Don’t Ban the Veil: Why Peter Berkowitz is Wrong

In the Wall Street Journal today, Peter Berkowitz weighs in on the controversy surrounding French President Nicholas Sarkozy’s call to ban the Muslim face veil. Berkowitz argues that France has unique reasons why it should ban women from wearing the Muslim face veil. He is right that France is in a unique situation. He’s wrong to think it means the country should ban the veil.

The crux of his argument is this: “Freedom is in special jeopardy when a substantial segment of the population embraces a way of life that fails to cultivate the virtues of freedom while teaching disdain for freedom’s practices and principles. In France as throughout Western Europe, the full veil, along with cousin-marriage, polygamy and sexual violence contribute to a culture that secludes women and creates sizable barriers to assimilation.”

That logic is problematic at best. Equating the veil with sexual violence is senseless. For many women, the veil – even the face veil – is a garment of empowerment. Many women choose the veil freely, and see it as a protection that allows them to fully be part of the world. It is not inherently a form of seclusion. Nobody chooses sexual assault.

France is in a touch spot. Its Muslim minority is unusually angry and averse to mainstream French culture. I would suggest, though, that this may be due to the steady stream of discrimination they live with. French Muslims, and immigrants in general, face widespread discrimination, especially when it comes to education and employment. Perhaps limiting their options for religious expression is not the best way to respond to that?

Veiling creates a barrier to assimilation only if mainstream culture chooses to treat it that way. If everyone in France talked to women in veils just like they speak to everyone else, the veil wouldn’t be a factor in marginalizing women or preventing engagement with classic French culture. It would just be a piece of cloth. Stigmatizing the veil, and the people who wear it, creates the very alienation that the French government is trying to combat.

Making the face veil illegal takes that stigma to the ultimate level. Women who wear the veil by choice will take it off, true. But women who are trapped in oppressive patriarchal structures won’t get to remove their veils and go out in the world. They’ll be kept from going out at all by the same men who force them into the veil in the first place.

If Sarkozy actually wanted to help Muslim women in France, he’d support things that actually improve their lives. Better educational opportunities. Employment programs. Quality housing. Instead, he’s grandstanding to further marginalize the women who need help the most.

Image: flickr.