Unveiled: A Case for France's Burqa Ban

U nlike the 2004 French law against “religious symbols” in public places (and obviously aimed at the Islamic headscarf), the law banning the burqa this past July has not given rise, at least for the moment, to any important debate in France or the rest of Europe. (The burqa is also forbidden in Belgium.) This lack of reaction—the dog that didn’t bark—has surprised many Americans. It shouldn’t. The ban does not take aim at any specific Koranic obligation, which makes it more difficult to stigmatize it as “Islamophobic.” Moreover, barely two thousand Muslim women in France wear this head-to-toe concealment, which means that there is not much of a constituency for outrage. And finally, many of the French, in most cases sympathetic with downtrodden minorities, are shocked, even disgusted, by the sight of women wearing this get-up in public.

At the beginning of the twenty-first century, the French Republic was the first Western European country to debate whether or not it was necessary to publicly display religious symbols in schools and other civic places traditionally ruled by sectarian neutrality. An emphatically secular country marked by many centuries of strife with an intolerant, reactionary Catholic church hostile to progress and to the emancipation of women, France today is de-Christianized and characterized by a strong suspicion of any kind of religion. Paradoxically, we are also the European nation that comprises the strongest community of Jews (five hundred thousand) and Muslims (five million, the majority coming from North Africa), who live their faith in a public way, defining themselves explicitly in opposition to the French ideal of laïcité .

To understand the French reaction that has so startled our American friends, it is necessary to return to the Republican Contract (and the Declaration of the Rights of Man that founded it), which in fact acknowledges equal rights to all individuals regardless of their possessions, their gender, their beliefs, their skin color. Under this vision of secularism and human rights, a person is no longer reduced to his faith, to his ethnic origins.

The error committed by so many Anglo-Americans, starting with President Obama, consists of accusing French republicanism of being hostile to religion and of behaving in an authoritarian manner. In fact, the republic accords its citizens the full and complete right to belong to all cultural, religious, folk, and linguistic associations that they want to, provided that these associations are not seen as superior to the common law and do not become the pretext for one group or another to call for separate rights in the name of their convictions. An individual’s most fundamental right is to free himself or herself from his or her origins: Muslims should be able to leave Islam, become atheist, not observe Ramadan, or convert to Buddhism or to Christianity in the same way that Christians can fall away from their faith and shop for other forms of belief. (In fact, the French press have noted many cases of Muslim aggression against other Muslims who chose not to have children; and as for apostates, they routinely face death threats.) The burqa (or the North African niqab or the Middle Eastern hijab ) is a direct challenge to the ideal of laicization since it dramatically violates the principle of equality between men and women.


T hese issues all came up in a television debate I had not long ago with Tariq Ramadan, generally regarded as the most influential contemporary Muslim intellectual in Europe, whose theories build a “bridge” between Islam and modernity. Ramadan asserted that in calling for a ban on the burqa, I failed to take into account what he called “innate feminine modesty.” On the contrary, I answered, I worry so much about modesty that I would like to extend the Islamic veil to all living creatures, first men, but also cows, pigs, horses, cats, and dogs. And I suggested to the stylish Ramadan (who, despite his reputation as a liberal, is also a friend of Hamas and of the Muslim Brotherhood), that he wear a veil fashioned by Dior or Prada. Why is it good to see a man’s face when it is not to see a woman’s, unless (as is the case in Islam) the woman’s face is regarded as something more than flesh covering bone and musculature—a provocative sexual offering encouraging men to sin. Ramadan’s “modesty” functioned as code for the medieval notion that woman is nature and depravity while man is knowledge and reason.

The 2004 law banning the Islamic headscarf from being worn in the classroom was finally passed without a hitch, although it caused some inconsequential disputes that were settled by the courts. Muslim girls did not leave the schools of the republic en masse, as predicted; indeed, sixty-eight percent of all French Muslim women, in a poll conducted after the smoke had cleared in 2006, overwhelmingly supported this ban and strongly insisted that France would have been dishonored if it had chosen to emulate the vast majority of Muslim countries where women dare not walk down the street with bare heads. They were saying, in effect, that the veil conceals less than it reveals; that it is not a mark of “modesty” but a proselytizing instrument that offers to subjugate and even endanger young girls and women who don’t wear it.

