France is implementing a recent law banning the niqab, or full-face veil, in public spaces. The French notion of laïcité, a version of secularism, is being used to justify outlawing the niqab, as well as to argue for banning other forms of veils.
Women’s rights advocates in France are split on this issue, with some feminists seeing the niqab as a sign of oppression of women and others arguing that women have the right to choose their own attire. The law stipulates strong punishments for individuals who force women to wear the niqab, suggesting that its authors assume that Muslim women would not voluntarily choose to wear the niqab. Very few French women currently wear the full-face veil, but the law would also apply to tourists and other visitors to France. Some critics of the law argue that the law is motivated by racism, anti-Islamic sentiment, and neo-imperial concerns in France. The ban clearly raises a number of questions about human rights, women’s rights, individual choice, and racism in France and the European Union.
This story will prompt reflections by historians familiar with sartorial regulations, sumptuary laws, and religious conflicts in the early modern period. My own research deals with the formation of early notions of religious coexistence in seventeenth-century France, which later became known as laïcité. The concept of laïcité has often been linked with human rights discourses and revolutionary action, but it can also be closely associated with restrictions on individual and collective rights.
Students who have taken HIST 640 Religious Violence in Comparative Perspective, HIST 414 European Wars of Religion, or HIST 458 Mediterranean World may be interested in this issue.
The New York Times reports on the implementation of the ban on the niqab.