The Doha Debates on The Burqa Ban: Filling in the Gaps

This is a guest post, written by Layla in response to our Doha Debates Roundtable.

I’m a Muslim woman by birth and cultural affiliation that has lived in the U.S., the Middle East, and most recently, France.  For a year and a half now, since President Sarkozy first began advocating the ban on the face veil, I’ve had mixed feelings about this issue.  So I was very excited to watch the Doha Debates on this subject, thinking that I’d finally hear an echo of how the two sides of this debate have been playing out in my own head for so many months.

But while the side I always verbalize when discussing this topic with supporters of the ban was very well articulated by Mehdi Hassan and Nabila Ramdani, the other side, which I have long kept bottled up for fear of adding fuel to the fire of opportunistic right-wing politicking here, was very poorly expressed by Jacques Myard and Farzana Hassan.  He came across as a bumbling old man and she was extremely scattered in her argument, relying on hypothetical possibilities and projections vs. on available facts and statistics.  As Sana points out at the recent roundtable discussion of the debates here on MMW, you could tell there was a bias simply in the selection of more competent speakers who rejected the motion over the two who supported it.

So, I figure that here on MMW is as good a place as any to try and fill this gap, and finally break my own silence on this issue. Quickly, then, let me sum up the points against the motion that I most strongly agree with before turning to the other side of the coin.

I agree that the niqab, as a symbol, has been opportunistically used by the French government to appeal to the far right and to distract voters from more urgent matters.

I agree that simply taking off a piece of fabric will not automatically liberate women from abusive or controlling husbands or result in their social integration.

I also agree that the way Sarkozy has approached this issue is more divisive than unifying.  He’s clearly not interested in having a real dialogue with the Muslim community, or addressing the many social problems (unemployment, discrimination, etc.) Muslim minorities in France face.  I also doubt he’s interested in dealing with more pressing women’s issues in this country (such as wage discrepancies, and the low numbers of women in high-ranking positions in government and industry, as evoked by Hasan in the debate).

On the other hand, I feel that there were legitimate issues raised in defense of the motion, which were not sufficiently discussed or well argued by Myard and Hassan. Some of these issues include the following:

The direct correlation between the growing number of women who wear niqab in France and Western Europe, and the rise of Islamic extremism in those countries.

This is significant because most Muslims in France come from North Africa and other countries where the niqab/burqa is NOT a traditional form of dress.

One legitimate point by Hassan, which unfortunately was lost amidst her other ramblings, is that there are fringe groups in France who are “evangelical” about spreading their extremist interpretation of Islam. These fundamentalists are putting pressure on women in their communities to wear the face veil and encouraging sectarianism, and sometimes, outright separatism.

Myard also points out that Muslim leaders themselves supported such a law because they have been noticing the rise of fundamentalists proselytizing for the niqab in their communities.

The concern that criminals and terrorists can use the niqab to conceal their identities and avoid detection by the authorities.

While it is true that only a handful of robberies or suicide bombings have been carried out by people wearing the niqab, the worry that such coverings could be used to carry out terrorist attacks is understandable in the French historical context.  After all, during the French-Algerian war, women hid explosives in their hijab (whether this was a legitimate act of resistance or guerilla warfare vs. French colonialism is not the point).  I’m just saying that this is one historical fact that must be taken into consideration before assuming that French peoples’ security concerns are irrational or racist.

The historical position of the French state on “laïcité” (secularism) and its longstanding model of citizenship and national identity.

While there is no denying that racism and Islamophobia exist in France, it’s far too simplistic to assume that everyone who supports the burqa ban does so out of anti-Muslim sentiment.

The firm insistence on the separation of church and state in France goes back to long before there was any significant Muslim population in the country.  And the sense of French national identity is strongly bound up in this notion of laïcité, which has no equivalent in the U.S. context, let alone in Muslim-majority countries.  For instance, you’ll never see French politicians invoke God or describe their religious convictions in public speeches; that would be considered scandalous.  So would the idea of a French president, judge, or other elected official taking his or her oath of office on a Bible.

This aversion to symbols of religion in civic life is nothing new.  In fact, some scholars have even argued that the principle of laïcité is so ingrained that it could be described as the national “religion.”  But with the increasing visibility of Muslims in France, the passions about it have become all the stronger.

Another point to note is that the French model of “integration” and national identity has always been a very homogeneous one, based on shaping citizens to conform to a very specific Republican model. This is very far from the multicultural ideal we have in the U.S.  In other words, the French state has long been in the business of molding the “sons of the Republic” in its own image.  This ideal of “French-ness” is what is disseminated to young French nationals through a uniform and standardized education in the public school system, and it is also what all immigrants are expected to assimilate to.

Obviously there is much to criticize in the rigid understanding of secularism and citizenship in France, but before we go crying “xenophobia” we need to take this long and complicated history into account.

The balance between individual freedom vs. collective will and the necessity of respecting the national consensus when you live (as an immigrant or citizen) in any particular society.

While I don’t agree with how Hassan argued her point, I think she was right to note that in a democracy individual freedom is not an absolute, and must be restricted if it goes against collective safety and values. Her example of laws requiring seatbelts and prohibiting public indecency are quite right, though they needed to be unpacked.

As the moderator said, every society sets limits on what people can wear and how they can behave in the public sphere.  With this in mind, we must recognize that, right or wrong, a large majority of French people believe the niqab/ burqa is detrimental to social cohesion.  The feeling is that, when people walk around with their faces covered, this counteracts the greater collective will to enforce heterosocial norms and build a civil society around secular values.

Now, compare this to how, in many Muslim-majority countries, there is a general consensus, based on very different religious and cultural values, that women who wear too little clothing threaten the social order.  These attitudes may or may not be written into official laws, but they certainly affect women living in those countries, who are often pressured to cover up and harassed when they don’t.

So, perhaps the French burqa ban is no better than the mandatory veiling laws in Saudi Arabia in the sense that in both countries, women’s sartorial freedom of choice is restricted.  However, the difference is that the French law was passed democratically, and clearly reflects the majority opinion of the public.

I don’t know if we’ll ever see the day when Saudi Arabia lets its people openly debate and democratically vote on whether the niqab should be obligatory or not.  But what I do know is I could respect any law adopted in such a scenario—whether it banned or enforced the niqab, whether I agreed with it or not—knowing that it was passed as a result of democratic processes and in response to a social consensus.

The fact remains that over 80% of the French population support this ban. Surely, all these supporters are not on the extreme right.  And it would be wrong to dismiss them as Islamophobes, racists, or even “self-hating Muslims” for that matter.  So with that said, let the real debates begin!

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