A BILL to ban Muslim women from wearing the burqa and niqab in public went through the lower house of French parliament last month.
The French government dressed up the bill as a move to safeguard secular values and promote women’s liberation. But it is the latest attack in a wave of anti-Muslim racism sweeping Europe. The vote passed 335 to 1. Members of the Greens and Socialist parties abstained. The bill will go to the senate in September. If it passes there, women who wear the burqa will face a $216 fine.
The ban on the burqa is part of an increasingly open vilification of Muslims in France. Several MPs have described the veil as a “walking coffin.” President Sarkozy said that it turns women into “prisoners behind screens.”
But it is Sarkozy who will be making prisoners out of women, by confining them to their homes if they would otherwise wear the burqa to go out. Forcing women out of their jobs and schools because of their religious practice is not a path to liberation.
What underlies the burqa ban is not a concern for women’s rights, but a crisis of government. Of five million French Muslims only 2000 women wear the burqa or niqab. The government is scapegoating a tiny minority of women in an attempt to turn attention away from rising unemployment and unpopular austerity measures.
Prime Minister Fillon recently announced spending cuts of $140 billion over three years and a rise in the retirement age from 60 to 62. A total of two million people protested against these measures in January, March and August. A general strike is planned for early September.
Islamophobia is taking hold in other countries. Belgium and Spain have debated a ban on the burqa.
In Australia, Christian Democrat Fred Nile has proposed a ban to the NSW cabinet, claiming, “There is a world-wide movement to prohibit face coverings.” Tony Abbott added his voice to the chorus, calling the burqa “confronting”, while Gillard supported a court order forcing a woman in Perth to remove her burqa before she can testify.
A burqa ban will be no victory for women, for Muslims or for workers. Far right parties have won gains in many European elections.
The success of the resistance to cuts in France and across Europe will depend on the working class rejecting the racism that threatens to distract and divide them.