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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  • L. Alahem

    To defend the French, if you had been part of a society whose religion and politics were so inbound as to be inseparable, you may understand the object of the secularism. The US, being founded by those who fled this environment, is very careful not to establish any state religion. We cannot understand this fear, because we are the descendants of those that left; they are the descendants of those that stayed and fought. It’s a fact.

    The thing that bothers me most is the fear and rejection of the ‘other’. We have to get over the ‘other’ness of this whole affair. Walk a mile in their shoes, as it were, and stop being so damned superior. Both sides.

    This is what I hear when I read these things:

    “you can’t tell me what to do!” “I can and I will, because you aren’t ‘us’, or of ‘us’” “if that’s what it takes to be part of you, I want no part of it”. “Good, because ‘we’ don’t want ‘you’ anyway”

    sounds all the world to me like a schoolyard shouting match.

  • Rochelle

    I’m pretty amazed at the lack of mention on forced veiling (i.e. Iran, Saudi Arabia) in this debate. They seem to be two sides of the same coin to me – both using nationalist / paternalistic / liberator rhetoric – and yet nobody wants to bring up forced veiling.

  • S1.

    ^^^the debate was about the French ban

    [This comment has been edited to fit within comment moderation guidelines.]

  • Sepand

    Rochelle, what does forced veiling in other countries has to do with this debate?

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  • Rochelle

    Am I really the only one here who sees parallels between France’s ban on niqab and Iran’s forced veiling policies? I’m not saying you can’t focus on France’s policies for their own right, but the situations overlap in a lot of important ways I think: Paternalistic rhetoric (“we’re protecting women by forcing these policies on their bodies”), nationalist justifications (“this is our culture, you have to respect it”), ‘Otherizing’ (niqab wearers in France, bad-hijabis in Iran).

    Both situations involve tough decisions about the extent to which the state can dictate women’s dress, national culture and religion. To talk about one without even acknowledging the parallels with the other, to me, is odd.

  • Layla

    Yes, Rochelle, I see your point, and I even draw that parallel myself toward the end of my post when I mention how perhaps France is straying from its role as a defender of human rights and looking a bit more like countries like Saudi and Iran, where predominantly male lawmakers dictate what women can and cannot wear. The main difference, however, is that the French law was passed through public debates and democratic processes, and it reflects a general social consensus. Perhaps we’d also find a consensus in Iran & Saudi, in which the public would choose to keep their mandatory veiling laws, just as the French have chosen to adopt mandatory UN-veiling laws. But for now, neither of those governments have dared to allow such a debate to take place.

  • Tec15

    Well Rochelle, let me ask you a question and don’t take this the wrong way, but if if you think the situations are comparable than why does your website focus so little on such French laws (As well as similar laws in “secular” Muslim countries like Uzbekistan and Azerbaijan) compared with your coverage on Iran?

  • Rochelle

    @ Tec15

    Here are all the new and views on France – most on the burqa ban :

    And Uzbekistan:

    And Azerbaijan:

    As far as Iran goes, have you heard about what’s going on there right now? It’s pretty shitty. And by the way, almost none of the articles on Iran are focusing on dress codes – rather the torture and imprisonment of human rights defenders.

  • Tec15


    But that just proves my point. The number of articles about Uzbekistan and Azerbaijan are minuscule compared to the ones about Iran. Even then, a good number of articles about those countries focus on the “threat” posed by “Islamic Fundamentalists” rather than by the “secular” governments themselves. Compare the number of articles written about the Andijan crackdown compared to articles about post election Iran. Are you really trying to claim that both Uzbekistan and Azerbaijan are somehow less repressive than Iran, thus justifying the lesser coverage?

    Regarding France, while most of the articles may be about burqahijab bans, you neglect to mention that most are in support of such bans. There plenty of articles supporting Sarkozy’s “clarity in condemning the burka as a tool of oppression against Muslim women” or just supportive of hijab or burqa restrictions in general. Needless to say, none supportive of the Iranian stance which is given as “bad” without question. So the website does not support your view regarding an equivalence. They think the French stance “good” and Iranian stance “bad”.

    Iran in general is brought up whenever the French laws are discussed mostly to derail the discussion in my opinion anyway.

  • Rochelle


    Your critique is valid but borders on conspiracy. Are you implying that our website gets a bunch of articles/submissions about the secular Muslim countries but decides not to post them because we love Uzbekistan? That we’re all in a big cover up for Azerbaijan? It’s absurd.

    I’m also confused about your point, because as you can see, the website pays a LOT more attention to France’s burqa ban than Iran’s mandatory hijab laws. It seems unfair to compare coverage of news of Iran’s post-election turmoil to France’s burqa ban. It’s like comparing Darfur war crimes with a story of some punk pulling off a woman’s hijab in Germany. Both bad, but not comparable. A reasonable comparison would be the clothing laws in both countries.

    I actually think such a comparison illuminates why a Burqa ban would be wrong. If we agree that a) mandatory hijab laws in Iran are wrong, and b) that some women choose to wear hijab out of choice,then it stands that c) no country should mandate women’s religious dress. Furthermore, the main arguments currently used in the French debate (e.g. ‘this law protects women’) are analogously used in the Iran debate – at least when it had such a debate 30 years ago. Thus I think that a comparison would be fruitful, because it exposes some of the base assumptions present in both.

    Unfortunately, as Layla mentioned – Iran’s mandatory hijab laws aren’t even up for discussion anymore, it’s such a taboo to even question it inside the country. I actually see the opposite affect as you described – with a bunch of folks (like myself) protesting the French law without taking a stance on Iran’s law. A lot of Iranian government officials/ideologues have done this, as well as some groups in the West.

    Finally, I would just like the point out the irony, that your critique about WLUML’s comparison of Iran/Uzbekistan- ‘you spend so much more time focusing on X instead of Y!’- is exactly what you are disavowing in your refusal to acknowledge a comparison between France and Iran. So our site has to pay equal attention to Iran and Uzbekistan, but folks out there can discuss French laws while ignoring Iranian laws? Excuse me for saying so, but “Uzbekistan in general is brought up whenever the Iran laws are discussed mostly to derail the discussion in my opinion anyway.”

  • Marisol Perry

    Yes, Rochelle, I see your point, and I even draw that parallel myself toward the end of my post when I mention how perhaps France is straying from its role as a defender of human rights and looking a bit more like countries like Saudi and Iran, where predominantly male lawmakers dictate what women can and cannot wear. The main difference, however, is that the French law was passed through public debates and democratic processes, and it reflects a general social consensus. Perhaps we’d also find a consensus in Iran & Saudi, in which the public would choose to keep their mandatory veiling laws, just as the French have chosen to adopt mandatory UN-veiling laws. But for now, neither of those governments have dared to allow such a debate to take place.