The Challenges of Religious Freedom and Discrimination

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France recently enacted a ban prohibiting women from wearing a burqua and Islamic face veils in public places has produced protests as well as support. French President Nicolas Sarkozy pushed for the prohibition, saying that the veils imprison women and contradict this secular nation’s values of dignity and equality. About 2,000 women in France wear the full facial veil, and they face a euro150 ($215) fine or special citizenship classes, though not jail.

In the United States, such a law would be clearly unconstitutional and discriminatory. The constitution forbids Congress from enacting laws that prohibit the free exercise of religion, and such a law would fall into this category. There are exceptions, however. For example, a state can order women to remove their veils when they take pictures for ID cards or driver’s licenses, or the federal government can for passport pictures. Government has a compelling interest in clearly seeing a person’s facial features for security and law enforcement purposes, and this compelling interest overrides an individual’s personal interests in exercising freedom of religion.

Here are two letters to the editor from the April 18 edition of the New York Times. They express perfectly the conflicting interests at the heart of the dispute, and why there is no easy answer:

What do the French and the Taliban have in common? They both force women to dress a certain way.

Restricting the right to wear a niqab, or any other type of nonrevealing clothing, infringes on freedoms of religion, conscience and thought. These are the same freedoms that some terrorist organizations restrict. The anti-niqab law is an infraction of the right of Muslim women to observe their religious beliefs.

I, as a Muslim American, appreciate America’s tradition of proudly protecting and promoting the right to practice and display one’s religion however one chooses. It makes me proud to be an American.

Plano, Tex., April 12, 2011

And then there was the letter in favor of the ban:

Re “Government-Enforced Bigotry in France” (editorial, April 12): Communities that require women to cloak themselves in full-face veils have institutionalized discrimination and handicapped half of their population.

Unfortunately, the diminished status of Muslim women is not a new phenomenon. A number of Islamic reformers have described the adverse political and economic consequences of discriminatory policy, in addition to its moral reprehensibility.

About 130 years ago the Turkish writer Namik Kemal argued that the status of women, more than other explanations, helped elucidate the productivity gap between Islamic nations and their Western counterparts. Denied education and career opportunity, women, and often the children they raise, are less able to contribute to social and economic advancement and become productive members of society.

The French ban on the full-face veil is a first step in helping some of the most powerless women participate more fully as equal citizens.

Halamish, West Bank, April 12, 2011

I remember when I was in Istanbul and seeing women clothed in the full burqua, with just a slit at their eyes. They often were walking with their husbands, who were comfortably dressed in shorts and a t-shirt (it was September and hot). It seemed so unfair to me, that the women were forced to dress this way, in the name of “modesty” and hide themselves and deny themselves the opportunity to interact with the world in the same way as men. But it is the state’s role to forbid them from making that choice? I have to say no. The American individualism in me reigns supreme.


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