The New Fashion in Civil Rights

First the Swiss ban minarets. Now the French parliament wants to ban Muslim women from wearing the burqa – the full, face-covering garment worn in orthodox Arab countries, and now adopted by some orthodox non-Arabs – in public places

Ian Buruma (photo: Bard College)
Ian Buruma: "Living with values that one does not share is a price to be paid for living in a pluralist society."


The hijab, the headscarf that some Muslim women wear, is already banned in French public schools, where the "ostentatious" display of any religious symbolism is forbidden. The burqa, however, is worn far more rarely in France – by about 1,900 of nearly six million Muslims, almost none of them from a traditional burqa-wearing country.

The reason why French parliamentarians, ranging from Communists to conservatives, support this ban is a general consensus that wearing the burqa is "contrary to the values of the Republic." As the French president, Nicolas Sarkozy, famously said, the burqa is "not welcome in France."

"I'd rather die"

Immigrants who cover their faces have been refused French citizenship for that reason. Feminists, including some women from Muslim backgrounds, have backed the ban, because they regard the custom as degrading. A Communist member of parliament, André Gerin, warned that terrorism and extremism were "hiding behind the veil."

In fact, only the Socialists refused to vote for the parliamentary resolution. They do not like the burqa either, but they don't believe that legislation is the best way to fight it.

photo: AP
No friend of the burqa, no friend of the ban: Jean-Marc Ayrault, President of the Socialist Party group in the French National Assembly

​​I think the Socialists are right. Aside from the fact that more serious issues face the French government than the sartorial habits of a small number of women, there is the matter of individual freedom.

Some women may, indeed, be forced by family or peer pressure to cover themselves up. The same is true of orthodox Jewish women who must shave their heads and wear wigs when they marry. It is not immediately apparent why Jewish or some extreme forms of Christian orthodoxy should be more compatible with Republican values, let alone feminism, than Muslim salafism. Still, no one should be forced to cover herself up.

But should they be forced not to? One French woman, who took to the burqa entirely through her own volition, protested: "France is supposed to be a free country. Nowadays, women have the right to take their clothes off, but not to put them on." Another protester said, "If they make us take it off, they'll be taking a part of us. I'd rather die than let them do it."

Some Muslims, including clerics, maintain that covering women's faces is not actually a Muslim tradition. The Egyptian imam, Sheikh Mohammed Tantawi, wants to ban the wearing of face-covering veils in Egyptian schools. But this is still no reason why French women should not be allowed to enter a post office, a bank, a school, or any other public place in a burqa. Interpreting Islamic tradition is not part of the French government's brief.

A delicate balance

One could take the view that national governments should enforce laws, but not values. But, whereas most democracies are less prone than the French Republic is to impose "national values" on their citizens, the law cannot be totally divorced from shared values either. The fact that Europeans can marry only one spouse is both a legal and a cultural norm. And views on sexual, gender, and racial discrimination, which change with time, are reflected in the laws as well.

photo: AP
Wants to ban the veil in Egyptian schools: Muhammad Tantawi, Grand Imam of al-Azhar Mosque and Grand Sheikh of al-Azhar University

​​There is always a delicate balance, to be sure, between commonly held views and individual liberties. Some people might still condemn homosexuality, but few Europeans wish to ban it by law anymore.

On the whole, individual practices, as long as they do no harm to others, should be allowed, even if many people don't particularly like them. It may be undesirable to have people who carry out public functions – judges, teachers, or policewomen, for example – cover up their faces. But one can impose dress codes for certain jobs, without banning a type of clothing for everyone. After all, we don't have judges and teachers wearing bikinis on the job, either.

There is another, practical, reason why the burqa ban is a bad idea. If we are serious about integrating immigrants into Western societies, they should be encouraged to move around in public as much as possible. Banning the burqa would force this tiny minority of women to stay at home, and be even more dependent on their men to deal with the outside world.

A price to be paid

So what should be done about practices that are judged to be illiberal, if we don't ban them? Sometimes it is better to do nothing. Living with values that one does not share is a price to be paid for living in a pluralist society.

photo: AP
"Not welcome in France": President Sarkozy and Bernard Accoyer, President of the National Assembly of France

​​Making sure all citizens get a good education could help to reduce potential grounds for conflict. And so could a sense of humor. This does not have to be hostile, as with the Danish newspaper cartoons. One of the wittiest advertisements on the market today is for a brand of German lingerie. The commercial shows a beautiful nude woman, posing in front of her mirror, taking pleasure in slipping on sexy black panties and black stockings with garters – before covering up in a black burqa. All we see, as she looks out of the window, are her eyes, nicely framed in mascara. The tagline? "Sexiness for everyone: everywhere."

Not only is it humorous and well produced, but, based on my observations in the Middle East, this advertisement is also an accurate reflection of reality. It is certainly possible to imagine, as the French Communist deputy does, a woman in a burqa harboring an extremist or terrorist agenda. The same can be true of a man in jeans or a woman in a business suit. What we sometimes forget is that the average person inside a burqa is also simply a woman.

Ian Buruma

© Project Syndicate 2010

Ian Buruma is the author of Murder in Amsterdam: The Death of Theo van Gogh and the Limits of Tolerance. He is a professor of democracy, human rights and journalism at Bard College. His latest book is the novel The China Lover.

Debate on Islam and National Identity in France
Burka not Welcome
The so-called "debate on national identity" launched by the French government is causing feelings among the public to run high. At the centre of the storm lies the controversy of a ban on the burka and relations with Muslims in general. By Bernhard Schmid

The Burka Battle in France
Losing Sovereignty of Interpretation
The strict rejection of the burka by French president Nicolas Sarkozy has set off a political debate across the country that strongly recalls the 2004 controversy on the presence of religious symbols in public schools. Kersten Knipp reports

The Headscarf Debate
In the West and the Islamic world alike, the headscarf is the subject of heated discussions. We take a closer look at various aspects of the debate and highlight its background and social reality