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Banning Burqas: A Preliminary Examination of the Bans on Hijab in Europe

2010 April 15

Islamic religious law requires women to preserve their modesty (Q 24:31).  To some, that means to wear looser fitting clothing and cover their hair when praying.  To others it means to cover their hair at all times.  And to others still, it means to cover the body from head to toe in a burqa–a very loose-fitting dress that allows only a woman’s eyes to be seen by men.

I am not a scholar of Islam–I study Hinduism and women in India.  So while focus on Hindu women, I also read about Muslim women in South Asia, particularly those of Indian, Pakistani, or Bangla (Bangladesh) origin.  As such, my specific vocabulary regarding Islamic dress was limited to the salwaar kameez and headscarf of Northern India.  (Which conservative Hindu women consider more revealing than the saris they wear, despite exposing their midriffs.)  There are differences between some of the terms that I’m using.  Hijab is the general term for Islamic dress, ranging from headscarves to complete covering.  A burqa shows only a woman’s eyes, and is considered the most conservative dress.  Headscarves cover only the hair, though generally cover it completely.  From what I can tell, the “veil” can refer either to the headscarf or to a full face covering, though typically means something that covers all but the eyes as well.  Jilab is the Indonesian term for another type of full length garment that covers all but the hands, feet, and face, but has more shaping to it than a burqa.  The salwaar kameez is pants with a long, usually loose, tunic (no head no head covering).

In 2004, the French government passed a law that made it illegal for Muslim women to wear headscarves (along with any other conspicuous religious symbols) in state schools.  As of yet, no country bans the full veil nationwide.  Eight of sixteen German states prohibit the veil to some extent, and Berlin prohibits all religious symbols in public.  Some states will permit nuns’ habits, but not head scarves for Islamic teachers.   In the past, the United Kingdom has ruled that cases are met on an individual basis concerning circumstance and does not seem to support a full ban.  However, on March 30, 2010, the Belgian Justice and Home Affairs Committee voted to send a bill banning burqas nationwide to the full parliament.  Parliament will vote on this bill on April 22, and it is expected to pass, enacting a €15-25 fine and a possible 1-7 days in jail.

On the heels of the committee vote in Belgium, President Nicolas Sarkozy announced France’s interest in expanding the 2004 restrictions to include a ban on the full Muslim veil.

At the center of the controversy lies two opposing political mindsets: one argues that the veil debases women and the other states that the veil allows those allied with extremist Islamasist groups to hide their identities and commit acts of terror.  Somewhere between those two, Belgium cites the latter more frequently, but according the article posted above, Reformist Movement lawmaker Denis Ducarme says the veils oppose the “demands of a modern society” and “demands of public security.” (Quoting the article, not Durcarme.)  The French government lies on the other end of the spectrum, claiming their wishes for women’s rights, freedoms, and liberties, within a secular society.

I missed the news of the Belgian vote because I was reading so much about the Pope and the Catholic priests and sex scandals, but I’m surprised that more attention has been directed towards Sarkozy’s address to Parliament than to the Belgian law.  But according to a Wall Street Journal article by John W. Miller, most of the 400,000 Muslims living in Belgium are from Morocco or Turkey, where veils are rarely worn.  And according to another WSJ article by Peter Berkowitz, the French Parliament isn’t likely to pass as such a bill would be difficult to enforce and probably unconstitutional.

But Belgium and France alike, politicians are making claims that this will benefit Islamic women: “‘To forbid the veil as a covering is to give [Muslim women] more freedom. I’m proud Belgium is the first country to do that,’ [Liberal Party head Daniel] Bacquelaine says,” in an NPR piece.  Of course, Muslim women do not all agree.  For them there are two sides.  Many women choose to wear the veil themselves, as a symbol of their religion, and are proud of their choice.  Other women are forced by male relatives to adopt more conservative dress, as was the case with Shabina Begum, a British Muslim of Bangla descent, cited above.  (In Middle Eastern countries, such as Saudi Arabia, women are required to wear hijab at all times except during Hajj, but no European country has required hijab since the fall of the Ottoman Empire.)  When Shabina Begum began wearing a jilab instead of the school uniform salwaar kameez, her classmates allegedly feared that their families would also require them to wear jilab.  Belgium ministers hope to prevent the domination of men over women by banning veils.

Does the ban, either the French or Belgian version, actually protect women?  Does it really liberate them?  Or is it Big Brother State governing the personal rights and religious rights of the people?  And most importantly is this infringing on the right of freedom of religion in a secular society?  Any ban on headscarves in the US would very likely prove unconstitutional under the First Amendment, but in the UK in the case of Shabina Begum, the House of Lords ruled that the freedom of religion is a right, but “Freedom to manifest one’s religion or beliefs shall be subject only to such limitations as are prescribed by law and are necessary in a democratic society . . . for the protection of the rights and freedoms of others,” as stated in Article 9 of the Convention.  And according to Lord Bingham of Cornhill of the House of Lords, “article 9 protects both the right to hold a belief, which is absolute, and a right to manifest belief, which is qualified.” (Emphasis mine.)

