Home / Burqa Bans: A Very Popular Cultural Xenophobia

Burqa Bans: A Very Popular Cultural Xenophobia

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Across Europe there have been increasing demands for the banning of burqas and nicabs, the traditional Muslim female dress, and some countries have already passed legislation.

Belgium in April made it illegal to wear the full Islamic veil in public. In Spain, Barcelona has banned the wearing of the full-face veil in public buildings including markets and libraries. France too has banned their use in public places.

Some have argued that it is a question of security, that we need to be able to identify the person and that veils hide their identity from us. We are suspicious of anyone who does not display their faces thinking that they necessarily have something to hide.

But we have never been particularly worried about people wearing crash helmets, hoods on anoraks, scarves covering most of the face, and so on.

Another argument advanced is that women in Islamic countries are oppressed by the requirement to hide their faces with the burqa or nicab. By insisting on the removal of the veil, it is argued, we are somehow helping these women to free themselves from oppression.

But this line of argument is difficult to sustain if the process includes a large measure of coercion. How can denying women the right to wear what they want to free them from the oppression of the veil? How is the balance to be reached between the rights of the individual woman to choose what to wear, and the legal requirement preventing them from exercising that choice? We might not agree with the choice, but surely we do agree with the freedom to have the choice?

But in any case, there is a subtext to the calls for banning burqas and nicabs. No one is arguing for banning the Jewish headdress, the kippa, nor the turbans of Sikhs, nor the headdresses worn by nuns, or the surplices worn by priests. The focus is specifically on Islamic dress.

When the French banned the burqa, they didn’t do it just where identification is essential such as in public buildings. They did it in all public places, including in the street. What was the justification? Cultural assimilation.

When someone from a foreign country comes to live and work in our own, we naturally expect and hope that they will get used to the customs and ways of the new country and will be able to live here happily. Understanding the laws and traditions of a new country is seen as important in helping newcomers to assimilate.

But the assimilation is not a total revamping of their entire character, their sentiments and values, and a substitution of their traditions by those of their new country. It is unreasonable to expect anyone to abandon their cultural, political, and religious values just by virtue of the fact that they live in a different country. But that seems to be the underlying assumption about the burqa bans.

What seems to be objected to in France is the maintenance of a cultural identity separate from the picture of French identity promoted by the state. Apparently you can’t be in France unless you “fit in”. And this regulation of cultural identity is not something we should welcome.

Cultures are strongest when they can absorb new influences and grow. Immigrants bring new traditions which break countries out of rigid ways of thinking and the presence of alternative religious and political views is an important aspect of democratic society. So when governments start to legislate about the wearing of religious dress on the grounds of enforcing integration, we should question it.

In the present Islamophobic climate, it is all too easy to regard all Muslims as potential terrorists despite the fact that in the USA there have been far more domestic terrorist attacks from non-Muslims. It is even easier to be suspicious of people with different cultural values when we are told all the time that our “way of life” is under attack.

But our way of life includes tolerance and understanding of those with different views, different beliefs, different dress. Our “way of life” is not some undifferentiated block of cultural practices but a spectrum of widely differering aspects. Whenever politicians start to tell us what our national characteristics are, we have to suspect some deeply political motive and check which cameras they are looking at.

If they want to ban the burqa, let’s see them banning all religious dress in public. If they want us all to conform to some national stereotype let’s see them railing against all the other diverse communities that make up our societies. These bans are deeply undemocratic and a completely unnecessary restriction on freedom and liberty.

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About Bob Lloyd

  • Feminists had nothing to do with this?

    I agree with you, Bob Lloyd. Muslim parents have every right to dress their little girls up in clothes that tell the world, “Hey! I’m a Muslim.”

  • Jeannie, on the grounds of liberté, which is supposed to be one of the cornerstone principles of the French nation, I don’t agree with the ban, but as Bob says, if you’re going to ban an item of dress, whether it be on religion/state separation terms or on cultural identity terms, you’ve got to be consistent. Otherwise, I’m going to call bullshit and hypocrisy.

