Why France Is Leading the Way In the Battle for Women's Freedom

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On July 13, the day before Bastille Day, France stood up for “la liberté, l’égalité, la sororité,” for the rights of French women and for Western values when the French lower house of parliament approved the ban on face veils. Even the French communists caved in to feminist pressure and did not oppose this ban.

Vive la France! This is the country which in 2004 outlawed headscarves (as well as all religious insignia such as crosses or Jewish stars) in public schools. Contrast this attempt to uphold “republican” and “democratic” values with President Obama’s speech in Cairo on June 4, 2009, where our president expressed pride in America for having defended the right of Muslim girls and women to wear hijab.

This ban is expected to pass in the French senate. However, it may be found “unconstitutional” by the French Council of State or by the European Court of Human Rights. Nevertheless, in my opinion, once again, France is leading the way in the battle for women’s freedom and human rights.

The Koran does not mandate having to cover one’s face. This is not a religious requirement. It is, rather, a hostile rejection of Western values, a refusal to integrate, a sign of political Islam, and possibly of jihad. It is also the foremost distinguishing feature of Islamic gender and religious apartheid in the West.

It may be impossible for the West to ban acid attacks or honor horror killings of girls and women who refuse to veil in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran, or Saudi Arabia—but why are our hands tied on Western soil?

Why would Western countries prize the sub-human subordination of women and protect it as a “religious” right? Once we understand that the face veil is not a religious commandment but rather a political or military statement—at best an ethnic custom—why should our own traditions of religious tolerance mandate that we do so? We do not have to be trapped by this Islamist use of Western legal rights in order to undermine the Western enterprise.

Some Western feminists have opposed such a ban. Most recently, in The New York Times, philosopher Martha Nussbaum claims that to do so would be hypocritical since we are the culture of bikinis, cosmetic plastic surgery, and dangerously high heels. I disagree.

Western families and Western countries do not force women to wear bikinis or to have plastic surgery, and if women refuse to do so, they are not acid-attacked or honor-murdered.

Loose clothing, which Nussbaum prizes, is not the same as cloistering, ill-fitting clothing which renders a woman socially invisible.

Quite apart from security or even human rights concerns, which I share, additionally, in my opinion, covering one’s head and face creates a serious health risk. Wearing a chaudry or burqa condemns a woman to a sensory deprivation chamber—something that is ordinarily considered a form of torture. A woman who can never feel sunlight condemns her to all the Vitamin D deficiencies, to low self-esteem, and to serious depression. How can a doctor examine such a woman?

How can a professor, a police officer, a judge or jury evaluate the credibility of a faceless being? Imagine the discomfort of not being able to see clearly or be seen, imagine being shrouded, imprisoned, kept separate and apart from the people with whom you have chosen to live.

The French bill, which was approved overwhelmingly, did not name Islam or the burqa. It was carefully religion- or ethnicity-neutral, an approach which Christopher Caldwell, the author of "Reflections on the Revolution in Europe," has suggested might work across Europe.

However, according to Benjamin Ismail, who lives in France and is soon to publish an appraisal of how such bans have evolved in France in the pages of Middle East Quarterly, this French ban falls short. By focusing on "public order" and "full facial coverage" and not mentioning "Islam," the "burqa," or “religious clothing” as “the reason for the ban, the law has side-stepped the problem and not solved it.”

While I cannot find a legal basis to oppose the headscarf (hijab) in the United States, in Ismail’s view, “the hijab is also indicative of the inequality of women under Islam.” (I have wrestled with the question of whether the West should ban the burqa in these very pages.)

Like many Muslim and ex-Muslim feminists, secularists, and dissidents, Ismail may know what he is talking about.

Similarly, Marnia Lazreg, an Algerian-American feminist who does not favor state legal action of any kind, nevertheless implores Muslim women to remember how hard Muslims once fought for the right not to have to veil—and, in their honor, to refuse the political obligation which is being packaged as a religious duty.

Phyllis Chesler, Ph.D. is a frequent contributor to Fox News and blogs regularly at Pajamas Media and NewsReal Blog. She is the author of thirteen books, including "Woman’s Inhumanity to Woman" and "The New Anti-Semitism," and may be reached at her website www.phyllis-chesler.com

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