Behind the “Burqa Ban”

The media frenzy over the full-face veil ban in France is the latest political maneuver by the Sarkozy government looking to frame the presence and visibility of ethnic minorities, be they Muslims or more recently the Roma people, as a threat to national identity.

When first approached by the Open Society Foundations At Home in Europe Project to produce a report on the "niqab" controversy in France, based on the testimonies of the veil wearers themselves, I was not expecting my encounters with 32 niqabis, overwhelmingly French citizens, would radically change my take on the issue.

The sense of isolation for many of the women concerned could hardly have been greater. But I would never have been able to fully grasp it had I not met and spoken to 32 women in several French cities who for a variety of reasons had chosen to wear the veil. The eagerness with which most of them related their daily experiences and how the controversy had made them feel was reflective of the total lack of consideration given to such fundamental questions during the national debate over the banning of the full-face veil.

As the testimonies of the women interviewed soon revealed and as I witnessed myself, many French people had come to believe that it was their right, even their republican duty, to behave as members of a secularist enforcement squad parroting arguments they had heard on TV the night before to the niqabis they met in public.

As a direct result of the political and media hubbub, niqabis who ventured outside their house found themselves facing frequent verbal abuse ranging from "ghost" and "Darth Vader" to "whore" and "slut," used as a back-handed way of defending women’s dignity. Some also had their pictures taken as if they were circus freaks, while a small number of women were also spat on or physically confronted by passersby who tried to rip off their veils.

My first field trip kicked off in Paris at the Gare du Nord train station in October 2010, where I met Aisha, 19, and Bushra, 24. The encounter challenged some of my own expectations: from the youngsters’ backgrounds—a French national sports champion and a former rapper; their motivation for wearing the niqaba—a combination of what they saw as the quest for perfection and an undeniable act of rebellion; to the vehement opposition of their families.

Bushra’s decision to wear the niqab, for example, was greeted by her parents with an “are you mad or what? You’re going to become a terrorist!” Hers was not an isolated case with the research starkly revealing that in most cases the adoption of the niqab was initially opposed by family members.

“I find the Muslim community as manipulated as the rest of the French population,” said Eliza, a charismatic entrepreneur who like several respondents has decided to leave France. With few exceptions, most representatives of Islamic institutions, even those generally perceived as close to the government, opposed the ban on the full-face veil, rightly stressing that a law would be counterproductive and risked stigmatizing the entire Muslim population. However, they did so while distancing themselves from the practice of the full-face veil, frequently arguing that the niqab was “not part of the religion.”

“What hurts me the most,” Aisha told me, “is the community. Put it in your article, the umma [Arabic word meaning "community" or "nation"] is disappointing us.” In fact, not only did the majority of niqabis I spoke to feel let down by the Muslim representatives’ lack of support , but a significant number of them had also been shockingly abused by either Muslims or people of Arab descent, sometimes violently. A couple of women were spat on by Arab men while some niqabi women were accused by Muslims of “dirtying the religion,” “shaming” them, and making their lives harder in France.

Muslims and other ethnic minorities in France have served as scapegoats for a number of the country’s ills, the result being that many people in France, including the well-intentioned and progressive, seem to have lost sight of this furor.

Indeed  by claiming this ban on the full-face veil will protect women, the result, as Jameelah, 24, told me has been the exact opposite:  “I had the feeling that I was no longer human, that I was a monster,” she said, “while they should have respected me because at least I was a human being like them… at least for that reason I wanted some respect."

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The French authorities don't know what they are doing. This will prompt more and more muslim girls and women to adopt the niqab just to make a point. Many girls and women put on the hijab in East Africa after 9/11 when Islam was being attacked by Bush and the western societies

This report is incredibly helpful - I don't know of any other report that actually documents the perspectives of veiled woman and restores to them their individual complexity. And while it is rigorous in its method, it's easy to read. I hope it will have a wider educative function and you will do everything you can to ensure that every MP, every MEP, and every policymaker in Europe reads it!

Another one-sided left wing article. Terrorist have dressed like women and wore burqas to conceal their identities. The Taliban really knows how to treat women; can't wait until Sharia law is the law of our land. Just imagine, if a little girl or woman gets raped we stone them and don't punish the rapist.

Dear Mike,

I'm curious to know how you get to stoning and not punishing rapists from allowing women to choose to wear a full veil. What's the logical chain that leads from one to the other? Saying that they are both "Islamic" is not a logical chain; it's the same thing as saying that wearing a nun's habit and molesting children are both Catholic, so we shouldn't allow nuns to wear a nun's habit because we will end up molesting children. And terrorists also dress up as businessmen; it is a logical error to confuse that with meaning that all businessmen are terrorists.
So where's the connection?


