Uncovering the burka debate in France


America has long been considered the world’s melting pot ­— assimilating different cultures, ethnicities and religions under one flag, one country, one identity. Europe, on the other hand, never took on such a role. Close proximity to two other continents made migration almost inevitable. As one of the leaders in the European Union, France has a very special role in forming the European identity.

Julia Vann | Daily Trojan

The Muslim population in France accounts for more than 5 million people, making Islam the nation’s second most practiced religion. There are over a thousand mosques and Islamic institutions, such as the French Council for the Muslim Religion.

Currently, there is debate about whether burkas — loose, enveloping body and head coverings worn by traditional Muslim women outside of the household — should be allowed in public.

In 2004, the French National Assembly banned any type of religious symbol from state school premises, delineating the distinction between state and religion. This decision and the persistence of a tough stance was upheld by the European Court of Human Rights.

The controversy over Muslim garb in France continues, with French President Nicolas Sarkozy arguing that the burka should be unequivocally condemned in public places. On Jan. 26, progress was made toward achieving such a policy with French lawmakers recommending a partial ban on any veils that cover the face. On Wednesday, French Prime Minister François Fillon declared that a man who forced his wife to wear a burka had “no place in our country.”

The decision to ban religious garb has its precedent in Turkey, a Muslim nation, when Mustafa Kemal Ataturk decided to modernize and westernize the nation by separating religion and state through the symbolic uncovering of Turkish women and removal of the fez. If a Muslim nation is willing to separate Islam from the state in public places, why shouldn’t France?

Based on the trend in coverage from the French newspaper, Le Monde, on the burka debate, it seems the nation is at a cross-roads. While the French do not believe that the burka has a place in France, an actual law banning the Muslim garment seems to go farther than many French feel comfortable with.

The burka is a liability to both security and freedom. In a New York Times opinion piece, pro-feminine rights Muslim contributor, Mona Eltahawy, explained that a burka “erases women from society and has nothing to do with Islam but everything to do with the hatred for women at the heart of the extremist ideology that preaches it.”

As President Sarkozy says, “[The burka] is a sign of the subjugation, of the submission of women. I want to say solemnly that it will not be welcome on our territory”.

Clearly, it is France’s intention to stand for women’s rights.

Will America follow in France’s footsteps and ban burkas as well? Probably not. But with regard to the French burka debate, it would be hypocritical for the United States to cast a disapproving look toward the French for their attempts to stand up for women’s rights by exercising a separation of church and state, one of the founding pillars of American democracy.

Melting pot it’s not, but France is not in the wrong for standing out among its Western peers.

Miruna Barnoschi is a freshman majoring in international relations.

  • ibn yaqzan

    Joe, you know absolutely nothing about Islam or Muslims, this is clear from your bizarre ideas about “radical islam”- what is that? fundamental shi’ism? fundamental sunni’ism? wahhabism? sufism?

    Also, thinking that you “speak” for Muslim women is laughable and misogynistic. Wearing a cloth on your head does not make you “treated like property”. God, why don’t you talk to actual Muslim people in Muslim countries before you even start to form another ignorant opinion.

  • Joe

    Western nations have a right to choose who they allow to immigrate, and should expect and demand that those who immigrate quickly assimilate to the local culture. The US still does this pretty well, but Europe has for years ignored the growing problem of an actively hostile Muslim subculture in its midst, determined to preserve Islamic traditions and identity instead of assimilating. (As opposed to the Muslim communities in America, which assimilate fairly well.) It is surprising and heartening to see that the French (and the Swiss) have finally taken off the blinders of “multiculturalism” and “tolerance” and decided that coming from a foreign land does not exempt you from standards of right and wrong. While I think the “church and state” excuse is kind of a stretch, the important point is that the Europeans are making it clear that Muslims will have to shed the more medieval of their beliefs if they’re going to join Western civilization.

