A Thinly Veiled Attack


The Burqa. A loosely fitting style of clothing used in some Islamic cultures to protect women from the prying eyes of unsavoury men, which, in some traditions and practices incorporates a full face veil. Or a prison, restricting a woman’s ability to dress as they wish and enjoy the same freedoms as men. A lot depends on perception.

In France, a bill banning them in public places has been passed in the national assembly. If it is passed by the senate in September and becomes law, anyone who wears one in public will be forced to pay a fine and attend French citizenship classes, and men who are caught forcing their wives to wear it will face a possible prison sentence. This has sent shockwaves through Europe, with Belgium and Spain voting soon on the issue and calls being made for similar legislation in England.

The French legislators cite two reasons for the ban. Number one, security. Number two, the rights of women. The first is easily dismissed. Even if the terror threat from Islamic extremists is as severe as it is painted in the media, the burqa is hardly a tool of terrorism. This is especially true given that the ban only applies to full face veils; loosely fitting clothing is still permitted. So unless there are hordes of terrorists hiding bombs under their chins, the ban has very little security value.

Women’s rights are an altogether more contentious issue. There is little debate about the potential negative implications of a veil for women. Of course it is demeaning, of course it is disempowering, of course it entrenches and expresses a lower position in the social hierarchy. But is making it illegal really the way to go about addressing the problem?

I would imagine that most people can accept that in some situations the bikini also has negative implications for women (I’m talking music videos and NUTS magazine, not swimming and sunbathing, where it is obviously useful). But would we see the government banning bikinis in public as a positive step forwards for women’s right? Or would that just look like the state telling women what they can and can’t wear, an aspect of Sharia law which so intensely annoys Western liberals?

The difference with a burqa, many argue, is that women don’t choose to wear them, they are forced to. In the absence of any real research on this, I’m going to assume the following. Some women choose to wear it, others accept it because of social pressure and a small minority are forced to. To turn the spotlight back on western culture, it would be hard to argue that there isn’t a degree of social pressure in our community. From Barbie dolls, to MTV, to celebrity diets, the collective message is clear: women have to be a certain shape and dress a certain way to be accepted. It may not be a law, or required by religion, but it does have the status of a social imperative. And in France, for a certain group of women who do not observe this imperative, it is about to become illegal not to.

And here is the ultimate irony of the new bill: to prevent Islamic women from being forced to dress in a certain way, the French government have decided to force them to dress in another way. If this really was progress for women’s rights, there should only be one group of people involved in deciding how women should dress. Women.

It is also important to remember that France, like most Western cultures, is not the paragon of gender equality it paints itself. Of the 557 MPs in the French national assembly who voted through the ban, only 18.9% were women (a lower percentage than countries such as Iraq and Pakistan). In addition to this, French women are paid, on average, 15% less than men for equal work, do two thirds of domestic chores and are under-represented in the public service and other positions of authority. It is also a country that sees a reported two million cases of battered women per year. In a population of just over 30 million women, that is one in fifteen.

To fight for women’s rights in France means addressing these issues. Banning the burqa is not going to help women break through the glass ceiling. It’s not going to bring them equal pay or make them less vulnerable to abuse.

The truth, in my view, is that the ban is rooted in an innate, unjustified sense of cultural superiority. This is demonstrated most strongly in the punishment of enforced citizenship classes, which expose an altogether more sinister side to the ban. Suddenly it becomes about enforced integration, squashing out undesirable aspects of an immigrant group’s culture. The law screams of far right hysteria (“if they want to come here they can learn to live like us!”) and is out of step with the secular, liberal image of modern France. Instead, the attitude is colonial and the means draconian.

This is not a victory for the rights of Muslim women, it is a culture clash, fuelled by an underlying current of Islamophobia; a thinly veiled attack on the way they choose to live their lives.


Discussion9 Comments

  1. avatar

    A comprehensive article, although I might take exception to dismissing the burka as a security threat, it has on occasion been used by criminals to cross borders, as many security officials would never ask the wearers to take them off through fear of being accused of Islamophobia.

    Peter Apps

    Fair point. Although there are less restrictive ways of dealing with this problem, such as a burqa ban at border crossings rather than the whole country.

  2. avatar

    It hasn’t been banned yet. A bill banning the covering of your face in public has passed a vote in France’s lower house it needs to now pass a vote in the senate in September before the ban becomes law. And it isn’t aimed just at the burka but at anyone wishing to wear a veil covering their whole face.

    “The bill, which was overwhelmingly approved by France’s lower house of parliament, must now be ratified by the Senate in September to become law.” quoted from http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-10674973

    Also the image is one of a niqab which allows a persons eyes to be seen. A burka is a full face covering so even the eyes are hidden behind a veil.

    The French are also not just targeting Islamic dress but all religious dress. In the past the French have gone to equal effort to ban the wearing of a cross or a turban. France is a very secular nation and so I see no problem with them applying a one rule for all approach.

    Peter Apps

    Thanks Max, updated.

