Is the ECHR right to uphold the ban in France?

The EHCR’s upholding of the French burqa ban has made me remember a particular event I had witnessed in a Spanish airport a while ago, which opened my eyes towards the obvious controversy surrounding the religious garment.

A few years ago, I landed in the airport of my hometown of Malaga, Spain – a popular destination for many tourists, Western and Middle Eastern alike. At passport control, there was a lady a couple of people in front of me wearing a full burqa and gloves, and when asked by the police officer to identify herself in order to let her in the country, she refused. Her persistent refusal to identify herself to any member of security, even after being offered the chance to go into a separate room and identify herself to a female officer, landed her a huge delay in her visa and possible denial of entry. Back then, I didn’t think much of the incident, but the recent issue surrounding the banning of the burqa has made me think: is the ban related to them being a restriction of female freedom? Or are they regarded as a security threat? Maybe it’s the former masked as the latter?

The French law currently bans burqas and similar covering headgear. It subjects anyone who violates it to a fine of up to €150 and imprisonment and a fine of 30,000€ to anyone who forces anyone to wear head and face coverings. This seemingly restrictive measure was introduced to uphold France’s strong secular position in terms of religion. This appears to be causing controversy not only in France, but the resonance of the EHCR’s backing of the law is also causing debate in surrounding countries like Britain on whether they should or shouldn’t adopt their own legislation against the burqa and covering headgear.

Despite being of Middle Eastern origin, I remain unfamiliar with the symbolism and religious arguments behind burqas. Personally, I cannot ignore the stigma of female subordination attached to them and it is unlikely that my ‘Western’ upbringing had anything to do with it. Articles are emerging and studies surrounding the religious necessity (or lack of) for wearing the burqa make it archaic in many progressive religious movements. It also remains ambiguous as to whether or not the woman makes a conscious decision to wear it or has been forced to by some patriarchal figure (e.g. father, husband…). That being said, it is not always a case of female subordination. There are many women, like the French woman that appealed to the EHCR court, whose name remains unknown, that make an active choice to wear the burqa out of religious expression or protection. However, how does one effectively classify those who have been conditioned to think that they need to wear it, and those that know what they’re getting into? Have they also been conditioned to wear it?

The answer to that question seems impossible to merge into legislation, merely interrogating the millions of women that wear burqas in western countries is not only an ineffective strategy, but laboursome and unnecessary. Many argue, that Saudi Arabia’s strict impositions on clothing for women make it okay for Western countries to impose their restrictions on clothing, but this seems a lot like tit for tat, rather than fair. What we can all draw from the upholding of the French ban on face covering is that even four years later, it still has profound resonance in both European and international debates, it still holds much controversy. It is an argument that does not seem to offer a simple or imminent solution.

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