Thursday, January 22, 2004

Behind the Veil

France is contemplating banning the veil, the Yarmulke and large Christian crosses in schools. This can be seen as a consequence of the strict separation between religion and state in France, a tradition which has its roots in the state's fight for supremacy against the once-powerful Catholic church. But it is also a response to the growing French fears about islamic fundamentalism in a country with five to seven million muslims. The effect of the proposed ban is, of course, to limit the individual's scope for the free practice of religion.

This has provoked demonstrations in France but even more fervent protests abroad. Now some in the French government question the advisability of the ban. Here's the foreign minister, Dominique de Villepin:

"De Villepin told fellow ministers that the planned ban "puts France in a very delicate situation on the international stage," a well-placed government source who was briefed on the talks quoted him as saying. The source spoke on condition of anonymity.
Particularly, bans against wearing the veil put France "on the wrong foot with Arab nations, but also with the United States, which is for the respect of individual liberties," the source quoted de Villepin as saying."

Meanwhile, the top islamic cleric in Saudi Arabia, an Arab country, has criticized the atmosphere at an economic summit in Jiddah for the intermingling of the sexes:

"What we saw at that meeting of the mixing of men and women, and the women's appearance without their hijab (head scarf), which is ordered by God, is forbidden," Grand Mufti Sheik Abdul-Aziz bin Abdullah al-Sheik said in a statement released Tuesday.
He said he was troubled by photographs from the meeting published in newspapers Monday, saying the women's dress violated Islamic law. He also said he was worried about the moral state of Saudi Arabia.
"My pain is increased by such shameful behavior," he said. "God curses the woman that imitates a man, whether in appearance, clothing or in the lifting of her voice. So how can she walk among them, mix with them, uncovered?"

The Saudis have always taken a firm approach against any relaxation in the women's dress code. When the U.S. military decided to no longer require that American servicewomen in Saudi Arabia wear abayas (black head-to-toe robes) while off-base:

... the Saudi Committee for the Preservation of Virtue and Prevention of Vice, a government office, announced that the women would not be allowed in public without the abaya regardless of their U.S. citizenship or religious opposition. Saudi officials called the change in U.S. policy an affront to Islamic law that challenged Saudi sovereignty. Officials were also displeased that the U.S. did not consult the Saudi government before changing the policy.

It seems to me that the U.S. holds France to a higher standard of behavior than, say, Saudi Arabia. Though France is proposing restrictions to religious freedom, these would only apply in the school system. Saudi Arabia, on the other hand, disallows the public practice of other religions. Surely those that are concerned about the freedom of religion should first address the more egregious violations, or at least criticize them with an equally loud voice. But then, of course, the Saudis are the friends of the U.S., whereas the French are... you know, Old Europe and all that.
And what about the feminist analysis of the veil that I'm duty-bound to present? That, unfortunately, must wait until I have more time. Lots more time.