France Banned Muslim Women From Covering Their Faces. Now It Wants Everyone To Do Just That | Opinion

In 2010, France banned covering one's face in public space, directly depriving Muslim women of their right to wear the niqab—a full-length veil. A decade later, with the largest pandemic the world has seen for centuries, the French government has made it mandatory for its citizens to wear masks in some public spaces. As of the time of writing, both laws are in force.

Obviously, there are many differences between niqabs and medical masks. The absurdity arises from the French government bending over backwards to frame the blatantly islamophobic veil ban as affirming some vague general principle against covering one's face. Thus, the anti-niqab law was explicitly grounded in the notion the "Republic is lived with one's uncovered face". You can read as much on the government posters and leaflets published at the time and still displayed in many shop windows as a reminder of "the values of Republic".

Today, with the adoption of laws and decrees forcing people to wear masks and thus to hide their faces, these "values of the Republic" seem contradictory and ambivalent. Comparing the two laws might seem like nitpicking, but the different meanings that "fundamental values" may have in various contexts actually do expose citizens to major legal insecurity.

If you are a Muslim woman who hides her face for religious purposes, you are subjected to a fine and may have to complete a citizenship education class where you will be taught that being a "good citizen" means to uncover your face. Meanwhile, the same government is telling all citizens that in order to be a "good citizen", you must adopt "barrier gestures", which includes covering your face. This asymmetrical reading of the same behavior, depending on the context and the person who makes the action is at best arbitrary, at most discriminatory. It allows the government to judge people's intentions—why we do what we do—rather than judging the facts of our actions, which, in my view, rehabilitates the "crime of opinions" when it comes to Muslim religious freedom.

After the latest attacks in France, at the Paris police headquarters, the French Minister of Interior, Christophe Castaner, listed the various signs of "radicalization" to be reported: refusing cheek-kissing (a common French cultural habit), not shaking hands, not mingling with colleagues, etc. Today, the very same behavior is promoted, alongside other habits, as social distancing—both sanitary and patriotic, necessary to protect the country fro the pandemic. Is the French government suggesting that its citizens must "radicalize" themselves to become part of the national community? Of course not; but for where practicing Muslims are concerned, voluntary social distancing is still perceived as anti-patriotic and symptomatic of radicalization.

Why is it more legitimate to follow sanitary rules rather than religious beliefs if those are not harming anyone, and can in facnt protect others? Not only against diseases—as many of these social practices are more sanitary than the Western habit of shaking hands—but also against sexual harassment, all too often hiding behind the excuses of "Latin" cultures being "naturally" more tactile.

As part of my sociological research, I interviewed a young woman, Estelle, who had converted to Islam and who was wearing a niqab. She told me that since the ban, France has become an open-air prison for her. She had to look for an apartment with a small balcony where she could get some fresh air as she felt suffocated being locked up in her own house. With the coronavirus containment, we are only experiencing a smidgeon of the life of women in France who are forced to choose between covering up and leaving their homes; who are implicitly under permanent house arrest, risking being fined every time they go out.

If this temporary confinement has been painful and difficult for us because it hinders our freedom to come and go, to see our family, to hang out with our friends, to earn a living, to go shopping or just go for a walk, we can only imagine how French women who wear a full veil have felt for the past decade. What's more, the rest of us can expect the pandemic lockdown to ease in the coming weeks and month. French Muslim women who wear the veil have no reason to hope that their situation will get improve any time soon.

Fatima Khemilat is a researcher at Sciences-Po Aix in Aix-en-Provence, France.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own.