For France, Banning The Burqa Is Not The Answer

The issue of banning the burqa in France has generated so much heat over the past few months that one would assume the ban had already come into effect. Not so. Since French President Nicolas Sarkozy famously stated that, “the burqa is not a religious sign, it is a sign of the subjugation, of the submission of women…it will not be welcome on our territory,” a parliamentary panel has spent the past six months looking into why Muslim women wear the burqa, and what it means for France. The 170 page report released today recommends the burqa be banned in all public spaces such as schools and hospitals, but does not make it illegal to wear on the streets or in “private buildings.” The panel had to be very careful with their stipulations because a full ban would have been unconstitutional.

Of course all this fuss over what a small minority of Muslim women in France are forced, or in some cases choose to wear is just a fraction of the much larger issue of Muslim integration in Europe. France has ample reason to be worried. The country has the largest Muslim population in Europe and Islam is the second largest religion in France. The French are known for taking pride in their secular culture.

The burqa is a garment which has become synonymous with women’s oppression in Islam, but we have got to be kidding ourselves if we think banning it has anything to do with the liberation of Muslim women. Sarkozy can talk as much as he wants about how much the burqa subjugates women, but his policies are not going to bring them emancipation.

I think Sarkozy’s real motives are to protect and preserve secular
French culture. He wants to stop French identity from being
Islamicized. In the process, Sarkozy is sending a very clear message to
future Muslim immigrants: You want to move to France? Then be ready to
let go of your ways, and take on ours. The burqa is a very visual and tangible symbol, easy to target.

Ironically, Islamic extremists also use the burqa
as a tool to express their power, and make their presence felt. I am
from Bangladesh, one of the world’s most populated Muslim countries,
where radical Islam has slowly but surely been rising over the years.
Growing up, you could count on your hands the number of women you saw
veiled let alone burqa-clad. Nowadays, the numbers are astounding.
Billboards that use to advertise colorful saris show women covered in
black, with only the sliver of their eyes exposed. When the extremists
want to let you know they are in town, there is no better way than
covering up and restricting the visibility of women.

Sarkozy is doing something very similar, but in the opposite way by telling women they cannot wear the burqa
. He can use the whole “it is a subjugation of women” language as much
as he wants, but do we really think that Sarkozy is formulating policy
to fight for the rights of Muslim women? If he was, he would factor in
the issue of how many French Muslim women may not be allowed to go to
schools, may be denied medical care, and have their mobility curbed in
general because their (sexist) male guardians may not allow them out of
the house without the burqa. We are seeing women’s bodies being exploited for political purposes.

The truth of the matter is France has to address its larger issue of
Muslim integration instead of making a false case about Muslim women’s
rights. Banning the burqa is not going to force Muslim women to wear tank tops and voila
! suddenly become more French. In reality, it could have quite the
opposite effect, marginalizing Muslim minorities and forcing them to
become more extreme in their beliefs as they see them come under attack.

Cross-poasted from “Anushay’s Point.”

Anushay Hossain began her feminist career as an intern at the Bangladesh Rural Advancement Committee (BRAC) where she worked on microfinance and primary education programs for women and girls in her native country, Bangladesh. After graduating from the University of Virginia, Anushay joined the Feminist Majority Foundation's Nobel Peace Prize nominated Campaign For Afghan Women. Anushay moved to the United Kingdom to complete her Master's in Gender and Development, and spent a year working at UNIFEM UK (United Nations Development Fund for Women) before returning to Washington, DC where she invests the majority of her work analyzing the impact of US foreign policy on the health and rights of women and girls around the world. In 2009, Anushay founded her blog Anushay’s Point, and became a blogger for The Huffington Post. She also regularly writes for Feministing, Ms. Magazine Blog, and NPR (National Public Radio).

