French freethinkers defend wearing of burqa in private – but stand by ban in public life

Monday 28 September 2009

The French freethinkers organisation, Libre Pensée, has resolved at its national congress to resist the imposition of a legal ban on burqas in private life – something that was recently proposed by senior politicians in France.

Although Libre Pensée supports the state restriction on religious clothing for teachers and public officials, it says that the wearing of such clothing in private life should be a matter for the individual.

The group was reacting to a publicity campaign earlier this year, instigated by right-wing groups and politicians, that called for the complete banning of burqas from the streets of France. It was supported by President Sarkozy.

In its statement, Libre Pensée said: "We were very surprised to see Nicolas Sarkozy wrapped in the mantle of secularism. Contrary to this, for years he has been insisting on the ’necessary position’ of religions in society and public life."

A Parliamentary commission is investigating the matter and will report its findings soon.

Libre Pensée says that secularism as a principle applies to institutions, not individuals. "In this sense, it is logically republican and secularist to ban all signs of religious membership in state schools and for people working in public services. On the other hand, the law is not allowed to dictate the wearing of clothes in the private domain, or any behaviour, so long as they are not dangerous to the lives of others. We cannot fight one form of totalitarianism by replacing it by another form of totalitarianism."

The statement continues: "Undoubtedly, the wearing of the burqa or the niqab is a symbol of oppression when it is imposed. And yet, how is the wearing of the burqa by a few Muslim women less oppressing than a Roman Catholic priest wearing a cassock or a monk in a frock or a nun with a cornet, some Jews with a schtreimel, a spodik or in a caftan?"

On Radio 3 on Wednesday 30 September at 11pm, Philip Fox will read an Essay by French journalist Agnes Poirier asking what Voltaire, the father of ’laicïte’ - France’s version of secularism – would say about the debate taking place in her country about banning the burka. It will also be available on “Listen Again” at the BBC’s website for 7 days.