Yesterday afternoon the French upper house, or Sénat, passed a bill that forbids the covering of one’s face in public.  This bill was passed overwhelmingly in the lower house in July, and now it is one step closer to becoming law.

Before the ban goes into effect, the French Constitutional Council must approve it.

At IWF, we’ve argued against French President Sarkozy and other supporters of this ban.  Any type of restriction on clothing can have a great effect on women – who are usually the target of dress code laws.  This subject holds particular sensitivity in France, where immigration from predominantly Islamic countries has soared in recent decades.  The bill passed yesterday, however, was craftily written to exclude any reference to the words “women,” “Muslim,” or “veil.”

But we know who the measure is aiming for – the nearly 2,000 women in France who wear face-covering veils as part of their Muslim religious practices.  It is nearly impossible to know exactly how many of these women wear the burqa out of choice, but experts have estimated that many of the burqa-clad women are actually of French descent – young women who have converted to Islam and want to show their dedication to their new beliefs.

Terrorist groups have threatened to retaliate against France because of this burqa ban.  Already yesterday evening, a bomb threat was called into the Eiffel Tower, and the whole area had to be evacuated.  This is a shame, because violence (or the threat of it) is never acceptable, and should never play a part in policy debates.  Fear should not drive the enactment of the ban; nor should fear drive the repeal.  My hope is that the French Constitutional Council will see this as an infringement of the human rights of this small group of women, and stop it before it is scheduled to take effect in six months.

This issues touches on the Freedom of Speech and the Freedom of Religion.  How we dress should be a personal choice.  Perhaps the only bright spot in this legislation is the tough punishment for others – fathers, brothers, uncles, anyone – who try to force women to wear the burqa.

But oppression from a father or cousin is no worse than oppression from a government.  Sarkozy and the French should not fear the burqa or try to abolish it by government power.  This sets a bad precedent.  Instead, they should welcome all kinds of voices into the civil sphere to make room for debate.  And perhaps then they could win the choices of women (toward the French ideals of liberty and equality – their purported goal in this legislation) through persuasive argument, rather than through forceful laws.  The burqa debate is one we should have, but the government shouldn’t play a part in it.