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Windows and Doors

Freedom of Religion Includes Wearing Burqas

French President Sarkozy is throwing his weigh behind a law which would make burqa-wearing a crime in France. He could not be more wrong. Burqas are certainly a public matter which merit Sarkozy’s attention. But the public, be it in France, the United States or anywhere else in the world is best served when its members are allowed the greatest degree of religious freedom – including the freedom to wear burqas should they choose to do so. The same can be said for skullcaps, turbans, wigs, long black coats, etc. Nicholas Sarkozy, like many leaders in France over the last two-plus centuries, confuses liberty for all with his own understanding of what it means to live free.
Who is Mr. Sarkozy to determine what is and is not a “religious sign”, especially for those who practice a religion different from his own? The height of his arrogance is matched only by the height of his ignorance.
He might be surprised to learn that many women are quite comfortable wearing a garment which he describes as a “sign of subservience and a sign of debasement”. That would be the case because for many religious people, including myself, subservience (at least a measure of it) is not always synonymous with debasement. In fact, many people find precisely those practices which declare their submission to God, highly liberating.


What is not liberating and is in fact always debasing is religious coercion, which should not be welcomed in any country. It is why, to take an example close to my own heart, I believe that even in the Jewish State of Israel, the existence of a state-sponsored rabbinate is a terrible idea. And it is why state-enforced burqa wearing is something against which to struggle every bit as much as we struggle for a woman’s right to wear one should she so choose. Coercion, not clothing is the issue.
President Obama was 100% correct when he told his audience in Cairo and around the world that “It is important for Western countries to avoid impeding Muslim citizens from practicing religion as they see fit, for instance, by dictating what clothes a Muslim woman should wear. It also means that throughout the Muslim world, there must be genuine religious tolerance for those who practice other faiths or practice Islam in ways that differ from the majority of their neighbors. The idea, for example, that teaching religions other than Islam to Muslims remains a capital offense in many Muslim countries, is every bit as offensive and actually far more dangerous, than Sarkozy’s statements about Burqas.
Once again we must resist the urge to defend whatever practice looks most like our own and instead fight for the freedom which all people say they want. For some, this will be the freedom to submit to the will of God as they understand it. And if that means choosing to wear a burqa, so be it. For others, it will be the freedom to escape all religious thought and practice and that will have to be okay to, as will the freedom to select a new religion for one’s self if that is where a particular person’s spiritual journey takes them.
The only thing that will turn this conversation from one of fear-based cultural aggression be it in the name of secular France or totalitarian religion of any stripe, to one which celebrates human dignity in all of its many manifestations is real freedom without any pandering. Sarkozy and other leaders, who share his views, cannot pander to those who make easy assumptions about religion and how it works in the lives of others, but must take responsibility for helping to develop a fuller understanding of freedom.
At the same time, President Obama and all those who welcomed his words in Cairo, must find the words which not only reassure Muslims about the ways in which their tradition must be fully respected, but also the words to secure religious freedom of all people, regardless of the country in which they live. This is a two-way street and we need to learn that arguing for only one side of the road at a time is actually bad for all those who travel down it.

  • POvidi

    Burqas are not necessary for the practice of Islam. They are a sign of the oppression of women, and allowing them to be used in society gives acceptance to such oppression. Many (I would venture nearly all) Muslim women who wear burqas do so because a man in their lives prefer that they do. Even if a society embraces freedom, individuals and communities within that society can still foster oppression on a small scale around them. This is the same reason why polygamy can never be legal in a liberal secular society.

  • Robert

    So, POvidi, you are the mullah in charge of deciding what is and is not Islamic? And you have never heard of Muslim women saying they prefer the mystique of the burka?
    I personally believe that anything from burka to total nudity should be tolerated. I don’t expect that it will, but that’s the way I see the government’s role in these matters.

  • absurdbeats

    Sarkozy confuses nothing; rather, he follows a long line of tradition of laicite.
    You might disagree with Sarkozy—but, in this instance, your beef may lie more with French tradition than one man’s ego.

  • absurdbeats

    Here’s a nice brief on the French version of laicite and its relationship to a strongly republican understanding of liberty and the state’s role in securing that liberty:

  • Kauko

    Its interesting that they would target traditional muslim forms of dress, but they apparently have no problem with Catholic nuns wearing their full coverings? Kind of a double standard.
    I’ve always been disturbed by people (including people I know in the US) who are for banning religious garb in public. I think its very easy for the Christian world (which tends to not mandate any specific dress) to not think that banning religious garb is a big deal, but, as a Jew, I find the idea that I could be banned from wearing a kippah in public a huge infringement on my religious freedom.
    What message are we to get from France here, there’s freedom of religion…. as long as you’re Christian?

  • Your Name

    I read a few years ago that the French schools have outlawed ALL signs of religious affiliation: no one may wear a cross, crucifix, Star of David, yalmulka, turban or burqa. I don’t agree with it, but it is equality.
    I don’t presume that all who wear burqas have evil intent, but it does seem that to allow one segment of society to completely disguise their identity is a matter of national security…certainly of a personal sense of security. If you are on a bus with people wearing burqas, are you sure they are not also “wearing” armaments and/or bombs?
    Besides, how likely is it that a woman who does feel debased by wearing the burqa and walking behind her husband will admit that to someone. It could grounds for stoning.

