18 April 2011. A World to Win News Service. has now officially banned the wearing of anything that covers the face, a move aimed at Muslim women who wear the niqab (a draped cloth that covers the whole face except for eye slits) and burqa (a garment that covers the whole face and body). Even people who hate and oppose these religious markers of women's oppression can see that in the context of France today this is a reactionary and dangerous move.
The problem is that this ban is aimed at only one religion, Islam, and only one form of women's oppression, the covering of the face. Although the French authorities and others who defend this law claim that its aim is to protect the dignity and equality of women, they consider it perfectly acceptable for every bus stop and billboard in the country to be plastered with advertisements featuring naked women as sex objects and often including even more degrading and sick symbolism.
If it is criminal to preach that women should cover their faces and hair to protect men from incitement to "sin", as if women and their sexuality were the source of evil, why is it also not criminal to raise girls to think that having a "perfect" body and subordinating themselves to men's pleasure is the key to a happy life?
Very few of the millions of Muslim women in France wear facial coverings – from 200 nationwide according to some experts to 2,000 according to the government. But nearly everyone understands the political content of this ban. For years leading politicians have called for excluding women who cover even their hair, let alone their faces, from much of public life. This would not apply to Catholic nuns or Jewish women who wear wigs, or Jewish men who cover their heads, just Muslim head scarves. Even more telling, Sarkozy's party recently tried to organize a national debate on the "question" of Islam. If someone were to talk about debating the Jewish "question", that would be considered illegal under French law as "incitement to religious or ethnic hatred".
There is no official tolerance for anything perceived as offensive to Catholicism. Consider what happened this month when a private museum in Avignon held an exhibition of photos by the American artist Andres Serrano, including his famous Piss Christ, a crucifix immersed in the artist's own urine. The Catholic Archbishop demanded that they be removed. The Church organized vociferous rallies to close down the museum. Eventually vandals damaged the pictures and they had to be taken down. But there were no arrests and no public discussion of Catholicism as a "problem" and a threat to France's vaunted secularism.
Many people of good will in France attribute this situation to President Nicholas Sarkozy's attempts to reboot his political career in the face of popular disgust for a man often seen as a corrupt friend of the rich. It is true that Sarkozy has worked shamelessly to attract the voters of the neo-fascist National Front. But that is far from the heart of the matter. The "anti-burqa" law has come as part of a package along with other manifestations of France's alleged cultural superiority and civilizing mission.
Sarkozy recently gave a speech in praise of France's "magnificent Christian heritage". This should have been shocking in a country that claims to be thoroughly secular. After all, not only have Jews and Muslims also deeply marked French history and culture, but even more, the 1789 revolution that created modern France was led by men who did not believe in any god at all.
The real content of this law is to imply that Islam is inferior to other religions, and more, that France's culture is superior to that of Arabs and others from traditionally Muslim countries. That idea has always been a part of France's ruling ideology, but it is particularly vicious at a time when France is carrying out its "civilising mission" by taking part in the occupation of Afghanistan and bombing Libya, among other steps seeking to reinforce or restore French domination of a large part of the third world.
This international dimension, accompanied by a whole galaxy of repressive measures against immigrants and especially youth whose parents or grandparents were immigrants from North Africa and other African countries, is one aspect of how dangerous this situation is. But the other aspect is that these racist measures have also spurred the growth of Islamic fundamentalism, which is not only a religious phenomenon, but also, in some people's thinking, linked to the affirmation of an identity that is officially spit on.
When the law went into effect 11 April, there were several protests. In a high-end area in the west of Paris several women – mostly from abroad – testing the ban were detained and fined. Shortly after local Islamic fundamentalists held a protest rally in Paris' poorer east side. The result was more than a few arrests and fines. The authorities declared it an illegal assembly and the police forcibly dispersed it. For Sarkozy, this is a good thing. It projects the image he seeks of the implacable enemy of the immigrant population. And it is also a very good situation for the reactionary Islamic fundamentalists, who portray themselves as the only true defenders of Arabs and religion as the only refuge in an unbearably hostile environment. State television throughout the Arab world broadcast the images of Muslims being attacked by the French police for practising their religion.
