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A woman wearing a niqab shops in a supermarket during the first day of winter sales in Leers, northern France, January 6, 2010. (STRINGER/FRANCE/REUTERS)
A woman wearing a niqab shops in a supermarket during the first day of winter sales in Leers, northern France, January 6, 2010. (STRINGER/FRANCE/REUTERS)

Globe editorial

Fighting a burka ban with a bucketful of euros Add to ...

There's a new opponent to a forthcoming ban on clothing that hides a person's face, which passed France's National Assembly by 335 to 1 this week. Businessman Rachid Nekkaz is offering to pay the €150 fines imposed on women who do not comply. It is a brave stance, and serves as a warning to governments that think they can punish people into social conformity.

Mr. Nekkaz accepts the bill's ban on the full-length burka and face-covering niqab in publicly run buildings; it's the prospect of forbidding it on public streets that riles him: "a violation of constitutional principles," he calls it. Mr. Nekkaz and his wife have put up €200,000 for the project, and he hopes to raise €800,000 more.

The burka is abhorrent and can trap a woman in a virtual prison. Banning it everywhere, however, will do little to emancipate women, and could force more of them into seclusion.

Mr. Nekkaz's approach is an intriguing 21st-century take on civil disobedience; in this case, he is encouraging people to flout the law with the promise that they won't pay a price. Dissidents have found patrons before, but it is novel that an entire class of possible offenders, thanks to generous donors, may escape a law's penalties. Mr. Nekkaz is essentially underwriting civil disobedience.

Some kinds of paternalism, such as seat-belt requirements, are justifiable, usually for the sake of public safety. But it is better for governments to work with groups whose behaviour it sees fit to modify. When a government legislates on a matter as personal as clothing (as in Quebec, where a bill to limit veiled people's ability to receive public services has been tabled), those affected may well feel they are being treated unjustly.

Mr. Nekkaz may never get the chance to deliver on his promise. The law still needs to approval by the French Senate and the constitutional council.

But as governments in Canada grow increasingly attracted to paternalistic laws, backed up by fines, they may want to look in their rearview mirrors: A Rachid Nekkaz with a war chest may be lying in wait.

 

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