America has long been considered the world’s melting pot — assimilating different cultures, ethnicities and religions under one flag, one country, one identity. Europe, on the other hand, never took on such a role. Close proximity to two other continents made migration almost inevitable. As one of the leaders in the European Union, France has a very special role in forming the European identity.
The Muslim population in France accounts for more than 5 million people, making Islam the nation’s second most practiced religion. There are over a thousand mosques and Islamic institutions, such as the French Council for the Muslim Religion.
Currently, there is debate about whether burkas — loose, enveloping body and head coverings worn by traditional Muslim women outside of the household — should be allowed in public.
In 2004, the French National Assembly banned any type of religious symbol from state school premises, delineating the distinction between state and religion. This decision and the persistence of a tough stance was upheld by the European Court of Human Rights.
The controversy over Muslim garb in France continues, with French President Nicolas Sarkozy arguing that the burka should be unequivocally condemned in public places. On Jan. 26, progress was made toward achieving such a policy with French lawmakers recommending a partial ban on any veils that cover the face. On Wednesday, French Prime Minister François Fillon declared that a man who forced his wife to wear a burka had “no place in our country.”
The decision to ban religious garb has its precedent in Turkey, a Muslim nation, when Mustafa Kemal Ataturk decided to modernize and westernize the nation by separating religion and state through the symbolic uncovering of Turkish women and removal of the fez. If a Muslim nation is willing to separate Islam from the state in public places, why shouldn’t France?
Based on the trend in coverage from the French newspaper, Le Monde, on the burka debate, it seems the nation is at a cross-roads. While the French do not believe that the burka has a place in France, an actual law banning the Muslim garment seems to go farther than many French feel comfortable with.
The burka is a liability to both security and freedom. In a New York Times opinion piece, pro-feminine rights Muslim contributor, Mona Eltahawy, explained that a burka “erases women from society and has nothing to do with Islam but everything to do with the hatred for women at the heart of the extremist ideology that preaches it.”
As President Sarkozy says, “[The burka] is a sign of the subjugation, of the submission of women. I want to say solemnly that it will not be welcome on our territory”.
Clearly, it is France’s intention to stand for women’s rights.
Will America follow in France’s footsteps and ban burkas as well? Probably not. But with regard to the French burka debate, it would be hypocritical for the United States to cast a disapproving look toward the French for their attempts to stand up for women’s rights by exercising a separation of church and state, one of the founding pillars of American democracy.
Melting pot it’s not, but France is not in the wrong for standing out among its Western peers.
Miruna Barnoschi is a freshman majoring in international relations.