Thinly veiled prejudice

Thinly veiled prejudice

The first steps in a legal challenge to the French ban on face coverings have already been taken. Twelve Muslim women were arrested outside Notre Dame Cathedral on Monday, apparently for an unauthorised protest rather than for wearing the niqab - ten of the twelve were not wearing it.

This protest and others undermined the notion that any woman wearing the niqab is disempowered and deprived of independence. Kenza Drider, a 32-year-old French woman, appeared to show a great deal of independence when she contacted the media in advance and tipped them off about her movements before travelling on a train from Avignon to Paris wearing a niqab.

A challenge to the European Court of Human Rights can't come soon enough. The notion that a relatively democratic European country is making laws about what clothes its citizens are allowed to wear should outrage anyone committed to free expression.

Supporters of the ban have at times avoided the main issue by talking about women being forced to cover their faces by their husbands or parents. It's outrageous to pressurise somewhere to wear a niqab against her will. But it's no less outrageous to oblige her not to wear it when she would freely choose to do so.

The issue then is not about one form of dress versus another. It is about clothes that are freely chosen against those that result from force or social pressure. People may be pressurised into wearing a niqab, or they may be pressurised into dressing in the latest fashions when they would rather not. Or they may choose these things freely.

I respect the fact that some women find the niqab liberating and empowering. I recognise that others believe it to be a requirement for them. But I understand that others fear that the niqab is oppressive or ethically wrong. But it is a big leap from regarding something as wrong to calling for it to be banned.

I'm relieved that there have been few calls for a ban in Britain. Inside Parliament, a ban has the support of only one MP. Outside Parliament, a ban is backed by the UK Independence Party and the Daily Express, both of which are cheerleaders for a number of other far-right causes.

Sarkozy may hope to distract attention away from his own dreadful policies by targeting a small minority of the margins of society. Thankfully, women with the courage of Kenza Drider don't seem likely to let him do so.

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(c) Symon Hill is associate director of Ekklesia. His book, The No-Nonsense Guide to Religion, can be ordered at http://www.newint.org/books/no-nonsense-guides/religion, priced £7.99.

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