Angela C. Wu [International Law Director, The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty]: "The French Parliament has issued a report recommending a ban on the burqa in government-run venues such as public transportation and hospitals. The 200 page report, published on January 26th by a special committee of parliamentarians, was commissioned to study the role of the veil in France and came just shy of recommending a ban in all public places in France. The burqa or niqab is a full face covering that some Muslim women wear in public. President Nicolas Sarkozy declared in a speech to the French Parliament last June that the burqa is a symbol of women's "subservience," and that it is incompatible with the "French republic's idea of women's dignity." The debate over the burqa, fueled by Sarkozy's speech, is a part of a national campaign asking what it means to be French.
Unfortunately, a burqa ban will not ease France's national identity insecurities, nor will it aid the integration of the country's sizeable Muslim minority. More importantly, the debate fails to take into account the possibility that the burqa could be for some women a sincere nonviolent expression of conscience. Ironically, the ban disrespects the individual conscience of pious Muslim women by assuming they can't make their own decisions.
France is a signatory to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), in which Article 18 requires the protection of freedom of thought, conscience, and religion. The official commentary to Article 18 makes it clear that the "freedom to manifest religion or belief" includes the "wearing of distinctive clothing or headcoverings." Article 18 also accounts for the balancing of rights against other interests, such as "public safety, order, health or morals, or the fundamental rights and freedoms of others." However, the debate surrounding the burqa raises the question of the motives behind the ban. Without accommodations for conscience and a clear vision of some legitimate public interest at stake, the French will be making it clear to its own citizens and to the world that the ban is a pretext for alienating Muslims.
The uproar over the burqa ban is an example of the majority expressing its insecurity by making use of an easy political target: a very small, distinct minority of about 2000 women in France who wear the veil. The ban will affect so few people that it will be nearly invisible except as a political talking point."