Judy Mandelbaum

Judy Mandelbaum
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June 01
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APRIL 21, 2010 1:43PM

President Sarkozy makes good on French burqa ban

Rate: 11 Flag


If you thought the Danish cartoon controversy and the Swiss minaret ban meant trouble, get ready for the next flashpoint between Islam and the West. After months of hesitation, French President Nicolas Sarkozy has finally made good on an old promise and has asked the National Assembly to debate a new law banning the wearing of the Islamic niqab, burqa, and other face-covering attire in public. According to the president, such full-body garments “do not pose a problem in a religious sense,” but they "are not in keeping with French values.” The president continued: “The full veil is contrary to the dignity of women. The response is to ban it. The Government will table a draft law prohibiting it.” In January, the 32-member government panel Sarkozy had set up last summer to investigate the issue completed its report, declaring veils to be incompatible with the egalitarian values of the French Republic. It recommended that women be forced to show their faces on public transit and in public spaces such as post offices, government buildings, universities, hospitals, and particularly airports. The new legislation will likely be introduced in May. The French government already banned veils and head scarves from school classrooms in 2004.

It’s still unclear exactly what the lawmakers have in mind. One member of Sarkozy’s conservative UMP party, Jean-François Copé, has called for a complete ban and a € 750 ($1,000) fine for violators. The final law is unlikely to be as draconic as that. But France already has legal precedents for a ban. In 2008 a court denied a Moroccan woman’s application for naturalization because it regarded her burqa as a violation of France’s secularist principles. This year, the French government denied French citizenship to a Moroccan national married to a veiled French wife.

If you listen to the European Right and their Neocon American echo chamber, you’d think the continent had long since succumbed to “Islamo-fascism.” But how serious is the “problem” anyway? France has approximately five million Muslim citizens and resident aliens, constituting around eight percent of the total population. It is estimated that fewer than 2,000 women – most of them living in isolated housing developments far from urban centers – wear veils outside the home. (In Holland, an estimated 100 women regularly wear burqas; in anti-Muslim Denmark the number is estimated at less than a dozen.) So we are clearly not dealing with a simple piece of cloth (and a relatively rare one at that), but with a symbol – and it is a symbol of immense power for both radical Islam and its European critics.

French philosopher Bernard-Henri Lévy has described what he sees as being at stake in this controversy:

The burqa is not a dress, it’s a message, one that clearly communicates the subjugation, the subservience, the crushing and the defeat of women….

I am not Islamophobic. I am far too concerned with the spiritual and the dialogue among spiritualities to feel any hostility towards one religion or another. But the right to freely criticize them, the right to make fun of their dogmas or beliefs, the right to be a non-believer, the right to blasphemy and apostasy -- all these were acquired at too great a cost for us to allow a sect, terrorists of thought, to nullify them or undermine them. This is not about the burqa, it’s about Voltaire. What is at stake is the Enlightenment of yesterday and today, and the heritage of both, no less sacred than that of the three monotheisms. A step backwards, just one, on this front would give the nod to all obscurantism, all fanaticism, all the true thoughts of hatred and violence. …

For all these reasons of principle, I am in favor of a law that clearly and plainly declares that wearing a burqa in the public area is anti-republican. 

Critics of the burqa point out that the Koran makes no mention of full-body garments and that women who wear the veil belong to the strictest sects of fundamentalist Islam. But are these women really being oppressed? Is the burqa a “prison” or does it represent "liberation" from what many Muslim women regard as the oppression of the modern secular world? While these questions might sound like no-brainers to most non-Muslims, the answer isn’t quite as clear-cut as Sarkozy and Lévy would like us to believe. According to French Islam expert Bernard Godard, “The majority have voluntarily assumed this garb. Many of them have French nationality. And not a few of them are converts.” If the ban goes through, fundamentalists will likely feel justified in asserting that their women are not being oppressed by Islam but by the French state, which wants to deny their right to exercise their religion in line with what they believe to be the will of Allah.

