Ban the burqa? Let the women decide

Last Updated: Thu, Apr 21, 2011 08:42 hrs

The French have a penchant for strange laws. A cursory Google search reveals that in Paris, among other weird laws, an ashtray is considered a deadly weapon!

And all across France, naming a pig Napoleon is illegal. Good for the pigs that.

On 11 April, 2011, the French banned the burqa. The only exceptions to the ban, officially called The Bill to Forbid Concealing One's Face in Public, are motorcyclists wearing helmets, or people wearing masks for health reasons, fencing, skiing or carnivals. (What if I'm a compulsive skier who likes to keep my gear on while I roam the streets? Even in summer? Well, the bill has no provisions for such mental weirdness.)

Click here to see this column as a slide-show

Women 'caught' wearing the burqa in France face - notice the clever use of the word face - a 150-Euro fine or citizenship lessons. While the Police cannot forcibly remove offending women's burqas, they can order them to a police station & check their identity.

A clause in the law also states that any person forcing a woman to wear the full veil faces a year's imprisonment and a fine of 30,000 Euros. If the woman is under 18, the punishment is 60,000 Euros and up two years' imprisonment.

How this law will be applied is anyone's guess. I personally can't imagine a law enforcement agent prioritising chasing down a 'Burqa culprit' instead of a thief or a terrorist.

Operation 'Rescue Muslim Women

This ban, even though there are no reliable government figures to go by, will affect at most 2,000 women who cover their faces out of France's total Muslim population of four to six million. The French thought it wise to rescue these 2,000 women, identified in June 2009 by President Sarkozy as 'prisoners behind a screen, cut off from all social life, deprived of all identity.'

Are these women really prisoners though? And should a country go out of its way to 'liberate' them?

I'm no fan of the burqa. I abhor it as a patriarchal construct imposed upon women by male clergy centuries ago, the existence of which as a symbol of repression of women needs to be phased out of the public sphere.

One might argue that even when the burqa is worn out of choice, the garment still represents an ingrained and an entrenched male patriarchal imposition. However, over the course of its long history, the burqa seems to have evolved beyond that.

For women on whom the burqa is imposed, it is an obvious symbol of repression. But women who chose to wear it - and there are many - have called it an inadvertent passport to freedom from the male gaze.

In effect, the phasing out, if at all, has to come from the women themselves. Not through laws that seek to 'liberate' them.

Of the couple of thousand French women in question here, who is to say which ones are wearing it of their own accord and on whom is it being imposed?

Unveiling the Truth

A study 'Unveiling the Truth: Why 32 Women Wear the Full-Face Veil in France' released by the Open Society institute under the aegis of its 'At Home in Europe Project' has brought out results quite contrary to what the French law makers would have us believe.

The report's findings are based on testimonies from 32 women from all over France and suggest that none of the respondents were forced into wearing the full-face veil. In the majority of cases, wearing the burqa was a personal choice, 'without any pressure from family members.'

The report aimed "to distinguish myths and misrepresentations surrounding women who wear the full-face veil from the actual experiences and testimonies of the women themselves, by reporting on the women's backgrounds, their decisions to wear the veil, their daily experiences in public, and their views on the legislation".

In most cases, the women interviewed said "they adopted the full-face veil as part of a spiritual journey. Many desired to deepen their relationship with God and draw on the actions of the Prophet Mohammed's wives for guidance."

Predictably, 'the media attention itself encouraged a number of interviewees, especially younger ones, to adopt the full-face veil: Ten of the 32 women started wearing the niqab after the controversy broke out in April 2009,' the report finds.

The report does what the French lawmakers did not do: Aask the women wearing the burqa their reasons for wearing it.

And banning the burqa on behalf of the Muslim women presupposes that these women can't make their own choices with respect to what to wear and what not to wear, more particularly, whether to wear or not to wear the burqa.

The more disturbing aspect of the ban is that of the state making the choice for them. Why should a secular state make that choice for anyone or any dressing choice indeed? Just as a state can't order anyone to be naked, it can't order anyone to take off the veil.

A poll gimmick

The ban, if analysed through the prism of today's security context, is still explicable given how the burqa has been used as camouflage by terrorists and suicide bombers in parts of the world including Afghanistan and Pakistan.

But as a step towards the 'liberation' of Muslim women and protecting the French culture, the ban is misplaced.

As the Guardian reports, since President Sarkozy's 2009 declaration that the Burqa was not 'welcome in France,' 'women in all forms of veils and head coverings said verbal abuse against them had increased.'

The ban in a larger geo-political context is an unnecessary addition to the Islamphobia discourse. Already pictures of veiled women being dragged away by French Policemen, circulating on social networking sites, are riling up young Muslim men and women all over the world, contributing to the transnational Muslim victimhood narrative and the subsequent rage.

If I were the French President, rather than obsessing about whether a handful of women should cover themselves from head to toe, I'd be spending time with Carla Bruni. I'd also be strategising for the impending presidential elections next year.

Oh wait! Then again, maybe even I'd have banned the Burqa! The election is just a year away and my ratings are at an all-time low.

Who knows what might work!

Also by Raheel Khursheed: Even Pappu can fast - Only you can kill corruption

Raheel Khursheed is an independent journalist based in Kashmir. He is a consultant on communication skills, development and youth leadership. He writes on international, national, local and even trivial matters. You can contact him on He tweets at @Raheelk.