But the recent burqa ban, launched on the initiative of André Gerin, a Communist Party deputy from Vénissieux, poses a different set of problems. Many citizens groused that the ideal of laïcité does not stretch to the state telling them how to dress or regulating the length of skirts, the color of jackets, the wearing of a cross, a Star of David, or a Hand of Fatima ( Hamsa ). These arguments were repeated by “feminist Muslim” groups that have cropped up over the past ten years and which now declared loudly and strongly in the media that they wear the niqab voluntarily to protect their dignity and that no husband, brother, or parent forces them to do so. And yet these “feminists” also defend—in the name of the Koran—almost all the other controls that encumber Muslim women in the West, with the possible exceptions of stoning and genital mutilation, which they criticize but do not vehemently condemn. Nonetheless, the state still risks overstepping its role by intervening in the realm of private life and personal choice.


T here remains another, more pragmatic argument against the burqa advanced by some jurists: the social invisibility it imposes on those who wear it. Like masked protestors who would attack riot police and then disappear back into the crowd, women swallowed up by this covering can fabricate a false identity, or even be men in disguise, able to cross borders or go through identity checkpoints without revealing themselves. Can society accept the idea of a masked mother picking her child up from school or a eye-slitted driver speeding down the highway at a hundred miles an hour? How do you deal with a veiled woman refusing to identify herself in order to get married, as has been the case in a number of town halls in France? Such critics point out that Egypt strictly regulates the wearing of the niqab in public establishments; that in Turkey, women must take university exams bare-headed. And Belgium has far outpaced the French when it comes to the burqa: a number of municipalities have issued executive orders banning both it and the niqab except during carnival, thereby redefining this garb as a quaint item of nostalgia appropriate only in festive moments.

The problem for society is that a person who goes into the streets hidden in this way becomes invisible and erased, denied individual singularity. The Carmelite nun, cloistered in her convent, must present her face uncovered when she appears in civil society. But not the Muslim woman who covers herself. She is nothing, merely a shadow that does not have the right to a minimal social existence, and while walking in the free air remains imprisoned behind her great wall of clothing. This is an invitation for a population of ghosts to wander French streets; no-legged zombies, like so many extras in horror films; a collection of clones denied the most fundamental right of existence—the right of recognition. These ghosts in black silently campaign for the concealment of all women—and characterize as indecent those who do not do it. But this is exactly what the Wahhabist and Salafist sects who encourage this type of practice count on: using covered women as emissaries of a pure and harsh Islam that seeks to reinvigorate European Muslim communities tainted by contact with the decadent, wicked, corrupt West.

The burqa law was affirmed on July 13, 2010, despite massive abstention from the Left, which, with few exceptions, accused the majority of trying to distract from “the real problems of the country.” The law must still be submitted for approval to the Constitutional Council, where it will face a formidable question: Is requiring citizens to be recognizable in their public life a condition for living together, or an attack on individual liberties? France is not alone; other European countries have similar legislative projects under consideration.

The burqa, like the hijab, polygamy, female circumcision, and arranged marriages, poses a fundamental problem to democratic societies: it is not just terrorism that we need to fight, or the work of soldiers, police, and secret services; it is also fundamentalism, equally threatening, even if launched by sermons rather than bombs. It is the religious obscurantism of the fundamentalists that aims to impose on open and liberal societies archaic rules, incompatible with fundamental human rights. In this case, France, generally hostile to social groups who imprison individuals in iron collars of tradition or belief, seems to me more advanced than other European nations, more willing to be a frontline state in this struggle. It sees the stakes: either European Islam turns its back on modernity and locks itself in a symbolic fortress, or, like Christianity and Judaism, it becomes an enlightened, pluralistic religion whose example will shine out from Europe over the ulema , that whole worldwide community of believers who often exist in the dark.

Pascal Bruckner, a French writer, is the author of The Tyranny of Guilt: An Essay on Western Masochism. This article was translated from the French by World Affairs.

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