What hides beneath the burqa ban

Is it possible for a feminist to oppose it? Yes – and so should you.

, by Julia Mikić

All the versions of this article: [Deutsch] [English]

What hides beneath the burqa ban
Afghan women wearing their traditional burqas By Steve Evans from India and USA (Flickr) [CC-BY-2.0 (www.creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Wearing a scarf tightly wrapped over my head and mouth against the bitter cold of Brussels earlier this winter, it occurred to me I was engaging in an illegal activity. Of course, I didn’t face any actual risk of arrest or fine – but that is exactly the problem. Some scarves, it seems, are more equal than others.

Last week Hessen became the first German state to impose a ban on the Islamic face veil for civil service employees, citing the necessary visual contact between the citizen and the state as the reason. Such a rule is by no means unreasonable, as most state institutions and corporations have dress-codes and policies prescribing everything from sleeve and fingernail length to shade of make-up and shape of beard. What is different this time round, however, is that what is essentially a clause in employees’ rulebooks or contracts has been elevated to the level of state law, but not as a general provision, but, rather, as one that singles out one particular garment worn by one particular group of citizens to explicitly legislate against it.

MPs in both Belgium and France approved the ban last year, albeit with the vague wording allegedly referring to all face covers in public. Oddly enough, no motorcyclists have as yet been reported to have been fined for wearing helmets, nor did any Sinterklaas or Père Noël suffer the consequences of walking around with merely his eyes showing between the hat and the fake beard this Christmas. So, apparently, what must have got lost in translation is that “all” and “only Muslim women’s” are synonymous with one another when it comes to passing laws.

There are three fundamental questions to be asked here. One, if the problem is visibility in personal contact, why did Hessen restrict the ban to burqas, and why did it feel the need to send the message that civil service employees’ appearance was a matter of – quite incomprehensive – legal regulation? Two, if there is a consensus in Belgium and France on the burqa being the issue, why hypocritically evade it by wrapping it into vague general terms when proposing a law, when – in practice – the law in those terms will never be enforced? And three, why is the burqa wrong in the first place – so wrong that states feel the need to include negative references about it in their laws?

In order to understand this, we need to look at the usual arguments used to defend the ban. I am going to disprove each of them and show that not only do they not hold, but actually stand for a greater harm.

1) Muslim women who wear burqas are forced to do so; it is never their own choice.

Why it doesn’t hold: That may well be true for a number of women wearing the garment, but the real question is, What about those who do choose to do so of their own will? Such women do exist, so what do we tell them? Sign a document stating you aren’t being forced, and then it’s okay? Or that, no matter what a woman says, she is not to be believed?

Why it’s dangerous to buy it: Imposing the choice of dress or the form of religious practice onto a woman is certainly reproachable. Yet what is even worse is taking for granted that it is not possible for the said woman to have chosen either the dress or the form of worship herself. And even implying such impossibility is beyond offensive; it is the very definition of sexism.

2) Women who refuse to wear burqas in public are punished by their fathers/husbands; the way to stop that from happening is to ban the wearing of burqas in public.

Why it doesn’t hold: While the first claim may be true, the second does not logically follow from it. If we accept that burqas-in-public are the consequence of social pressure on these women, then by removing the consequence the cause (pressure) is not really tackled. Quite the opposite.

Why it’s dangerous to buy it: This is a textbook case of not being able to see the forest for the trees. By being so focused on the concept of burqa, one seems to fail to realise that the basic principle why the burqa is an issue in the first place is only in its relation to women’s emancipation. What the above claim presents is a false dilemma between the oppressed women in the street and the no-longer oppressed women in the street. The problem, however, is that after such legislation is passed, the women forced to be veiled before leaving their homes will not simply shed their veils and go out and get an education and a job; on the contrary – they will never be able to leave their homes in the first place. If the actual choice is, as it is, between women leaving their homes veiled, or staying locked in, then what the law does is further hinder the emancipation of the very women whose interests it pretends to be protecting.

Why it’s more than dangerous to buy it: In the best tradition of “solving” problems by sweeping them under the carpet, these lawmakers seem to believe that by removing the consequence of domestic abuse from the streets, it ceases to exist as a problem: saying “It’s okay, as long as there is no visible proof.” Of course, the exact opposite is true. If there is domestic violence in any home, Muslim, Christian or otherwise, it is a problem, and one well covered by the laws already in existence. Domestic violence is a crime, illegal to begin with – full stop. But by running away from the actual issue and legislating against the symptom, the problem is not only not solved, but actually aggravated by being moved from the public, visible, sphere into the private, invisible, one. So not only is it now effectively covered up, but the incentive to tackle it is also diminished. Therefore, banning the burqa is nothing but a cowardly attempt at drawing the attention away from the fact that the true problem – domestic violence as a general phenomenon – is still not being successfully dealt with in practice.

