DURHAM — In France, a country of 65 million, 2,000 women who cover their faces in public have become actors in a nationwide drama that follows the criminalization of the Muslim full face veil, known as a niqab.
Last weekend, police arrested about 80 women who protested without a permit in front of the Notre Dame cathedral and in the Place de la Nation in Paris against the prohibition of the full face veil. Over two dozen of the women arrested wore the forbidden niqab.
Veiled women, however, do not usually stroll across public squares in full view of the press. The national union of policemen criticized the new law, which took effect Monday, for putting police in an impossible position. Veiled women normally appear in Muslim-majority enclaves, where a police official checking the identity of a veiled woman would be surrounded by hostile bystanders. Police remember the urban riots of 2005-2006, when they avoided these "no go zones."
How, they ask, can they be expected to persuade a woman who refuses to unveil to come to the local police precinct office for interrogation? What will happen if she continues to resist and is fined 150 euros? What if she cannot pay?
Will they keep her in custody? Who will teach the civics course that she may be required to take? How will authorities find her husband, who presumably has ordered her to wear a veil, and fine him 30,000 euros (about $43,000)? Or, if the veiled Muslim happens to be a minor, twice that. One policeman likened such a scenario to "pouring oil on a fire that is already raging."
No one alleges that veiled women themselves constitute a threat to national security. If evidence connected them to subversive plots, their actions could be investigated and they could be charged. Nor is this ban limited to certain sensitive areas, like banks, border crossings, schools, courtrooms, municipal buildings and police facilities. Only in a home, mosque or automobile can a veiled woman be free of police control. Nowhere in public will she be accorded her fundamental right to live according to her religious beliefs.
But make no mistake: This law is purely symbolic. Together with the ban in French classrooms on the much smaller hijab , or headscarf, passed in 2004, it sets the stage for high-profile confrontations between the native French majority and a minuscule number of Muslim girls and women wearing veils.
As a member of the European Union, France cannot reconstruct border patrols. The French constitution prohibits the deportation of legal residents and citizens who are Muslims. Migration flows into France continue to be driven by the political unrest in the Arab world as well as by the neo-liberal economic world order.
How can politicians capitalize on hostility toward global trends they cannot control? Muslim women's clothing has supplied an answer. The National Assembly banned the headscarf in 2004 and the burqa (an enveloping outer garment) in 2010 by overwhelming majorities. The Pew world attitudes poll in 2010 found that 80 percent favored a ban against burqas. The annual French governmental report on racism, published Tuesday, documents widespread dissatisfaction with religious toleration of Muslims. The authors of this 430-page report note the "end of hypocrisy" as more people openly acknowledge their prejudices.
Bans against the veil bypass ordinary policy constraints and send two powerful messages. To Muslims, it is, "Keep out." To the politicians' constituents, it is, "Trust us to keep France French."
TV news features dramatic standoffs between veiled women and uniformed police. National street theater takes over where ordinary laws fail.
Claudia Koonz, chair of Duke University's history department, is the author of a forthcoming book about European reactions to Muslim women's headscarves.