In the uproar over France’s denial of Faiza Mabchour’s citizenship application over her wearing of the niqab, many commentators have found it easy to condemn France for being racist/religionist/whatever-ist you want to call it. But the reality is that people are uncomfortable with people who look different—and societies adopt clothing as a political tool for many different purposes and in many different contexts.
In a delicious irony, as American pundits were wringing their hands over France and the veil, a small Illinois town passed a law banning baggy pants that reveal underwear—a case of preventing (mainly) men from revealing too much, as opposed to punishing a woman for revealing too little.
Many Westerners—and yes, even we New Yorkers who believe ourselves to be sophisticated and tolerant—would be deeply uncomfortable when faced with the prospect of more and more people on the street whose faces we cannot see. It is folly to ignore that visceral reaction.
How can France address the deep-seated fears about the niqab? The answer turns out to be the same as the answer to how it can protect Muslim women’s rights and French values.
Nations should not be denied the right to decide who may become a citizen, nor to establish norms that accommodate citizens’ concerns. But they need to be consistent and rational about defining and protecting those norms.
The ruling (PDF) alleged, as part of its rationale for denying citizenship to Ms. Mabchour, that, “She has no idea of secularism or the right to vote.” Those are important French values and it is reasonable to expect new citizens to understand them. But France mandated citizenship tests in 2003 as part of a law to require new citizens to demonstrate their embrace of French values; as well as a secularism test under a 2005 law. A well-designed citizenship test would seemingly eliminate candidates who are unaware of secularism or the right to vote.
For all the lofty talk about women’s rights as a justification for denying a religious woman citizenship, let’s not forget for a minute that the case of Faiza Mabchour is about some French people being uncomfortable. It’s also about dictating how women dress and look. The question is simply who does the dictating—the husband, the government, or the woman herself.
By all accounts, Ms. Mabchour did not wear the niqab before leaving Morocco. She told The New York Times that it was her choice, not her husband’s, to wear the niqab. French and British papers, however, reported that she wore the niqab at the request of her husband, a French citizen.
Whatever the reality may be, the denial of citizenship is not about Ms. Mabchour’s rights, nor about her understanding of French values. By denying her access to citizenship, France is heightening her husband’s control over her. Were she to become a citizen, she’d have more rights. If the niqab was her husband’s idea, then should not he be the one whose suitability to be a citizen is questioned? How many men applying for citizenship are asked what their wives wear?
Citizenship law plays out differently for women than for men. A woman is subjected to far more stringent standards than a man, a frequent narrative in citizenship cases. Though Muslim men—including Ms. Mabchour’s husband—report that beards often cause them trouble, women’s clothing is central to some of the most heated debates in Europe about immigrant assimilation.
Here is yet another instance of an end at odds with the intention. In many cases, first- and second-generation immigrants whose cultures are shunned by the host society cling to their cultures more tightly than they might otherwise have done in a society that welcomed them. The more a host country rejects an article of clothing, the more powerful it becomes as a symbol of cultural pride.
The United States experienced similar paroxysms in the 1960s, when Black Pride and Latino Pride movements, acknowledging mainstream society’s resistance, found strength in culture that intentionally distinguished itself. Neither side, during the height of the 1960s and 1970s culture wars, was interested in accommodating the other.
In religion, as with other cultural emblems, Europe is teeming with stories of immigrants adopting more radical religious practices away from the country of origin than what they practiced at home—and with stories of Westerners interpreting Islam in more extreme ways than Muslims would. At the Chicago Council on Global Affairs’ Atlantic Conference (PDF) in Seville last year, African participants complained that the versions of Islam taught in Europe promoted radicalism.
This, too, is the direct result of the exact opposite of the alleged intention behind France’s much-vaunted laïcité, or secularism, which tends to apply mainly when people embrace non-Protestant religions. (The scholar Talal Asad discussed secularism’s effects on minorities as part of a 2005 World Policy Institute panel discussion organized by WPI’s Program on Citizenship & Security.)
The more the veil becomes a symbol of difference between France and its immigrants, the more tightly marginalized immigrant groups are to cling to it. Thus, the best way to make people less likely to insist on the veil is for the government to stop obsessing about it—and certainly stop using it as a way to deny rights to women.
If the French really want to believe that their concern is for women’s rights, there are better ways to do so. At the same time, if Muslim immigrants want French citizens to take a more benign view of the niqab, they would do well to ensure that the women who wear it go out and vote, pursue education (as Ms. Mabchour has done with the French language), and otherwise disprove the worst of the stereotypes associated with the veil.
It does nobody any more good to ignore the fears that the niqab provokes than it does to let those fears overcome reason.
Michele Wucker, Senior Fellow and Executive Director of the World Policy Institute, was a 2007 Guggenheim Fellow for her work on changing views of citizenship, exclusion, and belonging. She is the author of, most recently, LOCKOUT: Why America Keeps Getting Immigration Wrong When Our Prosperity Depends on Getting It Right.