But by no means all Muslim women support the wearing of the burqa. French politician Fadéla Amara, the daughter of Algerian immigrants and former president of the Muslim women's advocacy group "Ni putes ni soumises" ("Neither Whores Nor Submissives") explains that in French Muslim culture "today it's not fathers, but eldest sons who impose authority. Daughters, sisters, cousins, female neighbors must either act like submissive but virtuous vassals, or be treated like cheap whores. Any sign of independence or femininity is viewed as a challenge and provocation." Women in such communities who do not wear the veil in public or simply stay home are abused and frequently raped to prevent them from aspiring to a self-determined, Western way of life.

So whatever happens in the National Assembly next month, Sarkozy’s “war on burqas” will continue to receive plenty of ammunition from both sides of the religious and philosophical divide. But it is not clear whether the law will go through in the first place. While the French public is largely in favor of a ban, France’s State Council stated in March that such a law could violate both the French constitution and the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms. The latter states very clearly in Article 9:

  1. Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief, in worship, teaching, practice and observance.
  2. Freedom to manifest one's religion or beliefs shall be subject only to such limitations as are prescribed by law and are necessary in a democratic society in the interests of public safety, for the protection of public order, health or morals, or for the protection of the rights and freedoms of others.

This means that the French legislation will represent a test case for all of Europe. Belgium is already preparing a similar ban. Last summer, Holland banned the wearing of burqas at schools and now plans to ban them in universities. Denmark, still seething over the Muslim reaction to the cartoon affair, is pushing for a ban as well. Spain is heading in the same direction, and the global backlash could be intense. If Sarkozy has his way, Europe’s “culture wars” may only be just beginning.

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Yes, he will ignite a cultural war by focusing on something that smacks of bias...unless he wants to outlaw bulky Timberland jackets or people with their hands in their pockets?
Not a justification, just an observation; it is illegal in England to have a hood up from a jacket or a sweatshirt inside all public buildings and public transport. This was done for law enforcement reasons. I also note that it is only the full face burqa that is banned. Head scarves, the black dresses and other less extreme forms of "religious identification" are not included.
I do hope that the ban on burka is carried out all through Europe, because I do see "The burqa is not a dress, it’s a message, one that clearly communicates the subjugation, the subservience, the crushing and the defeat of women…." as quoted in this piece.

It is also a question of public safety to have "women" with covered faces and bodies in public places. Who can be sure therein resides a woman or a terrorist, loaded with ammunition inside the burqa ?
You're right about public safety (although closed circuit TV cameras make ME want to wear a burqa sometimes), since anyone or anything could be concealed beneath a burqa. But this is also a big issue in Turkey, isn' it?
ski masks are next
As far as I know, the fundamentalist Muslims are trying to infiltrate into Turkey, pushing burka and hicab, but Turkey is more resistant to this, and again, as far as I know not as bad as other countries. The scarf worn in a fashionable manner is seen more. I haven't back for 10 years to report first hand observations.
I can't help getting all right wing reactionary on this stuff. Folks sniff about how Europe hated us in the past. How we need them as allies, how we are evil for racial profiling in our efforts at figuring out how to contain terrorist threats and all of the like.

And this comes out of one of those precious Western European Allies? Can you imagine that happening in the states?

It dumbfounds me. Old Europe's so irrelevant.
What is the bright sides og bearing a burkha I will ask?
The Burqa "represents liberation from what many Muslim women regard as the oppression of the modern secular world?"

