Yesterday, the last obstacle to the outlawing of the wearing of veils (or burkas) by women in France was removed by the Conseil Constitutionnel, that country's highest legal authority. In its ruling, it stated the law "respected the balance between public order and the guarantee of liberties and constitutional rights" and "is not manifestly disproportionate to its aims... given the mild penalties imposed."
After six months, when the law takes effect, anyone wearing a full-face veil – or any face mask, with a few stated exceptions – could be fined 150 euros (or about $208) or sent on a "citizenship" course. Anyone "forcing" a woman to wear a full-face veil could be fined 30,000 euros (or $41,766) or given a one-year jail sentence. Those who are exempt from the ban include motorcyclists, carnival revellers and sportspeople, such as fencers and skiers.
There has been growing tension in Europe over the last decade regarding the cultural conflicts arising from growing Islamic populations, both immigrant and religious converts. The wearing of the burka, under Islamic religious law, is effectively a cultural requirement within Middle Eastern nations, so the imposition of the wearing of the garment goes beyond a mere religious requirement, since religious, political and social spheres are effectively synonymous in cultures or nations dominated by Islamic tradition and Sharia Law. There is some dispute among scholars and historians and contemporary leaders in the Islamic community about whether the wearing of a burka is really a requirement of Sharia Law, or is the residue to a folk custom deriving from age-old practice and habit. But according to sources I've read, the conservative, more strict interpretation is generally dominant in Islamic circles today. In other words, devout, practicing Muslims are expected to follow the custom of wearing the burka in public, and may expect to be disciplined or persecuted if they stray from this law.
In the West, stricter degrees of modesty have been much less formally regarded. With the growth of media in the 20th Century, there's been a general breakdown in the standards of "decency" and "modesty" among both men and women, particularly in Western Europe and the United States. In primitive cultures--such as in Africa, parts of Southeast Asia, and Oceania--weather and circumstance have mitigated against the wearing of elaborate garments, though in the Near East and Middle East, the wearing of certain garments has been intended to protect the body from the extreme effects of sun, wind, sand, and so forth.
Western notions of equality of the sexes, freedom of the individual, emancipation of women from domination (by male culture) and exclusionary regulation and custom, have proceeded historically over the last century, while in Central and Southern Asia, and Northern Africa, no such pattern was allowed to develop. The position of women in Islamic countries has been strictly interpreted under Sharia law, and women are expected to heed the dress codes.
As the influence of Western culture has tended to increase through media and the freedom of movement among Western and non-Western nations, Islamic authority has begun to develop increasingly reactionary attitudes towards challenges to traditional custom and authority. This has caused conflict both within Islamic societies--where women feel the tension between what they're expected to do, and what they may feel, given the example of liberated women elsewhere in the world, and how they might wish to behave--as well as within Western nations experiencing influxes of Arab or Eastern ethnic groups, where direct conflicts develop between immigrant communities and the host national culture(s).
The conservative Right in France has been advocating the suppression of strict Sharia law for several years. France's growing Islamic community is regarded by some as a threat to the French cultural and political life, which is based on democratic principles which fly in the face of what some feel is an outdated, unnecessarily restrictive view of the relationship between men and women, and the familiar structures of the family, education, governance, worship, and so on. They felt that a prohibition of the wearing of the burka was a necessary step in the preservation of the rights and freedom of French citizens, a reasonable move to prevent the growth of Islamic control of the lives of its members.
There have been reports that certain elements within the Islamic community are threatening reprisals, even violence, in protest over the new regulation. There are those in the liberal French community, as well, who argue that this prohibition infringes on the rights of individuals and groups to live how they wish, and to practice their religion, as long as it doesn't harm others.
How does one separate the religions from the customary, the individual from the group? Is a devout woman who chooses to wear a burka, in observance of her religion, free to express her freedom in this way? Or is the garment a symbol of the subjugation of women, of the loss of power and choice in their lives? Catholic school children still adhere to rigid dress codes in some places. Certain kinds of religious costumes are common in many cultures. Do traditions in which variance of dress, and the freedom to pursue that variety, constitute a real "right" under democratic conditions, or is that an illusion of capitalist economies, in which the market dictates what people may choose to wear?
I was not raised in a strict religious household, but I can well imagine how powerful Islamic customs and laws might feel, growing up inside such a rigidly controlled culture. Doctrinal costume may only be a symbol of what that rigidity means, but symbols are meaning; they define what we are, and signal to the world what we believe. Uniforms, like those for soldiers, doctors, policemen, firemen, are intended to separate the wearers from the rest, both for convenience and to make a statement.
And it's the uniformity of the Sharia law, which may be the most troubling aspect of its meaning. The veil symbolizes adherence to duty, to an organization of society based on a severe interpretation of the roles of men and women in society.
You cannot subscribe to notions of freedom and equality embodied in our Western laws and customs, at the same time that you believe in strict Islamic practice. Anyone who attempts to suggest that there is no crisis of morality here, or that it is a trivial, private issue, is really being deliberately naive.