Banning the Burka: a Heathen Reponse

Banning the Burka: a Heathen Reponse September 18, 2010

This past Wednesday, the Wall Street Journal announced that France had followed through with its plans to ban the wearing of the burka: full body robes and head covering worn by some Muslim women. Wearing the burka, or indeed just the traditional headscarf has been a site of tremendous conflict, not just in France but throughout Europe over the past few years. This is so, perhaps most especially when devout women choose of their own free will to express their commitment to their faith in such a manner. To be fair, the new French legislation doesn’t specifically single out Islam, rather it bans any public face covering (excluding such professions as surgeons and riot police) as a potential security risk. Yet anyone who has been following coverage of the growing tensions in France with its sizeable and ever-expanding Muslim population can have no doubt as to whom the true target of such legislation was. This ban by the way, would also  apply to foreigners visiting the country. More disturbingly, nationals who disobey might well be required to attend government sponsored courses on “republican values” as well as facing significant fines. (1)

Of course one could say that over and aside from infringing on personal religious freedom, such a ban unfairly penalizes women, who would be among the majority of those directly impacted. Proponents of such a ban often cite protecting women from forced submission to such practices as a motivating factor in their position, a stance which, to my mind at least, actually diminishes the voice and agency of those women who consciously choose to wear the headscarf or full hijab, not out of patriarchal coercion, but out of personal commitment to their faith. After all, when you acknowledge that a person has personal agency, eventually you have to face the fact that the person may do something with that agency with which you disagree!. By banning this very physical expression of one’s religion, those who see it as a necessary expression of faith are marginalized, facing the choice of obeying the State or obeying what they see as the dictates of their God.  Such is the conundrum France, and many other parts of Europe, are now facing. The question, for this article at least, is why should we as Pagans or Heathens care? What is this to us?

I would posit that we need to watch this situation in Europe and at home very carefully. Heathenry and Paganism aren’t yet serious blips on our government’s radar but that is changing as our numbers grow. To outsiders, many of our practices can be misunderstood, especially by those already primed by religious phobia or fundamentalism to think the worst of that which is different (in the case of America translate that as non-Christian).

I’m not trying to sound alarmist. Nor do I think that we should temper our practices to accommodate those outside of our faiths. I’m saying that this is something we need to be aware of and to watch closely. I know that while I don’t feel the need to follow any particular dress code as an expression of my devotion to my Gods, I do mark my body (I have a full back tattoo as an offering to Odin, among other things) and in my practice as a Northern Tradition shaman, this is important. I don’t want to think about what I would do if put in the situation where I had to choose between doing what I think right by my Gods, and obeying an arbitrary law designed to curtail the outward forms of my religious expression. Regardless of what we might think of Islam, or about the wearing of the burka, that’s what these regulations do: they curtail religious expression; they curtail modes of religious expression that aren’t hurting anyone else.

While I understand fears for security and safety, I think that in many cases using threat of security is a thinly veiled but very effective propaganda tool to rationalize religious discrimination and I have to question whether Heathenry and Paganism are organized or cohesive enough to withstand a similar outward assault.  The past ten years have seen a rise in religious fundamentalism across the board, not just within Islam, or Christianity. Additionally, there is a growing conservatism grounded in fear that is having a deep impact on our governments. I think that it’s naïve to assume that this won’t eventually impact us as well.

Think about it: in 1999 a man who would later become president of the United States tried to deny religious freedom to soldiers in his state. In response to the debacle at Fort Hood, Texas, in which Wiccans and Pagans in the service had to fight to maintain the right to practice their faith, George W. Bush commented outright that he didn’t think witchcraft was a religion and went on to say that he hoped the military would reconsider its position …i.e. its position allowing Pagan soldiers to actively practice their faith. (2) Senators at the time, called Wicca and Paganism ‘irreligious’ and argued that its practice should not be permitted in the military. (3). I really have no faith that attitudes have changed for the better all that much in ten years.

Furthermore, there have been many cases in recent years of Wiccans and Pagans losing custody of their children solely because of their religion (and while many of the most egregious judgments are later overturned, that doesn’t mitigate the ensuing trauma).  Just lately, there’s been an upswing in petty legislation against things like divination and psychic services. (4) This latter may seem a small thing, but to my mind, it’s part of a pattern and it points to a growing awareness of and reaction against Paganisms (divination, for instance, is an important practice in some Paganisms, including my own).  Just this week, ran an article about a case in Canada where a man offering to work magic for money was accused not just of fraud but of ‘pretending to practice witchcraft.’ (5) Read the full article at for a discussion on why this is so disturbing.

