Banning the Burqa

French Government Campaign

This month, a bill making the wearing of the burqa* illegal in public will become law in France. Predictably, as an Englishwoman I have mixed feelings about this law. On the one hand I agree with Sarkozy’s former minister, Fadela Amara, who like the majority of her fellow French Muslims, objects to the burqa as a symbol of religious extremism and patriarchal oppression. On the other, I believe that laws targeting religious practices ought only to be considered if they represent a threat to individual or public safety. My first instinct in moments such as these is to ask my French-born children what they think. My 23 year-old daughter sees me coming. “My opinion,” she begins. “Is quite radical. And quite French. When I see a woman walking down the street in a full veil I immediately picture the husband who is making her wear it.” My daughter approves of the ban because behind the burqa she sees a life of ostracism and male domination. My son is also for the ban and his argument runs like this: the form of Islam that suggests that a woman’s face must be covered in order to preserve her decency is inferring that women are intrinsically indecent, an idea that is not only appalling but contrary to the values of French society. I can understand both these positions. The trouble is, I’m deeply suspicious of the motives behind this law and this colours my view, not only of its justice but of its efficacy.

Unlike the law of 2004, which banned the Islamic headscarf (hijab) in French state schools, the wording of this new law against the burqa is deceptively simple. “No one may, in a public place, wear a garment designed to conceal the face.” No mention this time of religion, or values, or of that sacred cow, la laicite. The government campaign surrounding the ban is purposefully ambiguous and designed to suggest that this is not so much about Islam or French identity as it is about some undefined form of practicality. The campaign slogan, “La République se vit à visage découvert” can only be loosely translated into English as, “We live the Republic with our faces uncovered/without a mask.” It is not surprising in this context that a list of exemptions to the law are being drawn up and will include motorcycle couriers, carnival revellers and people with bird flu. (One cannot help wondering about cases like Lady Gaga.)

Unfortunately, however, recent events suggest that this is a law about Islam and a further example of the rather ugly finger pointing that has been going on since the beginning of Sarkozy’s presidency. In the months since the President first announced, during his somewhat overblown performance at Versailles in June 2009, that “the burqa is not welcome in France”, he and his party have adopted a discernible strategy of political harassment of the Muslim community, all of it designed to win votes from the extreme right. After launching, in November last year, a public debate on the rather nebulous question of French national identity, Sarkozy cut to the chase in February this year and announced a new, even meatier debate on the place of Islam in France. Strong in the knowledge that 42% of French people now believe Islam to represent a threat to the nation and knowing that the burqa is worn by only a tiny fraction of France’s Muslims (about 2000 women), Sarkozy clearly believed he could use this law to whip up yet another wave of anti-Muslim sentiment without getting burned. It now appears he was wrong. In seeking to occupy and thereby legitimising the ideological ground of the extreme right he now finds himself neck and neck with Marine Le Pen in voting predictions for the next Presidential elections. Alarmingly, a recent poll foresees the head of the National Front knocking him out in the first round. Sarkozy’s strategy, then, to gather a consensus around the febrile issue of French identity, has worked but in the process he has shot himself in the foot.

The place of Islam in France will doubtless lie at the heart of the next elections but fermenting mistrust towards her Muslims is unlikely to result in their jubilant desire to throw off the veil and live the republic to the full.

*understood in France as the full veil (niqāb) covering the face.

NB A version of this post appears in this month’s Prospect Magazine (Online)


6 thoughts on “Banning the Burqa

  1. I think each country should set out its own rules and these must be obeyed by everyone. Traveling to the Arab world you will discover a number of rules and laws that are much more stricter than those in France. So why should the French be more benevolent?

  2. Are you really asking why France should aspire to greater ideals of tolerance than many states in the Arab world? Maybe because France is a liberal democracy and not a dictatorship and/or theocracy. And the freedom to dress as you please in public doesn’t rely on a state’s “benevolence” but its respect for the value for human rights.

  3. I’m not sure I understand this remark, Eden. Are you responding to the post or to David’s comment? Do we agree that tolerance can include tolerance towards another culture’s world view, even if it conflicts with that of your own? Or must tolerance be equated with Enlightenment values? In Britain (which really is ‘a liberal democracy’) it would be hard to pass a law like this one – despite calls from the far right to do so. It would be seen as an infringement of personal freedom and an attack on an ethnic minority. Given that in France there is no recognition of the concept of ethnic minorities, this objection cannot even be raised.

    I think that many things lie behind this ban, but a ‘liberal’ world view is not one of them. Nor is Mr. Sarkozy a feminist, whatever he mght say. My guess is that he would prefer to see a women without a burqa because it offends him not to be able to check her out. This is a conservative law disguised as a progressive one. As you’ll see from the post, I’m undecided about what I feel about the burqa. All I ask is that we’re not hypocritical about this ban, and that we recognise what’s driving it.

    PS I just found this funny piece on the subject by David Mitchell in The Guardian

  4. Hi

    My comment was in response to David’s comment, and not the post itself – it’s my standard comeback for the “But people are really intolerant in such-and-such a country, so why can’t we be?” line. I think my response stands alone as a valid response to that facile line of thought, but it was by no means an attempt to cover all my thinking on the burkha issue. I basically agree with you that it’s possible to defend the ban from a liberal/feminist point of view, but that it not the angle the Sarkozy government is coming at it from at all. I object utterly to the ban because I don’t see how you fight the oppression of women who are forced to wear something, by forcing them not to wear it. On one hand, they have (supposedly, and ignoring the fact many Muslim women choose to wear it) a man in their family telling them to wear a veil, and on the other they have (mostly) men in the government forcing them not to wear it. Quite where the women’s liberation aspect of this situation is escapes me. But I do understand that I’m coming at it from a political position more familiar to Anglo-Saxons than the French. This issue, like living in France generally, has made me realise just how much of a product of my culture I am.

    Back on topic, the French non-familiarity with the concept of ethnic minorities kind of threw me when I first got here, it seems really strange to me that they can’t collect any race based statistics. In fact, when I was in Brussels with my French friend and asked her if they had many ethnic minority groups in the city, she didn’t know what I meant!

    Last things last, I went into S&Co yesterday with the intention of re-reading, and maybe even buying, “The Secret Life of France” – turns out they’ve sold out! And the Australian lady working there told me it was easily the best book they had on the subject of la vie française.


  5. We had to go into the local A&E yesterday, and the reception was plastered with the Marianne poster you display here.

    I see plenty of women with a some form of headscarf every day, (in Sete), and plenty of Maghreb-looking women without one, but I’ve never noticed the face covered.

    Nobody is unaware of this law, the poster is just to say “we hate you”. Very unpleasant.


    PS The google ad currently showing on this page is for a dating site for muslims, illustrated by a women with no headscarf at all. This must mean something.

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