Hijablogging: On Burqas and Bans

Although the practice of wearing hijab has been around since pre-Islamic times, the debate surrounding it has increased in recent years. Whereas in some countries (Saudi Arabia, Iran, parts of Afghanistan and Indonesia), hijab is mandated, in others, it has been banned in schools and other public spaces (Turkey, Tunisia, parts of Belgium and Germany). But whether required or forbidden, Muslim women's dress is almost always a topic of hot debate.

Most recently, French President Nicholas Sarkozy proposed a ban on the burqa. His proposal follows a 2004 French law banning hijab from schools.

Bloggers around the world across the spectrum of belief have been speaking out about Sarkozy's decision. At KABOBfest, Canadian Sana writes:

By targeting how a small number of French women choose to assert and represent their sexuality, France is missing the real sources of the problem as well as implying that its foundation is perhaps far less stable than what it would like the world and its own citizenry to think. It is now time for France not to shed the various components of its identity, but rather to approach those very pieces with a broader outlook. Its minority population has been willing to adapt for decades, but can France accept minimal equity as a basis for greater equality as we have done so here in North America?

The blogger concludes with:

Mr. Sarkozy, your efforts may be sincere; you are, after all, only trying to protect the criteria for what makes one“French” enough. Remember, however, that in your attempt to free woman from her draping chains, you restrict her sexuality, her own sense of her individualism and her being to the confines of your harem by dictating the dance she must do and the garments she must wear to please you.

Algerian-American blogger The Moor Next Door echoes a similar sentiment. Arguing that Sarkozy's proposal is “bigotry dressed as gallantry,” he states:

The trouble the French may want to worry about is not the burqa as it is worn in France today, but that such a ban, as the headscarf ban has done, will make the garment a greater symbol of Muslim identity and sign of cultural defiance. France has done a good job at finding ways of alienating racial and religious minorities. Indeed, among Western nations it is a leader in this field. This is a quality that does little to further the assimilationist cause the French so actively pursue, though. The proposition comes with other baggage, too. The concern (posed by the Economist piece) that this proposed ban would be might be “misunderstood abroad,” seems foolish. What is to be misunderstood? It is precisely an effort to limit the expression of religion, Islam especially in this case, and follows from the same motivations as the earlier headscarf ban.

Farah, writing for the group blog Nuseiba, presents an excellent roundup of Australian opinions on the matter, noting:

A lot of writers (including Posetti and Hussein) against a ban point out that a number of women actively choose to wear the burqa or niqab. While the burqa has been used by groups to subjugate women, these writers highlight the need to identify the agency of these Muslim women, rather than denying them that agency which a ban would do.

Faith-based blogger Tracy Simmons, from the United States, sees the issue as a simple one. Asking Sarkozy not to strip women of their dignity, she pleads:

I don’t think people realize that wearing the burqa is a choice for many Islam women. And because it’s a choice, they shouldn’t be forced by a government NOT to wear it.

Of course, not all bloggers are opposed to Sarkozy's ban. Popular Egyptian blogger and columnist Mona Eltahawy, who famously took off her own headscarf a few years ago (an experience which she has written about on her blog) wrote an op-ed for The New York Times in which she stated that, as a woman and a Muslim, she was opposed to the burqa being worn anywhere.

One U.S.-based blogger, Anne of Carversville, expresses her support for Eltahawy by saying:

I’m sensitive to the delicate nature of change in politics, but I have not lived my life to hear in 2009 that I’m offbase, because I believe that burqas debase women, erasing them from society as Eltahawy argues.

In formalizing my position against burqas, I am in no way affronted by the more conservative form of dress chosen by many Muslim women. I am not opposed to head coverings of any kind.

More broadly, the blogger adds:

At the same time, I support and advocate the embracing of life’s sensuality — seeing, hearing, smelling and using all our sensitivity to experience life. This view does not put me in opposition to Muslim culture, which also embraces the deeply sensual nature of life.

I will also accept burqas for women when men are equally compelled to wear them. For both genders to embrace burqas as a sign of respect for their religion (which does not require them in the Koran), then I agree that burqas are a sign of Muslim culture and religious custom.

Eltahawy's column was not without opposition from the blogosphere, however. Sahar, writing for Nuseiba, protests:

…the best way to support Muslim women is to respect their choice in how they express their religion and culture. It is not to impose what we think is good for them. I find it ironic that Eltahawy who claims to be a feminist is ignoring the importance of choice, agency and the lived experiences of these women— which are essential factors in understanding women in feminist analysis.

