Veiled Threat: The many problems with France’s proposed burqa ban


A woman wearing a burqa.

By Wajahat Ali
Posted Tuesday, May 25, 2010, at 2:37 PM ET

As a practicing Muslim, even I admit to being somewhat startled by the appearance of the black burqa that entirely veils a woman’s face and body, revealing only a narrow opening for her eyes. Even though the women who wear burqas sometimes remind me of comic book ninjas, I nonetheless understand and respect their choice of dress and freedom of religious expression.

Unfortunately, France’s proposed ban on the burqa is a hypocritical and self-serving justification that betrays its triptych motto of “liberty, equality, fraternity.” Politicians may claim that the ban would protect women’s dignity, national safety, and fundamental French values, but in reality, this overreaching legislation serves only to embolden reactionary Muslim fundamentalists’ shouts that the “West” is at war with “Islam.” Enacting this odious legislation would deprive French female citizens of those very freedoms Europe loudly trumpets as superior examples of its Western enlightenment: gender equality and tolerance. In fact, France is increasingly beginning to resemble its alleged cultural nemesis: those misogynist, archaic “fundamentalists” who allegedly liberate women by forcing them to hide their faces.

France, like many European countries, is reacting to the transformation of its national identity to one that is increasingly brown-hued and adorned with Arabic multisyllabic last names. But lashing out against native-born Muslim citizens and immigrants from North Africa is no way to protect and define its language and “culture”—which is under no tangible threat. Like the Taliban and the Saudi government, France is selfishly using women as silent chess pawns in the greater game of cultural domination and control, and using the canard of protecting women’s rights and national security as a means of rationalizing its bigotry.

Nearly 60 percent of French citizens favor the ban on the burqa that was first recommended last year by a panel of French lawmakers. Recently, the French Council of Ministers approved the bill, which will be voted on in the National Assembly in July before moving to the Senate in the fall. Unfortunately, the government is not required to follow the recommendations of the French Council of State, which advises on laws and has warned the ban is incompatible with France’s Constitution and the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms.

No conclusive study has demonstrated that the mere 1,400 to 2,000 women in France who wear burqa face significant safety dangers. Burqa-clad women were not responsible for the 7/7 subway bombing in London or the Madrid train bombings. And last I checked, there is no international league of assassins and criminals known as the “Burqa Bandits” robbing the Louvre. However, I wholeheartedly agree society demands certain safety provisions that require women to occasionally uncover themselves for reasonable identification measures, such as passport photos, driver’s licenses, and airport security. Furthermore, I welcome the provisions in the bill to fine and imprison men who force their wives and daughters to wear the burqa. But those protective measures should not come at the expense of punishing those women who freely choose to wear the garment.

The majority of Muslim scholars believe that women are not required by the Quran to don the burqa. And many Muslim women, even those who wear the traditional head covering of hijab, find its existence anomalous to Islam. Nonetheless, they respect the choice of women who choose to wear it as an expression of their faith. Sadly, sweeping legislative measures like the “burqa ban” humiliate and alienate the moderate Muslim majority and furthermore obfuscate the diversity of opinion that exists within Muslim communities.

Not all Muslim women object to the French ban. Sofia Mazgarova, a Russian-American Muslim who holds a master’s in Islamic studies, told me, “I feel like the French have every right to ban burqa. … If one consciously made a choice to be part of any society, including French, then one has to know and respect that society’s law and culture.” But Susan Carland, an Australian Muslim convert and lecturer of gender studies at Monash University, says: “I’ve found often that even those [Muslim women] who in private criticize the face covering, in public would criticize the ban, as they see it as just another part of the Western war against Islam. They might not like the face covering themselves, but they like even less any Western society telling them how their religion should manifest itself.”

Already, the proposed ban has caused difficult and discriminatory consequences for Muslim women. Recently, a 26-year-old French woman wearing a burqa in France was verbally accosted, likened to the demon Belphegor, told to “clear off to [her] own country,” and finally had her burqa ripped off by a 60-year-old female lawyer and her. The lawyer’s conduct found support from allegedly liberal attorneys in the United States, one of whom admitted, “I was not deeply troubled [by the act.]”

