What are the limits of what the law does to the human body? Nowhere does our fraught exchange with power touch us more keenly than where it chafes against our tender selves. Laws are mutable, a reflection of our values and norms, and societies have long been fighting its indecent touch. This touch falls differently on the poor and rich, and more heavily on women than men. Still, we no longer burn witches at the stake, or believe in witchcraft. Torture is no longer a public spectacle of flaying and quartering, but an enterprise that we shame and disavow even where it is still sanctioned and practiced.
Sometimes we contest laws that allow the state to divest the body of life, or to stay a voice of dissent. We dismantle laws that give humans a lesser measure because their bodies are a different color, or carry a different sexuality. We decry the laws that prevent humans from seeking safety, such that their desperation pushes them onto sinking boats and washes their dead bodies onto beaches.
The heart of the humanist enterprise is an unending fight to establish laws that defend the dignity and essential equality of the individual. It is perhaps the single most valuable idea that humans ever developed, and despite the pretense of laws, treaties and declarations, it is still neither universally believed nor applied. But the notion that law would serve to constrain the power that wields it, and protect the individual from the predations of other authorities, is the foundation of what we blandly refer to as “the rule of law”.
Democratic exercise contends this principle of human equality, rather than any rules established through religious authority, should order our laws and govern our societies. The uncomfortable part, of course, is that the principle extends to everyone, irrespective of their creed or values. And so democratic systems from Ireland to India have to chart an uneasy course through political and social terrains littered with sacred and profane bigotries, racist nationalisms, misogyny and all the other degrading ideas humans choose to inflict on each other.
Amidst a climate of rising xenophobia, right-wing resurgence and terrorist violence across Europe, French authorities have somehow concluded that women wearing wetsuits are the primary threat to the fabric of a free state. Those in France who uphold these and other laws against religious expression contend they have a unique history fighting the insidious forces of faith, a distasteful line of pleading verging on relativism. Others in France maintain the veil, and other aspects of religious practice, are themselves no better than witchcraft. That these positions neatly align with some of the most repulsive political elements within the Republic should give us serious pause.
In penalizing veiling, or a too-Muslim bathing suit, the French state assumes the posture that norms and values will eventually conform to the law. If you criminalize a practice or a belief long enough and enforce it hard enough, public acceptance will eventually follow. But the question is not about whether the policy logic is sound. It is, for lack of a better term, about whether it is right.
A dissenter would argue that the French state has no quarrel with beliefs, no matter how backward or meaningless they might be. This is a cheap hedge. Religious belief has outward manifestations, and more importantly, the interaction of every individual with faith is fluid and variable. There is no question that for some women, the decision to wear a veil is a concession to social or familial pressure. The family serves as one instrument of constraint over the female body, and now the state another.
The prevalence of veiling in secular nations without Muslim-majority populations should serve as proof of exercise of choice. In France, it perversely vindicates a strain of thinking that the state should actively uproot the unseemly attachment to faith that its Muslim citizens have. To hound women wearing wetsuits on public beaches is a tedious and predictable event. Whatever the individual’s calculation about what is appropriate for her body, the French state thinks it should be the only arbiter.
It is dangerous to let these attitudes harden, not least of all because violations of personal agency should alarm anyone who cares about the democratic health of nations. Preventing belief from encroaching on the rights of others is also critical and correct. If a state wants to concern itself with preserving the individual freedoms of women (and it should), it would be far saner to invest its resources into addressing its framework of laws that criminalize abuse.
I grew up in the US, lived in Europe, and worked in and studied the Muslim world for most of my adult life. There is no single debate or conversation about the veil, what it signifies, or why women wear it (or don’t). The motivations and priorities of religiosity change over a lifetime. Unsurprisingly, secular spaces have ultimately fostered a more accommodating environment for the ambiguity and evolution of distinct spiritual views.
As someone who wore a headscarf for eleven years, I had the right of free choice at the moment I chose to wear it, and the moment I didn’t. Whether in France or elsewhere, we should be committed to the preservation of this choice, and the principle that personal autonomy deserves protection even from the state. Surely this would yield a kinder, more decent outcomes than publicly humiliating women for how they clothe their bodies.