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Is the possible French ban on the burqa really about women’s rights, or is it just another political move?

Photo: mariachily

A few days ago, French President Nicolas Sarkozy gave a speech about the possibility of banning burqas in public.

As many know, France banned headscarves (well, the Islamic ones anyway), the burka, turbans and other “religious symbols” in schools in 2004.

According to the government, the purpose was to completely separate religion and state.

But this time around, they are claiming the possible ban is about women’s rights. Sarkozy stated he believes the burqa “reduced [women] to servitude and undermined their dignity.”

Similar to five years ago, there are people who say that the possible ban, at this point only a proposed parliamentary commission to discuss the issue, is discriminatory against Muslims. Many also blame France for becoming completely homogenized.

Or it could be simply politically-motivated. In an article on The First Post, Neil Clark argues this is a calculated move by Sarkozy, who “knows how to spot a vote winner.”

Islamophobia Or Women’s Rights?

Clark continues his piece by voicing the dilemma that is occurring not only in France, but other parts of Europe as well:

For some leftists, civil liberties, a strong belief in multiculturalism and a determination to fight the rising tide of Islamophobia come first. For others, defending Enlightenment values and the rights of women are paramount.

What this possible ban once again brings to the surface is the debate over whether or not the burqa is actually seen as oppressive by Muslim women.

The Times of India ran a story saying many Muslim Indian women are “disgusted” with Sarkozy’s comments. They believe the burqa “is an article of faith, a pillar of support…in a world where sexual-crime is rampant, the burqa denotes comfort, security and allows a woman her dignity.”

Burqa or bikini – women’s choice? / Photo: DeusXFlorida

I also found an interesting take on what Afghan Muslim women vs. American (non-Muslim women) must face.

In The Choice Between Burqa and Bikini, written by Abid Ullah Jan, he argues that it is, in fact, western women who must face a culture that wishes to control their bodies. He noted:

From the hair removal products that hit the marketplace in the 1920s to today’s diet control measures that seek to eliminate even healthy fat from the female form, American girls and women have been stripped bare by a sexually expressive culture whose beauty dictates have exerted a major toll on their physical and emotional health.

Of course, on the other side is the argument that the burqa represents the ownership of women by their male family members, no personal freedom whatsoever, and complete sexual repression. And, in reality, nowhere in the Qur’an does it explicitly state that Muslim women must wear one.

Sarkozy ended his speech saying “the burka is not a sign of religion, it is a sign of subservience. It will not be welcome on the territory of the French republic.”

Is France fighting for women’s rights or taking away Muslim’s rights? Share your thoughts below.

Community Connection

A bit southeast of France, the opposite is happening as Western women search for veils in Baxter Jackson’s piece, Veil Shopping In Cairo. Also, delve deeper into the debate around religious and cultural norms at Where To Draw the Line When Defending Cultural Norms and Put Some Damn Clothes On!



About The Author

Christine Garvin

Christine Garvin is a certified Nutrition Educator and holds a MA in Holistic Health Education. She is the founder/editor of Living Holistically...with a sense of humor and co-founder of Confronting Love. When she is not out traveling the world, she is busy writing, doing yoga, and performing hip-hop and bhangra. She also likes to pretend living in her hippie town of Fairfax, CA is like being on vacation.

  • Eva

    I’m personally pretty uncomfortable with the idea of the burka (though I have fierce, independent, educated friends who cover their heads), but at the same time I really can’t see how FORBIDDING women from wearing them has much to do with women’s rights… The key word on both sides of the clothing divide is “choice,” I think.

  • benji lanyado

    I’ve always thought the French stance is effing ridiculous. Diversity should be respected, learnt about, and enjoyed. Not flattened. Shame on them.

  • Steve

    Of course it’s a sign of subservience, but so is a dog collar. And you don’t see any laws preventing kinky people from wearing those!

    Seriously, I don’t like what the burqa represents, but I don’t think you can ban them. People should have a right to engage in unhealthy behaviors if they want to.

  • ZapPow

    Politics, definitely. I don’t think prohibiting the burqa would be constitutional, and I don’t think he (Sarkozy) will take the chance to see the Conseil Constitutionnel reject a law so soon after the law on illegal downloading. He has been very prudent, chosing his words very well : he didn’t say the burqa would be prohibited, he said it wouldn’t be welcome.

    Wearing the burqa or the niqab is not a muslim right. It’s a tradition in a few places, one of them being the birthplace of salafism, one of the most backward conception of Islam. Salafists seem to really hate women. They just cannot see them, even in picture.

    Now, we must do something to avoid a Paristan.

    Btw, I’m French.

  • Paul

    I try to be universally tolerant of culture and opinion. I really do. So in that spirit, I won’t bash president Sarkozy for his comments. They are his opinion. I do find this measure to be quite contrary to the idea of an absolute separation of church and state. If the French government were really concerned with an absolute separation, it would not meddle in the religious affairs of a sizable portion of it’s population. If women want to repress themselves by wearing the burqa, let ‘em. Is it hurting you? No.

    I am all about personal freedoms, the most important of which is the freedom from government meddling in affairs that it has no business in. This is especially true when government is trying to help. My experience with government (which is extensive) is that whenever governments do something, they almost invariably screw it up. This is an example of that: they tried to liberate women from oppression when they don’t feel they’re being oppressed.

