Notes on France’s ban-the-burqa debate

July 3, 2009

burqa-eiffelThe French love a rousing political debate, all the more so if it leads to a parliamentary inquiry and is topped off with a new law. Paris set the stage this week for just such a debate on whether Muslim women should be allowed to cover their faces in public in burqas or niqabs. By deciding this week to launch a six-month inquiry into the issue, parliament has ensured it will stay in the headlines until year’s end as 32 politicians from the left and right hold weekly hearings to consider banning these veils.

(Photo: Woman in a niqab walks near Eiffel Tower in Paris, 24 June 2009/Gonzalo Fuentes)

A few politicians have been proposing a ban on full facial veils ever since France outlawed headscarves from its state schools in 2004. The issue came up recently when 58 politicians signed a petition for an inquiry into whether burqa wearing should be outlawed in France. But it finally took off on June 22 when President Nicolas Sarkozy declared these veils “unwelcome in France” as a symbol of the subjugation of women and backed the call for an inquiry.

Few women in France actually wear these veils, either the Afghan-style burqa covering the face completely or the Arabian niqab with space open for the woman’s eyes. It is perhaps telling that the French say burqa for both of them, even though the full veils occasionally spotted in minority neighbourhoods outside Paris or Lyon are niqabs. Pictures of burqas in French media are usually from Afghanistan. Anyway, the politicians who petitioned for the commission say the numbers of fully veiled women are rising and that seems to be true. But the evidence is always anecdotal and there are no statistics to support this argument.

One might be tempted to call the inquiry a “fact-finding mission” but, if past practice is anything to go by, we may not get many facts in the final report anyway. France has been through this exercise before. In mid to late 2003, the so-called Stasi Commission studied the state of laïcité (separation of church and state) in six months of work including 100 open and 40 closed hearings. Many of these sessions were covered by the media. The final report had long and eloquent sections on French law, history and laïcité. But it had no empirical survey data on how many schoolgirls wore hijab headscarves or how often women refused to be treated by male doctors in hospitals.

hijab-protestNobody seemed surprised at the lack of data at the time because this was not a “fact-finding mission.” The exercise was meant to find arguments to ban the Muslim headscarf in state schools. This was confirmed when the report was finished and then President Jacques Chirac promptly picked one of the commission’s 26 proposals — the veil ban — and quickly had a law passed to enforce it. There was a wave of protests by some Muslim groups but they did not last long.

(Photo: Protest in Strasbourg against the headscarf ban, 20 Dec 2003. The banner reads “A law against the headscarf or against Islam”/stringer)

The inquiry and the public debate surrounding it showed that defending laïcité and upholding basic rights such as gender equality and freedom of expression enjoy wide support across the political spectrum in France. In an age of advancing globalisation and Europeanisation of so many other political issues, these have become key identity issues for the French. They’re what are known in American political slang as “motherhood and apple pie” issues that most people agree on. The burqa inquiry petition, for example, was launched by a communist deputy but 40 of its 58 signatories are from Sarkozy’s centre-right UMP party.

The timing of the petition suited Sarkozy’s political calender well. Elections in France’s 26 regions, now almost all run by the opposition Socialist Party, are due around March of next year. By that time, the burqa commission should have finished its job and the government might be ready to present a burqa ban law bound to be popular . As my colleague Paul Taylor wrote here, the issue also fit into Sarkozy’s plan to relaunch his drive for some far-reaching reforms: “The aim was clear — to distract attention from less crowd-pleasing but more significant proposals to ease taxes on labour and production, raise a big loan from the public to finance key spending priorities, slim down France’s bloated regional and local government and debate raising the legal retirement age.” It’s useful to remember that, back in 2004, Sarkozy didn’t like the headscarf ban idea and only went along with it reluctantly.

As France heads into this debate, two questions stand out:

  • If the commission really wants to find out about burqa and niqab wearing in France, it should provide solid statistics to back up its claim that it is important and growing. Will the fact-finding panel come up with any facts?
  • Masked people present a problem of identity and security in an open society. Faces are a natural identity card and a rough indicator of a person’s mood. Covering them hides the wearer’s most indentifying feature and denies to the rest of the public sphere — especially the police — the ability to see the others in their midst. Hijabs present no such problem because they leave the face uncovered. Why do politicians opt for the arguments about laïcité and women’s equality when the broader question of identity and security in an open society also confronts them?

muslim-fashion1My guess is that no statistical surveys will be made because the results would show the actual number of women involved is very small and this could undercut arguments for a ban. The question of identity and security will probably also not be asked because it would involve a deeper debate about what is and is not admissible in the public sphere. We had a post earlier this year about this debate in North America and how difficult it is to decide this.

Why bother with a more complex debate when laïcité and women’s equality are sure-fire winning arguments?

(Photo: Women shop for clothes at Muslim fair in northern Paris, 14 April 2007/Benoit Tessier)


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11 comments

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Je ne suis pas entièrement d’accord avec cette analyse. Il me semble naturel qu’on exige, en France, que les personnes puissent être identifiées par leur visage quand elles sont dans l’espace public. On ne tolérerait pas un passant cagoulé, un motard qui vous demanderait un renseignement en gardant son casque sur la tête. L’erreur du gouvernement est d’en faire une spécificité pour la burqa.