The following is a slightly abridged article from Haghighat, the publication of the Communist Party of Iran (Marxist-Leninist-Maoist), first published on 8 March 2004, at a time when Sarkozy's predecessor Jacques Chirac was promoting a bill to ban all female head coverings – except those worn by Christian nuns, Orthodox Jewish women, motorcyclists and most women in winter.
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French president Jacques Chirac’s proposed law to ban the wearing of Islamic head coverings in public schools has unleashed furious debate in Europe, especially among women. As a result of the political debate around this issue different, opposing and at times confused positions have been taken by those for this law and those against it as well.
The majority of the revolutionary and progressive forces in France and the world opposed this law and exposed its aims. Of course in the midst of all this, the rulers of the Islamic Republic of Iran, the most anti-women and medieval regime in the world, all of a sudden declared themselves defenders of the freedom of women to wear what they want, defenders of freedom of speech and opinion, and advocates of freedom of religion. These are the same men whose razor blades have slashed the faces of thousands of women for not complying with the Islamic veil or not wearing it "correctly". Their robes and turbans are also covered with the blood of thousands upon thousands of atheists and others killed for not believing in Islam.
Iranian women who have known religious rule first hand and suffered the enforced wearing of the veil understand why it is a symbol and tool of the enslavement of women and the total denial of their rights. The veil is a shackle around society's neck. Over the last 25 years in Iran it has played an important role in the suppression of women and the confinement of their rebellious spirit by the religious government as well as by men.
One of the questions facing the women’s movement in Iran is how to break free from this medieval shackle and how to break free from the religious state. These two questions are closely linked to the liberation of women – the political perspective and goals and forms of struggle women need to free themselves from male supremacy and free the world from oppression and exploitation.
Chirac declared, "The Republic considers schools sacred and they should be defended as places for learning by men and women equally. School is in no way the place to promote or refute any religion. Students, free as they are to perform their religious rites, may not use the schools as a place to practice them." Chirac said this law was based on the principles of secularism (separation of church and state) and the foundations of the French Republic. It was needed, he said, to guarantee France’s unity and ensure social harmony. But even though this law also formally forbids the wearing of large Christian crosses and Jewish yarmulkes (skullcaps) in public schools, it is clear to all that its real target is Muslims and girls who wear Islamic scarves in school.
Chirac’s proposal was accompanied by a major propaganda campaign in the French media. For a while various French TV channels became an arena of debate between supporters and opponents of this law. The media on the one hand would give the stage to covered women opposing the law, while on the other hand would not allow progressive and feminist forces to become prominent in opposing this law.
The irony is that in the past few years the French government has given aid and support to the propagation of Islam among Arab youth in the ghettos around Paris. Some 1,500 mosques and Islamic societies have opened in France.
Despite the French state's claim to be secular, it provides 80 percent of the budget for the Catholic schools where two million study. In the past years, Jewish schools have also grown by 120 percent. (Private school is not an option for Muslims. There is only one Muslim school in all of France, which took eight years of negotiations with the government before it opened.) Of the two million girl students, only 1,500 wear head coverings to school, according to the government report that was used to justify this law. That represents less than one percent of the 500,000 students from Muslim families.
For a searching mind, it doesn't take much to figure Chirac's proposed law has nothing to do with defending the rights of women and children, defending secularism or limiting the role of religion in French life, but everything to do with the political aims of the French state.
It would be legitimate to oppose the law from the point of view of "freedom of clothing" alone, but that is not enough. In order to expose the hypocrisy of the French state, we need to take into account the political aims of this law and the particular current political situation. It can only be analysed by examining the contradictions in French society and the class relations in France and the world in general.
France is an imperialist country. Its system is founded on the oppression and exploitation of the people of the world and France's proletariat. The denial of rights for immigrant workers and their intense exploitation is a prominent feature of French society. These immigrant workers, who are mainly from the Arabic-speaking countries of North Africa, have played an important role in the French labour market ever since the Second World War. Until 30 years ago, these workers did not even have the right to bring their families to France. Like any other imperialist country, its relative stability and comfort is due to the plunder and exploitation of the oppressed peoples of Africa, Asia and Latin America. The French ruling class has always looked down on women, and it has likewise long fomented chauvinism toward other nations and racist attitudes towards foreigners in hidden and open forms.
