’s greatly enriched us as an institution,” Holtschneider said.

In 2004 France banned religious symbols—including crucifixes and Islamic veils—from public schools.

Church and state were formally separated in France more than a century ago, a time when Muslims were barely a presence in the country.

Today, France has the largest Muslim population in the world, with 10 percent of the country’s 64 million people who are Muslim.

But of the 5 million Muslims living in France, less than 2,000 wear a full face veil.

Warner said she believes DePaul University and Chicago have “a very open and accepting environment for students who have different thoughts, beliefs and ideas to kind of work together and challenge each other, to push those boundaries.”

“I think this is a very positive environment to have these kind of discussions.”

This article was originally printed in The DePaulia newspaper.

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