That's get most Orwellian quote of the day. There is nothing liberating about being a woman in a Muslim household as your own article points out. To ponder whether the burqa actually liberates women is insane.
Of course I agree with you, but many Muslims have told me that for them, "freedom" means "freedom to practice our religion."
When o when, someone please tell me, will women be able to simply attire themselves as they wish without every Tom, Dick, Mary and French President coming down the pike to tell them differently? I have a half a mind to photograph myself in a burqa and thong! But, that would upset the uptight image I have so carefully cultivated with my turtlenecks and scarves.xox
Great discussion of this.
@Rwoo: You are quite correct France has every right to do as they please on these matters. At issue for me, at least, is the notion of holding them and other up as paragons of virtue while we vilify our own far tamer transgressions and then remain silent on this kind of tripe. Let'em do as they please. Old Europe loves to sniff about our "cowboy tactics" and have done so for years. They are having a hard time accepting they are largely irrelevant in the international community with the balance of power shifting to Arab and Asian centers.
I'm an agnostic, but this irritates the hell out of me. These women should be allowed to practice their religion. They aren't hurting anyone by wearing a burqa. I wish western powers would let them be. We are no more freeing them by demanding they not wear it than a culture that requires them TO wear it.
Much ado about nothing. A few women wearing the niqab, only head covering, I believe, or the full-body burqa, has the whole of Europe up in arms.
Free to wear mini skirts, expose your boobs and butts and being semi-nude, but not free to cover your body; sounds like hypocrisy to me. How degrading for the so-called liberated women to be shedding their garments to please the men.
How come the oppressed Muslim world has produced a number of women Prime Ministers/Presidents and there hasn't been one in Voltaire's Republic?
I feel like I am contradicting my liberal nature in some ways but I am in favor of the ban for a number of reasons, not the least of which is the increasing number of women participating in terroristic activities. Muslim extremism is not inclusive, it is exclusive. They are among the most intolerant of all religious groups and by their very nature oppressive towards women.

Is it true that the ban extends only to the full hijab? If that is the case I am even more supportive.

Over the course of human history people have often left their "home" countries because of religious intolerance. I fail to see why these people have moved to a liberal and progressive nation such as France if they did not desire to embrace this philosophy? If fundamentalism is their desire why move to the land of wine, topless women, and Voltaire? I would not move to the Alps and complain about the snow and insist on wearing a bikini in January, how is this any different?

It is highly disturbing to learn that it is the sons and brothers who are adopting the most radical aspects of Islam in France. It appears to also be the case in England and Scandinavia. No. No to the burqa in schools or in public. Wear it within the mosque or at home. Or move to Saudi Arabia where the wearing of the burqa is the rule of law.

It appears that the fundamentalists are enlisting young disenfranchised, volatile males in an effort to bring about an epic sort of violent revolution. This revolution is their holy cause.
The burqa is but one tool in the crazy plan of fundamental Islamic factions.
IF little girl children wearing burqas begin attending American public schools can little boy children wearing KKK pointy sheets be far behind?
RW We concern ourselves with any group who have routinely expressed outrage by the killing of innocents in massive numbers. Outrage and mass-killings is not the mark of seld-esteem or of strength. I do not want the West to behave that way. I do want us to kill the layers of ldrshp of the terror groups.
Folks, I'm seeing a lot of (non-spam) comments on this post, but right now only six ratings. If you like a good post that prompts good discussion, don't forget to rate. Getting a cover is nice, but please let the author know with a personal "thumbs up" that you appreciate her time and effort.
I've just posted an article about Quebec's Bill 94, introduced this month, which will deny social services and non-emergency medical care to women wearing burqas and niqabs.

95% of Quebecers are in favor of the proposed law. I am not.
This is a fantastic discussion, covering pretty much all the bases. Thanks everyone!
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You have to get the French context to understand the debate on face-covering clothes there. I read somewhere that roughly half of the muslims (and, besides, half of the Jews) in the EU live in France. There are many outbursts of often random violence, and most city inhabitants have either faced themselves violence from young men of Arab origin or have relatives who have, so you here these stories everywhere and they create and feed a climate. There are many reasons for this violence and I am aware of the social and cultural arguments about why that happens and certainly will not make this an issue of anybody's skin color. It has probably also to do with resentments and scars left in the collective subconscious coming from the violent colonial past of France which they still rather glorify than apologize for. The fact I want to outline is that many French have the impression that their country is slowly being overtaken by a foreign culture, and as subjective and reductive as this view can be, it is very emotional, and has been contaminating the public debate for years with security issues. So there is a general protective reflex and call for stronger government action, and the French historically have a strong sense of symbols, which the burqa is - therefore all that noise about it. But that debate seems more of a diversion that started before the regional elections - that have taken place in the meantime and seen the resurrection of the radical right party "Front National".