  • Mohammed

    MUSLIMS, JEWS AND CHRISTIANS believe in one Omnipotent, omnipresent and omniscient God. Muslims believe in Jesus as a Prophet of Allah and Mary as the Mother of Jesus. If Muslim women wear dress like St.Mary why do Christians and Jews have problems, I guess there should be no differences among the followers of Abrahamic Religions

  • Marc Latham

    As Eva said, it should be about choice, but how can we tell if the woman is doing it out of choice without asking them in the street, which would be seen as being intrusive and disrespectful.

    And if they are being forced to wear them they are unlikely to admit it anyway, and especially if their husband is around.

    The Iran demos show that they are not always worn out of choice in muslim countries, and I think women in the west who support fundamentalist dogma through adhering to the burka out of choice do for feminism what black people would have done for racism if they had supported the South African apartheid government when they were in power.

  • svenster

    Didn’t the KKK already try this sort of head covering in America? How’s that working for them?

  • Marc Latham

    That should have been anti-racism in my previous comment!

  • Raseena Sherif

    Why I wear a Hijab ?
    By Raseena Sherif
    I was asked by a friend about why I wear a hijab. This is my answer.

    You asked me ages ago why I wore the hijab. It was always somewhere in my mind – not necessarily always the back – that I should reply and I finally decided I wouldn’t put off your reply any longer, and therefore you shall have it.

    Having grown up in a practising Muslim household, many things were just handed over to me. And having studied in an Islamic school all my life, consequently having an entirely Muslim circle of friends, I never questioned them. That was the way things were done in my little world, and it was therefore the way I did things too. The hijab was one of them. I grew up in it. Physically and also mentally. I think the question, or at least the one with the more interesting answer, is why I continue to wear the hijab even after having spent more than three years now, in Christian colleges, and with a friend circle that is largely non- Muslim.

    There are many things I found in the hijab as I grew up. Things as varied as the convenience of not having to spend considerable amount of worry and time on my wardrobe and outside appearance, to philosophical, spiritual, and you might be surprised to hear this, but even feminist concepts that I feel proud to stand up for and show my belief in.

    In wearing a hijab, a woman is identified by the things she does and the things she stands for, rather than her looks. Even as a woman, there are times when I have found myself identifying another woman by her looks, where I might ask “Oh, the one with the long hair?” In underplaying my looks, I force others to look for more in me.

    My hijab saves me a lot of the time, effort, thought and worry that would otherwise go into my dress, my hair, my skin and my make up. I think it’s a pity that while theoretically looks aren’t supposed to matter, one must spend so much time and money on them. With the hijab, looking good means looking neat and the best part is that I get to stop where others begin.

    Comments on: France ponders a burqa ban | No cover up | The Economist on Wednesday, 01-07-2009 at 09:35am

    Looking back now, at how I began to wear the hijab, I’m glad I did start the way I did. In spite of the fact that I prefer to find things out for myself, and hate taking things for granted, or doing things without really believing them. Because having started the way I did, to me, the hijab was always just another type of clothing.

    I think about the kind of stereotypes people have about hijabs, and women who wear them, and I know that if I were left to discover the hijab for myself, it would have been tough for me to go beyond those stereotypes, to go back on all that I grew up hearing, seeing and believing, and to allow myself to actually see the hijab for what it is and its beauty. Having grown up wearing it, in a society that didn’t jump to conclusions about me because I did, or look at me like I was weird, I have always felt comfortable in it, and never thought of myself as any different from the rest. It was just my way of dressing. And with the stage for objective evaluation of that type of dressing set, I have come to love that way of dressing above others.

    On the other hand, I know there are those that hate the hijab they wear. I feel bad for them – for the fact that they are forced to do something they don’t even understand, and the fact that they haven’t understood something so beautiful. However, I think the saddest part is that they are losing out on both the happiness they might have found in dressing the way they would have liked to, and the happiness they could have found in pleasing their Creator. It’s always our intentions that are considered and if you’re doing something only because you’re forced to, it doesn’t count. You might as well enjoy yourself living life the way you want to. And then if you are fortunate enough to find God for yourself, I think you are really lucky.

    In fact, I feel bad for all those Islamic ideologies that are reduced to meaningless customs and traditions, and the joke that they have been allowed to become in the minds of people. Anyway, I won’t start on that or I shall go on for a couple more pages. I just want to ask you to make a distinction between actual Islamic ideology and the actions that one sees from some people born into Muslim households – especially the kind I heard you grew up with.

    In the hijab, honestly, I feel blessed.

    • Christine Garvin

      Raseena, thank you so much for your thoughtful reply. It is a very important perspective that I’m glad was added to the discussion.

  • Lilly

    I also think that forbidding the burqa is a bit extreme and does not give freedom of choice, however, since the burqa represents “the ownership” of the women, then surely if they had a choice whether to wear it or not, then that choice would not be theres? Which I guess leaves you to think whether this would help the muslim women and give them freedom? I don’t quite understand why you would want to wear one, I can imagine it would be extremely uncomfortable! But on the otherhand, it acts as a sheild i guess and you don’t need to worry about your flaws appearing. It is a tough debate and I find it hard to choose a side. I don’t like the burqa, it shows inequality between men and women, which I am against. If the women are going to wear them, the men should, because that is fair, and I think that the ban might not have been considered if both men and women wore them, becuase it would be seen as more of a belief, whereas the burqa to me resembles possesion.

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