The Burqa Conundrum

What should we think about France's burqa ban? The burqa presents a dilemma to liberal polities; it reminds us that having deep societal divisions over religious or ideological ideas is neither unjustifiable nor easily dismissible. Every aspect of life is affected by the fundamentally different views of human life and social reality on each side of the divide.

For every Muslim woman who affirms the burqa as an instrument of modesty and dignity, another swears it is a tool of repression. Many participants in the debate contend that women should be free to choose the burqa. Many others argue that, in most cases, and even in the Muslim communities of the West, women have little or no say in the matter. Since pressure from family and community are the controlling factors, to permit the burqa is to permit oppression.

Some consider it of paramount importance that the burqa interferes with one of the basic elements of public comity and security: the identification of individuals. This was the key point for many French lawmakers. Women cannot be forced to prefer equality in this regard, but they can be required to accept it as a public good.

But others couch the argument in terms of religious freedom. If the central government can override one custom prescribed by a religion, what others can it interfere with? What will Christians and Jews have to fear?

It is not certain, of course, that the burqa is a "religious" requirement in the sense of being prescribed in a doctrinal text. Muslim communities differ in what they enforce, and some have adopted Western standards for routine public appearances. But this raises another salient question: how can a secular, liberal government take a position on whether the burqa is a religious doctrinal requirement or merely a specialized custom? Is that kind of analysis appropriate for lawmaking, as we understand it?

The concerns about religious freedom may be the ones that resonate most with me, but I don't lack sympathy for the posture of the French government. The burqa is a less abstract issue for Europeans than it is for most Americans. In some cities in France, the burqa is everywhere—and in those cities, as in other parts of Europe, there are streets and neighborhoods where women without veils are increasingly unsafe.

Samira Bellil, a Frenchwoman of Algerian descent, wrote about her experience as the victim of routine gang-rapes in one of Paris's predominantly Muslim suburbs. As in the cases recounted at FrontPage, she was informed that wearing Western dress constituted an invitation to rape. Before dying of stomach cancer in 2004, at the age of 31, she cofounded the feminist group "Ni Putes Ni Soumises" (Neither Whores nor Submissives) to combat the problem of attacks on women in Western dress.

The literature on this problem in other parts of Europe is swiftly growing (see, for example, here, here, and here). It affects both indigenous European women and immigrants. Tolerance of religious expression is extremely important, but Europeans have reason to view the burqa—and the custom of veiling in general—as socially divisive to an increasingly unmanageable degree. The priority the Europeans assign to tolerance is, in fact, what makes the burqa such a sticky wicket; approaching it with intolerance would, in some ways, be a lot easier.

Handling it as a matter of law, meanwhile, carries its own hazards. In the Western understanding, the law works through punishment and deterrence; it is not a tool for gently transforming hearts and minds. A legal approach to the burqa thus produces the most unseemly of outcomes: women in burqas being arrested, not because they are dangerous as wrongdoers but because their garb is deemed dangerous as the symbol of an irreconcilable social divide.

The law is a hammer, but not every problem is a nail. Arresting women in burqas will not change the minds of Muslims who insist on veiling. For this and related reasons, I am concerned to see European nations using the blunt instrument of law to address a socially divisive practice arising from religion. Besides the disquieting implications for religious freedom, the human impact is disturbing. Some Muslim women feel deprived of modesty if they cannot wear a burqa, and many will be in danger from their communities if they comply with France's new law.