Nor do we all agree with Eltahawy who, perhaps due to her socially privileged position is detached from the social, political and religious motivations for wearing burqa, and can’t comprehend how it can be a vehicle of success for some or a proud reinforcement of Muslim identity for others. The burqa can be understood as a symbol of the outrage Muslims are feeling as they are exposed to an increasingly xenophobic Europe. It’s symbolic of an attempt to cling on to an identity that is being eroded in a hostile environment. I write this piece now after just reading about an Egyptian woman who was stabbed in a German court 18 times by the man she was suing for harassing her for wearing a headscarf. It is not the burqa alone that is being undermined and discredited but Islamic dress entirely. Therefore, the call to remove the burqa cannot be devoid of such a context and for Eltahawy to think that divorcing her criticism from such a context as viable is politically naïve.

Though it remains to be seen whether or not France will implement a ban on the burqa, one thing is certain: this is a very polarizing topic around the world.


  • J. Kactuz

    Until Islamic societies quit discriminating against non-Muslims (legally, culturally, personally), I would appreciate if Muslim commenters here refrain from
    condemning France’s ban on the burqa.

    Talk about “respecting choice” rings very hollow when so many Muslim countries have apostasy laws and actively restrict the practice of other religions. Does anybody think that the term “hostile environment” is applicable only to Western countries?

    Or maybe you want to argue that the same moral principles should not apply to all people? Is that it?


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  • J,

    You cannot blame Muslim commenters for the actions of their societies, so no, they will not “refrain from commenting” here. There are many Muslims who equally condemn the inane practices of Muslim societies which infringe upon human rights as well. Do you really think lumping people in with societies is helpful?

    I will state for the record that I am as opposed to forcing the hijab as I am to banning it. It is a woman’s choice alone.


  • Tobias

    In which “parts” of Germany a hijab is “altogether” banned??? Living here for 28 years I haven’t heard of that… please cite sources.

  • Tobias

    Jillian, it’s you who is lumping together debates going on in western societies. In most countries, including Germany, noone questions that people can wear what they can wear. In most cases, debates are about whether signs of religious affiliation should be worn by state representatives (ie. teachers, police man) – division between church and state is a strong western tradition just as is the Hijab for other parts of the world.

    In Bavaria who succesfully sued schools to take down crosses. In other countries, like France and Turkey, this division is extended to school children or students… behind that is the the same idea that stands behind school uniforms and mandatory use of common languages on school grounds (to avoid segregation of students according to social status, ethical or religious affiliation).

    This is already the second article on GV failing the marks of professional journalism, as long as the debate focuses on muslima victimhood against western countries allegedly violating basic human rights, it will never lead anywhere. All those countries have their pecularities, traditions and debates and should be considered individually, we need differentiation between attitudes toward Hijab and full-body garments such as Burqa, and we need differentations between bans on public, private or work level.

    All of this is lacking here, unfortunately.

    • Tobias,

      The bans on certain religious garments in German schools exist and include hijab and the Jewish kippeh, but not the Christian nun’s habit – why is that? That doesn’t exactly scream “separation of church and state” to me. And as far as gender equality in the so-called west, the UK is looking at a bill that would allow employers to continue forcing women to wear skirts in the workplace! Ridiculous.

      GV is not professional journalism, and I am quoting a selection of blogs, most of which are against the ban (but two of which are in favor of it).

      I do understand how you are confused by the way I included Germany, and I apologize if it was unclear.

      Lastly, and this is my personal opinion, I do not think we need differentiation between attitudes toward hijab and the burqa – both should be the choice of a woman to wear, not the choice of Sarkozy, or any other man in public position.

      • Olivia

        A nun’s habit is not banned, because nuns (funnily enough) don’t attend public schools, whereas children who wear hijabs and kippehs do attend public schools.

        For someone writing any article, I’d expect a certain level of intelligence. Sadly, your lack of ability to understand this basic principle shows that you are somewhat lacking.

        • The point, Olivia, is that the law in Baden-Württemberg – which I have read in translation – targets specifically Muslims and Jews, banning their religious symbols, but not those of Christians (which is to say that the cross may be worn, no matter how large or obtrusive, but not the hijab or kippeh).

          As the laws apply to teachers as well, there was a specific case in that region where a nun was allowed to teach in a public school while wearing a habit for “historic reasons,” while education minister Annette Schavan has argued specifically against Muslim women, stating that headscarves are “understood as a symbol of the exclusion of woman from civil and cultural society.

          My comment stands – German laws are entirely biased against Muslims.

      • Rosemary Porter

        To Jillian,
        In regards to your question about the nun’s habit; nun’s take up an oath of seperation from the “world” and live a life fully devoted to the church. This is the same principle as a Bhuddist monk who wears their saffron robes. The habit is not worn by all Catholics, it is only worn by those who are officially sworn into the cloth as such. It is THEIR choice, and not required of every member of the Church to wear. THAT is why issue is not taken up with the habit, because there is a clear distinction between church and state. Nuns, monks, and clergymen do not run for state office, and the parish schools are entities of the church, the state has nothing to do with them. Hope that clears things up with that issue.

