The French Ban on Full-Face Veils -- Sightings

The French take a very different view of the role of religion in public life.  Although in this country there is a degree of separation between church and state, and we argue about whether it's appropriate to sing carols in school or place a creche on the Court House lawn, the French believe that religion belongs in the closet.  This has presented issues for Christians, but also for immigrant Muslims.  The most visible example of the problem of enforcing private practice of religion is the French recent ban on Muslim women wearing the niqab and the burqa, two forms of  full face covering veils.   This decision has presented interesting questions for the West -- to what degree does assimilation require abandonment of one's religious identity, including religiously prescribed clothing.   Anna Mannson McGinty takes up this question in the Thursday issue of Sightings.  It's worth reading as we ponder what the public square should look like when it comes to religion, but also the question of women's rights and the rights of minorities living in Western nations.  

Sightings  6/16/2011
The French Ban on Full-Face Veils
-- Anna Mansson McGinty

Of course, I’m at home (laughter). Who else’s (country) am I in? I feel athome. I have my family here, we live, we eat, we cry, we laugh, we suffer,we don’t suffer. Some people are pleasant, some insult us. But truthfully,the day the law will be (implemented), I’ll no longer feel at home.(Camile, Paris)

Camile is one of the Muslim women interviewed in “Unveiling the Truth: Why 32 Muslim Women Wear the Full-face Veil in France,” a report written as part of the “At Home in Europe Project” of the Open Society Foundations. The report was released in April, as the ban on the covering of the face, such as with the niqab or burqa, went into effect on April 11. 
The law has been fiercely debated since the French National Assembly voted in favor of it (336-1) in July 2010, six years after the banning of conspicuous religious symbols in French public schools. The ban makes it illegal to wear any face covering in public spaces in France, and thus, from the perspectives of the opponents of the law, a religious act and symbol has been criminalized. France, with an estimated 6-7 million Muslims, is the first European country to make it illegal. Belgium and the Netherlands may soon follow suit.

The “burqa ban” and its current popularity in Europe raise several questions pertaining to religious expressions in public, freedom of expression, the future of Islam and the growing Muslim population in Europe, but also, as the quote of Camile points to, national identity and citizenship. The ban rests on the salient notion of French secularism, laïcité, the separation of church and state and the division between private life and public sphere.

Laïcité requires that in order for the state to secure the equality of all citizens, these individuals have to present themselves as free from religion. Consequently, the notion of laïcité, together with a prevalent public discourse of Islam and Muslims as the ultimate “other” incompatible with “French values,” has made Muslims, who publicly display their religious affiliation, the target and object of scrutiny. In effect, a woman who does not abide by the law could be fined up to 150, and in some cases be required to take citizenship classes. 

But why this urgent and intense focus on Muslim women’s garments? The relationship of the West to the veil and Islamic dress code is a complex political and social phenomenon, with a long history, suggesting several interrelated factors at play. Considering the very small number of women in France who wear the full-face veil (estimates range from 400-2000), one wonders if this is, as the proponents argue, an effective means to combat Islamic extremism and enhance integration. In which ways can policies prohibiting certain attire promote the preservation of “French culture” as well as the assimilation of Muslim immigrants into the French mainstream? 

This kind of state regulation and control over certain gendered and religious (as well as political) bodies demonstrates the symbolic meaning and weight a national community can place on women’s dress and conduct in public, as women represent, in Cynthia Enloe’s words, “nationalist wombs;” they are not only bearers of the future generation, but also the ones transmitting the nation’s culture and values from one generation to the next.

Furthermore, it is hard not to make historical parallels to colonial times in places such as Egypt and Algeria where the “veil” and “the Muslim woman” became the battlefield between the anti-veil colonialists and the native, national liberation movement. Similar to the colonial politics of the veil and the discourse of “saving the Muslim woman” from her oppressive and traditional man and religion, French president Nicolas Sarkozy uses “feminist” rhetoric arguing for Muslim women’s dignity and equality in the French Republic. Interestingly, 10 of the 32 women interviewed in the report indicated that they had started to wear the niqab as a protest to the ban.

In response to the ban, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, which makes recommendations on human-rights issues, passed a resolution that emphasizes “freedom of thought, conscience and religion while combating religious intolerance and discrimination,” urging EU countries to protect women’s “free choice to wear religious or special clothing.” While perhaps not representative, the many personal experiences and testimonies of Muslim women featured in the report “Unveiling the Truth” resonate with this declaration. 

