I'm referring, of course, to France's 'progressive' proposition to fine Muslim women £700 for wearing the veil in public. The president of the ruling party claims that the new ruling is "intended to protect the ‘dignity’ and ‘security’ of women." It's a move for sexual equality, says Jean-François Copé, and nothing to do with religion (to which anyone with a modicum of intelligence will likely reply "Pull the other one!")
A nice thought, but let's look at what is really being suggested here. We make the assumption, first and foremost, that women do not choose to wear the veil. This is a very dangerous assumption, and is based primarily in ignorance and in the patronising Western idea that all Muslim women are victims of an oppressive patriarchal religion - as India Knight points out in her recent Times article, '....basically that they are all tragically mute victims of an especially monstrous patriarchy and are probably beaten or set fire to if they don’t cook supper nicely'.
Now there's an element of truth to this. Certainly some Muslim women do wear the veil because it is forced upon them; because their culture states it is what 'good' Muslim women do, or because their husbands demand it of them. And that's an unsavoury thought. But what I take umbrage with it the great white assumption that our way of life is somehow superior - that by 'freeing' a woman from the bonds of the Burqa and integrating her into our society we are somehow rescuing her, awakening her to a whole new world of feminine freedoms.
The problem is, that's largely a falsitude. Can we really talk about women's liberation from a country with the lowest rape conviction rape in Europe? When we penalise women in rape cases for utilising that "freedom of choice" and wearing a miniskirt? "She was asking for it" is still a valid criticism in our society. We are free to brand women 'sluts' and 'whores' when we consider them underdressed by our superior Western standards, or alternatively we objectify them - a woman in a tight pair of jeans is obviously asking to be leered at! Of course, the freedom to choose what we wear is only afforded to us if we fit the current 'body beautiful' - the fat woman who dares to bare is as public an enemy as the niqab-wearer. So much for freedom...
The Daily Mail, tellingly, is particularly critical and at times downright lecherous when women step out in public showing any amount of flesh. The Sun, Britain's most popular newspaper, is practically built on the "Phwoar" factor. How is any of this any less oppressive than feeling bound to the niqab? I don't doubt there are many women out there who long for the privacy and invisibility afforded by such a garment, if only to hide occasionally from the judgemental gaze of a society which rates us as bodies first, human beings second.
The biggest fallacy of all, though, is pretending that forcibly preventing women from exercising their free will (and let's not kid ourselves here that all burqa-clad women are forced into it - choice informed by religion is still choice) is somehow liberating. It is, at the end of the day, a garment like any other - no less oppressive than the push-up bra, which some women wear with gusto and others wear out of a sense of having to conform to the "maximum cleavage" type of cheap sexiness thrust upon us by 'Nuts' and 'Zoo'.
In an ideal world, Muslim women would truly have the freedom to really choose whether the veil brings them closer to Allah or serves as an obstacle to the outside world, and that's an aim worth working towards - our Muslim sisters ought to have the right to express their religion in whichever way they see fit. But taking the veil away from them means that France is no better than, say, Saudi Arabia. Oppression is oppression, whether you're forcing a woman to cover up, or forcing her to expose herself for no better reason than 'to be more like us'.