Sunday, July 05, 2009

Liberté and the Burka?

As Jon Stewart pointed out last week, there's been serious talk in France about banning the "burka" (which is mostly the niqab, i.e. the full body veil worn by some Muslim women) in public places in France.

It all started with a call by 65 French MPs to create a parliamentary commission to study a small but growing trend of wearing the full body garment in France.

Then last week, president Sarkozy himself said that the burka cover for Muslim women is "not welcome on French soil".

"The burqa is not a sign of religion. It is a sign of enslavement. It is a sign of subservience."
"I want to say officially, it will not be welcome on the territory of the French Republic.We cannot accept in our country women imprisoned behind netting, cut off from any social life, deprived of any identity.This is not the idea the French Republic has of a woman's dignity", he said. (
BBC news)

The wearing of the niqab/burka is probbaly growing in some places in France (on all accounts, you see more of them than before for sure, but just one in your neighborhood will get your attention).

However, it remains miniscule even though there is not clear study on the extent of this new trend. You certainly see fewer of them in France than in Great-Britain for instance - probably because the French Muslims tend to be more integrated in France.

Needless to say that just like anyone else, I was in shock the first time I saw this garment in France (previously, you'd just see the niqab worn by rich Saudi tourists in Paris). Covering the face and hands cannot be compared to any other form of clothing. In this respect, it cannot be compared to a nun 's habit or even the hijab (the 'regular' veil). Covering the face makes communication very hard if it doesn’t prevent it at all. It also causes all sorts of issues with regard to identification.
That being said, does my malaise justify a ban by the law? Is the law the proper response to something that remains marginal and is not yet well understood?

There are different speculations as to why some women have begun to wear them.
What is certain is that neither the burka nor the niqab belongs to the tradition of north-African and African cultures (from where most Muslims in France originate). The former is worn in Afghanistan and Pakistan and the latter in the Gulf States. So it is easy to see this as a sign of import from extremists in the Gulf region (from the Wahhabists and Salafists).

The center of the debate has been about whether these women are forced to wear the full garment (by their husbands, fathers or family) or whether it's a choice of their own.

French president Sarkozy has made up his mind by framing the topic as an issue of women's right and not as a religious issue.

Two possibilities : either those women choose to wear the niqab or they are forced into it. However, in this (latter) case a ban on burkas/niqab would most likely only confine those women to their homes which would be counterproductive and might only alienate them even more.

Martine Aubry, leader of the Socialist Party, says: "If a law bans the burka,
these women will still have it but will remain at home; they will no longer be
seen." (
If, on the other hand it is a choice, then a ban would not be about "them" (the women wearing them) but about our discomfort and our fear that Salafist and Wahhabist extremist views might take hold. Can a law really change that? I doubt it. My take is that only education and integration can. In fact, all French Muslim leaders have taken strong stances against the garment :
Dalil Boubakeur, the moderate head of the main Paris mosque, described the burka
as a radical import that is alien to the tradition of Islam. (USA Today)

At the same time, French Muslims fear that a law would stigmatize Muslims. French Muslims are overall very moderate and in fact, it is suspected that most of them are not even practicing Muslims:

A number of surveys indicate that a solid chunk of Muslims [in France], possibly the majority, do not go to the mosque regularly or observe Ramadan, the holy month of fasting. (USA Today)

In any case, Sarkozy has rejected the notion that the niqab/burka is religious expression. If it is a question of women's rights, he said, and if most of these women are not forced but choose to wear it, then, what would be the legal base for a ban?

If the niqab is a means of expression (of values or ideas, however offensive they might be) then it is and should be garanteed by the law. And indeed, rights are only meaningful when they garantee views not supported by the majority.

As John Stuart Mill argued, (see On Liberty) freeedom of speech should not be constrained by "the limits of social embarrassment" but only by "the harm principle" :

"the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member
of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to other"
What is interesting though is that very few French people see the issue as one of the state encroaching on the rights of individual.

But what sort of society should give the state the power to tell people what to wear and what not to wear?

In this particular case, I agree the niqab is not simply a garment like any other because it covers the face. But the only limits for someone to hide her face should practical and moslty situations in which identification is required

For instance, a teacher should be able to legally ask the woman who comes to pick up her kid at school to show her face so he can be sure she’s the right person. This right should be extended to the administration, banks, etc… and of course the police.

Those circumstances in which a woman must show her face must be defined by the law, and other than those it is not the business of the government to tell people how to dress or to show their faces if they choose not to - unless their clothes represent a clear danger to society.

I am afraid most French people do not really see the issue this way, and it seems that many other European countries have taken considered similar bans (in Belgium, the Netherlands, for instance).
No doubt that such a law banning the burka/niqab will have to be in accrod with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) which both guarantee the right to freedom of speech as "the right to hold opinions without interference. Everyone shall have the right to freedom of expression".

That's going to be an interesting debate.....


At 11:08, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Referring to the "freedom of expression" on this issue might condone the wearing of, sorry for the extreme comparison,a svastika for example on your clothes as an expression of an opinion. Would a discussion or a class on Nazi Germany with someone Nazi-minded be enough to persuade this person that they're wrong?
Being a teacher myself, I believe in education and integration like you do, but I know about their limits. I'm sad to see students who've been taught Darwinism say that it is all balloney, to hear others who've been taught about the Holocaust that it has been exaggerated or to teach American civilization to students who still believe that most Americans are fat God-fearing warmonger people.
Besides, the idea that women being banned to wear a niqab would stay at home and that it would be worse that does not appeal to me. What's the difference? These women are not seen in the street, only looked at, even stared at.Who would take the kids to school, then, and go shopping? Their husband?! Good for them.
Thanks anyway for your site and the numerous debates it sparks off.


Post a Comment

<< Home