To the proponents of the ban, the face veil symbolizes the most extreme version of Islam and poses a threat to national culture and secularism, but the women who claim to have chosen to wear the face veil, speak of the niqab as part of a spiritual journey, as reflecting a deepened relationship with God and the desire to follow the actions of the prophet Mohammed’s wives for guidance. The question now is how and to what extent the ban is going to be implemented, the social and political implications of it, and whether some of these women, such as Camile, will ever feel at home in their own home country. 


Lila Abu-Lughod, “Do Muslim Women Really Need Saving? Anthropological Reflections on Cultural Relativism and its Others,” American Anthropologist104 (3), 2002.

Cynthia Enloe, Bananas, Beaches, and Bases. Making Feminist Sense of International Politics. (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1990).

Steven Erlanger, “France Enforces Ban on Full-Face Veils in Public,” The New York Times, 11 April, 2011.

Cécilia Gabizon, “Deux Mille Femmes Portent la Burqa en France” (“Two Thousand Women Wear the Burqa in France”), Le Figaro, 9 September, 2009.
At Home in Europe Project, Unveiling the Truth: Why 32 Muslim Women Wear the Full-face Veil in France. Open Society Foundations, 2011.

Anna Mansson McGinty is Assistant Professor of Geography and Women’s Studies at University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. She is the author of Becoming Muslim. Western Women’s Conversions to Islam (Palgrave Macmillan, 2006).

 This month’s Religion and Culture Web Forum is Joshua Daniel’s “Cultivating Trust: Vulnerability and Creativity in Moral Education”: The insecurity of modern social life, marked by the constant threat of “human-produced, but often uncontrollable catastrophes—nuclear and financial fall-outs, terrorist attacks, climate change, etc.”—inevitably erodes trust in social institutions. But such trust, Joshua Daniel argues, is the essential “precondition for the sort of innovation” necessary to deal with “trust-corroding insecurity.” Daniel proposes that the cultivation of trust “requires cultivating a sense of and respect for the vulnerabilities of others.” He especially addresses religious communities struggling to achieve the innovation of tradition “in the face of accusations of betrayal and heresy." With invited responses by Philip Blackwell, Martin Marty, and Scott Paeth. 

Sightings comes from the Martin Marty Center at the University of Chicago Divinity School.


Anonymous said…
the success of multiculturalism requires that all parties involved show some tolerance for each other. islam does not meet this requirement and is dangerous no matter how it is packaged.

muslims do not assimilate into western society because islam is a theocracy and demands supremacy. there is no radical, moderate, hijacked or any other nuanced semanticism type of islam. there is only islam which is based on the life of a murdering 8th century warlord.

the twin fogs of political correctness & ignorance must be dispersed before western society better understands this menace. even a brief review of islamic theology & history quickly exposes the deadly roots of this evil ideology.

see the links in the pdf version below for more accurate info about islam

islam is a horrible ideology for human rights

5 key things about islam

1. mythical beliefs - all religions have these (faith) because its part of being a religion: having beliefs without proof until after the believer dies. the problem is people will believe almost anything.

2. totalitarianism - islam has no seperation of church and state: sharia law governs all. there is no free will in islam: only submission to the will of allah as conveniently determined by the imams who spew vapors to feather their own nests. there are no moderate muslims: they all support sharia law.

3. violence - islam leads the pack of all religions in violent tenets for their ideology & history: having eternal canonical imperatives for supremacy at all costs and calling for violence & intimidation as basic tools to achieve these goals.

4. dishonesty - only islam has dishonesty as a fundamental tenet: this stems from allah speaking to mohamhead & abrogation in the koran which is used to explain how mo's peaceful early life was superseded by his warlord role later.

5. misogyny - present day islam is still rooted in 8th century social ethics: treating females as property of men good only for children, severely limiting their activities, dressing them in shower curtains and worse.

conclusions ??

there really are NO redeeming qualities for this muddled pile of propaganda.

islam is just another fascist totalitarian ideology used by power hungry fanatics on yet another quest for worldwide domination and includes all the usual human rights abuses & suppression of freedoms.

graphics version

1 page pdf version - do file/download 6kb viewer doesn't show fonts well, has better fonts header footer links, great for emailing printing etc
Scott Paeth said…
Wow, eks why has managed to encapsulate every inaccurate and malicious slander and generalization about Islam into one brief blog comment. That's got to be an accomplishment of some kind.

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