  • Harriet J. Brown

    I am sorry, but I think that Sarkozy is right. I have a horror of seeing women forced to wear burqas.

  • Lucy

    While I understand your point, Rabbi, I do have to disagree. The burqua is not a sign of a woman’s submisson to Allah, but her subjegation to all men. In a burqua a woman is denied all identity, all personhood. She becomes a non-entity, a posession of her husband, father or other male relative. Burquas also hinder movement and are horribly uncomfortable. Most women who wear them do so because they feel they must. The burqua is a crippling garment, physically and emotionally. No other religous garment (even most nun’s habits, which vary quite a bit…there is even a nun who does triathalons) is so completely debasing as the burqua.

  • Donald Wolberg

    Freedom is the right to do the absurd and dumb, or the brilliant and wonderful. Anyone should have the right to be as brilliant or dumb as he or she chooses. Aluminum foil hats in Roswell to keep out harmful Z rays may appear bizarre to most of us, but what harm is done. Unfortunately 8th Century religions with a prophet who rides to heaven on the back of a white horse; or silliness about ethereal paradises with virgins for heroic warriors who kill infidels by blowing themselves up; or “uniforms” for women (and the right to stone them for “poor” behavior) seems out of step with the 21st Century of science and technology. France is a very tolerant nation in many regards, but national suicide does not seem to be an agenda item for its leaders. Perhaps our own intellectually dull leadership would be wise to take note of tolerant France’s intolerance for 8th Century attitudes.

  • RecentGrad

    Donald, get your facts straight, please. Muhammed died in 632, which is the early 7th century. Now, if you’re talking about the Hadith traditions that, given their distance from Muhammed’s time may very well have put words in his mouth that he never said (some actually run contrary to the teachings of the Qur’an), then yes, we’re talking 8th century at the earliest. But then one wonders how suicide bombings could be exemplary of a time before explosives…

  • Your Name

    The difficulty with recent g”graduates” is that the superficiality of their knowledge base exceeds their ability to know much, but such is the way of the world. Of course, the “dates” of supposed illiterate prophets who hear voices, and the aftermath are known, but the further perversion of group behavior occurred after the fact of the dates and the life. And of course to wonder about the invention of plastic explosive (when previously sharp knives and swords worked well to “convince” also evidences a simplistic intellect. It matters not what the dictum of a holy life is, if the result is the sexist nonsense that diminishes women and does kill. Unfortunately, the less than satisfactory perfomance of insane belief systems that makes stoning rational, or suicide killings glorious and a path to rewards in some remote afterlife of virginal richness. One would wish more “postgraduate wisdom” of “recent” graduates rather than the silly rendering of observation without content. If there is an effort to rationalize absurd behavior by the images of belief systems that are irrational, the effort is as bad as the deeds.

  • Donald Wolberg

    for some reason the previous posting did not record my name–

  • DrDeb

    This post raises an interesting point about the difference between freedom of religion (beliefs) and the freedom to do anything you want to anyone you want in the name of religion (actions).
    I’m curious about the source for this statement: “many women are quite comfortable wearing a garment which he describes as a ‘sign of subservience and a sign of debasement.'” I have never read that. I have only read statements like this one from Afghan women:
    “Burqa-wearing, by its nature, was a deeply isolating experience. A woman might pass a dear friend on the street and not know her. Catching a glimpse of one’s reflection in a storefront window or a car windshield inevitably produced a shock of non-recognition, wearers said.”

  • Frank

    So, is female genital mutilation a matter of freedom of religion?

  • RecentGrad

    Ah, Mr. Wolberg, I thank you for your unnecessarily verbose and awkwardly-written reply to me, most likely to attempt to intimidate me and cast disparagements on my hastily-chosen name here. Truly, throwing around flowery purple prose is the best of all ways to attack a line of reasoning. I did not choose my recent graduate status as a way of taunting you, but rather because I dislike using my real name online.
    If I can parse your reply (and your convoluted grammar and poor choice of words makes this difficult), you basically say that dates don’t matter, and reassert your claim that Islam has remained largely unchanged since its inception and is inherently out of sync with our glorious 21st century. My bringing up of suicide bombings as something not present in the 8th century was intended as a point to refute this. Muslim extremists adopted not just explosives, but the idea of suicide-as-martyrdom, which is a remarkably modern, even 20th century phenomenon (think of kamikaze pilots). So too have other Muslims been more than able to adopt Euro-American post-Enlightenment values that they feel resonate with the teachings of their “supposed illiterate prophets who hear voices.” But Muslims should be free to adopt these values; the West for too long spread its own values at the point of a gun in the colonial era, and this colonial attitude (which nearly oozes from your posts) has left us with much of the anti-science, anti-West, anti-democracy legacy found in both Muslim and non-Muslim countries throughout the world.
    I feel no sympathy with anyone who forces a woman to wear a burka, but I feel none for any nation that would, in a callous “modern” example of religious oppression and intolerance, prevent anyone from practicing their religion openly. France has more or less decided that one can be religious, so long as you keep that religion behind closed doors. True, the state has a stake in seeking that its citizens remain safe (hence the concerns about burkas concealing not just bombs but stolen goods shoplifted from stores!) have a certain level of validity. But that anyone has the right to tell someone else what is or is not empowering to them – that President Sarkozy dares to think he (emphasis on the masculine pronoun!) can tell women what is best for them – is the height of arrogance and tyranny.

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