Ultimately, we need to be wary. Whether we want to admit it or not, we are practitioners of minority religions and there are people out there who would deny us our right to practice our faith. Islam has over 1 billion practitioners in the world today, most of whom practice their religion peacefully. (6) Yet, we have countries legislating against certain personal, non-violent expressions of this faith.

I think Dana Eilers said it best in a 2001 Witchvox article: “The preservation of one’s legal rights cannot be taken for granted. This is, as most minority groups can attest, an ongoing struggle which requires sacrifice and constant vigilance. We, as Pagans, are not the first to undergo this struggle. We will not be the last.”(7)  Good words. Strong words. Words we should take to heart and remember, because no one else is going to attend to our freedom but us.

  1. “The Wall Street Journal,” Wednesday, September 15, 2010, vol. CCLVI no. 64, p. A1, A12.
  2. and
  3. ibid
  5. ibid

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  • The burqa is much more than a mere symbol of oppression. The burqa is integral to the oppression of women under Islam. A muslim woman wearing a burqa is by definition enslaved.

    Throughout history those who are enslaved have internalized their oppression and will often “voluntarily” avow that their position of degradation and servitude is to their liking. How anyone could be fooled by this is beyond me.

  • There was a time when I would absolutely agree with you. Then I ended up in several classes with Muslim women, who had chosen to wear either the headscarf or in one case full hijab. I talked to them and they were feisty, fiery, independent women. All of them had chosen freely to wear this. For most it was their committment to their religion, for one, it was both that and a political statement (she was Turkish). In several cases their parents were not at all religious.

    I may not like it, but i’m not going to tell these women that they don’t have a right to make that decision. it’s easy to talk about internalization of oppression and I agree that often this is the case, but i think that too often that is an easy out. I’m not going to look at the women who choose to wear the burka, or head scarf and automatically assume that they simply have internalized their oppression. To say that as a blanket statement takes away their free will. It is just as oppressive: it casts them in a victim role, automatically, without ever giving them the benefit of the doubt.

    As i said, I often cringe and have a very visceral response when i see a woman in the burka. But it makes me think now and regardless, i dont’ want any government telling me I can’t do what i feel necessary to my person in honor of my religion…so long as *i’m* the one doing it and no human is coercing me.

    I make a distinction between being forced to wear the burka and choosing to. I may not like that choice, but I’ll acknowledge a woman’s right to make it. Because a lot of what I do in the name of my own religion looks oppressive to those on the outside and I’ve had to defend my own practices more than once to other Pagans. I’ll give individual women the benefit of the doubt.

  • To continue, because I hit send too soon, I’ve seen women for whom veiling was indeed oppression. they did it from a sense of shame or it was forced on them. But i’ve known an awful lot of women who did it consciously, out of respect for themselves, because (according to those i spoke with) it made them more mindful on a daily basis of the ways in which they were trying to live their faith. So for me, this is a more complicated issue than it seems. I abhore the first example and respect the second.

    also, for me, the bigger issue here, is seeing legislature passed to make a specific form of religious expression illegal. that…worries me for the precedent it will set.

  • Apollodoros Hekataios

    Actually wearing the head scarf or the niqaab or the burqa has nothing to do with religion, but with culture. These people originated from desert-like regions, where protection against the sun and the sand are necessary. THAT is why they wear it. Islam doesn’t require it, it is nowhere in the Qor’aan to be found. And if you have a reference that says it does, please give it to me and I will look it up in my Qor’aan.

    The Burqa is even not originally connected to Islam, it’s just a piece of clothing from Afghan, Pakistani, Persian origin. Cultural, once more. Not religious.

    It just gets made into something religious by too many people, both in and outside the religion of Islam.

  • Some claim that wearing the hijab is commanded in the Koran itself. If you do a google search on “quran hijab” you will find the relevant verses.

    As far as I am concerned, though, that doesn’t matter that much. One can find Biblical support for stoning people to death for sodomy, adultery, etc, but such “practices” are not thereby protected under the umbrella of freedom of religion.

  • In the US, a host of laws and regulations prevent Pagans and Heathens from doing certain things, dressing in certain ways, or carrying certain items that may be called for in various rituals or religious activities. Or encumber such things.

    Some of these laws and regulations are premised on public safety and security.

    It is chancy, for instance, to carry sizeable edged weapons in public places. Or to start fires in locales where fire danger is high. And cases in which students or employees have been barred from wearing Pagan or Heathen clothing or jewelry are numerous.

    Sometimes, but not always, public laws and regulations do have a rational–not just a discriminatory–basis. I’m not sure, yet, that this French law is lacking in concern for public safety and just a way to get burqqas off of France’s streets.