    The image used in this post is similar to those in other news sources, such as the telegraph (http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/newstopics/politics/7896751/Burka-ban-ruled-out-by-immigration-minister.html) and the guardian (http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2010/jul/14/tycoon-fund-to-fight-french-niqab-ban). Even wikipedia, apparently written by someone with more than a passing interest in Muslim dress is unsure, calling it a collective term for the jilbab, niqab and hijab. Given that I’ve only ever had a limited understanding of it, from the various muslims I’ve known, I went with the tide.
    And to be strictly accurate, the ban refers to any garment covering the face in public, and doesn’t refer to the burqa specifically. So regardless of the exact definition of the burqa the image is relevant.
    On the point of France’s secular nature, part of the point of being a secular country is the state not interferring in religious practice. It doesn’t mean forcing people to look like an atheist. So really the ban flies in the face of secularism.
    But thank you, on the whole, for pushing me to do a bit more research for an under-researched article.

  3. avatar

    Some aspects of this article I agree with, others are contentious:

    “There is little debate about the potential negative implications of a veil for women. Of course it is demeaning, of course it is disempowering, of course it entrenches and expresses a lower position in the social hierarchy.”

    What is missing from the above statement is an understanding of the purpose behind the concept of hijab. The hijab is actually a ruling designed to maintain the already God-given high status of woman. It stops the objectification of woman as it forces one to judge a woman not by her looks but by her character, actions and mind. It is a spear-head for women’s liberation. What is missing when trying to grasp these politically motivated constrictions on Muslims nowadays, is a lack of understand of Islam itself. I’m sure the majority of non-Muslims will not know that in Islam, our Mothers are to be treated with greater love, obedience and respect than any other person. That the Qur’an has an entire chapter dedicated to women. That there is a chapter entitled Maryam (the mother of Jesus peace be upon him) as she is described as the most pious of all women. It was the decreed that came down in revelations of the Qur’an that outlawed and criminalised female infanticide as well as women, for the first time in human histroy, being given the right to inheritance and personal income.

    In a religion apparently designed to undermine women, it seems odd therefore, that such reverence would be given in the holy scriptures as well as the teachings of the Prophet Muhammad PBUH, who championed women’s rights (at a time when women had no rights, he taught those that accepted Islam that the best amongst them are those that are best to their wives, that they are responsible for their education and to treat all women with utmost respect, well before such rights and treatment was established in the West).

    Whilst I personally do not think the face veil is a must in Islam (speaking as a Muslim woman) and is a practice taken up by a minority as you said; some out of choice, some due to culture, very few due to force, what is lacking in all Western perceptions is that the prescription given to Muslim women in terms of dress, is against their liberation. The face veil may be an extreme that Westerns cannot fathom, but even the idea of a woman covering her hair all the time is perceived by many to be enslaving. The question I pose then is why do secular societies assume that wearing less is the instant equivalent of being more? The thoughtful feminist is the one who doesn’t need manly approval surely but this seems to contradict with the attitude of making oneself more attractive for the sake of one’s liberty. Surely choosing to wear what will ultimately end up attracting men (regardless of the intentions behind it) is far more demeaning, and a sign of a lack of self-respect? Basically what I’m saying is that things aren’t always what they seem and it is extremely important to question our perceptions.


    Also, why is it not questioned that there are a large number of Muslim women in the West, who are gaining higher education, finding and maintaining employment, are active members of their community and also wear hijab. Are we to assume that these educated women are doing it blindly? That they do not see a greater relevance to it?


    Also, another point: the niqab ban in France isn’t at all about women’s right. Such bans and laws against certain aspects of a religion or way of life are designed to making living in said-country extremely difficult and will naturally lead to those being victimized having to leave. (Indirect immigration policy?) Consider for a moment the women that wear the face veil no longer being allowed to wear it, what will happen to them? They will be forced to stay at home. The repercussions of this legislation are a slap in the face of human rights, let alone women’s rights. And the real intentions behind it are probably far less obvious.


    Thank you for your comments, they are very interesting and I appreciate you taking the time to write them out. I can’t address everything you’ve raised, but briefly, my points about the Niqab being degrading to women are obviously nothing more than a personal opinion, which by its nature is influenced by my social and political background. I do feel that having this style of dress designed solely for women is a problem in terms of equality- in much the same way as differing fashions in western culture often express the gender inequality in our society. Thats really the main thrust of the article, I think a lot of people are very willing to attack Islamic culture without applying the same scrutiny to the west, and the comment I’m making here is that neither are perfect, but both in different ways. I do however take on board your comments about Islamic dress being empowering to a lot of women and if I were to write this article again, I wouldn’t be so hardline.
    On your third comment, I do not assume that Islamic women choose to wear a hijab blindly, in the same way that I would never assume that a western women would choose to wear a miniskirt or bikini without a knowledge of some of the potential implications. I’m really talking in a broad sense about wide cultural implications. Certain pieces of clothing always mean different things to different individuals which depend a lot on their background and the society they currently live in, and I know personally several women who happily wear a hijab for no other reason than they feel most comfortable in it. For others the reasons may be more complex, and I would never think myself in a position to say whether that is right or wrong, good or bad. What it means in a macro social context is easier to discuss, and that’s what I’m doing here.
    Your fourth comment I agree with entirely, and is a similair line to what I was trying to get at with the article, perhaps unsuccessfully.

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