  • What I cannot understand is that westerners are not allowed to dress like westerners and practice their religion in Muslim countries because it is not allowed. Muslims have come to the west and want to force their culture and religion unto westerners and their governments. The west is an open society where citizens are identified by facial and body features. Why enjoy the fruits of western living and not integrate into the society in which they live. The hijab segregates a western society and it is not part of the western culture. Muslims want to hold onto their cake and yet munch off the western cake. They cannot have it both ways. Why move to the west? We in the west have freedom of religion their religion does not allow that. It is clear that Islam and the western way of life is on a collision course. Muslims will have to adapt to the society in which they live or have a very hard time existing. When we go to your country we have to respect your customs what about respecting ours.

    • Rosemary Porter

      I understand how you see the hijab as a way of segregating from Western Society. But do not overlook the fact that Western Society is very much segregated in its own right. In Chicago, you still have Little Italy, predominately Hispanic portions of town, the ghettos where the majority of those who reside are black, and even little Poland (where you have to know Polish in order to buy groceries). It is only segregating if you ALLOW it. I’ve spoken to many people who wear hijabs and honestly, it’s as if they didn’t even have it on.

      Muslims are not trying to impose their way of life on Western culture, so much as they are trying perserve their way of life. Remember my reference to little Italy and Poland…those communities segregated themselves because they feared what American values would do to their culture. So why don’t Muslims have the same rights as Italians? You would have to criticize hold every ethnic community in the West who has a diaspora of their own. Those closed-knit communities preserve the culture. Islam is both a religion and a culture, and it is defined by their dress…there is nothing wrong with this.

      Muslims move to the west for a variety of reasons. If they are refugees then they come here because that’s where the UNHRC told them to go to. Some move because their family is here, and others because they would rather live in the “evil” West than see another one of their children be used as a body-shield. Do not forget that they are going through a culture shock. If you have ever been overseas, you should be able to understand where they are coming from (if not, then, from someone who has been overseas, I can tell you that you instinctively try to hold on to every ounce of your culture; the country I went to didn’t even impose their way of life, but I was very afraid of losing my cultural identity–it’s natural). This isn’t about having their cake and eating too, it’s about cultural preservation and figuring out how to adapt to a place that is so diametrically opposed to the one they came from.

      Like I said, I understand how you could see things the way you do, but try to look at it from this perspective. I do not condone any violence that spurs from any immigrant community, but I can understand the fierceness in which they are holding on to their culture.

      Also, Christians do not have a formal “religious” wardrobe (for lack of a better term)unless they are clergymen and women, so you can’t really spot a Christian from a mile away like you could a Muslim, Sikh, Hindu, etc. I’m not contesting the policies, I’m just saying that Christians are really chameleon like over there. Egypt has Christian churches, so does Syria, Lebanon (they are not as singled out as it appears, and they can worship…there is a slight sense of religious cohesiveness); they blend in pretty well. Plus, those policies are from Muslim countries. It’s THEIR country, they can issue whatever they would like just like the West can. You’re basically saying that it’s okay for the West to force them to assimilate, but not okay for the Muslim world to do the same thing (at least that is my perception if I am wrong please clarify so I can avoid another misunderstanding please). Yes, we want the world to come together and be as one, but we have to deal with human nature and that often messes things up a bit now doesn’t it?

  • Tobias, I did not say that hijab is altogether banned in Germany; the parentheses were in reference to all of the aforementioned places – In Germany, the hijab is banned IN SCHOOLS in eight states.

  • Kay kactuz

    Jillian, you are right, to a degree. I believe Muslims have the right to express their opinions, and should do so, whatever their opinions may be (right, wrong, serious, funny, silly, probing, questioning, stc.). They have certainly have not been shy around me.

    My comment was more retorical then a call to suppress ideas. I wanted people to think before they jump. Heck, 8 comments so far and not one pro-burka or “it is our right” one yet. I am getting worried. I opened Global Voices today expecting to have to put on my stoical hat and then get out the old verbal knife and do battle, defending my words, but nada, nada, nada.

    I guess I’ll go out side and see how the quail are doing. The couple have three very small chicks (one less than 2 days ago). They are so small and it is so darn hot. Don’t know how they survive.


  • […] Global Voices Online » Hijablogging: On Burqas and Bans includes several reactions on the blogosphere (mostly against the burqa ban, based on “the women’s freedom to wear it”). Even if I don’t really believe this is a question of “freedom” but of “really accept the values and social norms of the place where you live”, it’s interesting to read about the other side’s views too. Most recently, French President Nicholas Sarkozy proposed a ban on the burqa. […]

  • Manzoor Husain Sarkar

    Well, if it’s a question of choice , then I don’t understand why these moslem families migrate to the wetern countries and prefer to live there instead of migrating to hard-core tradtional islamic countries like Saudi Arabia , Iran , where they should not have any problem with Hijab & Burqa . I think that all are hypocrats & prefer to opt for earning dollars , pounds & euroes. It’s also surprising for me that a minority community tries to impose their way of traditions to the host country .

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