This behavior is neither fraternal nor egalitarian, n’est-ce pas? One wonders whether people would react similarly if the government or individual citizens forcibly stopped gays from holding hands in public or engaged in vigilante-clothing justice by covering excessive cleavage or naked shoulders.

Europe’s paranoid fear of succumbing to Islamization and transforming overnight into “Eurabia” finds its improbable justification in “Muslim” symbols such as the burqa and mosque minarets on its soil. This includes the whopping four minarets in all of Switzerland that drove the country hysterical, and forced it to amend its constitution banning further construction of those oh-so-threatening tall spires. Recently, bills have been introduced in Italy to block the construction of new mosques around the country, similar to a ban already enacted in Milan.

In March, a study by the French American Foundation and the Paris Institute of Political Science revealed “evidence of discrimination [in France] due purely to religion, not national origin.” A 2006 report from the EU Monitoring Center on Racism and Xenophobia found that Muslims “face discrimination in all aspects of life, from housing to employment opportunities to education to cultural practices.”

Instead of cowardly hiding behind vague notions of European culture and society to legislate discrimination against Muslim women, France should embrace its own constitution and ethos of equality by accepting its burqa-clad women as fraternal citizens who’ve earned the right to make their own choices. Any legitimate concerns that Europe has with the burqa and its Muslim citizenry require diplomacy and subtlety. But France is behaving like the Saudi Arabia of the EU by forcibly removing Muslim women’s rights with a legislative guillotine.

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Wajahat Ali is the author of The Domestic Crusaders, a play about Muslim Pakistani-Americans that will be published by McSweeney’s in the fall of 2010. He blogs at Goatmilk. He is an attorney, journalist, and commentator.

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16 thoughts on “Veiled Threat: The many problems with France’s proposed burqa ban

  1. Salam,

    I still fail to understand, what justification does france have for the ban on the Burka since it’s primary one – ‘incompatible with french values’ makes little sense. Surely self-determination and freedom of expression are valued within the french community?

  2. The ban has to do with terrorist’s and criminal’s ability to wear burka’s and other face/body covering wear to commit terror and criminal acts and not be seen. That is the main reason. The other is how can you feel comfortable talking to someone when you can’t see them. A majority of our identity and ability to communicate is expressed with facial expressions. And, how can you remember who someone is if you can’t see them? The reason that Moslim women wear face and body coverings is to hide their identity as in North African, Middle Eastern and Near Eastern culture it is haram for unrelated men to know who and what unrelated women look like. And, to communicate with them. Culturally, in Western Culture, it is normal for a husband or boyfriend to proudly introduce his wife or girlfriend to his important friends or co-workers. It’s when he doesn’t introduce you or publicily acknowledge you then society or cultural rules know this means you aren’t important to him. In Islamic or M.E. culture, if you are introduced then society/culture knows you are not important to the man as he has let everyone see who you are. It’s the opposite in Western and Eastern cultures. That is what they mean when they say that it’s a cultural problem. In Western culture when you hide your women’s identity it means she’s an affair or there is something negative about the relationship as it’s hidden. But in Eastern culture, to hide your wife’s or sister’s identity is to respect her. Also, since it seems that Eastern men can’t control their sexual impulses, women have to be hidden from view or kept at home. To Western culture, this seems like uncivilized behavior and a loss of self control. In Western culture, part of men’s sense of self and respect is through his self control over emotional responses. That is why we say someone who is out of control is acting like a savage as savage or pagan cultures tended to be reactive instead of proactive. Hence in Britain and France and Germany, the difference in society of being considered a “gentlemen” or not.

