In a passionate discussion late Saturday morning, three leading human-rights advocates debated whether Western societies should accept the Islamic veil as a valid religious and cultural practice for Muslim women—or whether it should be banned as a symbol of female repression.
The conversation couldn't be happening at a more relevant time, as the veil question reaches a fever pitch in Europe. As of next month, full-face veils (niqabs, often worn in tandem with the robes variously known as abayas or chadors; or burqas, the Afghani full-body covering with a face grill) will be illegal in any public place in France. This will include sidewalks, schools, banks, marketplaces, movie cinemas, theaters, buses, trains, hospitals, national museums—basically anywhere but a mosque, a private home or an automobile. Violators will face a substantial fine (€150) and will have to enroll in a citizenship class to better learn the values (liberté, égalité, fraternité, and most of all, laïcité) of the French republic.
On the final morning of the summit, the panelists—and moderator Andrew Sullivan, who'll soon bring his enormously popular Daily Dish to The Daily Beast—voiced mixed opinions on France's ban. Ayaan Hirsi Ali, the native-born Somalian and former Dutch parliamentarian who has spoken out about Islam's underlying misogynistic tendencies, said the ban would help protect women coerced to wear the veil by their families: "Laws should protect them," she said. She said the veil debate should also serve as a catalyst to address honor killings and other violence against women inside Europe's Muslim immigrant communities that's often excused as religious practice, but in which the state should intervene, as it would for any non-Muslim citizen. "If the debate on the veil is going to open up that conversation, then it is a welcome debate," Hirsi Ali said.
However, the Council on Foreign Relations' Isobel Coleman worried the ban would serve to keep women out of public space and restrict their freedom of choice. She likened France's ban to the bans in Mideast countries on Western clothing, and said both were equally insidious.
"Clothing bans, whichever way they fall, are part of excluding women from the public space," said Coleman. "We begin to limit women's choices."
The true difficulty, as all the panelists pointed out, is that some women freely choose to wear a veil as a religious or cultural statement, while others are strongarmed into the practice. "How does the law tell the difference?" Sullivan asked. "We can't," replied Human Rights Watch's Liesl Gerntholz.
Still, Gerntholz said America can study the fallout from the French ban as the U.S. grapples with respecting Muslims' freedom of religion while still ensuring women's rights. "I'm curious to see how it plays out," she said.