Islamic face veils and women’s rights in France

An interesting discussion today on the question of whether the ban on the Islamic veil in France follows from republican and laic conceptions of the french civil society or whether it represents a travesty of true republicanism in that it imposes a notion of identity which is partial and rooted in (catholic) tradition.

Given that the rights of women are often mobilised to support the legislation, I wondered whether France is consistent in this respect and whether women have in fact been the driving force behind the legislation. The issue here is not whether the ban is justified or not ,but rather whether the enthusiasm with which some purport to advance women’s rights is applied with a similar verve to other domains. With an estimated 2000 women in France wearing the veil in France, everyone is free to make their own assessment as to whether this requires the legislator to intervene.

So the question I ask here is how many women are in Parliament in France. This is interesting in at least two respects. First, it gives you an idea of who is actually passing laws in the French Parliament. Second, whatever one thinks of the veil, few people genuinely concerned about gender equality would see it as a trivial matter if only say 10% of the parliament were women.

In fact as early as the 1990s, France had less women than 10% in Parliament  No doubt, there has been progress in the position of women in parliamentary democracy, as can be seen by looking at a crude indicator such as the percentage of women in parliament. This percentage rose from about 6% in 1990 to more than 15% by 2008 in France. But most other countries have achieved better progress in that area.

The overall comparative picture in 2008 does not put France in such a good position either. Only two countries (Italy and Greece) had worse percentages than France, and Germany had a percentage of women in Parliament almost twice higher than France, while Sweden had a percentage three times higher.

So what? Besides the value of women’s participation in the democratic process in its own right, it seems to also seems to be associated with other outcomes of gender equality. For instance, a simple cross sectional analysis (2004 data) that, ceteris paribus, an extra 10 points in the percentage of women in Parliament is associated with 6.3 percentage points higher women employment rates.

Data on women from the Comparative Political dataset: Percentage of women in parliaments. Entries refer to the composition of the parliament at the end of the corresponding year. In bicameral systems data is taken for the lower house.

OECD paper