The Catholic University of America

Dec. 27, 2010

The Habit and the Veil


We hear often from our European cousins about America’s many faults, primarily our foreign policy interventions, our preoccupation with firearms and our relatively high levels of violent crime.

But every now and then, we also get a reminder of how wise our Founding Fathers were, and how much better our legal system is as a guarantor of individual rights.

In September, the French Parliament voted to ban the wearing of veils in public. The new law, which makes no mention of Islam, is nonetheless directed squarely at French Muslims, many of whom are immigrants or have their origin in former French colonies.

The September law, upheld by France’s highest constitutional authority, goes much further than the 2004 ban on wearing overt religious symbols in France’s public elementary and secondary schools.

The new law fines women 150 euros (about $200) for going out in the traditional Muslim face veil. Men found guilty of forcing women to wear veils can be fined 30,000 euros (about $40,000). The law seems to be an attempt to prevent Muslims from culturally colonizing the neighborhoods they inhabit.

Modern America reels in horror at the thought of official discrimination against religious observance -- especially against something as harmless as religious dress in a public place. This French law would never survive a challenge in our courts.

As Catholics, we have our own tradition of peculiar religious garb, and a history of suffering discrimination. U.S. courts once created problems for habit-wearing nuns who taught in public schools. But this doesn’t even come close to this new French law.

Earlier this month, I visited the Dominican Sisters of Mary in Ann Arbor, Mich., who recently had been featured on an episode of The Oprah Winfrey Show. The sisters of this community, whose numbers have grown exponentially from four to more than 100 since their founding in 1997, proudly wear the black-and-white Dominican habit.

The habit, which usually covers the hair and gives a very unrevealing view of the body, has played an important role in Christian history. It has served as a sign of poverty and withdrawal from the world’s fleeting fashions and distractions. It is a meaningful show of solidarity and community among religious, and each particular order’s health seems to correlate strongly with its decision to use or abandon it. The habit is a protector of modesty and a sartorial sign of respect for God.

This same respect is shown through clothing in other contexts as well -- by Catholic men, who remove their hats in church, and by Jewish men, who reverently cover their heads in synagogue.

The suppression of such symbols of piety among America’s many religious traditions would be considered unjust and un-American. But in October, France’s Constitutional Council, the rough equivalent of the Supreme Court of the United States, upheld the ban on the veil, writing that even voluntary donning of the veil puts women in a “condition of exclusion and inferiority manifestly incompatible with the constitutional principles of liberty and equality.”

That’s not what I saw in Ann Arbor. I saw an institution run by well-educated and successful women with an average age of only 28. I saw no sexual oppression or confinement, but the zealous and voluntary embrace of vocations from God.

It seems incongruous that French law would find such fault with a woman’s choice of the veil but not of the monokini, that it would reject a religious symbol of purity and solidarity but allow the presentation of women as sex objects.

This is not only a result of prejudice against Muslims, but also of the secularism and anticlericalism of the French Revolution.

It lives on, sadly, and remains at least as strong as America’s embrace of religious freedom.