3) It is a threat to security.

Why it doesn’t hold: In all situations where identification is performed by face matching, there are alternative – and more efficient – ways of achieving the same end, e.g. retinal and fingerprint scans. On the rare occasions when it is in the interest of security that the person’s face be seen, there are ways of arranging that too (e.g. female security officers in separate rooms). In all other, i.e. social, contexts, there are obvious examples that disprove this claim: dentists; surgeons; anyone with a motorcycle helmet or a substantive beard; carnivals.

Why it’s dangerous to buy it: Just because a dangerous terrorist could be hiding behind a face veil (which is easy enough to check without hurting anyone’s rights, as explained above) is not a reason enough to strip all women of it. Similarly, just because a full strip-search is sometimes required at an airport is no reason to demand that everyone moving within its limits must be doing so in their birthday suit. Using a specific example to justify a general measure is fallacious, but, more importantly, discriminatory.

4) Not being able to see a person’s face hinders social interaction.

Why it doesn’t hold: Have you ever heard of, or used, a telephone? It is perfectly possible to communicate seeing a lot less.

Why it’s dangerous to buy it: This claim is a self-fulfilling prophecy in that it tautologically takes the visible-face norm and moves from there to create a problem where there isn’t one by drawing attention to it. One could similarly argue that sunglasses should be banned for the very same reason, yet they are not. Why not? Because we have learnt to accept them.

5) It is not necessary/required by Islam.

Why it doesn’t hold: “Not necessary” does not and should not automatically extend into “forbidden”.

Why it’s dangerous to buy it: It is necessary to distinguish between a fashion choice (high heels vs. flats) and a garment option due to a religious belief (kippah vs. baseball cap). In other words, to a believer it does not really constitute a choice in the real sense, but merely obeying the religious practice, which is in this case inseparable from the belief, the right to which is, let us not forget, something granted by the constitutions of all European countries. Intervening into another person’s belief system in order to introduce an artificial line into it is the height of Western-centric arrogance.

6) It is a sign of/will lead to the Islamisation of Europe.

Why it doesn’t hold: Worry not – religiousness isn’t contagious.

Why it’s dangerous to buy it: Laïcité as a concept/value is not dependant on the number of religious people in a country or their form of practice. Allowing and nourishing freedom of religion is not only compatible with it, but is one of the cornerstones of European democracies. The point of secularity is not favouring atheists, but protecting everyone regardless of religious preferences, as well as ensuring the absences of government involvement in what are religious affairs and vice versa. Whereas the act of covering one’s face does not interfere with the functioning of the state (any more than for example granting the right to the observance of religious holidays), introducing an explicit mention of it in the legislation comes dangerously close to disturbing this principle, as well as interfere with private choices of citizens.

7) It oppresses/humiliates women.

Why it doesn’t hold: Ask any woman choosing to wear a burqa if she feels more humiliated wearing it in public, or being forced by law to take it off.

Why it’s dangerous to buy it: Imposing a Western system of values onto veiled women by claiming that liberation equals exposing one’s body “freely” to the world is not justified. On the contrary. Imagine a scenario in which a Western person is forced by law to expose those parts of their body that they have been raised to believe are shameful or simply not intended for a wide audience – despite perhaps not being perceived as such by the general public. The psychological effect of such exposure could and would be devastatingly humiliating. The irony of champagne feminists treating the exposure of the female body to the looks and objectification as the key to emancipation is simply too great to overlook. The exact reasoning behind viewing a system in which a woman is expected to negotiate her position in society by willingly placing her looks under the eye and the scrutiny of the public sphere as less oppressive or humiliating to women than the one where the public holds no right to that scrutiny remains a mystery.

The Belgian and French ’burqa’ laws tell a sad story of ignorance, misinterpretation, arrogance, hypocrisy, misogyny, prejudice and violence, none of which counted as what we like to think of as European values last time I checked. Xenophobia wrapped into the cellophane of freedom with the bow of emancipation on top is still wrong. Our duty as federalists – and sensible human beings – is to expose and oppose deceptive claims used to justify misdirected measures, and point to the real issues behind them. Then, and only then, can we start building the Europe we aim for.