    • ibn yaqzan

      “should expect and demand that those who immigrate quickly assimilate to the local culture.”

      Sorry, this is actually more characteristic of authoritarian systems than of Western liberal democracies. Maybe you have forgotten that the country you are supposedly standing up for is a Western liberal democracy that prides itself on diversity and openness? Your stances appears to be the least American of any of the stances thus far mentioned.

      • Joe

        Ours is a Western liberal democracy that stands for freedom of speech, religion, and enterprise, for the premise that all men and women are created equal, and stands in opposition to tyranny. No one would suggest that all immigrants should be forced to assimilate to our sense of fashion or something, that’s absurd, but it is absolutely imperative that immigrants to the US embrace resepect for freedom and equality, sooner rather than later. Immigrants who want to enslave their wives, mutilate their daughters, and band together to persecute other religious groups are most definitely NOT the kind of “diversity” we pride ourselves on.

        • Joe

          Just to clarify, I have said before that America does *not* have a significant problem with a hostile, unassimilable Muslim minority. Most of America’s Muslims have assimilated very well. Muslim extremism *is* a serious challenge for Europe, one they have turned a blind eye to for far too long. What we are seeing in France and Switzerland (with its ban on minarets) are the first realizations by the Europeans that they might actually have a problem.

        • ibn yaqzan

          “Immigrants who want to enslave their wives, mutilate their daughters, and band together to persecute other religious groups are most definitely NOT the kind of “diversity” we pride ourselves on.”

          Great, I agree with you. But we’re not talking about any of those things. We’re talking about women choosing to cover themselves. That IS about regulating fashion, as you mentioned you wouldn’t do.

          Why don’t you ASK the women choosing to cover up if they think they’re being oppressed by choosing to wear what they do- or if they think it would help them to have YOU forcibly remove their covering and violate their freedom to dress as they choose.

          • Joe

            Yes, and why not ask battered women with bruises on their faces whether they “fell down”? Ask them while their husbands are standing next to them holding a baseball bat. Surely they’ll give an honest answer!

            Radical Islam treats women as property, and considers homicide of non-believers to be just. We need not be cowed into “tolerance” of these beliefs for tolerance’s sake. It is absolutely, 100% reasonable to expect that Muslims shed these aspects of their belief systems if they wish to emigrate to Western nations. Sure, there may be one in a dozen women who *choose* to be treated as property, even one in a hundred who do so for reasons other than their upbringing in a morally diseased culture, but does that really change things? Is the freedom of one in a hundred women to adorn themselves in “slave chic” more important than the freedom and equal rights of the other 99?

  • Taking Away Rights Does Not Liberate Women

    How is limiting a woman’s right to wear whatever clothing she wants, religious or not, standing up for womens’ rights, as this author claims? Not all women who wear the burqa or abaya are forced to wear it. I think it is absolutely ridiculous and offensive for a bunch of mostly male politicians to sit around and decide the fate of women in a religion they do not practice and obviously do not know enough about.

    To me, this debate is not about burqas or about Islam. No government anywhere in the world should create a law that so obviously targets such a defined group of people (in this case, Muslim women) with the claim that they are “liberating” them. The author of this article says the separation of church and state is a fundamental principle of the US, but does not apply it correctly. The first amendment forbids Congress from making any law that targets a specific religion. France has no such law, but if this author wants to be consistent in saying Americans should apply our historical belief of separation of church and state to this situation, than the US should unequivocally oppose such a ban and condemn France for using politics to try and influence how its citizens are allowed to practice religion.

    So the US will not just “probably not” follow in France’s footsteps, it never will because this sort of thing is unconstitutional. To support France in this ban is an insult to womens’ rights and a threat to tolerance and acceptance, and in fact takes France one step further from being any sort of “melting pot.”

