Liberté, Egalité—de Féministes! Revealing the Burqa as a Pro-Choice Issue

“Ban the burqa! Ban the burqa!” Across Western Europe this resounds as the rallying cry of the day among the public and politicians. At least Belgium, France, Austria, Italy, Switzerland, Spain, and the United Kingdom are in various stages of proposing, voting, or enforcing legislation that would prohibit a person from wearing a facial covering in public places that hides the identity of the person. The words “burqa,” which describes a Muslim garment that covers the body and includes a mesh covering over the face, and “niqab,” referring to a Muslim facial covering that leaves only a slit revealing the eyes, do not appear in any nation’s ban. However, the rhetoric accompanying the legislation in these countries leaves no doubt that it is Muslim women who are targeted—not those citizens who are wearing woolen scarves to keep their faces warm in cold weather.

Animosity against the burqa, the niqab, and even Muslim headscarves isn’t new. France banned the wearing of conspicuous religious symbols in public schools in September 2004. The law had the effect of preventing Muslim schoolgirls from wearing headscarves. In spring of 2010 a sixteen-year-old Spanish girl was expelled from her school in suburban Madrid for wearing a headscarf, which violated the school’s dress code. The student was readmitted after the national education ministry intervened, stating that the Spanish Constitution requires government institutions to respect religious beliefs. Turkey bans the covering of the face and neck; however, since 2008 loose headscarves are allowed. Some areas of Italy have used a national law against hiding one’s identity in public, which predates any discussion of a burqa ban, to prevent Muslim women from wearing the burqa and the niqab in public.

It’s worth noting that the burqa, the niqab, and other Muslim clothing traditions are not consistent among Muslim cultures. According to the Muslim Women’s League, the Koran only states that women should dress modestly. From there, how women should dress is open to interpretation. The differences in how Muslim women dress reflects the diversity of the women themselves, which is often overlooked. The Muslim Women’s League states that “stereotypical assumptions about Muslim women are as inaccurate as the assumption that all American women are personified by the bikini-clad cast of Baywatch.”

The burqa and the niqab are striking symbols for those who wear them and for those who don’t. When Western government officials and the public blindly insist that the burqa and niqab are used to oppress these women, they are in effect denying that women are intelligent individuals capable of making their own choices. There is no denying that the burqa and niqab have been and are still being used as tools to oppress some Muslim women—both individually by family members or peer groups and collectively by governments. But banning head and facial coverings is also a tool used to oppress Muslim women in Muslim and secular countries. Prior to the revolution in 1979 in Iran, women were prohibited from wearing religious head coverings, called chadors, as expressions of their faith. Many women wore the chadors while marching in the streets to protest the repressive regime. Iranian women were then forced to wear them everyday by those who seized power after the revolution. In Turkey, the ban on facial coverings stems from the belief imposed by Turkish authorities that the facial coverings and even headscarves are representative of radical Muslim groups who threaten the country’s secularism. Therefore, women who wear facial coverings are prevented from holding public offices and jobs. In short, oppression in the form of forced apparel goes both ways.

There is a presumption among many Western non-Muslim men and women, many of them otherwise religious, that wearing the burqa or niqab or even a headscarf can’t be an intelligent or rational choice for a woman but rather is always a patriarchal imposition—one that robs women of their identity and equality. Yet after the repressive Muslim Taliban regime was overthrown in 2002 in Afghanistan, women who were thought to have been forced to wear the burqa didn’t cast it off—confusing many Westerners who failed to understand that force is different from choice. Amnesty International, the American Civil Liberties Union, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE), Human Rights Watch, and many other Western human rights groups have stated that wearing the burqa or niqab is a religious and individual choice and should be protected—not banned. After adopting a unanimous resolution against any general prohibition on wearing the burqa or niqab on June 23, 2010, PACE, which includes parliamentarians from forty-seven European countries, stated in a press release that the burqa or niqab is often perceived “as a symbol of the subjugation of women to men” but a general ban would deny women “who genuinely and freely desire to do so” the right to cover their faces.