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  • Adam P

    I agree – it’s got more to do with cultural integration and fear than women’s rights.
    While it seems to have been removed from most versions of the article online (no idea why, it’s innocuous), the first article I read about this had a quote from Mohammed Moussaoui: “I don’t think an ideology should be fought through constraining measures but through ideas.”
    And that’s exactly right. If you really think the “way of life” of your neighbor is in error, you open discourse about it (if you can), you don’t ban the behavior. That’s the essence of Western (French!) ideals of liberty, equality, fraternity – communication, competing narratives, that sort of thing. Bans are almost like military action – the last refuge of those who have lost faith in their ideals and feel they must force them on others.
    New laws are sometimes necessary. But when it comes to clothing choices, it’s repugnant. I think it’s an affront to women’s lib that so many Western women feel obligated to wear thongs to honor their sexual beliefs (OK, my analogy to religious beliefs is pretty thin, I admit), but I’m not going to agitate for a thong ban.

  • Comrade Kevin

    Out of curiosity, does the thong really honor a sexual belief? Most women I know who wear them have a quite practical rationale for doing so, mainly to avoid visible panty line or because certain outfits are clearly designed for its wearer to do so.
    But practicality aside, I have never really believed that the thong honors female sexuality or is some means of empowerment—it could be yet another representation of the female chauvinistic pig motif, whereby that which is promoted as empowering is just as debasing as it always was.

  • GalFawkes

    Sorry to derail, but isn’t the whole point of a thong to peek out from jeans? I don’t buy the VPL argument. If you like ‘em, you like ‘em, but wouldn’t call it practical. And I agree with your second paragraph.

  • Antigone

    I find it strange that Sarkozy and the Parlimentary Panel were able to take it upon themselves to define the burqa as a symbol of women’s subjugation rather than a relgious symbol. Surely that decision should be, at least partly, one for the Muslim community, in particular Muslim women…
    The French government would never dare to define the relgious symbols of the Christian Church! I sense more than a hint of racism…


    Just a linguistic note here – “burqa” is a word in Farsi (Persian) and in Pashto. Farsi is the main language of Iran, Pashto is a Farsi dialect spoken in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
    There are very few Farsi speakers in France – most French Muslims have roots in the former French colonies of North Africa and West Africa – areas where either Arabic is the dominant language (Algeria, Morocco, Tunisia, Mauritania) or there is a heavy Arabic cultural influence because Arabs brought Islam to those countries (Senegal, Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger, Chad, Guinea, Cote d’Ivore, Togo, Benin, Cameroon, Gabon, the Central African Republic, Congo-Brazaville, Congo-Kinshasa).
    So wouldn’t the Arabic term Niqab be the more culturally appropriate term to use here?
    Unless, of course, the intent was to link French Muslims with the Taliban movement, an Afghan terrorist group which is predominantly composed of Pashto speakers.
    I’m NOT trying to say that was the OPs intent – but all of the media coverage about the Niqab ban in France in non Muslim media outfits always insist on using the Farsi word Burqa – instead of the correct word, Niqab.
    This is ESPECIALLY true of the media outlets that support the ban.

  • alixana

    Er, that’s the first time I’ve heard that. Thongs didn’t peek out from jeans until it was popular for jeans to sit super low on the hips. And with jeans that sit that low, any sort of underwear will peek out from them, not just thongs.

  • AgnesScottie

    I don’t think so (at least not anymore, if that was its original fashion purpose) Most of the women I know who prefer thongs think they are more comfortable than full coverage underwear, because there isn’t the “bunching” problem. I personally don’t prefer thongs, but if I do wear one, it is for the purpose of not having a visible panty line, usually in dresses/tighter slacks.
    I rarely see a woman with her thong peeking over her jeans, but I know that half of my friends where thongs on a regular basis, so, anecdotally, I think it is for VPL and comfort.

  • zes

    The OP’s usage is correct.
    Burka can refer either to the Arabian burka or abaya, which leaves the face visible and is worn accompanied by a separate veil, or the Afghan burka, which is the tent-like garment with a gauze for the eyes. Niqab is the face veil that leaves just a slit for the eyes, worn with the abaya or Arabian burka.
    Usually by “burka” in the context of a ban or religious extremism, people refer to the Afghan burka OR the niqab. But to call it a “burka” is certainly correct where referring to one all-covering garment. To refer to a niqab would be to refer only to the face veil and exclude the Afghan-style burka.
    Perhaps amazingly, has it right!