    And the fact that 8 out of 10 French people reportedly support the ban suggests to me even more strongly that this has more to do with fear of Islam than with anything else.

  • I’m just yanking your chain.
    The only problem I see with burquas on kids (which would be the only compulsorily worn burquas in France) involve safety concerns. If the burquas can be made so that they don’t get in the way of playing or studying, then there’s no problem.

  • Jeannie? I haven’t commented yet.

  • Maybe they can make the pope stop wearing that ridiculous hat. And those nuns…what horrible outfits they have.

  • Dr. Dreadful? Why did you call me Jeannie? I was surprised to see no reference to feminism *at all* in the article. Surely the feminist’s voice wasn’t a completely marginal one.

  • And the fact that 8 out of 10 French people reportedly support the ban suggests to me that 8 out of 10 people are nuts.

  • Apologies, Irene. Don’t know why I thought you were Jeannie.

    [reboots brain]

  • Cindy (#7): Quite possibly a conservative estimate. 🙂

  • Feminists aren’t a monolithic group. As a feminist I find banning clothing a big problem.

    I’d like to see every feminist throw her/his own garb in the trash before trashing what other people choose to wear. High heels? stockings? ties? suits? bras? Who decided that these items represent liberation?

  • The questions is *CAN* they be made so they don’t get in the way of play or safety. If they are to be banned, then it should be a ban on the basis of safety alone, not for what the burqua symbolises.

  • Interestingly, a link in one of Irene’s links relates that an archaic Parisian law which prohibits women from wearing trousers in public is still on the books.

    It’s universally ignored nowadays, of course, which I suppose might be one way of approaching the burqa ban.

  • Bob,

    I’m torn in two by your article.

    One side of me says, “Show me a woman that wants to cover her entire body in a bee-keepers suit, or risk being disfigured or murdered for disobedience by the men in her life.” I don’t really believe one exists.

    The other side can see your reasoning why it is an invasion of someone’s culture and religion to officially dictate this ban. although, How much say do the women have in this culture?

    : )good to see you…how’s the land of Woo?

  • Cindy,

    Who decided that these items represent liberation?

    The same fools that invented the thong and Booty Pop Panties!

    : ) ouch!

  • It’s an interesting question as to whether or not banning a burka helps the women suffering from oppression. It may equally mean that their patriarchal controllers don’t even let them out of the house. Or it could mean that they gain confidence in rejecting a restrictive form of dress.

    But there is a deeper assumption amongst feminists who want to see the burka banned, and that is that all women want the same thing culturally. In fact, the research carried out by Hester Eisenstein for her book Feminism Seduced, shows clearly that this isn’t so. Many islamic women see the veil as a matter of personal religious choice, as a chosen expression of modesty.

    If the state comes along and refuses them permission to dress this way, they would feel that to be a violation of their rights. Many islamic women already have a choice about how they dress and exercise that choice themselves: some wear a veil and some do not. In secular societies, they can see all around them the available option of breaking with a tradition they do not want to subscribe to.

    Of course, in cases such as the Taliban or the Iran of the Ayatollahs, the state regiments dress and social practices and they are heavily patriarchal societies. But so are societies run along the lines of the major religions such as Judaism, Christianity and Hinduism. I find them all equally horrendous.

    Personally, I feel the burka, when imposed, serves to reinforce the notion of women as property but many muslim women see western marriage in the same light. I see the sudden concern for the plight of islamic women from Republican and Democratic politicians, to be in stark contrast to their willingness to trade and maintain amicable relations with dictatorial and repressive regimes without any consideration of the position of women in those societies.

    In the UK, for example, whilst the politicians all express their distaste for the burka, they are busy putting through packages of social spending cuts, 75% of which will fall on women.

    And on the comment “Hey, I’m a Muslim”, I find it pretty horrendous that Christian parents will cheerfully declare their four-year-olds to be Christian when the child does not even have the ability to distinguish what is being talked about. To me, all religion is irrational but it is still understandable as a social phenomenon.