The reactions of the women themselves to a burqa and niqab ban should be considered. In March, after France began debating the issue, a woman wearing a niqab posted a YouTube video demonstrating how to wear a medical mask under the burqa or niqab so that when required to remove either, her face would still be covered. The fully masked and clothed woman, even wearing gloves, boasted that authorities couldn’t make her take off the medical mask because it is for her health. In May, according to Italian press reports, when Amel Marmouri was fined 500 euros for wearing a niqab at a Northern Italian post office, she threatened to stay indoors and never leave her home. Rather than freeing Muslim women and assimilating them into European society, these early examples seem to indicate a fierce backlash may erupt within the Muslim community from the very persons the bans are purported to help. Each passed or proposed ban includes monetary fines for appearing in public wearing a facial covering that expresses some Muslim women’s religious faith—in effect a burqa and niqab ban criminalizes the behavior of the very victims the legislation is supposed to help.

The French ban would fine women wearing face coverings 150 euros (about $190) and require them to take a citizenship course. The fines are much stiffer, however, for anyone convicted of forcing a woman or girl to wear a face covering—30,000 euros and a year in prison (doubled if the victim is a minor). The ability of the government to convict a person of forcing another to wear a burqa or niqab has not been tested in Western Europe. Yet, its effectiveness must be questioned when the manner of proof against the defendant would likely reside upon the statement of a woman or girl forced to wear the garment, who must also have been under the authority of that same defendant. It’s not unlike asking a domestic violence victim to make a statement against her abuser. And will there be shelters and assistance for those victims who turn against their parents, imams, or spouses?

Advocating for women’s emancipation means that all the possible choices a woman may make should be respected including how a woman chooses to express her sexuality: from the extreme of exploitation (like pornography) to the extreme of complete camouflage (like the burqa, niqab, or a nun’s habit). The responsibility of government and society is only to ensure that women have the freedom and education to make these choices for themselves. These bans target what is actually a very small minority of Muslim women who wear the burqa or niqab. In Belgium, it is estimated that only 300 women wear such garments. In France, where there are more than 5 million Muslim immigrants, less than 2,000 Muslim women wear the burqa or niqab according to French police. Individuals’ religious rights or civil liberties must be protected no matter how few people are being persecuted, which here are the small numbers of Muslim women wearing the burqa or niqab.

Every person is indoctrinated into their society but the variables at play and the degree of their influence aren’t always the same. A woman learns what is normal for females based on the religion, culture, lifestyle, and family she’s born into. But in our global society it’s presumptuous to assume that another’s beliefs are wrong simply because those beliefs conflict with a society’s standards—as is being assumed by Western countries’ views of the burqa and niqab. French President Nicolas Sarkozy showed this kind of sexism and presumption earlier this year when he stated that “the full veil is not welcome in France because it is contrary to our values and contrary to the ideals we have of a woman’s dignity.”

Practically, there must be proof that another’s beliefs are harmful. Take, for example, the sects of fundamentalist Latter-Day Saints (Mormons) in the United States and Canada that practice polygamy. In these sects, girls under the age of legal consent are married off to much older men. This is harmful to the girls by societal standards and is a crime. In one of these fundamentalist Mormon sects in the southwest United States, the women wear their hair in the same elaborate coiffed and braided style and wear matching blue prairie-style ankle-length dresses. The intent is to make sure that everyone knows they’re part of the sect. Using the same arguments that Western European governments are applying to the burqa and niqab for judging the rights of women, the women in this sect are certainly being oppressed. Furthermore, based upon the known religious principles of the sect, a majority of these women are likely victims of punishable crimes. Yet, there is no law banning these women’s dresses or hairstyles because a hairstyle and dress style aren’t outwardly harmful to the women, and such a law wouldn’t stop the sect’s polygamy nor free the women from the sect’s oppression.

Unlike a polygamous sect, Islam is not predicated on a religious doctrine that violates the law in a Western country. There is no evidence that simply by wearing a burqa or niqab, a woman is oppressed or the victim of a crime. Many of these women have even stated that they have chosen the burqa or niqab as a way to express their faith. In order to assist others who may truly be oppressed, all Western governments must be ready to provide assistance to any and all Muslim women if they look to the government for help—and not assume any or all of them will come wearing a burqa or niqab.