    Men were allowed to act ungentlemen-like around activities where women were not likely to attend like sports watching, hunting, boxing, wars and being a soldier, construction sites, truck driving, etc… That is why we describe someone who swears a lot as sounding like a truck driver. When someone is described as, “being out of control”, this meant they were not acting like a a gentleman or acting unlady-like. Being in control of your actions or response is why Western Culture works. We can have much freedom since we maintain control of our behavior and responses. Much control over society and restriction of freedoms and behavior is needed when people can’t control their reactions and emotions. An example is what happens when an uncovered women walks down the street in Eastern culture. Men yells rude words and threaten sexual violence at the uncovered woman. This is considered very low class and rude behavior, sometimes illegal as in sexual harrassment, in Western Culture.

    Why must a woman not be safe unless she has hidden herself from men? That means that men are allowed to have no self control and women have to do all the self control for them. That puts women in an unfair position.

    Since women are entering many work fields formerely only worked by men either the women tends to act more manly (not lesbian) or the work site cleans up. I will admit that this has added some confusion in society rules of behavior. But as more and more women need to financially suupport themselves and don’t want to be in traditionally low paying women’s jobs, they have entered better paying men’s work. If they can do the job, then they should be allowed to and have the same respect as men performing the same job.

    I hope I have opened the door a bit for you to understand what is meant by being incompatible with French values. To hide women in Western culture means she is unimportant and not valued. It means she has no voice or control over her life. In Eastern culture, hiding women is the method of respect for women but it also means they don’t have much voice for themselves. There is a big difference for Islamic/Eastern women who are born and grow up in Western Culture. They have been exposed to Western Culture and ideas. But they are usually punished with honor killing if they want to become Western in their actions. Why are women so responsible for honor when they don’t get the rewards that come along with it? That’s like having women grow all the food and then not be allowed to eat it.

    A women cannot communicate clearly or have freedom of movement if she is hidden and cannot see very well or hear very well. I know you will say that there are women who run races wearing hijab or work. They cannot do everything that a woman not wearing hijab or burka can. There is restriction of movement when you are wearing so many layers of clothing. And, if the long garment gets caught in something or catches on fire, the woman is more likely to die or become severely injuried. How about if she falls into water? The weight of wet clothing will sink you directly to the bottom.

    And, since it is illegal to get close to an unrelated woman, she’s on her own as only her guardian can give permission for medical care or movement. How about the girls’s school fire a few years back where the religious leaders would not let the girls leave the burning school building because they didn’t have hijab so many died. Western Culture looks at this behavior and mindset and thinks Eastern Culture is crazy or selfish. Western Culture’s idea/method is to save one’s life at any cost. To Western Culture, it appears that Eastern Culture does not consider life to be important when you would let innocent girls die because they can’t cover their face for ten minutes.

    It is also much easier to shoplift wearing a burka or face covering as the face reveals emotions/nervousness and the burka is big.

    It’s much easier to hid a gun or bomb under a burka and your nerviousness when your face, hence, emotions are also hidden.

    It’s much easier to hid identity when under a burka or face covering so who knows if you are a man or woman?

    Think about what I have said and perhaps you will see more clearly the reason for the burka ban.

    • What a bunch of bullshit from than french woman who is mostly like than racist. First the mosque I goto afew woman cover themself complete than I have no problem talking to then unlike the Prime Minister Brown of the House of Clowns seem to have. I do the setting up for the Istar dinner durning the month of fasting where I do help the women setting up for the women part of the dinner. The mosque have afew room where the men and women must share like the room where we can do limited cooking and the library where we keep books on religion. Many of the women wear the headscraft which the Frenck ban.Turkey is now ending they ban on the headscraft being worn by women in unitery. Afew donot cover they head and hair we donot force then to the women talk to them. We have afew from country that have than religish police which they hate, I was the security guard for our mosque sunday school, quite afew where worry about me turning into than religious police. I make sure the childern where safe and not skipping school than a certain amount of order in the mosque. I didnot make women and girls cover they head and hair not my job. I was born with than damage speech center I was born in america never really learn correct grammer5 and spelling.