  • Hmm, not sure what I think of this particular article. I’m not sure if there is a confusion of terms. I live in Toronto where there is a fairly large Muslim population. There’s the Hijab, the head cover; the Naqib, the face cover; and then there’s the Burqa, which covers the entire body and makes it shapeless.
    I don’t agree with the Burqa and think it’s a symbol of opression . . . as do many Muslims. I think the Hijab can be empowering when women choose to wear it as a sign of their faith . . . many women also feel that they are not judged for superficial reasons when they wear it as well. I’m not sure what I think of the Naqib. I know that some women choose to wear it . . . but is it historically a sign of oppression? I feel uncomfortable speaking to someone when I can’t see her face . . . but is that my problem?? Perhaps. I can see how it can have some security issues in some cases but I’ve heard Muslim women say they would remove it for a female security guard. BUT I’ve also heard Imams say it is not required in Islam and they also don’t particularly like it . . . but is it for a male Imam to decide?

    As for the Canadian case with witchcraft . . . there’s something fishy about that case. I don’t like that anti-witchcraft law but there was more to that case and it does sound like a case of fraud. I can’t remember exactly but something didn’t sound right. We should be careful not to support any case just because it involves witchcraft. It could do a disservice to us!!

  • The point, folks, is not whether or not the burka is oppressive. The point is that if a western nation can legislate against certain religious expression (whether we agree w/ that expression or not) of a religion that has over one billion followers, we as Heathens, Pagans, Wiccans, etc. ought to take note.

  • A woman covering her head in public as a sign of modesty is not new, nor is it reserved for our Muslim sisters…the Roman matrons did it as well thousands of years before Islam was created. Even Emperors Augustus and Marcus Aurelius are portrayed with their head covered in a show of piety and humility. I would happily do the same if it weren’t so ingrained as a “Muslim thing”.

    I am not so crazy about the burqa or the naqib, but I am with Galina…the fact that France has put a ban on it could spell problems for the rest of us down the road. Although, I do offer this bit: Turkey is a Muslim country, and yet, they ban *all* religious symbols and clothing from schools…they truly believe in the separation of Church and State. If France is willing to go that far so that it’s across the board for everyone, things are going to get very interesting for Western Civ.

  • . . . but the burka being oppressive IS the point. Governments must take actions to defend its citizens from religions/cults taking advantage of them. If a society if forcing women to disguise themselves and hide themselves . . . that’s wrong. Let’s play “devil’s advocate” . . . what if perhaps some strange Pagan group popped out of the woodwork that thinks that they should sacrifice people (we always have to dispel that myth but what if it happened?). How would that look on us? The government would have to step in.

    I think the Wiccan rede covers this:
    An it harm none, do what ye will.

  • We have a largish Somali refugee population in this part of Maine. While I haven’t seen or heard of anybody wearing a burqa, the hijab is common.

    Having read so many articles about the dishonorable and barbaric practice of “honor killings” happening here in U.S. Muslim communities, I am hesitant to speak to any woman wearing this symbol of chattel-status. Not being related to any of them, it would open them up to such murder.

    I don’t know if any of them have male relatives who are so seeped in 7th-century Arabic culture that they would commit such a crime, but I have no intention of being the cause of a woman’s needless murder.

  • I’m keeping this short because I’m about to leave for a class. I do not believe the hijab or the burka is automatically a symbol of oppression. I think that Muslim women, just like Heathen and Pagan women are intelligent and capable of making their own decisions.

    Do i think it is sometimes oppresive? absolutely. I object to any practice being forced on anyone. period.

    Do I think that it is always oppresive? No. If a woman says to me, as several of my Muslim colleagues have, that she wears the hijab because it makes her more mindful on a daily basis of her faith and how she wants to live her faith. I”m ok with that. If i thought wearing a headcovering would increase my mindfulness of my Gods, and my service and right relationship to Odin, i’d do it.

    And the point, City Wiccan, which yomany here are missing, is not about the burka or hijab. That is an example of government interference in religion. And whether or not you think it’s warranted, what happens if our government decides to interfere in our practices (and not the hypothetical sacrifice of people you suggest, but something a bit closer to home and realistic. What if suddenly Wicca is denied tax exempt status and military personnel are forbidden to practice this faith or wear its sacred symbols? That came close to happening already. What if it were suddenly deemed a potential security risk for someone to wear a thor’s hammer in public? I’ve seen stupider things happen. What if our gatherings were forbidden?). This is not about whether or not one likes the idea of women wearing the burka, or the hijab. It’s about the fact that a government stepped in and interfered in personal religious decisions, in the way that one can outwardly practice one’s faith. that is a very dangerous precedent to set.