It’s true a prairie-style dress and coiffed, braided hairstyle don’t raise the same security concerns that Western European governments claim the burqa and niqab do. The government of France claims that hiding one’s face in public is a security risk. Yet its proposed ban exempts a number of face coverings, including motorcycle helmets and masks worn for health reasons, fencing, skiing, or carnivals. And while the Belgian law would prohibit any clothing that obscures the identity of the wearer in public places, such as parks and sidewalks, any country’s ban will likely include similar exceptions.

So while a government may make laws in the interest of the welfare, safety, and health of its citizens, a law banning facial coverings does not relate to any of these interests. In order to have an effective law about facial coverings to ensure an individual’s identification on the street, a government would have to pass a law of extremes: no oversized sunglasses, no hats that shade the face, no facial hair (real or fake) that obscures the lines of the face, and no bangs or hairstyles that hide the eyes. Lady Gaga would be banned from every Western European country.

Specific situations do favor facial identification. In fact, at a time when identity theft has become a major crime, identity checks are a safety accommodation for government, business, and the consumer when services are being provided or exchanged. Religious customs don’t prevent private businesses from requiring patrons to show their faces for service. In the United States, it is common to show photo identification when using a credit card. The purchaser’s face must be visible for comparison. Reasonable security precautions allow for a government to require every person who enters a secured government building to have his or her identity checked—including showing her or his face. Whether the services a person receives from the government are a right or a privilege, it is reasonable to expect a person to confirm his or her identity facially in order to receive such services. Reciprocally, the government should be expected to provide a female official to check the identities of women who are wearing facial coverings in order to respect religious practices. A business will make such an accommodation for its consumers based on the monetary incentive; the government is required upfront to be more equitable to its citizenry.

This was the case in 2002, when a Florida appellate court ruled that the state did not violate a Muslim woman’s rights by requiring her to remove her niqab in order to take a driver’s license photograph. Florida provided Sultaana Freeman with a private room and a female employee to take the photograph. The court stated that hiding one’s face on a photo identification defeats the purpose of having the photo identification.

There is an argument that wearing the burqa or niqab violates the secularism of the society. In France, this is a particularly strong opinion among the public as reported by the French media. One could say the ban is really to help the French retain their cherished principle of liberté—at the expense of the personal liberty of those masked. Others argue that banning the burqa and niqab will only further isolate Muslim women and girls, in turn reinforcing the negative stereotype many Muslims have of Western governments and preventing younger generations of Muslim women from considering a different way of life and making different choices. Religious tolerance and freedom of expression allow all ideas to bubble to the surface and be heard—from the mainstream to the wacky and scary. At the surface, sunshine is the best disinfectant. The laws banning the burqa and niqab are wholesale laws restricting expressions of religion and culture without proof of harm and are the antithesis of a free and open secular society.

If the goal of Western European countries and all Western governments is truly to fight the oppression of women and encourage cultural and societal integration, there are more positive alternatives to explore than banning the burqa and niqab. Instead these governments should create an outreach network, including a hotline, emergency services, and counseling, with education and work programs so that if and when Muslim women who are truly oppressed by their religion, culture, or relatives—whether or not they wear a burqa or niqab—choose to leave their families, their religion, their culture, their entire lives, they will have the resources to move on and start a new life, and, importantly, a society that will welcome them instead of shying away.

Most Muslim women will likely not leave their faith, but that doesn’t mean they don’t want the same things as Western women, including the right to education, access to healthcare, marriage and divorce rights, and equal pay for equal work. Western governments should form coalitions with Muslim women’s groups to assist their efforts. These Western governments will find that such overtures and actions will provide Muslim women with opportunities to improve their lives in their communities and to act as agents of change. Muslim women should be viewed as partners in accommodating cultures and religion. To start such a process, Western governments should learn and understand Islam and Muslim women enough to accept that wearing a headscarf, burqa, or niqab doesn’t mean a woman is acquiescing to the male-dominated version of Islam, but until proven otherwise, she is making a valid choice to honor her faith.

Amanda Knief is an attorney, humanist celebrant, and cofounder of Iowa Atheists and Freethinkers

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