For a country with an extensive history of religious tension and bloodshed (think the St. Bartholomew's Day Massacre of 1572) it is ironic that modern France has embraced secularism to an extent which it has. All outward religious items or symbols have been banned in French schools. This means no religious t-shirts, no head scarfs, no Stars of David or crosses on the neck ( unless they are underneath the shirt and out of view), no yamacas, and no religious tattoos can be apparent. This has been legally upheld and publicly accepted, though there were protests by the Muslim community via the requirement to remove the head scarf. However, French lawmakers are currently in the process of reviewing a call to ban veils worn by Muslim women everywhere in the public sphere. Given the inherent tension between the government's right to intervene on religious matters, this issue has become extremely contentious and divided the country into two sides.
Before I lay out the issues on the table, let me note that this is not a proposal to ban the full Burka some Muslim women chose to wear, but rather this ban would prohibit women from veiling their face. Those who support this proposed ban present a two fold argument: 1.) that it is an issue of national security and 2.) that it is part of a culture that degrades women and limits their rights. The argument for national security is perhaps the strongest, as there have been cases of fundamentalist young men who disguise themselves as women under a burka and proceed to carry out an attack. The argument therefore is that it is in the interest of national security to be able to see one's face and determine their motive. However these attacks are far and few between and there has been no such instance of such an attack in France.
Those against the ban argue that 1.) the veil is liberating, rather than degrading or women and 2.) that to ban it is an encroachment on their right to religious freedom. There are only an estimated 1,900 Muslim women who actually wear the full veil and many of these women are not immigrants who refuse to integrate into French society, rather they are second generation Muslims who have chosen to wear the veil to acknowledge their culture and past. These women have often stated that they feel liberated from the objectification of men and society while under the veil, and feel like instead of being judged on the bodies, that they are judged based on ability.
Though France's secularism does affect all religions in the academic setting, this proposed ban is widely considered a breach of religious freedom, specifically targeted at the Muslim population. After all, this ban does not propose to ban all veils or items that cover one's face in public, but only those veils of Muslim women. I would argue that this is an example of xenophobia and religious discrimination. The veil is an outward symbol of religion that challenges France's esteemed secularism and lawmakers believe that by banning it, Muslim women will become less restricted and integrate better into French society. However, this does not take into account the women themselves who wear the veil and their personal reasons for doing so. For a society that respects freedom and liberty above all else, this ban appears to be anything but.