I know almost nothing about the constitutions of European countries, so beyond speculations comparing them to the US, I cannot speak to the legality of a ban.  From the perspective of someone who studies and respects religions, I find it hard to accept a ban.  (Constitutionally though, if all religious symbols are banned from public, then burqas could be banned without a legal issue, I’m guessing.  But no religion could be exempt from the ban.)  From the perspective of a feminist, it becomes even more complicated.  This isn’t the same as a Sikh wearing a turban.  Women don’t simply wear burqas because their religion prescribes them; they wear them because their religion mandates a separation of the sexes and relegates women to a lower class.  By giving women no public identity, they are made less than human, and according to secular governments, cannot participate in society.  I’m outraged on the one hand that women are required to go faceless, but on the other hand (again, from a feminist and not religionist perspective) furious that women cannot be given these choices on their own.  When the government demands–even charges jail time–that they cannot wear a veil is that not the same force of oppression through which their relatives make them wear it?

Sadly, this post contains no real answers.  I’m writing it to spark more conversation.  Or am I the only one struggling for words when it comes to the rights of women, religious or otherwise?  I look forward to comments, and hope to write a followup piece once the vote takes place in Belgium.

9 Responses
  1. April 15, 2010

    I am not a Muslim woman. I am a white, Jewish woman who gets frustrated when people talk about “Muslim Women” as a monolith who all prescribe to the same religious tenants and are influenced by the same social norms and Islam as though it doesn’t (just like Judaism and Christianity) function as a spectrum of beliefs which, given the cultural norms and political atmosphere of a given place, look very different. So Meg, while I appreciate that you’ve made an effort to delve into the complexity of veiling (yes, sometimes it is a practice that women have not chosen, sometimes it is; it can have very different meanings for different women, etc), the words “From the perspective of a feminist, it becomes even more complicated. This isn’t the same as a Sikh wearing a turban. Women don’t simply wear burqas because their religion prescribes them; they wear them because their religion mandates a separation of the sexes and relegates women to a lower class.” really make me bristle. Aside from the fact that “feminists” also aren’t a monolith (as I definitely identify as one, but wouldn’t frame the issue this way), stating objectively that “their religion” “relegates them to a lower class” is such a narrow, western, paternalistic view of Islam that I can’t help but feel that it negates the attempt at nuance put forth in the rest of the piece. You express your anger over the fact that the laws banning veiling rob women of their choice, but that statement about Islam means that what you’re saying is “women are being robbed of the choice…to be relegated to a lower class.” Which–not to break out my liberal arts vocab–strikes me as incredibly problematic. It doesn’t seem all that different than Bacquelaine deciding for himself what “freedom” is for Muslim women.

    • April 15, 2010


      While Meg may indeed have worked herself into the slight rhetorical snare you point to, I confess to a certain measure of surprise that you would defend against the charge that Islam relegates its women to a second class. I feel as conflicted as I gather Meg does about burqa bans, but I am happy to do away with all nuance to proclaim it loudly: any religion whose tenets, when made national law, demand the brutal death penalty of women for the heinous crime of getting raped, while foisting not so much as shame upon the man who did the raping, is hideously sexist and worth opposing.

      It is not, of course, true that all Muslims seek this sort of treatment of women, but it is true that, by the very doctrine of the Qu’ran, they have every right to. I haven’t, just now, got the time to look up chapter and verse, but I hope that won’t count against me here. The forces of Wahabism and Salafism that control such enormous amounts of wealth and geo-policial influence, that foster what constitutes the world’s only scarier religious culture of violence and hatred than is posed by the American Christian right, that claim discrimination in secular countries — these do indeed seek to subordinate women to chattel. And if this feminist is being disqualifyingly Western and paternalistic for saying so, then he shall wear those banners proudly.

      None of which necessarily counts as an argument for banning burqas in liberal democracies.



  2. April 15, 2010

    Thanks for your comments. I’ll take a little time to read them more carefully before I respond. But first of all, I want to say that I don’t believe Muslim women, feminists, or religions are by any means monoliths. I’ve spent the last 7 years of my life through college, grad school, and beyond thinking about that. I didn’t want to take the extra blog space to write all of that over yet again.

    and i also just read this:

    more thoughts for later!

    • April 15, 2010

      fair enough, Meg. i hope my tone wasn’t nasty, this is just how i argue…anyways, i look forward to hearing your thoughts.

  3. April 15, 2010


    Here’s a quote: “If however the charge is true and no proof of the girl’s virginity can be found, she shall be brought to the door of her father’s house and there the men of her town shall stone her to death…”

    That’s from Deuteronomy (22:13-21).

    I suppose that if we’re going by their sacred texts, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam all relegate women to second class citizens. But then why single out Islam? Because Judaism and Christianity largely function within secular democracies and all of the embarrassing bigotry stuff has been largely tucked under the rug, I guess? (Well, except for that homophobia part…) Your point is that Islam is to be opposed because it’s more abhorrent passages have in some places been “made national law.” But for that to be entirely about the religion itself, you would have to make the argument that Islam and fundamentalism inherently go hand-in-hand; that there could never be a predominantly Muslim country in which all the tenets of Islam were not “made national law.” You could make that argument, I guess, but I think history proves you wrong.

