Veiled Discrimination: France Moves to Ban the Burqa

By Michelle Chen Jan 30, 2010

To some Americans unfamiliar with Muslim cultures, the sight of a woman walking down the street wearing a full-length veil may come across as strange, perhaps offensive, or as an image of oppression. In France, the veil may soon be seen as not just an oddity, but a legal offense. A French parliamentary commission recently issued a 200-page report recommending that Muslim women be restricted from wearing the full covering in public. The justification for the ban is that the burqa and niqab are incompatible with French society and culture. Though the number of people subject to the proposed ban would probably be tiny—about 1400 to 2000, according to the Christian Science Monitor—it could mean that fully veiled women would be restricted from accessing schools, hospitals or public transit. Yet the burqa serves as a stand-in for deep-seated social anxieties as the country confronts new ethnic and religious barriers. The idea of the ban, similar to an existing restriction on headscarves in schools, is supposedly based on principles of democratic secularism (French President Nicolas Sarkozy called the burqa a symbol of “the submission of women”). The issue has reportedly attracted followers on the left and the right—no doubt because it provokes a contest between opposing cultural traditions over the social status and treatment of women.The initiative parallels a referendum in Switzerland to ban the minaret, an architectural emblem of the Islamic world. It’s a battle of symbols that paints Muslims further outside of “mainstream” Western European social norms. The veil—like guns at a Tea Party rally or a hanging anti-Obama effigy—is a prop in an increasingly polarized political drama. Unfortunately, in contrast to the President’s ability to shape his public image, France’s Muslim community, particularly the bodies and minds of Muslim women, is muffled under the ventriloquy of self-righteous political actors. Last summer, as the ban controversy was intensifying, Francoise, a young French Muslim woman, told IslamOnline: “We have made a free and educated choice to wear the burka… There were no pressures, no oppressive families and oppressive husbands behind our decisions." Her friend Mahrezyia quipped, "We are the scapegoats for France’s troubles," Pap Ndiaye, of the School for Advanced Studies in Social Sciences in Paris, told the Monitor that the move was ethically base but politically astute:

The burqa plays out as something more spectacular than the minaret as a political symbol… It hides the face. It seems alien. There’s something a bit appalling about it, and it relates specifically to what is seen as a dangerous part of the world and to an extreme variant of Islam. Using the burqa is a very smart political strategy.

Anushay Hossain takes a different view of the political consequences of the proposed ban:

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.

No one, of course, can claim to represent the sentiments of all those who could be subject to the ban. And that’s precisely the point: restricting a certain kind of religious dress—for all the rhetoric about women’s liberation and cultural democracy—leaves no room between absolutes, no space for individual choice in self-expression. Reactionaries may try to impose culture by political decree, but they can’t flatten the growing complexity of immigrant identity into two dimensions. Image: Gonzalo Fuentes / Reuters