Posted by Geneviève | Report as abusive

Geneviève above says she doesn’t quite agree with this analysis because it should be natural in France that people in public can be identified by their faces. “One would not tolerate a passer-by in a ski mask or a motorcyclist who asks you for information while keeping his helmet on his head. The government’s mistake is to single out the burqa,” she writes.The irony of my final paragraph might not come across to all readers as I thought it would. For me, the issue of identity and security in an open society is crucial. Western societies are built on an ideal of personal liberty, which defenders of the burqa in western countries evoke to justify the option to cover up completely. But they overlook the fact that the flip side of that liberty is the demand for a certain level of transparency, so those in the public sphere can see the others there are not hiding or threatening anything. An open and visible face is indispensable in a modern society. A classic example, discussed in the blog post I mentioned, concerns veiled trial witnesses. In the western tradition, one is supposed to “face one’s accusers.” A veiled prosecution witness deprives the defendant of that right and should not be accepted.This issue is so important that it trumps arguments for personal or religious liberty (no, those are not absolutes). That’s why I mentioned it here and expressed regret that it would probably not be discussed in the parliamentary inquiry. If the politicians pushing this burqa ban really wanted to be fair and objective about it and not stigmatise Muslims, they would opt for this argument about the nature of an open society. But unfortunately that would require a lot more intellectual effort and an explicit defence of western culture, which is harder to pull off than a campaign based on popular reactions to specific issuesThe final sentence expresses the view that I think politicians probably take when wondering how to tackle this question. I thought my disappointment with this echoed through those words. If not, I trust it is now understood.

Burqa is atrocious even by principle… it has been a tool used by a patriarchal society to oppress and subjugate its women in the name of religion. Since most of the muslim women have been born into and thoroughly conditioned to accept it as normal, they’d really not complain… doesn’t make it any less inhuman.I am partial to what Sarkozy said and hope it is implemented. Although, I’ve mixed feelings about the implications of it on other issues of personal preferences… like inter-racial marriages, homosexuality and so on which majoritarian society may find unpalatable.This may just be a precedent. Soon other less popular issues of personal freedom can just be brought into the ambit of such laws. Quite what the Nazis did.I guess it is a wait and watch then…

Posted by david | Report as abusive

If France’s version of secularism is so fragile, that even some kind of clothes could demolish it, well, it doesn’t deserve survival.

Posted by John Abdallah | Report as abusive

I agree with Tom’s analysis that the intellectual effort to defend the need for citizens’ faces to be visible in an open society is probably too much work when the easy trump card of “laïcité” is available.Unfortunately for France, the notion of “laïcité” (Which Tom Heneghan very kindly describes as “separation of church and state”) is grounded on an unhealthy, historical, anti-clerical hostility towards Catholicism which consequently poisons the French Republic’s view toward any organized religion.( Unless it is of course linked to the Dalai Lama and Tibet…. amazing how that double standard is demonstrated consistently in the name of the French Republic. ) Ah…. but what do you expect after generations of l’Education Nationale functionaries rewriting history in the habitual Marxist fashion and denying any positive contributions of organized religion to Western Civilization or France specifically? The Enlightenment centered in France was a major milestone in the GLOBAL development of the rights of the individual. But the Enlightenment never would have happened without the preceding millenium of Western Christianity. One strong piece of evidence… it only happened in Western Europe.

Posted by John Cooper | Report as abusive

As a Muslim Lady, I want to say certain things:There are lots of misconceptions about MUSLIM WOMEN in West, let me make things clear:1. Western media needs to do survey of Muslim countries to find out real picture, it shouldn’t be Biased.2. Read Chapter NISA(Women) from holy Quran, it speaks about Women Rights, to Property, Education, Work, Liberty and freedom of thought and speech.3. 50% of Business in Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is headed by Muslim Women, Read Arab News.4. There was no Women American President, but Muslim countries had Female leaders like Benazir Bhutto, Khalida zia, sheik Haseena, Megawati Sukhano putri of Indonesia5. TALIBAN and ALQUIDA don’t represent Islam, there are the monsters created by USA(CIA) Pakistan to counter communism and Soviet block.6. Through out Islamic History there were great Muslim female leaders like Razia sultana, Ayeaha, MAriyam, Khadeeja, Fatima, Juveriya etc7. Islam doesn’t restrict female from driving Cars, Saudi Law does, in Islamic history Female warriors rode horses and waged wars.8. BURQA is no sign of slavery, but sign of Protectiona nd Modesty.Comments on: A boost for gays in India | OK to be gay | The Econo