    Religions aren’t actors. They don’t oppress people and they don’t set up political structures. People oppress people. People impose law. Mostly these people are men. Men oppress women. History is filled with examples of men who have used religion to gain power, to exert social control, and to regulate women’s bodies. This is in no way singular to Islam, and the way in which it gets attributed only to Islam by people in the west, I think, is representative of a totally normalized bigotry that I don’t understand why the left is so happy to support. There is this idea that like, “the Muslims haven’t figured it out and secularized yet. They’re such a backwards, primitive people. It must be totally inherent to their religion” that I just find patently offensive. It ignores a) any possibility of a functional society that doesn’t look like ours; b) the structural inequities that make it possible for those in power to successfully push fundamentalism over “progress” and suppress dissent; and c) the histories of colonialism and western intervention that have had an enormous influence on the current climate in the “Muslim world” and are at least partially responsible for b.

    • April 15, 2010

      To be clear, I in no way want to give a pass to Judaism or Christianity. They have each got perfectly repulsive things to offer by way of advice on governing. Of course, history is riddled with (perhaps more than any other thing) horrors perpetrated by the parties of God (sometimes in the name of God, other times even by direct orders from God). I would say though that it would be silly of us to pretend that, for the moment, any religion is as responsible as any other for the subjugation of women. There are no countries right now in which the barbarity of Deuteronomy and Leviticus is codified in law and made the governing statute of the land. The opposite is true of Islam. For right now, it is clear which one is the most guilty of that sort of thing.

      Yes, yes, you are, of course, absolutely right that it is people who oppress other people (and men who oppress women), but for the highest sanction and praise for the most atrocious acts imaginable, we need look no further than the Bible (both testaments, but especially the elder) and the Qu’ran. I am positive you wouldn’t deny that a lot of the most unsavory activity we observe in the world is motivated by religious faith, by submission to divine will (Islam, after all, means submission).

      Ultimately, I would just prefer that my views on this matter, borne as they are of thorough study and an earnest defense of the luckless, were not so easily dismissed as “western” and “paternalistic” and therefore unwelcome in the debate. After all, you’ll find, I think you know, few bigger critics of colonial legacies and structural inequities than–

      Your good friend,


  4. April 15, 2010

    Jesse, It’s late and I’m not entirely sure I see a clear connection between our two comments so content-wise it’s hard for me to reply, but I will say this: I don’t think that saying things like “I think X reflects a traditionally western perspective” or “X sounds paternalistic” means I am dismissing anyone or saying that their opinions don’t deserve to be heard or are unwelcome in the debate. Maybe because we’re all “liberals” and those words sound like insults of the highest order it seems like I am basically saying, “you’re a racist” and closing the book. But I feel like it’s a given that I wouldn’t be commenting here if I didn’t assume I was engaging in a discussion with peers who I cared enough about to challenge and be challenged by. And if my tone is too hostile, accept my apology…perhaps I am used to comment threads of a very different nature.

    But do you really think that just because a person (you, or me, or anyone) is generally really…I dunno, politically sound in terms of the politics and values that folks like you and I share, does that make them immune from sometimes falling into certain kinds of “unsavory” rhetoric or tropes or whatever I would call it if I weren’t exhausted right now? Like, there are plenty of times when I will catch myself having just said something and question it—was that being informed by some really shitty traditions I grew up around/in? And sometimes the answer is yes, and I have to own it. So, I don’t think there’s something dismissive about saying “I think your interpretation of this issue is being influenced by this and that kind of perspective.” I may be wrong, and you’re more than welcome to argue with me on it, but in and of itself the statement doesn’t strike me as inflammatory. Or at least I don’t think it should be.


    • April 15, 2010

      I am so totally with you that, however cool and lefty and right-on a person is, everyone is liable to reveal embarrassing bits of bigotry harbored deep beneath layers of social propriety. I just don’t think my aversion to Islam (and Christianity and Judaism and…) is that thing.

      I make assumptions as a white, heterosexual male in America that, when someone check me on them, embarrass me greatly and improve me by making me more conscious. But I am not against, say, Arabs or Persians or some nationality. I am not against races or genders (well, I’m a little against white folks and men) or sexualities (again, sort of against breeders). But I reserve the right to be against belief systems when they advocate for things that I find objectionable and when they encourage objectionable behavior.

      If someone espoused a belief (political, religious, literary, whatever) that vindicated child-rape, I would find that belief to be an enemy of mine. Same with one that provided justification for enslavement, for torture, for exploitation. Beliefs — like Islam, which is, again not a race, gender or sexuality — are often very worth opposing and very worth my scorn, contempt, fear, hatred and ridicule.

      Your tone is no problem at all; I’ve just been relishing to all who’ll listen the quality of this argument. I am very grateful for so sophisticated an opponent.

      This is the life,


  5. April 19, 2010

    Because dead horses benefit from beatings, I’d register that calling this sexist is not culturally insensitive (and if it is, then it’s admirably so), and I’d furthermore point out the surprising dearth of secular democrats who would make such a case.

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