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Ban the Burqa?

posted by Scot McKnight

The French are now proposing a partial ban of women wearing the burqa. First, one has to decide if the burqa is religious (since not all Muslims wear them and since it is not required by Koran, it can’t be seen as just religious) or cultural (which seems to be the case). But, here’s the issue: those who wear them see them as cultural-religious expressions. So, the issue becomes: Where does one stop and how far into one’s religious life does one intrude? I’m inclined to say this ruling is contrary to French freedom (and to a Western sense of democratic freedoms, including religious and cultural freedoms of expression).


What are your thoughts?

Paris, France (CNN) — French lawmakers Tuesday recommended a partial ban on any veils that cover the face — including the burqa, the full-body covering worn by some Muslim women.

The ban on the “voile integrale” — which literally means “total veil” — would apply in public places like hospitals and schools, and on public transport, a French parliamentary commission announced.

It would also apply to anyone who attempts to receive public services, but it would not apply to people wearing the burqa on the street, the commission said.

The commission stopped short of recommending a full ban because not all of the 32 commission members could agree on it.

They will now recommend that Parliament pass a resolution on the partial ban. Such a resolution, if passed, would not make the wearing of a full veil or burqa illegal, but it would give public officials support when asking people to remove it.

Commission members began their work six months ago after French President Nicolas Sarkozy controversially told lawmakers that the traditional Muslim burqa was “not welcome” in France.

Sarkozy said the issue is one of a woman’s freedom and dignity, and did not have to do with religion.



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Joey

posted January 26, 2010 at 10:19 am


For most of the religious world there is not a definitive line between religion and culture (or religion and society for that matter). We can’t impose our western dualism without infringing on western freedom sensibilities.



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dopderbeck

posted January 26, 2010 at 10:24 am


You beat me to it — wanted to write up a post on this. Maybe still will.
Quick thoughts: this proposed policy is a horrible intrusion onto personal and religious liberty. At the same time, it raises thorny questions about the extent to which a broader vision of the common good can intrude onto competing visions held by sub-communities in a pluralistic democracy.



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Coleman

posted January 26, 2010 at 10:58 am


I agree with Joey – it’s often impossible to separate religion from culture, even in the Christian world. Rosaries are not commanded by the Bible, but there’s little argument that they play a major part in the religious life of many Catholics. To ban the use of rosaries in public places would be a breach of religious liberty, as would a ban on burqas.



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Lyn

posted January 26, 2010 at 11:15 am


I think this is wrong. Let them live their lives. They were most likely born into the religion and that is how they’ve grown up. It’s much deeper than most people seem to realize. I’m not a Muslim, and I wouldn’t want to convert to Islam, but I do not care if these women wear burqas. That’s why I’m glad I live in the US. This would never ever ever come in here.



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Kenton

posted January 26, 2010 at 11:48 am


I strongly favor the burqa ban. First of all, it’s a public safety issue. If someone walks into a convenience store with their face completely covered, regardless of who they are or what reason they have for doing so, it is a threat to person minding the store and everyone else.
Second, let’s at least agree that burqas are oppressive. It’s not like women really want to wear them. Whenever they’re able to, they take them off. In a truly free society, they would never exist.



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dopderbeck

posted January 26, 2010 at 12:02 pm


Lyn (#4) and Kenton (#5) — I heard an interview on BBC world this morning with a British woman living in France who is a convert to Islam. From her perspective, the burqa is liberating, not oppressive. It allows her to live out her commitment to Islam and to interact with men without violating her religious principles. It makes her feel connected to her community and empowered. While her story might not be the story of every woman who wears the burqa, it at least should caution us not to impose hasty judgments on whether the practice is always oppressive.
The BBC story also noted, BTW, that only about 2,000 or so women living in France actually wear burqas, a fair number of whom are western converts to Islam. The ban therefore could be seen as an oppressive effort by the government to discriminate against the practices of a minority population (women who wear burqas) within a minority populations (Muslims in France).
The “safety” concern strikes me as ludicrous. Do you really feel threatened by burqa-wearing women? Please.
What if a Western government banned the wearing of crucifixes in public?