  • Irene,

    I liked your links…Salon is cool.


  • zingzing

    “Who decided that these items represent liberation?”

    people trying to sell shit.

  • Cindy, as I understand it, the argument of the 1960s bra-burning movement was that the bra – which was invented by a man – was nothing more than a devious male ploy to get women’s boobs to remain perky, thereby forcing women into pursuing a certain body image solely for male gratification.

    Of course, there are numerous female garments and accoutrements one could say that about, but the bra was chosen as a particularly striking symbol.

  • Many islamic women see the veil as a matter of personal religious choice, as a chosen expression of modesty.

    Maybe their afraid to say otherwise.

  • I’d like to see my husband in a thong, but he will not go for it! : )

  • I feel I should mention the point that some Muslim women say that wearing the niqab or the burqa does give them freedom, because they don’t have to worry about what they look like or whether they are measuring up to male expectations.

    Not that I agree with that point, but it has been made.

  • Bpb Lloyd, write another WHOLE article around this excision from your last comment, and I’ll come by and leave praising comments completely vetted for snark. 🙂 Right on.

    I see the sudden concern for the plight of islamic women from Republican and Democratic politicians, to be in stark contrast to their willingness to trade and maintain amicable relations with dictatorial and repressive regimes without any consideration of the position of women in those societies.

  • Doc,

    I have often thought that’s the reason for wedding rings. keeps you from getting fat!

  • Wow, Cindy, Jeannie and me all on the same thread at the same time. PA PUFF GOOLS!

  • 20 LOL Jeannie.

  • LMAO Irene!

  • US GIRLS GOTTA STICK TOGETHER. fight these bastards

    : )Satire

  • I’m not wearing no bee-keepers suit!

  • Wow, that should be my, There I said it!

  • Let’s free women by making laws about what they should wear! “Hey that outfit is oppressive you should wear a mini skirt some high heels and a push-up bra and a thong.”

    I agree with Bob. Some women (usually white middle to upper class) think with white middle to upper class brains. Not to intentionally harm, but because they are in the dominating group and analyze ‘reality’ based on their group. This can create a feminism that, itself, becomes a way of marginalizing women the world over who are not a part of this dominant group.

    I recommend having a read about US Third World Feminism and Postcolonial Feminism.

  • By way of evidence that there really are many islamic women who, without any compulsion, want to wear the veil, Hester Eisenstein in Ch 6 of her book Feminism Seduced (highly recommended by the way) cites a whole range of authors (Lila Abu-Lughod for one) who have done serious fieldwork in Egypt, Algeria, Afghanistan and other countries.

    By the way, in 2008 France denied citizenship to a Moroccan woman Faiza Silmi, a legal immigrant, on the basis that she refused to stop wearing a nicab because she said it was part of her religious practice. This was her choice not her husband’s and she took the case to the French Council of State who upheld the ban, and declared that she had adopted a “radical practice of her religion” which was “incompatible with essential values of the French community, particularly the principle of equality of the sexes.”

    They seemed to miss the irony that men could choose whatever dress they wanted to for any and every religious practice.

  • Jeannie, I like the “bee-keeper suit” simile but for a different reason than you do. As a person who is even *more* afraid of skin cancer than I am of colo-rectal cancer or even new Atheists, if I were living as close to the equator as a lot of Muslims are, I’d want to make darn sure I was wearing something that protected me from being burned by the sun the way a bee-keepers suit protects him from being stung.

    The typical burqua has got to be around SPF 60000! And the fabric looks to be the same used by the desert Bedouin’s clothing, lightweight and comfortable.

    Cindy, yeah. I’m even wondering about the word feminist. What does it mean really?

    Feminist: DEF: “one who works tirelessly to get 51% of the world’s population what it wants and needs whether or not they know they want or need it yet.”

  • See ya later Cindy *swoooooosh*, Jeannie *swooosh*, and Irene Athena *Swoosh*

    Feminists three, but each in her own way.