    • In America a woman walking around scantily clad also gets obscenities hurled in her direction.

      And “Eastern” men can’t control their sexual urges? You do realize a woman is much much much more likely to be raped in the United States than in any Middle Eastern or Asian country, right?

      I feel so liberated.

  3. One more item to add. When you watch movies or read books, criminals always wore a face covering to hide their identity. Whether they were robbing a train, bank, or store. There are also “good” criminals who covered their face, too. Like Robinhood or Zorro. But the main reason they covered their face is to hide identity.

    How about if you are talking to someone and they are wearing dark or mirrored sunglasses? After awhile you want them to remove the sunglasses because seeing one’s eyes clearly is important to successful communication. Our eyes, second to hair, is what defines what we look like in memory.

    This why movie stars wear big sunglasses and hats, so when they go out in public they are not easily identified.

    Sunglasses are worn by people doing drugs, playing poker, hiding what they are really looking at or that they are sleeping when they should be awake.

    All this goes back to wearing the burka/face covering, it is for human communication and identification of emotional response.

    In Western Culture, it is rude not to look in someone’s eyes when you are speaking to them. Or, it is considered that you are hiding something.

    Before you make comments about something, learn more about the culture and why they feel or act the way they do.

    A woman wearing a burka or face covering is not expressing her liberty or freedom. She is hiding it. When you go and live in a new culture, you need to adapt or you will not be trusted. It doesn’t mean she has to not wear hijab at all. But she will never be accepted or trusted if she hides herself and emotions and identity. This may work in an Eastern Culture country. But not in Western Culture. It’s not a matter of personal freedom. When Western women go to Eastern/Islamic countries, they have to adapt by law and wear hijab/abaya. In Saudia Arabia they cannot drive. I’d say that this is a good example of Western women respecting and adapting to the laws and social customs of an Eastern/Islamic country. Why expect a Western woman to adapt if Eastern women coming to Western countries don’t adapt or even try to?

    The meaning of freedom and diversity doesn’t mean that the new country should change themselves so everything is the same as it is back home. Why did you come to a Western country to begin with?

    Go back home where you can do everything you like and it isn’t considered strange culturally for a woman to be hidden under a burka.

    Western people don’t understand why they have to adapt their country and values to the culture that you came from. They wonder why you came when you want to live the same as back home. Traditionally, when people come to live in a new culture/country, they are escaping the culture/laws of their own country. So, it makes no sense to try and drag your old culture to the new country so it can be the same as back home. They think you should go back home and live that way.

    You need to understand that the reason we have freedoms and our economies work is because of how our culture works. If we change our culture to the same as your country, then eventually it will fail.

    As we say, you can’t have your cake and eat it, too.

    You must choose – adapt or go back home.

    • In the past when you move to than other country to live especial far away you cut off all dailty trie to the old country and family, with modern communicration and the internet that is no more the case. I never have problen with women covering thenself up like muslim women did. I convert to Islam after 9-11.

  4. I do believe if the push to make Western Culture adapt to Eastern Culture continues, there will be huge wars to stop it. Western people are emphathic, friendly and helpful until we perceive that there is a nefarious plan afoot under the table. Then in the blink of an eye, we put aside any differences and come together in an iron hard wall to protect what is ours and we fought hard to win.

    Why is it the Vietnamese, Cambodians, Laos, Eastern Europe, Russians, Europeons, Mexicans, Central and South American’s, African’s, South Pacific Islanders, and Far East Asians have immigrated into Western Culture and have adapted successfully? And, the problems seem to be with North Africans, Middle Easterners and Near East immigrants that are having so much problem adapting into Western Culture?

    What I have seen is many have a superiority problem and think that they are better than other cultures. They think that everyone should adapt to their culture. Because in their own cultures back home, this is what they have made immigrants do in their countries. They made them into second class citizens with less or no rights. It appears that they are trying to make their new host countries do the same.

    Just my opinon after spending many years around Islamic and Eastern cultures.