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Brian H

posted January 26, 2010 at 12:04 pm


What disturbs me is that this seems to be another element of hostility to the expression of faith (and/or culture, as noted in the post) in the public sphere. In America, we start tirades if anyone says ‘boo’ to a Nativity scene in a public place — but are we willing to extend that freedom to others?
Kenton, your response seems to be based on two foundations a) a perception of threat to public safety, and b) the assumption that all women find the burqua oppressive.
The second assertion seems externally imposed — I am sure that for some it is oppressive. I absolutely oppose people being forced to wear one. I have heard that some find it liberating; a very different attitude toward modesty than much of the rest of Western culture.
You may have more of a point with the public safety angle – from the angle of the ability to identify people, but do we have any evidence that this is a current problem? Or is it simply a justification for taking a cultural stand? IIRC, parts of Western Europe are experiencing deep cultural and ethnic divisions that (seem to) echo parts of the US southwest.



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dopderbeck

posted January 26, 2010 at 12:05 pm


Oh and BTW Scot, your opening post says the Q’uran does not require the wearing of the burqa. There was an interesting mini-dispute about this during the BBC interview. A more progressive Muslim woman from Egypt who was interviewed opposed the law, but said the burqa is a “desert custom” that isn’t required by the Q’uran. However, the British Muslim convert corrected that comment, and said wearing the burqa is indeed part of an orthodox reading of the Q’uran.
I have no idea which view is “right,” but at the very least, it seems to me that civil society has to respect the determination by at least some segment of the Muslim community that wearing the burqa is a religious obligation.



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Kenton

posted January 26, 2010 at 12:25 pm


Brian (#7)- It doesn’t take a whole lot of creativity to figure out that if people are allowed in convenience stores with their faces covered that criminals bent on holding up the place will adopt the practice. Do you really think society should wait until it happens to address the matter?
As for it being a religious obligation in a free country, the first amendment groups religious freedom with free speech and a free press. Just as there are reasonable limits on the freedoms of speech and press – you still can’t yell “fire” in a crowded theater – there are also reasonable limits on the freedom of religion.
As for women who wear burqas claiming they find them liberating, I gotta believe that’s the company line.



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Barb

posted January 26, 2010 at 12:28 pm


i might find it ‘liberating’ if i could go around town without being recognized. if women are allowed to wear the burqa in ID pictures then i don’t want to have to put my face on everything. to equate this practice with the rosary makes no sense to me. if they want to wear it–so be it–BUT when identity is required then they must take it off.–if not, then find another way to ensure ID and apply it to all.



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Joey

posted January 26, 2010 at 1:34 pm


Kenton and Barb,
When I was younger a girl from Yemen moved to our small town. She tried taking an art class at our school. In her culture she was not permitted to look at men in the face or even to initiate conversation with them. If boys her age wanted to speak with her they would have had to do so through her father. When she was placed in our art class it was devastating to her. She had no idea how to handle such a shift in culture and values and it literally crippled her. She only last a few days in class before being removed because she was so uncomfortable.
Though this may be oppressive it is also a very real example of the sorts of anxiety, and even extreme mental stress, that a ban on the Burqa could very well bring about. I would argue that an outright ban would be a form of abuse to women who were raised with it as a moral and social imperative. In order for deeply deeply religious shifts to happen in a person it takes time, education, and sensitivity. It would be inappropriate to ask women to behave otherwise simply because you’re uncomfortable with it.



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dopderbeck

posted January 26, 2010 at 1:39 pm


Kenton (#9) — gosh, you’re right — I forgot about that wave of burqa-wearing convenience store robberies we’ve been having here in the U.S. lately! C’mon, you have to do better than that.
Barb (#10) — having to remove the burqa temporarily in circumstances where security requires it and where appropriate facilities can be provided for modesty (e.g., at an airport checkpoint) is entirely a different matter than a blanket ban applying to any public facility.