  • Educate yourself

    The author has obviously not educated herself on the topic. This is another case of Western bias against Eastern cultures in which we see the West acting as if it is morally and ethically superior in asserting that the cultural practices of other cultures are some how wrong just because they don’t agree with Western culture. This author along with other people who agree with her are arrogant fools who probably know very little about Muslim culture, theology, and history. I doubt the author has even asked a Muslim woman who wears a burqa about how she feels about the issue before writing this. Assuming that people feel a certain way isn’t good journalism- good journalism finds the answers and doesn’t simply assume them. If France bans burqas then what’s next? Yamakas for Jews? Christian crosses? Sikh turbans? Where does it end? If France claims to be a free nation then why is it telling people how to dress? I humbly ask the author to please EDUCATE herself on the topic before writing.

    • Educate yourself

      After reading my above comment I realize I came off a little bit harsh. My goal wasn’t to make the author feel bad or to insult anyone but rather I’m trying to point out the importance of education (especially on controversial topics like this) before writing an article. Without proper knowledge of the history/reason for the burqa etc, it is not right to write an article about it. Again, I’m sorry if I came-off too strong. Thanks.
      Oh and btw, I want to keep encouraging the Daily Trojan to have opinion articles dealing with international topics rather than silly campus issues. Articles such as this one help spark debate which inevitably leads to education and awareness of world affairs.

  • Rahomme Delind

    The roots of this problem go the gradual penetration of Islam in European society and body-politic, the effort on the part of (some/many Muslims) to affirm what they regard as their cultural heritage and symbol, and the frustrated Europeans who, after a couple of centuries of dominating the rest of the world by imposing their own culture, besides economic exploitation and political oppression, are now in a pay-back-time phase.
    Like it or not, Islam is going to play an increasing role in Europe and eventually in North America: For better or for worse, it remains to be seen. Perhaps for the better in some ways, perhaps for the worse in other.
    In any event, the decline of the era of Christian-Caucasian of European identity is over, unless something drastic occurs. Spengler’s prediction is coming true in ways he never considered.

    Neutral Observer
    February 6, 2010

  • Jose

    France doesn’t stand out amongst its peers for this debate and the government’s position on it. Ibn is correct: this is about individual liberties, and the separation of church and state in America is misinterpreted in this article. Banning the abaya in public is a supreme violation of this principle, as it would entail explicit federal law (though state, county, or even municipal law would be the same) that prohibited the exercise of a religious practice, and such a prohibition is a violation of the First Amendment.

    Yes, it is true that there are many women are forced by their husbands to wear this garb, but it is also true that many of these women consider it a significant part of their identity. Sarkozy’s position–and any measure to specifically restrict the abaya’s presence in public–therefore comprises a severe disregard for self-identification, and is therefore morally, and in the United States, legally, corrupt.

  • ibn yaqzan

    As a Muslim, I will say outright that the abaya (which is under debate, not the burka) has nothing to do with Islamic practice- but is instead related to traditions practiced in the 6th century in central Arabia, where both men and women tended to fully cover themselves from the desert heat.

    At the same time- this is about individual liberties. The fact is that most of the women wearing abaya are CHOOSING to do so- this is a fact, both in France as well as in most Muslim countries (but not all). This has nothing to do with “separation between church and state”- this has to do with a woman’s fundamental right to choose what she does with her body.

    There are many men in certain corners of the Muslim world who believe that they have the right to decide how women should cover themselves- and I think this is wrong, misogynistic, and authoritarian.

    But what Miruna Barnoschi is proposing- regulation what women are allowed to wear in public- is just as wrong, misogynistic, and authoritarian.

    • LD

      I whole-heartedly agree with you.

      The author clearly did not do her research on this issue. The whole article is incredibly biased and terribly lacking in substance and logic. And what is really worrisome is that the author is supposed to be an IR major. I hope she learns to take advantage of the ample resources available on this campus and actually educate herself on the next issue she decides to publish her opinion on

  • Rich

    Islamic men want the burka becasue it covers the female curves, and thus removes the need for self control. Its all about male dominance.