  • *Swoosh* Irene 🙂 *Swoosh* Cindy :>)and *Swoosh* me : )


  • soooosh Jeannie, swoooosh Irene, swooo……thudd…who put that wall there?

    PA PUFF GOOLS! (cough, cough)

  • Simple – live and let live – surely?

  • “When God Created Boy Poet from Girl Poet’s Rib”

    Much nearer to The Beginning than The Now, shortly after He created everything, God created Girl Poet, in His image, to help Him remember and describe what He’d created.

    Girl Poet did a swell job and, as specified under God’s list of REASONS FOR CREATING GIRL POET, she did it in such a way that made God feel exclusively awesome about His creation. Girl Poet was awesome in word and deed, and she was permitted to be aware of and enjoy her awesomeness, as long as she used her work to make others feel like they were awesome, too.

    Everything was cool, because Girl Poet enjoyed creating awesome songs, and felt content in all the groovy characteristics God allowed her. Her only problem with the contract was her obligation to make everyone else believe they were awesome. Girl Poet, poet that she was, was an observer by nature. She paid attention to the folks around the camp, and not everyone was even sorta cool, let alone awesome.

    Girl Poet looked around and said to herself, “What is UP? I am supposed to write beautiful songs that reflect the unconditional awesomeness of all God’s creation. But that is effing difficult sometimes!”

    There came a day when some guy got stoned to death for accidentally getting a little pee on his tunic, then making the mistake of getting within 100 yards of the tabernacle. He got the crap stoned out of him and this was a turning point for Girl Poet, or so goes the story coming down.

    Girl Poet saw the Anti-Awesome violent episode and was perturbed. And she could not help but write a song about what happened, exactly as it had happened. And it happened that the song that came from the stoning story was a little sad, and contained some fury from deep inside Girl Poet, and when The G heard it He wasn’t jazzed, because the song did not make Him or The Nation look that awesome. He came looking for Girl Poet, and she hid from Him, but as you can probably guess, He figured out where she was (He really is awesome).

    Girl Poet said, “Lord, somebody got stoned for getting a little piss on his pants. What should I do?”

    And God said, “You do your duty as outlined in the agreement GOD’S REASONS FOR CREATING GIRL POET. You tell the story and make it look awesome.”

    That’s when Girl Poet said, “But I don’t want to make it look awesome. I want to TELL IT LIKE IT IS.”

    God looked at Girl Poet. He didn’t know what to do. She had tiny fangs, and hair the color of mashed carrots. She was cute as a kitten on a Camaro. But she was getting on his nerves. He decided:

    It is not good for Girl Poet to be alone, so concerned about telling it like it is. I will make her a partner to help her.

    So God put Girl Poet in a deep sleep, and from one of her ribs he created Boy Poet.

    God really liked Boy Poet immediately. God realized, Now the Boy Poet can make everything look awesome! He shall not care about telling it like it is; rather he will be preoccupied with making even his own asshole characteristics seem awesomely charming in their backward-ness! And the Girl Poet– well, who really cares what she does, cause now there’s the Boy!

    And so Girl Poet was free to tell it like it is.

    Boy Poet looked at Girl Poet and was in love with her. Girl Poet woke up and looked at Boy Poet and was vaguely amused. “Neat,” Girl Poet said, “he can write in the sand with his pee, whereas I cannot.”- Beth Ferda

  • Belated LOL to Cindy slap-stick into wall. I’m going to have a look at this, too, Jeannie. I like poetry a lot. Then I have to go.

  • I was getting a little worried toward the middle, Jeannie…but the end. LOL LOL LOL. OK see ya.

  • Irene,

    That poem is us! The PA Poof Gools…

    Cindy…lol hitting the glass wall?

  • Penis envy, indeed! 😉

  • #37 is a poem from Baritone’s son’s ” Cell-Poems”. It was written by one of his editors, Beth Freda

  • Isn’t that sweet?