  • zes

    The ban is fascist, paternalist and ignorant. Where there is no practical excuse (eg driving a car veiled is dangerous, temporarily having to show your face at the bank/airport is reasonable) it is utterly illiberal and absurd.
    People need to think about where veiling, at all levels, comes from. In a pre-Islamic society slaves were sold naked, hence the more clothes, the more status. Also women who did not have to do manual work for a living, the rich or noble, would have the privilege of veiling to protect themselves from the harsh sun – its impracticality was therefore synonymous with the wealth and status of the wearer. Hence veiling can be seen as both liberating and aspirational. For many women, like those in France, it’s more an act of personal devotion than anything their families care much about. Some liberal western Muslim families are quite surprised when their female members choose to veil. Women are individuals, and will have different reasons. However they don’t make choices in a vacuum, any more than a woman does who every day “chooses” to put on four-inch spiked heels that cripple or harm her (potentially for life – see, hammertoe, bunions) – something that no sane person would do were the social/personal rewards not greater than choosing not to comply.
    Obviously, the veil has been co-opted by sexists for their own ends, but to focus exclusively on that shows a preposterous and dangerous target fixation. The OP is absolutely right. The danger here that if we focus all our energy on a piece of cloth we forget to tackle the REAL oppressions in the world. Honor crimes, rape culture, forced marriage, women who are barred from education or cannot get loans without male guarantors – these are the true face of oppression. The veil is a dangerous sideshow that detracts from fighting the ones that NEED FIGHTING; it’s cowardly tokenism, fighting the fight they can win (and they will, though long term it’s a monumental own goal). It’s also tremendously alienating to those educated women who choose to veil (including those who simply wear a hijab), and their liberal male relatives, all of whom are the most desirable allies in the liberation of their sisters.
    Most of all, these people need to speak to a hijabi before they prance around telling them what their lives are like.

  • gadgetgal

    I have to say that the ban under the French governmental system is actually fair enough, I think – France is a Republic and secular state in the truest sense of the words, i.e. their secularist rules can almost be compared to a lot of majority Muslim majority countries’ Islamic rules. I’m not necessarily a fan of either one, and I think people should be able to express themselves how they want, but since I do have to respect one if I visit or live there then I don’t see why I shouldn’t have to respect the other equally. Also the ban they’ve recommended is comparable to the one already in place for other symbols of religions, including Catholicism, which is the largest religious group in the country – you could argue they’re merely extending the laws to include all religious groups, and not just discriminating against some. And although the laws put in place are fairly recent the banning of religious symbols has been going on for years in French schools as a result of religious wars dating back to the 16th century, so it’s been going on a while now!
    As to the terminology – here’s a link to show the difference between the niqaab and the burqa in basic terms:
    Also this:
    A lot of the terms can actually be for more than one thing (like hijab).
    The garment they have the most problem with is the burqa, which is renowned for being more political than a religious/cultural symbol, probably why they refer to it as such in the papers, but in the report they refer to “Islamic face veils” which covers both. The niqaab is more common in France, but it’s becoming much more common to add an eye veil onto it, which is again a more politcal symbol than religious/cultural one, and it pretty much looks the same as a burqa once you do that, hence the confusion. There are comparable bans in places like Turkey, which also bans the headscarf from government buildings or schools, don’t know why that’s never been mentioned here.

  • 5thcellar

    Just a quick reply to your derail and I’ll bow out:
    Some people do wear thongs to peek out of their jeans, but there is a practical use for them, as well. I don’t wear them, myself, because I’m more comfortable in relaxed fit jeans, but mom uses them for VPL prevention in fitted dress slacks.

  • letigreinfrance

    The French government is well aware of how the burqua is used as a political device by tyrannical powers and they have stated that that is at the heart of their desire to make their disapproval of the burqua known. There’s a lot of great articles by Islamic men and women anti-burqua who talk about how it’s only political and has nothing to do with religion. I’m sorry I don’t have the authors names or the articles, I read these a few years back as part of a course.

  • Sunil

    Yasmin Alibhai-Brown recently wrote in support of the ban in The Independent. Link

  • Honeybee

    Pretty much the only reason I wear thongs is to avoid having a visible panty line. It’s usually not to try and be sexy. I can safely say many other women do the same (though I don’t discount that many do wear them to be sexy).