Last week, French lawmakers approved a ban on burqas that cover the face, asserting that they “don't square with the French ideal of women's equality or its secular tradition.” Although not yet law (the proposal will be voted on in September in the French Senate), the overwhelming support for it in the National Assembly (335 yes votes, one no vote, and 221 abstentions) signals that the bill is likely to pass. (It’s also likely to be challenged in the European Court of Human Rights, but that’s another story.)
The idea of the government dictating the clothing choices of its citizens is antithetical to most Americans; indeed, in a recent survey by the Pew Research Center's Global Attitudes Project, 65% of Americans disapprove of such a ban. European public opinion is strikingly different on this topic, however: 82% of French, 71% of Germans, and 59% of Spanish citizens polled approve of a ban on Muslim women wearing full veils in public. Even the British – they of the “special relationship” – support a ban by a 59-37 margin.
Interestingly, the concept of a ban has gained traction in countries traditionally sympathetic to Islamic values; this past Sunday, Syria banned veils that cover the face from public universities, following in the footsteps of a similar edict already in place in Turkey.
Ostensibly, the bans have been invoked to promote the rights of women; in reality, though, such laws may end up hurting the very women they are intended to help. Women who choose to wear the veil or whose families obligate them to do so may not leave the house at all (or, in the case of Syria and Turkey, not attend university), leading to further alienation.
In countries like Iran, women are required to be covered, and do not have a choice. In France, Syria, and Turkey women are not subject to any such public mandate – and, accordingly, are within their rights to choose to do so.
To truly assist women who may be “forced” to wear the burqa, a better way to address the issue would be direct engagement – not sweeping laws against an expression of faith (that may or may not be a personal choice.) Muslim women and men alike are likely to perceive these bans as an assault on their religion, which only serves to discourage assimilation.