The Doha Debates on The Burqa Ban

Last month, the Qatar Foundation’s Doha Debates took on the French niqab ban, discussing the motion: “This House believes France is right to ban the face veil.” Since the niqab ban (or the “burqa ban,” and we’ve dubbed it) has been a big media issue on MMW,  a few of MMW’s ladies decided to get together to talk about this edition of the Debates.

You can read the transcript or watch video at the website.

Yusra: Was it just me or were the most recent Doha Debates the best installment so far? Series Seven tackled France’s ban on the face veil and free elections and democracy. The House voted in favor of the face veil, which in my opinion sends a signal to repressive Arab regimes in the region. In a free society women shouldn’t cover their face, so what does it say about the women in the Gulf who do?

Nicole: As a longtime Francophile who is used to typically French points of view on all things headgear, I had my bingo card out and ready for Jacques Myard to mark off the tired old excuses: from “In Britain, Sikh people have to take off their turbans to wear helmets because it’s the law” to defining the showing one’s face as a “common standard of French citizenship  (i.e., how to retrofit Frenchness),” he did not disappoint in his weak and overused justifications against face veils.  My biggest LOL was when Mehdi Hasan shut down both Myard and Farzana Hassan in asking them if, since you need to see someone’s face in order for everyone to be part of society, how they felt about sunglasses.

Yusra: I may not be in favor of banning the face veil in France or anywhere else, but I am in favor of the House’s ruling on this issue, solely because it pushes Muslims with archaic views on Islam and women toward retrospection: it’s not about covering up, it’s about waking up!

Sana: Mehdi Hasan and Nabila Ramdani are on point. And then some. They not only offer the most substantial challenges to the debate, but are able to completely undermine the already self-undermined arguments brought forward by Farzana Hassan and Jacques Myard. In a way, I am curious as to why Hassan and Myard were chosen when their points repeatedly proven to be weak and completely dismissed even by the moderator, Tim Sebastien.

Nicole: For me, Nabila Ramdani was the star of the debate; she stood up to pressure from the moderator and kept a clear line of thought. I second her assessment that all arguments used in support of the face veil ban are a myth.  Banning veils doesn’t stop domestic violence, it doesn’t stop religious extremism. The ban only serves to stigmatize an extremely small portion of French Muslim women, and, as Ramdani mentions, their religion in turn.

Sana: Hasan and Ramdani bring about an intelligent discussion, with Hasan’s discussion sweating with facts and noted socio-economic trends and links, discussed at length in intellectual circles regarding the legislation. Hassan and Myard an unable to match Ramdani and Hassan, which makes me wonder if there was a bias during the selection process, to have one side stronger than the other. There are numerous individuals who could have been chosen for participation, who were in favor of the motion ( such as Mona Eltahawy or even some scholars from the Al-Azhar establishment who agreed with the prohibition on theological grounds).

Nicole: My ongoing love-hate relationship with Mehdi Hasan continued in this Doha Debate. Sometimes I think he is over-the-top, even though I tend to agree with his points of view in this debate.  I found myself nodding along in agreement when he said that the French law is unnecessary (just like Switzerland’s minaret ban; did these two items of truly minor importance really justify national legislation in the two countries?), that it restricts women’s movement while at the same time purporting to liberate women, that it alienates an already alienated Muslim minority in that country.

My only issue with Hasan’s reasoning came during the audience session, where a question that was essentially about  naturalization was asked, tangentially related to the topic: when you “come to France” you agree to follow the laws of the country. Of course, for anti-face veil people who think that all face-veilers are immigrants, I suppose it makes sense.  I think there could have been wiggle room in his argument that citizenship is a right, not a privilege; I’m not saying I disagree with him, but I think there are more ways of looking at the question.

Eren: In the first place, it is not the role of the secular state to tell women how to dress. As Ramdani mentions, this ban goes against the principles of secularism that are meant to guarantee everyone’s freedoms and rights. Despite the fact that France declares itself as a protector of religious freedom, Myard claims that his rights are being violated when he cannot see someone else’s face. Then the question arises:  whose rights should we protect? Why is the French government choosing to protect Myard’s rights over the rights of women who decide to wear niqab? Secularism is meant to avoid these discussions at the political level, since it assumes that everyone will be guaranteed religious freedom. If religion has no place in the secular state, why are we even talking about this in European politics and using it as a political discourse?

Nicole: Farzana Hassan—what planet is she from?  Banning burqas protects women? Oh, and if they don’t get banned, soon everyone will be wearing them? I scratched off another square on my bingo card when she used Myard’s safety argument as a reason to outlaw face veils: because the government requires people to wear seatbelts, the government can also tell people what to wear. Obviously. But I couldn’t help but snicker a little when she said that governments also require people to wear clothes.  Just not too many clothes, of course!

Eren: Why do we assume that niqab is a threat to security? Banning niqab is neither going to prevent people from faking their identity nor going to prevent some Muslims from being “radicalized.” One does not need to wear niqab to be a radical Muslim and vice versa. As Mehdi Hasan pointed out, the ban is not solving the issues that the French government “perceives” in women who wear niqab, the law is just secluding these women and making them invisible.

What I find more problematic is the fact that Hassan says that women are forced to wear niqab; thus, the state should liberate them from the men who force them. According to her the law targets men, but how? Or is it assumed that the law will indirectly apply to them because women who wear niqab are always under male authority?

Sana: The debate is extremely entertaining, especially with the colorful and crush-inducing Hasan, but lacks an intellectual and/or argumentative detente because of the clear poor performance on behalf of those in favor of the motion. While it may just be an instance of who was available and willing, it is certainly not the first time that the Doha Debates have shown a sort of bias in their selection of participants, with one specific side heavily favored over the other in terms of weight and value of argument.

Yusra: We gotta hand it to Qatar. The thoughtfulness of the latest debates proved that it really is a qat above the rest!