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Burqa: Sign of religion or subservience? A deeper look into secular France

June 22, 2009

The burqa is not a sign of religion, it is a sign of subservience. It will not be welcome on the territory of the French republic. -French president Nicolas Sarkozy

Nicolas Sarkozy, President of France

Nicolas Sarkozy, President of France

France prides itself on secularism, a principle they call laïcité, which implies the absence of religious involvement in government affairs and vice versa.  France has the highest Muslim population in western Europe (8-9.6% of the total population) and continues to have a huge divide between the Muslims and non-Muslims in their country. French president Nicolas Sarkozy gave a speech during a special session of parliament in Versailles this morning to support the effort to banning of the burqa in public.

The burqa is an article of clothing worn by some Muslim women that covers the entire body. This is not to be mistaken with the chador or niqab (BBC news has a great explanation on the difference of the hijab (meaning veil) in Muslim traditions), which does not cover the entire body—leaving the eyes and other parts exposed.

“We cannot accept to have in our country women who are prisoners behind netting, cut off from all social life, deprived of identity.” -Sarkozy

A Muslim woman wearing a burqa

A Muslim woman wearing a burqa (or can be interpreted as a niqab)

Sarkozy’s statement is not surprising: in 2004, the French government did not allow any school children to wear religious symbols (Christian crosses, Jewish skullcaps, Muslim headscarves) in schools, including young Muslim girls who used to wear head scarves to school. This was contraversial back then and continues to be a problem amongst the Muslim and non-Muslim populations.

The lawmakers who support this burqa ban want to inquire whether or not women choose to wear the garment. This would continue to widen the rift between Muslims and non-Muslims not just in France, but all over the world.

I personally believe that there should be more research into whether the burqa is being forced upon some Muslim women. It is important to point out that no where in the Quran does it state that women must wear burqasthis was interpreted by Islamic scholars (all men) who are the arbitraters of hadith, Islamic law. While the burqa is different from a head scarf, I believe that in many Islamic countries, including Morocco, the head scarf is more of a symbol of culture than religion. Some women choose to wear it; some don’t. I wonder if the same is for the burqa.

My other concern with this ban is that France is not following its laïcité principle–by making a law banning women to wear a religious symbol, the burqa, does that make government absent in religious affairs? I think not. Also, by putting this ban into law, it reinforces the stereotype that Islam is against the advancement of women. Why doesn’t the government focus on all religious affairs in their country; for example, allowing the ordination of women in the Catholic church?

I want to know your opinions about this: What do you think about this the burqa ban in France? Do you think it’s rightfully founded? Do you think it follows the laïcité principle? What do you think this ban will mean for women, in particular Muslim women?

  1. June 22, 2009 4:23 pm

    Interesting. I’m not sure it’s the responsibility of French government to fight for Islamic women’s rights. I’m not sure if some Islamic women feel oppressed by the burqa or other hijab. I doubt there is universal consensus in the community. It’s hard to say if Sarkozy and his peeps are doing the right thing.

  2. joao sousa permalink
    June 22, 2009 7:15 pm

    Please see this funtastic cartoon on identity. Please don’t allow women discrimination.

  3. fuzzytheory permalink
    June 22, 2009 9:17 pm

    Well… in terms of laicite, I would think this is hypocritical. The principle is the secular seperation of religion and government. While I think it can be defended unhypocritically in the case of public schools, which are governmental sites–not unproblematically–to legislate it in the public sphere is an over-reach of the place of government. If government is the arbiter of acceptability in the public sphere and religion can only exist in the private sphere, this opens up a whole can of worms. If anything in the public sphere is fair game by government intervention, it changes the goal-posts of what it means to be public. Is public anything not private? Or is public (in the sense of governmental intervention) only those sites that are governmentally owned spheres? Indeed, it seems to show how a binary system of public/private is actually an area of publicly owned/public/private. Being at a government institution is different than walking down the street is different than being in one’s home. I’m not sure what to think of this.

    Actually, I don’t think this particular issues necessitates an examination of Islam or non-Western culture itself until we examine France in particular. In some sense, I think this is Orientalism pure and simple, with any relation to the real Islam being irrelevant to the discursive construction of Islam by French authorities.

    Another hypocritical aspect of laicite is this: If the government wants religion to be seperate from it, then it necessarily must stay out of religion as private. This is where I think the French are on shaky ground here. It goes back to my first paragraph above: the shifting goal-posts of the government’s domain of intervention. How private is private? If I can see a Church in the public sphere, how is that any different than seeing a burka in the public sphere? Should Church facades become secularized?

    This isn’t even getting into the questioning of what religion is in comparison with secularism. They are both ideologies. Can’t this in some ways be conceived as one theological concept (secularism) constraining others (religions)? Regardless of the answer, I think this question opens up an interesting analytical space.

    Sarkozy’s invocation of identity is just a whole can of worms that he should never have opened. It is very stupid to say that it deprives identity, when in actuality–whether patriarchical or not–it has everything to do with the construction of identity.

    There is so much to say here about this topic independent of laicite. Euro-chauvanism, orientalism, fear of the other, patronizing bad faith arguments, colonial history, the myth of modern progress all play a part.

  4. jozzym permalink
    June 23, 2009 7:29 am

    This is just hate politics if Mr Sarkozy is so conserned with clothing then why not he bans catholic Nuns from wearing what they wear, many of nuns wear cloths which is just opposite of french nude culture.
    The way this hatred against muslims is growing in the cover of leberalism and woman right i can see that in future muslims will be treated the same way as jews were treated by the christian europe. Anti semitism is found in europe not in asia and all the historical account indicate the way jews were murdered during spanish reconquest and during crusade and even in mordern history.
    Muslims will become scapegoat for the french economic collapse and within next two or three years world will see the real face of barbaric europe famous for ghettos and WMDs.
    I predict the complete collapse of french economy as they dont have enough money in treasury like u.s.a to fight this great recession and all this will happend within next three years.

  5. June 24, 2009 2:33 pm

    The F-Word has a very illuminating post about this subject today:

  6. March 28, 2010 12:26 pm

    You say the burqa should not be mistaken with the niqab, and yet you have a picture of the niqab, labelled as a burqa.

    • March 31, 2010 7:57 pm

      I think that the picture can be interpreted to either be a niqab or a burqa; it’s a bit vague, if you look to this guide:

      I changed the caption.


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