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Mike Clawson

posted January 26, 2010 at 2:46 pm


“Sarkozy said the issue is one of a woman’s freedom and dignity, and did not have to do with religion.”
Ah the irony…
Note to Sarkozy: you can’t respect the freedom and dignity of women by having the government dictate to them how they’re supposed to dress or how they may or may not practice their religion. Forcing women not to wear a burqa or a hijab is just as demeaning to women as forcing them to wear them. In both instances it should be up to the woman’s own choice.



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Kenton

posted January 26, 2010 at 3:27 pm


dopderbeck (#12)- Tell you what. Why don’t you put on a burqa and walk into a convenience store? See how they react.
The reason you don’t hear about waves of burqa-wearing convenience store robberies is that wearing a burqa in a convenience store sometimes ends up with the burqa-wearer staring down the wrong end of a .22 and being told in no uncertain terms to either get the hell out or take the mask off. (My cousin in rural South Carolina would have no problem telling you that in his convenience store, and he’s perfectly within his rights. A different reaction than a hijab would get you, btw.)
Mike (#13)- Do you think women are ever really given a choice? Really? I think it’s kind of like the guys in prison who never want to be released because they can’t handle the outside. Burqa-wearing women tend to be in a prison – sometimes of their own choosing, sometimes not – but it’s never truly a “choice.” It’s designed to be demeaning and it is.



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dopderbeck

posted January 26, 2010 at 3:39 pm


Kenton (#14) —
Please tell me you’re joking.
(a) maybe that’s how it is for your cousin in South Carolina, but it ain’t that way in Newark, NJ, where I work, or in Manhattan, where I used to work, or anyplace else in America that I’ve been where people of different nationalities and creeds actually have to live with each other. In fact, there are convenience stores not far from my office where people where burqas all the time.
(b) No, your cousin is not within his rights. By pulling a gun in these circumstances, he would violating several state and federal civil rights laws, not to mention criminal and civil laws against assault.
Let’s be honest. The “fear” here is borne of an irrational prejudice that connects anyone who is wearing traditional Islamic attire to Osam bin Laden. It’s ignorant bigotry, plain and simple.



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Travis Greene

posted January 26, 2010 at 3:57 pm


Ridiculous, and oppressive. Arrogant Western paternalism at it’s worst, with not a small mix of xenophobia and racism.
If you want to say somebody can’t get a driver’s license without getting their picture taken, then fine. That’s a matter of public safety and sometimes following one’s faith separates you from wider society. But this is absurd.
Kenton, there are plenty of communities, maybe even some in France, in which women are forced to wear burqas against their will. But for many women it is a choice, and one they make gladly. You can disagree, but don’t dismiss it out of hand. Just because you can’t imagine making somebody else’s choices doesn’t make them brainwashed or liars.



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Kenton

posted January 26, 2010 at 4:14 pm


Not joking.
Glad it works where you are, but I wouldn’t try it just anywhere.
Cousin has pulled a gun on someone for refusing to show a face, and was told he was perfectly justified by law enforcement to pull a weapon to defend his store. Burqas cross a line that other forms of traditional Islamic attire don’t. They completely conceal one’s identity and in doing so set a so-called religious liberty up and against public safety. To think otherwise is ignorant naivete, plain and simple. :P



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Nik

posted January 26, 2010 at 4:42 pm


Islam says for women to be modest. Arabs like Mohamed considered showing hair, face and figure for a woman to be immodest. Islam is ruled by traditions not written in the Koran just as Jews are ruled by traditions not written in Torah. A Burqa is as ingrained in Muslim/Arab tradition as growing pessahs, praying in teffalin and lighting Shabbat candles is for a religious Jew. I dont care if the Muslims want to hide their women as long as the women support it. I do care if Muslims try to push their 8th century illiterate views upon me. If I ran a shop, and a customer came in wearing a face cover I would be reaching for my gun. If Muslims want to practice their 8th century desert traditions, perhaps they should go live in Saudia Arabia where such traditions are respected.