Why I wear a Hijab ?By Raseena SherifI was asked by a friend about why I wear a hijab. This is my answer.You asked me ages ago why I wore the hijab. It was always somewhere in my mind – not necessarily always the back – that I should reply and I finally decided I wouldn’t put off your reply any longer, and therefore you shall have it.Having grown up in a practising Muslim household, many things were just handed over to me. And having studied in an Islamic school all my life, consequently having an entirely Muslim circle of friends, I never questioned them. That was the way things were done in my little world, and it was therefore the way I did things too. The hijab was one of them. I grew up in it. Physically and also mentally. I think the question, or at least the one with the more interesting answer, is why I continue to wear the hijab even after having spent more than three years now, in Christian colleges, and with a friend circle that is largely non- Muslim.There are many things I found in the hijab as I grew up. Things as varied as the convenience of not having to spend considerable amount of worry and time on my wardrobe and outside appearance, to philosophical, spiritual, and you might be surprised to hear this, but even feminist concepts that I feel proud to stand up for and show my belief in.In wearing a hijab, a woman is identified by the things she does and the things she stands for, rather than her looks. Even as a woman, there are times when I have found myself identifying another woman by her looks, where I might ask “Oh, the one with the long hair?” In underplaying my looks, I force others to look for more in me.My hijab saves me a lot of the time, effort, thought and worry that would otherwise go into my dress, my hair, my skin and my make up. I think it’s a pity that while theoretically looks aren’t supposed to matter, one must spend so much time and money on them. With the hijab, looking good means looking neat and the best part is that I get to stop where others begin.Comments on: France ponders a burqa ban | No cover up | The Economist on Wednesday, 01-07-2009 at 09:35amLooking back now, at how I began to wear the hijab, I’m glad I did start the way I did. In spite of the fact that I prefer to find things out for myself, and hate taking things for granted, or doing things without really believing them. Because having started the way I did, to me, the hijab was always just another type of clothing.I think about the kind of stereotypes people have about hijabs, and women who wear them, and I know that if I were left to discover the hijab for myself, it would have been tough for me to go beyond those stereotypes, to go back on all that I grew up hearing, seeing and believing, and to allow myself to actually see the hijab for what it is and its beauty. Having grown up wearing it, in a society that didn’t jump to conclusions about me because I did, or look at me like I was weird, I have always felt comfortable in it, and never thought of myself as any different from the rest. It was just my way of dressing. And with the stage for objective evaluation of that type of dressing set, I have come to love that way of dressing above others.On the other hand, I know there are those that hate the hijab they wear. I feel bad for them – for the fact that they are forced to do something they don’t even understand, and the fact that they haven’t understood something so beautiful. However, I think the saddest part is that they are losing out on both the happiness they might have found in dressing the way they would have liked to, and the happiness they could have found in pleasing their Creator. It’s always our intentions that are considered and if you’re doing something only because you’re forced to, it doesn’t count. You might as well enjoy yourself living life the way you want to. And then if you are fortunate enough to find God for yourself, I think you are really lucky.In fact, I feel bad for all those Islamic ideologies that are reduced to meaningless customs and traditions, and the joke that they have been allowed to become in the minds of people. Anyway, I won’t start on that or I shall go on for a couple more pages. I just want to ask you to make a distinction between actual Islamic ideology and the actions that one sees from some people born into Muslim households – especially the kind I heard you grew up with.In the hijab, honestly, I feel blessed.

Once again, the western world cannot rise above its own biases about what a piece of clothing means to consider that this piece of clothing might mean something very different to the people wearing it.Just because the West views the burqa as a sign of repression and wouldn’t wear them doesn’t mean that the people wearing them feel repressed. Many Muslims views the burqa as a a testament to their faith, especially in a nation in which they are in the minority. The west also supposedly stands for religious freedom and tolerance — funny how that gets ignored just because we can’t stretch our minds a little and think outside our own tiny box.The meaning of individual items such as clothing are not universal, but are instead charged by context. Putting a lump statement over them about feminism and freedom turns those same values into oppression.

I cannot see a problem at all. This form of dress is, after all, just a disguise at best. It should be banned along with Islam, from the Western world. It has NO place anywhere. MOVE

Posted by John | Report as abusive

Islamization of Europe must never happen, and this is a good first step to doing that. Multi-culturalism is a failure!

Posted by Andrew | Report as abusive

[...] from all spheres of international community in the last five years, France is contemplating a separate law banning hijab and possibly the [...]

This question has a number of dimensions. One dimension is the Children’s Right.
If parents have a RIGHT to bring up their children that nudity is a very good thing then should we allow those children – when they are fully grown up – to walk nude in our streets? Here, the majority of adults can argue that this is against their wish and VOTE to ban it. By the same token, if children in some families – say in a democratic Muslim country – are victimised by an education or family tradition – not religious as we know it – to wear a Burkha, then members of the democratic Muslim society can vote that this is against what the prophet Muhammad decreed and hence we VOTE to ban it. Oh’ people of the west, Oh the right wing extremists of Europe, please understand that Burkha has nothing to do with Islam or Kuran. Please do not bush Muslims with this backward tribal tradition. An Oh moderate Muslims of the world please rise against the oppressive families who force their women and daughters to follow an old tradition which is bringing disgrace to your religion.

Posted by Kevin_Ashton | Report as abusive