  5. And, then you have the nerve to complain about Israel? From what I see is most don’t know history. Only the revisionist version. Since 1948, Palestinian people have been offered an independent country with free trade with Israel three times or more. The problem is that the leadership told them to turn it down. Now, look at the mess.

    If anything, Palestinians should be angry at the U.N., because they are the ones that made the decisions and make the borders. But the revisionist history would have you think that the Israeli’s run the world. Ha, Ha, Ha,…they are just an intelligent people who work hard to get what the have. Israel sat pretty vacant and desert like for almost 2,000 years until the Jews showed up and made the desert bloom. Now they are feeding the world. And, why haven’t your cousin’s in other Arab countries taken you in and gave you their passports. Get angry at them. Show me one Arab holding the Israeli passport who would trade it for another Arab countrie’s passport. Arabs with Israeli passport have more rights and freedoms then any other middle eastern country. All those Palestinians came to Israel since 1948 to work for the Israeli’s and then were displaced when the Arab countries declared numerous losing wars on Israel where they lost land and homes. Now they want to make the Jews the bad guys for defending themselves. If the situation was reversed would you just sit there? What other country in the world is the U.N. demanding that they return land they won in a war???? When you know all the history the picture is much different.

    What I see is that there isn’t much critical thinking taught or prevalent in Middle Eastern culture. People are taught not to question. Western Culture teaches us to think critically and question the status quo. That is one of the main reason people want to come here and live. If someone questions anything in your culture, the status quo is threatened. This means that the current “in charge” crowd will lose their power and position is certain truths get out. So, they punish is anyone questions the status quo. This type of thinking doesnt work in Western Culture.

    Thanks for listening.

    • That Bangladeshi writer is nothing more than non-muslim pretent to be than muslim. French is going to worst than Saudi Arabia which is improveing slowly.

  6. As an avid reader of, I was glad to see this article pop up. I’m just writing to say that it was brave but necesary of you to put out an opinion piece which mirrors a lot of the feelings we, silent Muslims, feel.

    The comments were dissapointing but I was glad to see 10-20 percent section involved in a more educated debate. That directly comes from efforts of writers such as yourself. Thanks for touching on this topic.

    PS. I’m about to read your SATC piece right now but I already have a feeling I’ll agree with your sentiments (based on the first 2 paragraphs) :).

  7. Something I have noticed a tried and true saying the one who talks to most has the least important things to say.
    All I have to say is that no one has the right to say who I am or am not because of the way I dress or my religion. How dare you assume I do not have a voice or am not able to do anything that someoene who is not covered isn’t able to do. How dare you presume to know who I am because of what I where and what religion I follow.
    France needs to open their eyes this b.s. they are spewing is ridiculous. Criminals who have choosen to cover their face have done so long before Muslim women wearing a niqabs started popping up in the news. Does that mean every niqabi now is the reason outlaws covered their faces with handkerchiefs?
    Oh and as for the comment about the other cultures that have travelled to the West and adapted, in fact their cultures have become fads for many westerners. They have not changed their culture or who they are, does Chinatown ring a bell, or how about little Cuba? We have not forced any other culture or religion for that fact to adapt to western ways the way we have done with Islam.
    And lastly the time I checked if it weren’t for these supposedly backwards Easterners we would have modern medicine, mathamatics, or well just about anything we depend on for our modern world to function.
    I do not want to sound as though I am western bashing, these comments are in fact directed to specific types of people.

  8. France has been somewhat culturally insecure for a long time, i.e. their attempt to protect their language from being polluted by English, especially American English. It’s kind of funny in a way, and certainly harmless. However, infringing on religious expression is neither funny nor harmless.

  9. French is on it way to dieing as than culture it they fear the clothes muslim woman choose to wear. When I worked this year at the Mosque Sunday school as than unarmed security guard I have no problen id the women who cover they faces, and no problen talki9ng to then and understanding then. Any good law enforcement person would not have any problem with muslim women covering they faces.

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