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dopderbeck

posted January 26, 2010 at 7:45 pm


Nobody is advocating that the law should require women to wear burqas. By all means, if a Muslim woman living in a democratic country wishes to cease observing that tradition, the law should protect her right to do so. But at the same time, the law should not paternalistically assume that the woman can’t possibly want to participate in this religious custom.



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Steve S

posted January 26, 2010 at 8:03 pm


Is it really so hard to imagine that a woman who had a deep concern for personal holiness would enjoy the freedom to go into public without becoming a sex object?
I know that I would enjoy the freedom of living in a society less bound to sexual imagery than ours, and I know many Christian women who make a regular practice of dressing in extremely conservative ways in order to avoid the temptation to define themselves by the sexual attention they receive…



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Percival

posted January 26, 2010 at 11:36 pm


I read the comments here with interest. I don’t care to comment on the civil liberties issue, except to say that France is not America. In France they believe there is a certain frenchness that all immigrants should adapt to. they do not believe in letting other people from other cultures retain their distinctiveness. Even in America, is there a constitutional right to freedom of dress?
I live in a conservative Muslim country. The government does not allow face covering of employees and most businesses do not either. Dress and dress policy is a political statement in the Islamic world.
Some of my employees cover their faces outside as they travel to work. They see it as a privacy issue and hope it will keep them from being harrassed. It doesn’t. Some also wear shapeless coverings, trousers under their dress, thick stockings, gloves, etc. The cumulative effect is that women are MORE of a sex object, not less. Most women cover because of social pressure. Those who do it by choice are generally seen as a bit fanatical.
By the way, the Qur’an says that women should “cover what is apparent” – a statement open to broad interpretation.



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Kenton

posted January 27, 2010 at 9:37 am


dopderbeck (#19)– Well I don’t know what you originally wrote, but what was left was rude, offensive and WAY over the line. You owe me an apology.



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Diane

posted January 27, 2010 at 10:02 am


In 17th century England, Quakers were jailed for disobeying hat laws that required taking off your hat in front of your superiors … the Quaker refusal to acknowledge cultural norms in favor of religious equality made people quite uncomfortable and sometimes incited more rage than more serious differences. My tendency is to think that banning the burqua or other clothing with religious overtones, even partially, will only tend to solidify the opposition, as it did in 17th century England. And it seems to me that you can’t get to the root of the problem of secular post-Enlightenment liberalism meeting Islam by regulating dress.



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Kenton

posted January 27, 2010 at 10:28 am


The remarks I took offense to in #22 have been deleted. (Thank you, Scot)



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dopderbeck

posted January 27, 2010 at 11:23 am


Kenton – I don’t think what I wrote was offensive at all and honestly I’m annoyed that it was deleted. You, after all, suggested that shop owners should pull guns on women wearing burqas. There is absolutely no distinction here from the violence against other minority groups that was the subject of the civil rights movement. There are times when bigotry and fear need to be called out for what they are, and this is one of them. I’m not sorry if that offends.



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jjoe

posted January 27, 2010 at 1:03 pm


I think that “Bring your gun to church day” is more deadly to public safety than Islamic women wearing burqas.
If we’re going to regulate religion to outlaw behaviors and practices that hurt the public health and welfare, let’s start with Christians who hate the government so much they oppose health care reform. That single stance — and I do lay it squarely at the foot of Christians, because we are numerous enough to drive change to care for the least of these if we desired — kills thousands of people annually, while I bet murders by burqua-wearing women are rare indeed.
Anyway, it’s a moot point, because I see women in my kid’s school carpool wearing burquas even here in Arkansas.



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Kenton

posted January 27, 2010 at 2:26 pm

Alicia

posted January 27, 2010 at 2:37 pm


I believe the full veil, which covers the face, as opposed to the head scarf, may need to be banned in certain places because of public safety and security issues. However, to be consistent, ski masks that cover the face in winter should also be banned in certain places.



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