On the other hand, one of the major criteria of a civilization's degree of modernity is how women are treated and what rights they have - but also how they see and understand themselves and their place in society and what the sources of their identity are. Many people who work with Muslim women, e.g. social workers as well as sociologists (i.e. Alain Touraine, "Le Monde des Femmes", 2006) note that they have much trouble saying "I" and seeing themselves much more as part of a "we", of a small collectivity (family, clan) rather than as autonomous individuals with individual rights. The economic crisis and social inequality, but also the gang violence in poorer city quarters seem to reinforce these behaviors of submissiviness because the alternative is being expulsed from that collectivity they build much of their identity upon. Alain Touraine for example has met with many Muslim women in researching workshops and heard them tell quite sometimes that these workshops were the first time they really spoke about themselves as individuals.

These are only a few issues beyond the burqa debate, and there is still so much more behind it, and not that much is about religion and so much is about culture and economy. As the British statesman and philosopher Edmund Burke already deplored in 1790 - then referring to the French revolution -, the French tend to ignore change, then resist it while tensions build up until the situation gets uncontrollable and explodes, instead of smoothly adapting to new times like he saw the British do it. In times of such quick change and demographic reshuffling we witness today, this behavior of clinging to a lost past is of course not bearable anymore, so perhaps the French are trying to find more flexible ways to adapt to more rapid change and do this with all the gaucheness usual to a learning process ?
why is the country that brought us Bikini is afraid of burqa? would it make any difference if the man was the one wearing the burqa? Why the west is afraid of the burqa, then burqa is not a religious symbol, for the west it is an ant-consumerism symbol, it is a rejection to what the west has brought to woman!!
Right on Niki,
We don't really know how many of these women, who number a tiny tiny fraction( .000001% ) of Muslim women wear the burqa of their own free will. If they do, and are not being forced to do so by family members, would that still be a problem for the land of liberte?
This has nothing to do with feminine suppression or religious freedom of expression.

It has everything to do with security from radical, murderous, extremism.

Whether we like it or not (to quote a recent presidential phrase) radical Muslims are out to kill civilized people, and an essential tool in the fight is the ability to recognize individuals. Disguises are not a luxury we can afford. Sarkozy has it right, but perhaps for the wrong reasons.
I applaud them for this.
BTW-I see one of them driving with one of these vision restricting things about as dangerous as texting while driving.
Although, if I'm in a bank and see someone texting, I would not be as alert as I would be if I saw someone in the bank with their identity concealed.
I am an American who lives in America and have my own legitimate concerns, likes, dislikes, etc.
I am the one who sets my own standards/concerns.
Outsiders(outside of MY life) do not.
Vive la France!

Liberal America's societal mind is so "open", their brains have been gone for since the 60's.

And where they open their mouths, chaos reigns.
45 million native Indians butchered in the Americas; millions of black slaves, raped and murdered; millions killed under the cross in the Inquisition; a 100 million( including our Jewish friends ) killed in the two wars; 3 million Vietnamese killed; a million and a half Afghans killed by the Soviets.

What on earth were these fundamentalist Muslims up to?

And now these cheeky terrorists refuse to go topless.

Viv la France!!!
Thanks for a good article Judy and nice to see the mostly considered responses. But one thing bothers me greatly about this whole Islamic garb-to-ban-or-not-to-ban subject, and that is the lack of thorough reasoning behind it. The French would like us to believe that a woman who chooses to wear a burka (whether you want to believe it is her imam or her husband or her elder brother who encourages her or whether it truly is her own interpretation of the suras) is revealing a loss of individual rights and freedoms. I find it extremely disturbing to note that it is utterly normal throughout Western society to see women topless in public places, to see women portrayed as sexually available 24/7 in practically all advertising campaigns and yet to see a woman's figure completely hidden from view is taken as subversive, threatening, suspicious, degrading and a sign of submissiveness.

The creeping pornification of society is practically complete, at least throughout the Western world, and it is precisely this which makes many muslim women choose to cover themselves. Sex is used to sell everything from shampoos to cars, and it is invariably the woman's sexual identity, not the man's, which is the driving force behind the sexualisation of products and society. Women constantly receive the message that it is good to look sexually attractive and available at all times, whether or not you are a CEO, school teacher or classical musician. The acceptable image for you to project is one involving the revealing of usually hard to see flesh, or tightly protruding parts of the anatomy. Successfull women in this society are always portrayed as 'sexy', leading young impressionable people to assume that all a woman needs to do to be an equal and to earn respect, is to look good. God forbid you should hide that delicious female form! Uncover yourself woman, stand naked and be judged!