Your comments
  • On 12 February 2011 at 13:19, by Daniel Replying to: WHAT HIDES BENEATH THE BURQA BAN

    I completely agree with the message of your article. However, as far as I know, the Burqa ban in Hessen is not based on a law but on a decree (“Erlass”) by the Hessian minister of the interior, i.e. only an internal regulation for the administration. Moreover, it does not mention burqas explicitly but officially refers to “full face veils” (“Vollverschleierung”). Please correct me, if I’m wrong.

  • On 12 February 2011 at 16:02, by Cédric Replying to: WHAT HIDES BENEATH THE BURQA BAN

    Interesting, in-depth going article, good rhetoric. But I totally disagree with you.

    Of course our societies could adapt to the burqa, that’s totally imaginable. As well as we could adapt to excision, polygamy, which many women also accept willingly, or to US creationist movements. The question is not whether we can tolerate it (we can), but if the principle of freedom imposes us to deny who we are.

    The freedom of religious consciousness is a fundamental principle. But religion means “religare”, linking. The burqa doesn’t link women to society, quite the contrary. I find it unbelievable that you equate the burqa to an expression of islam. The burqa is a tradition originated in Afghanistan, it has little to do with islam, and many Arabic countries have long tried to ban all kind of so called islamic scarves for this reason. Grandmas in Lebanon refuse to wear them, and they deeply regret that their granddaughters tend to wear it more and more often. What Europe should do is not to make everything to help extremist forms of islam, judaism, or catholicism, to fell at home in Europe, but to strengthen the moderates ones.

    I also find the francophobic undertones in your article a bit insulting. Laicity makes part of our identity, and as far as I’m concerned, it comes before all the rest. If Europe wants to slip into religious communitarism, well, it will be without me. Laicity is as important in France as catholicism or national independence in Poland, Verantwortung in Germany, or individual freedom in the UK. If federalism means taking us that, federalism will be without me.

    If we cannot base our society on western value, then I hope that laic movements in Tunisia will. I hope they will succeed in showing you that western values such as secularism are not an idea of the past.

    Although I’m no supporter of our current government, and I disliked the way the debates over this issue took place and the hypocritical arguments that were promoted by our government, I fully support the ban. Can’t you tolerate this decision that we only apply to ourselves? Does it mean you are intolerant?

    I’d like you to acknowledge that France has the biggest arabic community in Europe, as well as the biggest jewish one, and that, so far, we do not integrate them satisfactorily, but that laicity helps a lot to prevent conflicts. Laicity has been a successful way of making them feel French in spite of all the discrimination they are faced with every day. The communitarian model has not been as successful in this regard.

    And I don’t want to be misunderstood, but I wonder what you do in the JEF-Europe executive bureau if you have such a big problem with western values?

  • On 12 February 2011 at 18:11, by Valéry-Xavier Lentz Replying to: WHAT HIDES BENEATH THE BURQA BAN

    Thank you for this article. You however forget one more argument : individual freedom. The State should simply not be able to deal with how someone dresses nor why one choses to do so. Never, ever.

    How ones dress, its religious opinion, its sexual orientation, what he does with his computer and internet connection, what he eats, drinks, or smoke, what he sells or buy. None of this whould be withing a governement’s filed of action.

  • On 13 February 2011 at 21:23, by Julia Replying to: What hides beneath the burqa ban

    @Daniel: Thanks for the correction; my bad, since the articles I found were translated (incorrectly, obviously) and mentioned both words explicitly. I stand corrected :) The point still holds, though.

    @Valéry-Xavier: Yes, as long as the personal choice does not result in a greater societal harm. My point was exactly to prove that that harm did not exist with the burqa.

    @Cedric: Thank you for disagreeing with me. My intention was to stir emotions and reactions, and have always preferred argumented disagreement to unsubstantiated agreement.

    However, the parallels you mention cannot be compared to the burqa & niqab in their societal impact (see above). Though I might be willing to take a side in the debate on polygamy at some point in the future (one never knows), the article was not about that. It merely exposes – in an unforgivably short and semi-satirical way – the most commonly used and heard claims of the supporters of the ban. Though there are many more finer points, some of which you touch upon (disapproving grandmothers etc.), and some more exotic ones I deliberately left out (e.g. the potential effect of the garment on vitamin D absorption), the fact remains that this presents a compilation of the seven points cropping out most often when discussing and justifying the ban, and which are, sadly, properly rebutted all too seldom, which was my motivation for taking this side of this particular controversy.

    Going through both the article and the more intimate crevices of my mind, I find no evidence of the suggested francophobia, I’m afraid. What I do take arms (or arguments) against are one Belgian and one French legal decision and the questionable principles behind them, just as I have done numerous times before this article with some of the laws of my home country. I simply happen to believe in constructive criticism as the key to the improvement of everything we care about.