Mike, I assume that you actually know little to nothing about Islamic law or the Taliban to actually make such sweeping, narrow minded, stereotypical conclusions.

In Islamic law, did you know that if a man accuses a chaste woman of committing fornication or adultery, HE gets lashed? Did you know that if a man rapes a women using a weapon he gets the death penalty under Islamic law?

Did you know that the penalty for committing fornication or adultery IS THE SAME FOR BOTH SEXES?!?! I.e. regardless if your a man or a woman, you BOTH GET THE SAME PUNISHMENT?

Instead of looking at the Taliban and judging Islam according to their misguided understanding, why not read the biography of the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) and see how Islam really liberated women?

Did you know that Islam gave women the right to work, inherit and divorce hundreds of years before the Christian West did? Did you know that the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) forbade female infanticide and forced marriages when these where rampant practices and norms during his lifetime?

Also, terrorists have dressed up in varying clothes, not only the niqab. I as a niqab wearing women who has FREELY chosen to wear it have NO PROBLEM with being asked for my ID for security reasons.

Enlighten yourself Mike, I am sure you are an intelligent person. Please don't behave in such an undignified manner and judge my religion without even looking into it first.

Come on, Claire. You know. The connection is that stoning and the requiring of the burqa come from the same philosophy. The question is whether this connection is legitimate. You seem to think not. And Mike sees a connection. Like most arguments, there is truth on both sides. I am afraid of a people that can be incensed by an imam to kill UN professionals because of a koran burning half a world away. Perhaps if imams spoke out against such kills -- instead of urging the wearing of a burqa -- your disagreement with Mike would make more sense. Mike's goal isn't really about banning burqas. He is trying to stop senseless killings. Like you, I'm also doubtful that banning the burqa will stop terrorism. But I agree with Mike's goal. What is your idea of how to stop terrorism?

The niqab is not a religious item it is purely cultural. If they want to wear it they have every right to wear it at home or move to an Islamic country. You can't sacrifice animals as a right of religion so France has the right to ban these too. Muslim men force women to wear these. If you support this then you support the oppression of women and in 2010 it is sick that people still do. Anyone that argues in favor of it are either ignorant or liars. Societies have the right to create their own laws. This is just religious radicals trying to overthrow the west. When they hit someone in your family you will wake up to reality. Shame on your ignorance. There are areas of cities in Europe that even the police wont go into because Islamic radicals have taken it over. I would say, "Wake up" but you have to have your lack common sense not to see what is really going on.


Yes, the burqa is cultural. And some in the culture choose to wear it in western societies. Not every burqa-wearing woman in France or the USA is doing so because she is oppressed. I agree with you -- however -- that a society can set its own rules. But how far? The French have also banned the wearing of yamulkes (for jews) and large crosses. How far does State power go? Did the Nazis have the right to require that Jews wear a yellow star or gays a pink triangle?

Just as there is a place where 'Culture/Religion' cross the line, so is there a place where the 'State' crosses the line. Where is it? I think it is telling people not to live in a way they choose, so long as you don't hurt me. "Your freedom ends at the tip of my nose" -- so the saying goes. The French are going too far. And a culture that forces women to wear a burqa has gone too far too.

How can you shamelessly compare not allowing someone to hide their identity while in a public place with what the Nazis did? The Nazis forced people to wear a sign to distinguish them from the rest of society so that they could be eliminated. No one -again I say, NO ONE- has suggested that any harm come to Muslims practicing their faith; however, you go to an extreme to validate your point. 6 million murdered Jews and thousands of innocents are not the same as telling someone they can't wear a piece of fabric just to push their culture down the throat of another! France has not told them they cannot practice their faith. Why do you keep confusing the two?! It is a tactic to substantiate your view.

Jews can simply wear a hat over their yarmulke and there is nothing in the Bible that says a Christian has to wear a cross at all. Again, these are religious items and we are speaking of culture garb.

France has the right to protect its culture. Can one walk into a bank wearing a hooded mask? What happens when a thousand people walk around hiding their identity and one of them commits a crime? How do you suppose to identify the criminal from the rest? Where is the common sense? It appears that since one can't even pay attention long enough to realize that they are spelling someone's name wrong to whom they are responding, even though it is staring at them in the face as they type, that they haven't taken the time to look at all the facts long enough to complete a educated decision.

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