Montreuil, with a population of roughly 100,000, is one of the most populous suburbs of Paris and has a character markedly different to the capital of which it is a satellite. To walk around Montreuil is to witness an area forming a modern and distinctive French identity, an area of low-to-middle incomes, of diverse cultures, and of conspicuous political organisation. It is also home to a growing Muslim community, owing in part to its significant Malian population. It is to areas such as Montreuil that the French ban on the face veil, introduced in April 2011, has directed itself most vigorously.
One's perception of a woman in a burqa or niqab is likely dependant on one's own cultural background and on the social context in which the encounter occurs. A British tourist in Saudi Arabia might justifiably perceive religious fundamentalism and the institutionalised subjugation of women. That same tourist in America might alternatively perceive the free exercise of religious beliefs. Rarely would one recognise the veiling of the face as an act of political dissent. However, such was my own perception when, last week in Croix de Chavaux, Montreuil, I witnessed a woman stepping down from the bus wearing a niqab.
This is because in a country that is home to the largest Muslim population in Europe - between five and six million - it is reported that fewer than 2000 women wear the veil. However, according to evidence given to the European Court of Human Rights, as of November last year more than 425 Muslim women had been fined under the legislation banning face covering. Even taking repeat offenders into consideration this figure is alarming. It represents state-legitimised harassment of exactly the group of women that proponents of the legislation claimed it was going to protect.
The protection being offered was purportedly from abusive coercion perpetrated by male family members and spouses. Concern for the victims of such coercion was, and continues to be, entirely justified. Unfortunately, whether coerced or otherwise, it is the women wearing the veil who are suffering the uncomfortable effects of prosecution, not the men responsible for coercion.
In a recent European case concerning the face veil, S.A.S. v France, the government justified its position by citing the social and moral necessity of Levinasian face-to-face encounters. The government agent, Edwige Belliard, stated that "the concealing of the face is incompatible with the social life in our state of law," that "such discrimination jeopardises the condition of living together," and that "what is at stake is equality in social communication and sharing a common heritage of fundamental values." All this may be so, but while Belliard made a persuasive case for the legitimacy of face-to-face encounters she failed to make a persuasive case for the stigmatisation of a group of already isolated women as the best way of guaranteeing those encounters. The French governments actions, sadly, have increased social tensions between wider society and those 2000 women, not lessened them.
The woman at Croix de Chavaux crossed the street and walked into the nearby mall complex. Save a double-look from a child no one seemed to take any more notice of her than they took of any of the other people stepping off the bus. Whether such indifference is cause for comfort or despair can be argued elsewhere. However, as regards that particular woman, there is little reason to think that her situation would be improved were a police officer to intervene and issue her with a fine. Nor could one imagine similar interventions promoting the social integration of other women wearing the veil elsewhere in France. What might do just that, however, would be if the French Government opened up to these women the fullness of its laws and ensured they were properly enforced - laws that already protect individual rights and liberties from abusive coercion, whether from within the family or from without. In doing so they would reject the institutionalised wearing of the veil without further making pariahs of those women behind it.