    Not to be misunderstood – I, too, may dream of a perfectly secular world in which no woman covers her face, but in that world her failure to do so is not because she is forbidden to by the state (or her grandmother), but because she has made an informed choice and decided not to do so herself. And *that* is the freedom we are so lucky to have in Europe of all places – the ability to question everything (including that very freedom), and disprove dogmas and break taboos. That is the freedom that enables me to question the values of my own upbringing and wonder if being born in a different place to different parents would somehow make it justified for other people to make my choices for me and call them “freedom”. It is the same freedom you have and use to question my questioning of the so-called western mindset in the context of my activities in JEF. The answer to fundamentalism, too, is not isolation, but critical thinking. And while we may disagree, we are lucky enough that this federalist roof of ours is wide enough to accept that diversity. Best regards, J.

  • On 13 February 2011 at 23:56, by Cédric Replying to: What hides beneath the burqa ban

    Thank you for your nice, well-argued answer.

    I didn’t know what to think about this ban at the beginning, as much as I didn’t know what to think about the ban on headscarves and other “conspicuous” religious symbols in French schools. So I really can accept all the arguments you make.

    And there is something sacred about laicism in France, I admit that, we are often fundamentalist about laicism. Our laicism is offensive, combative, it has always been. It’s a big part of our model, and it has clear consequences on religious freedoms, I conceive it. But I can’t keep from thinking that these restrictions on religious freedoms have protected us from the sort of involvement of all kinds of churches in the political life we witness in many countries, and which I do not want. There is so much to change in France, but not that.

    Now I would just like to recall a final argument in favour of the burqa ban you forgot to criticise in your article: the burqa, by definition, is a cloth that is here to illustrate the women’s inferiority to men. This is the very sense of this dress, nobody can deny it. In the end, everything just revolves around this question: can we accept women to willingly kneel down in front of men?

    And I would like to underline that we all owe a lot to the “champagne feminists” you are depicting quite derisively, even to the most caricatural and monomaniacal ones such as Alice Schwarzer. At least I do owe them a lot. And I want to throw up when I hear politicians such as Kristina Schöder say that, in the end, feminism is so out of fashion. The fact that women are now demonstrating in order to have the right to wear mini-skirts without being called a whore in our streets just shows us how badly we need old-school feminists. Women should be free to dress up as they want, but this freedom should not be used to actively and persistently demonstrate their submission or reification.

  • On 14 February 2011 at 00:43, by Cédric Replying to: What hides beneath the burqa ban

    NB : By excision, I meant female genital mutilation. Excision is not English...

  • On 14 February 2011 at 10:06, by Daniel Replying to: What hides beneath the burqa ban

    Dear Cédric, like Julia I don’t find any francophobic undertone in her article. Moreover, I don’t read it as a critique on laïcité but as a defense of that concept. As I understand it, it means that there is a strict division between the state and religion. That means there should be no religious influence on government affairs, but also that the government should not interfere with the religious beliefs and practices of its citizens, as long as these don’t harm anyone else. Therefore, a laic state should not allow its civil servants to wear religious symbols, but it must not prohibit its ordinary citizens from wearing whatever they believe is an expression of their religion or their religious obligations. Also it is not for the government or you or me to decide whether the Burqa is an expression of religion or simply an Afghan cultural tradition. What people think belongs to their religion is only for the individual to decide. The fact that most variants of Islam do not prescribe the Burqa does not mean that there cannot be some minor groups who do so. I also think that “Europe” should try to strengthen moderate interpretations of religion (and according to my personal opinion: the more people who don’t believe in any religion the better), but in a laic Europe that is the job of civil society and not of the government.

  • On 16 February 2011 at 12:08, by Cédric Replying to: What hides beneath the burqa ban

    Precisely, the ban applies only to wearing the burqa in public spaces. And in legal terms, streets are public.

    And how do you tackle the rise of sectarian movements if you base your conception of the government on these principles? Should we do nothing?

    I’m in favour of a State that remains neutral to all moderate forms of religion, but I think it is justified for the government to exert some kind of obstruction on extremists when their values are incompatible to our collective ones, in the same way as I believe the State should fight actively against sects (extremisms and sects should be clearly distinguished). The government I want has basic values. It is not blind.

  • On 16 February 2011 at 22:26, by Julia Replying to: What hides beneath the burqa ban

    @Daniel: Thanks for understanding and summing up the point so well. Since secularity means leaving religion out of government but also leaving government out of religion, the burden does indeed fall on the shoulders of the civil society, and having one that is able to bear it sucessfully is the great thing about Europe.