This law is part of an overall effort to unleash a repressive atmosphere in French society as a whole. Further, it targets a particular section of society, namely the lower layer of the working class, and immigrant workers in particular. For years the situation in French ghettos has been explosive. Periodically there are violent youth rebellions. The law against Islamic head coverings could be compared to the "war on drugs" unleashed against African-American youth in the US during the Reagan presidency in the 1980s. It has nothing to do with secularism or equality between men and women. It is no coincidence that in this campaign the French bourgeoisie has mainly brought to the forefront fundamentalist religious elements and Arab intellectuals with reactionary ideas. They want to kill two birds with one stone. On the one hand they want to make rightwing Islamic fundamentalists the spokesmen for the Arab masses, and on the other hand to influence the middle class in France into supporting this atmosphere of suppression and expand the social base of the right in France.
The head of international affairs for the president's UMP party laid out the aim of this law in a more clear and blatant manner than Chirac. He said, "At this time religious and ethnic minorities have become an obstacle to the unity of the French nation, and this does not correspond to the French national interests... Our main challenge regarding this issue is to maintain the unity of French society."
This "national unity" is the essence of this issue and the framework within which different aspects of this law should be viewed and analysed. We should keep in mind that in the imperialist countries "national unity" is reactionary. It is another name for imperialist chauvinism. In order to maintain the fundamental division of the world into oppressor and oppressed nations, the imperialists need to unleash chauvinistic sentiments in their countries against the peoples of the world. Of course such chauvinistic sentiments have an objective basis in imperialist countries. Because of the enormous profits from their monopolistic economic activities in Asia, Africa and Latin America, the imperialist bourgeoisie can bribe a section of its population, including the labour aristocracy, to keep its rule stable.
The split between the imperialist countries and oppressed nations has taken monstrous dimensions and this is increasingly something that youth in the imperialist countries are rebelling against. By fanning anti-foreigner feelings, the French bourgeoisie wants to prevent the spread of this revolutionary trend among French youth. In a situation where French imperialism is facing serious crisis and intense rivalry with other imperialists, it needs to fan chauvinistic sentiments more than ever. France needs "national unity" to be able to overcome the present crisis; so it has decided to bring French chauvinism more actively into play, suppress the lower class masses and unite the middle classes with the ruling class. The law to ban the "veil" is part of the ideological manoeuvring of the French bourgeoisie in the present world situation.
It is a question of ideological need and ideological justifications to mobilise their social base for the bigger goals of the French bourgeoisie in the period ahead. In today's tumultuous world, the French ruling class needs "national unity" so that France can play its role in suppressing the oppressed masses of the world and at the same time carry out rivalry with the US. The "French nation" must be prepared and mobilised for reactionary imperialist wars. French soldiers must be convinced to kill and be killed for the national interests of France in the name of the French Republic.
The French bourgeoisie needs to do what was done in the US after the attack on the World Trade Center on 11 September 2001. Like the US bourgeoisie, it needs a unifying factor within the country. The Western powers need to pose as "democracies" in conflict with "anti-democratic" forces. Considering the present developments in the world, it is necessary for the Western political system to put together a target of attack. The law to ban the veil, besides creating a repressive atmosphere in French society, also strengthens imperialist chauvinism. These are the most fundamental goals the French bourgeoisie wants to accomplish with such laws.
While the French bourgeoisie does not resort to fascistic religious fundamentalism, as does the US bourgeoisie, and instead raises the banner of secularism to create public opinion, this does not indicate a fundamental difference in the nature of imperialist chauvinism. The difference is merely in form. These differences have to do with the cultural history of these countries, their internal class relations and most importantly in their international positions. The French ruling class needs to unleash an atmosphere of suppression against the lower strata. This is their real goal in proclaiming their commitment to secularism. The French bourgeoisie's banning of the "veil" is against the interests of women and the majority of the people of the world.