The increasing use of the muslim veil is in reaction to all of this.

It is ludicrous to portray the fully clothed and hijab wearing woman as a threat to freedom, while expecting young girls to display cleavage and inner thigh and declaring this is not a provocation, but a girl's self-expression. Why is it okay to ban a completely covered woman from public space yet it is acceptable that women reveal breasts and underwear all the time? You may argue it is the woman's choice to look sexually provocative or not, and that is freedom of choice. But the truth is a woman is left with little choice in this supposedly free and equal society.

Why is it perfectly acceptable to see a line of habit-wearing nuns walking along the street, their hair and bodies completely covered, yet it is unacceptable, provocative, submissive and threatening to see a line of burka clad women walking down the street? We tell ourselves the nuns clearly pose no threat whereas we don't know who or what is under that burka due to the highly publicised yet rare, female burka-clad suicide bomber. That's a pretty weak argument in favour of banning a woman's right to interpret her religious dogma as she sees fit....
Touche Emma. Very well said.
In some Arab countries, visiting women have the same lack of rights as their locals. The Arabs can insist their women look like bee keepers, and the French can insist on not hiding your face in public.

Arabs still stone women to death. Their Shia religious law allows this. Should they be able to do this in Paris or New York?

If I saw someone in a black bee keeper outfit, I would be very upset not knowing if it were a male or female and maybe a suicide bomber. I'd want to dial 911.
Come to think of it, the clothes that the middle easterner Jesus wore or the clothes that his mother wore, both would have been outlawed in France, as not being in keeping with the values of France.
That is of course if they would have been allowed to leave the Gaza strip.
The obvious solution to this moron problem is to encourage every student, male or female, to wear a head scarf to school or in public. The quickest way to destroy moronic dogma is to mock it.
I totally agree with the comments from A BLONDE and don't feel any guilty from a feminist or a liberal viewpoint. I hate the idea of women feeling they must cover their bodies based on a ridiculous religious edict imposed upon them by insecure and irrational males in power. This extends to the Jewish sect that requires women to cover their hair. So some of them cover their hair with wigs! And the Christian fundamentalist sects that require women to wear "modest" dresses. Or females having to cover their heads when going into churches in the Vatican (although they don't in every other Catholic church in the world anymore). All of these customs are based on the sick idea that their bodies tempt MEN into committing sins. What crap!

But I go a little further in my opposition to women being forced to wear certain attire or adornments, and that includes women who wear the opposite of the burqa---those who wear practically nothing (their boobs, butts and bellybuttons exposed). They - just like those Muslim or Jewish or fundamentalist sect Christian women - say they've freely chosen their clothing. But it's not true. Their master is fashion, and they are its slaves just as surely as are the women who are MADE to follow religious customs or the power-crazy men in their families.
I find it an interesting point to see the burqa as a political statement against Western consumerism and/or pornification. But that does not corroborate with the fact that this is a traditional garment coming from an age when - and places where - neither consumerism nor pornification did exist. Additionally, if it really were a political statement against consumerism and all, why are they worn only by women ? So might there be some ex post interpretation or appropriation by other agendas involved ? The specificity about the burqa lies not in really hiding the bodies but in hiding the faces. I have to agree with dianelee to some extent in that it seems to me that these garments have been designed a long time ago for men to hide their women from other men because they do not trust each other's pulsions, a little like fencing their garden to keep neighbours off their real estate and apple trees.

The big issue is finding a balance between universal individual rights and communitarianisms of all sorts (not only of a religious or traditional sort) which is becoming one of the big challenges societies have to address if they do not want to fragment and dissolve.
Rw005g, you are posing a very important question. There is a high tension between individual rights and the cohesion of society as a whole, and if society gives up itself as the ultimate goal and puts the individual rights even higher, then it possibly launches a dynamic that may eventually destroy society, at least in the classic, still very geography-dependent understanding of society we have of it.

