Cover Your Face, Then Pay a Fine and Miss the Show

Front-row tickets to a Saturday night show at the Opéra Bastille in Paris are already pricey — upwards of 230 euros a seat. And they get a lot more expensive if outwardly expressing your religion means you’re not only asked to leave during the second act, but are also fined an additional 150 euros for ...

Photo via AFP
Photo via AFP
Photo via AFP

Front-row tickets to a Saturday night show at the Opéra Bastille in Paris are already pricey -- upwards of 230 euros a seat. And they get a lot more expensive if outwardly expressing your religion means you're not only asked to leave during the second act, but are also fined an additional 150 euros for breaking the law.

But that's what happened to a Muslim spectator visiting France from the Gulf region earlier this month. She was enjoying an Oct. 3 performance of La Traviata, a three-act opera, when she was asked to either remove her traditional niqab -- a Muslim face covering -- or leave the theater. She and her male companion chose to leave. Agence France-Presse later reported her removal was in fact prompted by complaints from performers who claimed during an intermission that they were distracted by her face covering, which is illegal in secular France.

"It's never nice to ask someone to leave.… But there was a misunderstanding of the law and the lady either had to respect it or leave," said Jean-Philippe Thiellay, the opera house's deputy director.

Front-row tickets to a Saturday night show at the Opéra Bastille in Paris are already pricey — upwards of 230 euros a seat. And they get a lot more expensive if outwardly expressing your religion means you’re not only asked to leave during the second act, but are also fined an additional 150 euros for breaking the law.

But that’s what happened to a Muslim spectator visiting France from the Gulf region earlier this month. She was enjoying an Oct. 3 performance of La Traviata, a three-act opera, when she was asked to either remove her traditional niqab — a Muslim face covering — or leave the theater. She and her male companion chose to leave. Agence France-Presse later reported her removal was in fact prompted by complaints from performers who claimed during an intermission that they were distracted by her face covering, which is illegal in secular France.

"It’s never nice to ask someone to leave.… But there was a misunderstanding of the law and the lady either had to respect it or leave," said Jean-Philippe Thiellay, the opera house’s deputy director.

The theater’s decision to deliver the ultimatum prompted the French government to lay the groundwork Sunday for a new set of rules regarding face coverings during performances. France passed a controversial law in 2011 prohibiting people from wearing face coverings of any sort in public places including shops, museums, public transit, and parks. The new proposal would remind establishments, including theaters, of specific guidelines for policy regarding face coverings during performances, the AFP reported.

"He told her that in France there is a ban of this nature, asked her to either uncover her face or leave the room. The man [with her] asked the woman to get up, and they left," Thiellay said.

France’s decision to further define boundaries for religious face coverings coincides with the Australian government’s decision Monday to throw out proposed legislation that would have required women wearing the niqab, which covers the face, or the burqa, which covers the face and eyes, who were visiting the Parliament House to sit in a separate, glassed-in room — the same area typically reserved for noisy schoolchildren visiting the governmental headquarters in Canberra.

The proposal was floated amid rising fears of home-grown terrorist threats in Australia, where major raids conducted by Australian police have reportedly dismantled terrorist plans affiliated with the so-called Islamic State, including a potential public beheading or siege of its Parliament House.

But both France and Australia, which have minority Muslim populations, have walked a fine line between nationalism and security and xenophobia.

When France banned face coverings and made wearing one in public a finable offense, long-standing tensions between French citizens and Muslim immigrants, especially Muslims from former French colonies in North Africa, who view the law as discriminatory and a violation of their freedom to religious expression, surged.

France has a long and proud history of secularism: The French Revolution was partially a clash between the Roman Catholic Church and the state, and at the time, French citizens were forced to choose between nationalism and religion. A long history of corruption in the church added to existing tensions among the economically divided French population, and the revolution later gave birth to France’s modern-day secular state. Later laws officially separating church and state were originally intended to avoid religious influence in public education, where any symbol of religious affiliation in the classroom was traditionally banned. But mass immigration from North Africa during the 1960s and ’70s sparked conversations on the role of headscarves in public spaces. A 2004 law banned any symbol deemed "ostensibly" religious by then-President Jacques Chirac, meaning large pieces of religious jewelry, Jewish yarmulkes, and Muslim headscarves were no longer allowed in public schools.

In Australia, there was public outcry following the September terrorist raids, in which innocent Muslims felt they were labeled "extremists" because of their religious beliefs. One member of Parliament, Jacqui Lambie, even called adherents of Islamic sharia law "maniacs and depraved humans" and claimed they would use violence to force Australian women into burqas.

Prime Minister Tony Abbott publicly admonished Lambie’s remarks and called for outward support of Muslims in the Australian community.

Although the proposal to separate Muslim women in the parliamentary headquarters has been thrown out, the Department of Parliamentary Services will still have the authority to ask those entering the building to temporarily remove face coverings as a matter of security. After they’ve passed through a security checkpoint, they will then be allowed to cover themselves back up and allowed to sit in the regular viewing chambers.

But in France, a country that supposedly prides itself on liberté, égalité, and fraternité — or freedom, equality, and brotherhood — things are only getting stricter. And anyone wearing a veil probably shouldn’t bother buying theater tickets anytime soon.

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