    @Cédric: I think we actually agree, but are approaching the burqa topic from different angles (and will eventually meet somewhere in the middle, that is, right under it!).

    My scoffing at “champagne feminists” is not a critique of feminism, or denouncing it as a thing of the past – quite the opposite! But I myself feel closer to the views of Naomi Wolf or Martha Nussbaum: IF we are to criticise a culture, let’s start at our own doorstep and be honest about the objectification of women taking place constantly right here, in the West, and us taking it for granted. Please note the irony in the miniskirt-example you brought up: the goal there not being to stop the objectification but to deny the acknowledgement thereof. Now, if we apply reductio ad absurdum here, it would follow that platform heels + fishnets + hot-pants equals the very height of emancipation, when, in fact, it’s far from the truth (let’s just say most women found wearing those are not very likely to be familiar with the teachings of feminism – and the other way round). Similarly, one of the possible interpretations of the burqa is that women are superior and sacred, and, as all cherished concepts, are not to be available to, visually consumed, or potentially mentally defiled by just anyone whose field of vision they happen to fall into, and that the burqa is there to protect the holy temple that every woman’s body is from the glances of those not worthy to enjoy its grace, as well as to allow the woman beneath it to go around her daily life without having to justify herself – or her appearance – to anyone. (Here I will resist the urge to mention an aspect that more than a few Western women could probably sympathise with sometimes: not being judged on the shape/size/quality of their hips, cleavage, nose or hair by total strangers of either sex whenever one as much as decides to take a walk.)

    What this view does is merely shift the question of the aforementioned miniskirts from “Why should I not be allowed to expose my legs if I want to?” to “Why should everyone in the street have the right to look at my legs if I don’t want them to?” (replace “legs” by any other body part), which, you have to admit, is an interesting one – and equally moot. It should not be the business of the state to either forbid one from showing an unoffensive part of their physique as an act of self-expression, OR grant the general public the “right” to see those parts of one’s body one is more comfortable keeping concealed from it.

    Far from claiming this makes the burqa somehow “better” than the miniskirt. All I am saying is, there is no one correct, infallible way of interpreting either garment. However, since hot-pants (whatever one may think of them) are not subject to any laws – and thank common sense for that – it is not possible to judge burqas unequivocally and beyond reasonable doubt as “meaning” this or that. The freedom of interpretation is one that should remain with the wearer herself.

    Best, J.

  • On 21 February 2011 at 21:10, by Cédric Replying to: What hides beneath the burqa ban


    You’re totally right, I cannot object!

    The sole fact that only a few dozens of women wear a burqa in France shows how pointless this law actually is. One year after the “nation-wide debate” about national identity, Sarkozy has just announced yet another nation-wide theater: “Islam in France”. And that right after Tunisia and Egypt showed us how worn-out our European democracies are.

    We have other problems to deal with at the moment, and, by the way, Islam is not a problem.

  • On 10 March 2011 at 17:47, by Simon David Thomas Replying to: What hides beneath the burqa ban

    The real argument for the ban would seem to be “because wider society doesn’t like it”. Some people are naturists, but the law doesn’t allow them to wander around the streets or their place of work in the nude because a majority in wider society would feel uncomfortable with it.

    I think the Burqa ban follows the same principle; the Burqa is foreign to Western society and that society is uncomfortable with what is seen as an alien, repressive practice, whatever the person wearing it may believe (or at least claim to believe).

    This could be seen as societal freedom over individual freedom, with wider society being protected from the discomfort of being faced by something many see as alien and disturbing. The old principle of “When in Rome, do as the Romans do” applies. People attempt to fit into the society they choose to live in, if they wish to wear a Burqa then perhaps Western society isn’t for them.

    I don’t buy the comment about telephone interaction at all; I don’t expect to see the face of the person I’m talking to on the telephone, I make allowances for the fact that I’m not getting the nuances of facial expression or body language. Face to face (nominally) communication is different, I would certainly have a problem if I went into a bank or government office to be confronted by somebody wearing a full-face covering. In Western society it is seen as rude and possibly deceitful.

    Legislation to safeguard society’s values is the norm, covering everything from murder down to how you can dress; basically the Burqa is not part of our culture and it has no place in the modern, Western world. It is not the place of Western society to adapt to the Burqa or its less-concealing relatives, rather it is the place of those who wish to wear them to realise that they need to adapt to the social requirements of the surrounding culture.

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