You mention Africa. However Africa is not exempted, it is having similar problems and is still ravaged by the consequences of Europe once superimposing the artificial nation-state principle onto a very different ethnic map, as we can see for example in the forgotten war in the Eastern part of the Democratic Republic of Congo. On the other hand, Ghana is an example of a peaceful, multi-ethnic democracy located next to the Ivory Coast, a violent, multi-ethnic democracy. And so on. You have the problem anywhere where the political system does not fit the chains of loyalty felt by the people, e.g. where a centralized state tries to rule people whose loyalties are rather clanic and local, or rather ethnic. You do not need to go to Afghanistan for that, you also find that conflict in some mountainous regions of the USA where the federal state is seen as an enemy it is supposedly legitimate to stackpile weapons against. Also, Latin America has less of this problem because its modern history begun by a large-scale genocide that physically eliminated the issue. However, in countries like Bolivia, where the descendants of the original inhabitants have demographically regained a critical mass, you can again observe competitive chains of social loyalty.

France is particular in that its view of society is strongly state-centered (remnants of the Jacobin view of society, but to me also a result of Catholic traditions in that the individuals are essentially sinners and have to be taken by the hand from the cradle to the grave by a strong authority -the state- and led to happiness). Thus the state understand itself as the source of the identity and norms and symbols that hold society together. This is challenged by people coming from other cultures and countries where the state is seen as far away and corrupt and very far down in the chain of loyalties, and where the family and the clan are the sources of identity and objects of loyalty instead.

In short, I do not think that the current conflict in France is that much due to the political regime (the conflict would probably have been similar under a Napoleon) but that we witness a centralized state refusing to give up some of its overwhelming (and sometimes arrogant and even arbitrary) power while it is attacked from two sides: Traditional communitarianisms on one side and individual self-construction on the other. This three-party conflict is a challenge that sociologist Alain Touraine proposes to meet by introducing the notion of "individual cultural rights" in addition to the universalist "individual rights", in order to find a new ground for an updated social contract.
Rw005g, thank you for the stimulating and insightful discussion ! You are right about Tocqueville. His merit is to have shown, beneath the political turmoil in France since the 1780s, the ongoing centralization process which was never interrupted by any Revolution and came to a symbolic halt only long after Tocqueville's death, in 1982, under President Mitterrand and his decentralization laws. But I would not see the French nation precede the state. (Perhaps we are lending different meanings to the words "nation" and "state"?) The French understanding of itself as a nation is very much an intellectual construction of the late 18th and the 19th century, when the whole country was submitted to a brainwash, e.g. by prohibiting the use of regional languages and using school programs to convey the propaganda of a Third Republic (1875-1940) that felt threatened by monarchism and regionalism for quite a long time and had to completely rewrite the creation mythology of the political entity called France by recycling terms popularized after 1789. France is the result of a colonization process that started in the first millenium from the Ile-de-France region (i.e. Paris and surroundings), went through the conquest of the "Province" and lasted centuries (and eventually spilled over onto other continents). As a result, even today, Parisians regard the "Province" with contempt, like conquered territory, and claim intellectual and political supremacy and control over resources. To me, the French "nation" has been constructed ex post by a pre-existing state in a process of justification of the colonial rule over the Province. That might sound a bit exaggerated, but it explains why the French state (actually, the Parisian state) is such a control freak and probably partly explains the heat of the burqa debate (which is about who is controlling the hearts and minds, which the state regards as a monopoly it is very touchy about).

Russia was built in a similar process of colonial expansion that started from the kingdom of Kiew, if I remember well - eventhough that was only an embryonic form of what we call a state today. (France and Russia additionally have in common to have both used religion, first as an ideological support, then as an ideological scapegoat.) Germany is different in that it pre-existed as a cultural nation and Germans felt like having much in common long before they became one state, so Germany is the only one of these countries you mention (USA, France, Russia, Germany) that I would file under your category (b) (nations preceding states). But again, that depends very much on how "nation" and "state" are defined.
banning things that cause no demonstrable harm to anyone and backing it up with verbose and abstract justifications

hmmm very French