After scarves in schools, France mulls ban on burqas and niqabs

June 19, 2009

Pakistani Islamist women activists in Lahore, 5 Feb 2009/Mohsin Raza

French politicians seem ready once again to make a political issue out of Muslim women’s clothes. A group of 58 legislators has called for a parliamentary enquiry into what they said was a growing number of women wearing “the burqa and the niqab on the national territory. Their initiative comes five years after France banned the Muslim headscarf from French state schools. President Nicolas Sarkozy hasn’t tipped his hand yet, but his government’s spokesman, Luc Chatel, said on Friday that Paris could opt for a law “if, after this enquiry, we see that burqa wearing was forced, which is to say it was contrary to our republican principles.”

“There are people in this country who are walking around in portable prisons,” said André Gerin, a Communist legislator who was behind the initiative. More than 40 legislators from Sarkozy’s ruling centre-right party were also signatories. “We have to be able to open a loyal and frank dialogue with all Muslims about the question of the place of Islam in this country … taking into account the slide towards fundamentalism (of some Muslims),” Gerin told France Info radio.

The politicians’ appeal argued that burqas and niqabs violated the principle of gender equality: “If the Islamic headscarf amounted to a distinctive sign of belonging to a religion, here we have the extreme stage of this practice. It is no longer just an ostentatious show of religion, but an attack on women’s freedom and the affirmation of femininity. Clothed in a burqa or niqab, she is in a situation of reclusion, exclusion and inadmissible humiliation. Her very existence is negated.”


Saudi woman pharmacist in Jeddah, 4 June 2007/Susan Baaghil

Mohammed Moussaoui, head of the French Council of the Muslim faith (CFCM), said he was shocked by the proposal and asked why politicians wanted to focus on what he called a marginal phenomenon when they had bigger economic problems to deal with. “Bringing up the subject in this way, through the creation of a parliamentary commission, amounts to a stigmatisation of Islam and the Muslims of France,” he said.

No estimates exist for the total number of women wearing the all-encompassing garments in France and whether their number has been on the rise. Gerin said the commission would try to establish these facts. There are reasons to question just how widespread the practice really is. In previous public debates in France about Muslim headscarves or Muslim demands for hospitals to respect Islamic traditions (no men doctors to examine women, etc), some politicians and media seemed to assume the word “anecdote” was the singular of “data” and present a few stories as proof of a worrying trend.

Reactions have been mixed within Sarkozy’s government. State secretary for urban affairs Fadela Amara,  one of three cabinet members of Muslim background, has advocated a law against burqas and niqabs while Immigration Minister Eric Besson says France should oppose this clothing “but it has to do it by education, by teaching, by dialogue. A law would be ineffective and would create tensions we don’t need right now.”


Fadela Amara in the National Assembly, 14 Feb 2009/Jacky Naegelen

Sociologist Jean Bauberot, one of the leading specialists on France’s system of laïcité, or separation of church and state, told Libération this debate was similar to the headscarf controversy of 2003-2004 in that both showed a French tendency to think the state can know what’s best for its citizens. But there was an important difference in that facial veils could pose “practical problems for recognising the identity of the person standing in front of you.” We’ve discussed a similar argument in Canada on this blog.

“Of course, one may regret that women wear a burqa, but one cannot liberate people despite themselves,” he remarked.

Do you think there’s a difference between women covering their hair and covering their faces? Are both religious traditions that western countries should respect? Or do the practical problem Bauberot mentions mean a country could say yes to hijabs but no to niqabs?


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what is wrong with the french?
banning the wearing of the burqa or the niqab is just as wrong as requiring it.
this should be the choice of the individual, not the state.

Posted by Seraphine | Report as abusive

It is infringement on the basic human rights to tell them how to live their life. You can liberate all the women you want who do not want to wear the vail or accpt Islam as their religion. But to tell women that you cannot practice your religion if they choose to.
The argument about the face covering is not that complicated you can check the Id when it is needed it is not necessary for all the people walking on the street or standing in the line who the other person look like. All you need to know if it is a women or man and respect them as human being.

Posted by Azfar | Report as abusive

If people want to stick to strict Islamic traditions, they they should stay in strict Islamic countries.

Posted by Helen Highwater | Report as abusive

I agree with you Helen. Besides, the State has the right to protect itself from any concealment of identity. It is absurd to require the police to check the IDs of all women who wears niqab just to ensure she is not a threat. The niqab can be an effective tool to hide the identity of a criminal or a terrorist. In addition, I don’t think the Koran really prescribes the wearing of niqab because if it were so, then why is it that this is not being practiced by all Muslim women around the world? This is not a matter of practice of religion but rather a self imposed policy which the State can interfere either by regulating or prohibiting.

Posted by Daniel Rosaupan | Report as abusive

I agree with helen and Daniel completely, as muslims if we choose to want to wear a turban or a face scarf but if the country we are living in is non-islamic country than we should respect the laws of the land. since most western countries require their women wear mini skirts and walk around topless and be permiscuious like most western women are than we have no choice. same goes for the westerners when they go to an islamic country to drop bombs or steal the oil, they should at least respect the law of the land and wear a face scarf.if westerners want to get drunk and sleep with dogs and do other western things then let them do it in their own lands.

Posted by Hassan | Report as abusive

Hasans disparaging comments makes it amply clear the prejudice he (muslim men) harbors against womens freedom. That’s what the debate is alluding to, man imposed oppression against a womans will. Hope France will continue to prove to be a torchbearer it has been all along. I support the move, sisters.

A woman can dress modestly without covering face and hair
The idea in banning the outfits like veil and scarf in schools is just to give young women a chance to dress as in free world.

Always the dress code is imposed on them by men. Look at free muslim countries and muslims living in free world in general. Given a chance the majority don’t use face veil, go surf web and see the images from free muslim countries.

Posted by Azad | Report as abusive

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Posted by Weasel Zippers: French Government Says…. Sarkozy takes on Islamic repression…. | Total Info | Report as abusive

a muslim women wears the burqa rather hijab as maryam(marry mother of jesus) wore her head cover or the way nuns do would they then alos take it off. i would like to see the reaction of the pope to this when the french presidents try to take of the hijab of the nuns!!!!

Posted by sajad ahmad | Report as abusive

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[…] comments Following recent decisions in France,  quoting a text written in Reuter’s “After scarves in schools, France mulls ban on burqas and niqabs“ A group of 58 legislators has called for a parliamentary enquiry into what they said was a […]

Posted by The effects of religious belief on society & lifestyle « Rove Monteux | Report as abusive

[…] recent decisions in France,  quoting a text written in Reuter’s “After scarves in schools, France mulls ban on burqas and niqabs“ A group of 58 legislators has called for a parliamentary enquiry into what they said was a […]

Posted by The effects of religious belief in Society & Lifestyle « Rove Monteux | Report as abusive

I don’t agree with the banning of simple headscarfs ( the ones that leave the face exposed ). If a woman wants to cover her hair and leave her face exposed, I have absolutely no problem with it, and I fail to understand why the headscarfs are banned.

Posted by K.C. | Report as abusive