I never thought I would see the day when modesty, of all things, was the target of religious persecution. Well that day has come. In case you haven’t been following this story, France is in the process of passing a law that would forbid Muslim women from wearing a burqa, which covers the face. The ban was just approved by the lower house of parliament by a HUGE majority (335 to 1). According to an article on CNN, the penalty for violating this law could be a fine of 150 euros, although forcing a women to wear a veil could be punishable by a year in prison or 15,000 euros (the equivalent of about $19,000).
Why such a harsh punishment? According to the French government, the wearing of Muslim veils is “a new form of enslavement that the republic cannot accept on its soil,” adding, “this practice, even if it is voluntary, cannot be tolerated in any public place.”
And the government is clearly a reflection of the people. According to the Pew Global Attitudes Project, the French people support the ban by a margin of more than four to one, with around 82% in favor and only 17% opposed.
Let me be clear. I do NOT support the forcing of women to cover their faces, hair, wrists, etc. as a form of oppression or coerced modesty. I fully and totally oppose such a practice. But having said that, I do not support this ban. In fact I whole-heartedly oppose it, and let me tell you why. This law is nothing other than the symptom of a Western culture for whom the concept of modesty has become completely incomprehensible.
Several years ago I spent some time in Indonesia helping to rebuild after the tsunami, and during that time I got to know a number of teenage girls there. Indonesia is a Muslim country and the area in which I was working was particularly conservative, so the women wore veils over their hair at all times. In such extreme heat, I asked the girls if they ever wished they could remove the veil. It would certainly be much cooler without it! In response to my question they looked at me with shocked faces and said, “Oh no! To wear the veil is much more beautiful!”
To these women, the idea of saving their most prized features for their husband was a beautiful act. It was something they chose to do. And for many Muslim women today, that is also the case. Before meeting these young ladies, I used to see women wearing burqas and feel sad for them, thinking how oppressed they must be. And for some Muslim women, that is the case. But not all. Some delight to wear it. Though we cannot visibly discern the difference between those doing it for legalistic reasons and those doing it out of a sincere desire to be modest, the difference is certainly there. And the French just steamrolled right over it.
In fighting religious oppression, France has become the oppressor. Yet as I mentioned above, France reflects a larger cultural tide in which modesty is a totally foreign concept. It is now considered a form of empowerment to show as much of your body as possible, which means that anyone who chooses not to expose themselves must be oppressed, either overtly or because of some weird religious hang-ups. Our culture no longer treasures modesty as a kind of beauty unto itself.
What does that mean for us here in the States? Well it means that as much as I disagree with France’s ban, the cultural shift also presents us with an opportunity. Modesty is truly becoming a means to set ourselves apart. The Bible reminds us that we are not the first culture to have this opportunity–Paul urged women to cover their heads in Corinth as a means for setting themselves apart from the culture then. Today we have a similar occasion, and it is one we should seize with zeal.
So often we think of modesty in terms of rules and “what can I get away with,” but the law in France reminds us that modesty is about a clash in worldviews. We are strangers in a foreign land that has completely different priorities from us. The world does not understand sexual purity or saving yourself for marriage, nor does it understand treating your body as a temple or reflecting God’s holiness with your life. Modesty may invite persecution, but hopefully it will also invite conversation. The question is, do you dress in a way that differentiates you from the world? That is a question I am very much challenged by.