In France, Sudan, Burqas and Trousers Cause Controversy

Did French President Nicolas Sarkozy again send the cat among the pigeons, as he is fond of doing whenever the country's attention focuses on uncomfortable economic or social issues, or dozes off during the sluggish weeks of summer vacation?

A few weeks after stating, in the middle of his solemn address to the French Congress of MPs and Senators, that «the burqa is not welcome on the territory of the French Republic», an «information panel» was formed by a group of majority and opposition MPs, to draw up an inventory of the situation, with six months’ time to give their report. Meanwhile, police intelligence counted 367 women wearing burqas in France, the accuracy of which has left some skeptical and others snickering.

Feelings appear ready to heat up as they did with the ban on the headscarf from schools in 2004. French media and the blogosphere are abuzz again, all the more so as some draw a parallel between France's apparent intention of banning the burqa, and the flogging and pending trial of several Sudanese women, among them a journalist and UN employee, for wearing trousers under their islamic veil.

Indian blogger savadati explains what is at stake for Muslim women, in her post “We love Islam so we wear burqas” :

The burqa (and the hijab, the niqab, the chador) is possibly the most controversial garment in this century. It has been used on the one hand by fundamentalist power-seeking groups like the Taliban to attain their own end, through the suppression of women. Women have been handed grisly punishments – physical and even sexual – for refusing to wear it. It was turned, in Afghanistan, into a weapon of suppression. Being forced to wear a tent-like garment at all times, for fear of being labelled a “seductress” and subjected to indignity and punishment, is a blatant breach of human rights, and feminist and other activists all over the world have opposed this. In France, the group Ni Putes, Ni Soumises (Neither Whores nor Submissive) is strong in its condemnation of the burqa. They call it a “prison under open skies” for those who wear it, and deem it an instrument to force women into submission.

On the other hand, however, a lot of women in Europe, India and West Asia have found their cultural identity in the folds of this robe-like garment. They choose to wear it because it gives them a sense of comfort and religious belonging. They are not forced and simply choose to dress this way.

She concludes :

Women who choose to wear the burqa are choosing to belong – not to feel alienated. However, if the stigma and the stereotype are allowed to blindly thrive too long, they may indeed start to feel alienated in a society where they are looked upon as mysterious black-robed creatures, to be pitied and handled with care. Burqa bans will only end up doing this, besides driving the women who wear the burqa only reluctantly, back into their homes, depriving them of any freedom they may have had.

To which oukti asma echoes with a comprehensive “clarification” [Fr], coming to the conclusion that:

Le voile intégral est un réflexe identitaire, très minoritaire des musulmans de France.
Les parlementaires n'ont donc pas à se mêler de cette affaire, car celui-ci est et restera très marginale en France.
C'est aux musulmans d'expliquer à cette petite frange de la communauté, les aspects que nous avons cités ( des origines non-islamiques, les inconvéniants liés, la compatibilté de l'acsèse avec le monde actuel)
Je rajouterai qu'il ne faut pas prendre les membres de la communauté musulmane pour des abrutis. Et je m'adresse tant au non-musulmans qu'aux musulmans.
Les musulmans en France sont instruits, et savent majoritairement faire la part des choses. (…)

The head-to-toe veil is an identity reflex, among a small minority of Muslims in France.
Therefore MPs don't have to get involved in this business, because it is and will remain very marginal in France.
Muslims must explain to this small fringe of their community the issues we have cited (the pre-islamic origins, the associated drawbacks, the compatibility between asceticism and modern world).
I'll add that Muslim community members must not be taken for idiots. And I am speaking as much to non-Muslims as to Muslims.
The Muslims in France are educated, and for the most part, know how to make allowances. (…)

However, mainstream media, such as Le Monde, published op-eds of varying opinion.  French writer Pierrette Fleutiaux‘s ironic-–or all-too serious-–text entitled “Man's dignity requires him to wear the burqa” was re-posted by at least a dozen blogs. She carefully and wittily turns every argument for this piece of clothing on its male supporters [Fr].

Repoussons cette croyance absurde qu'il faudrait voiler les femmes pour que les hommes ne soient pas portés à désirer celles d'autrui. Une telle croyance est mécréante : elle accrédite l'idée que l'homme a été créé libidineux, violeur par nature et faible devant ses désirs. Et que, devant toute femme passant sous ses yeux, s'éveille aussitôt en lui la pulsion de lui sauter sur le râble pour consommer l'oeuvre de chair. L'homme a en lui la force de l'âme et le respect naturel de l'ordre divin. L'homme n'a rien à craindre des misérables appâts de la femme.

Let us reject this preposterous belief that women should be veiled, so that men would not be inclined to desire others’ wives. Such a belief is a heathen one : it backs up the idea that man was created lustful, a rapist by nature, weak when facing his desires. And that, in front of every women going by before his eyes, immediately there arises the urge to set on her to consummate the work of flesh. Man has in himself the strength of the soul and the natural respect for divine order. Man has nothing to fear from woman's wretched lures. (…)

Que la femme aille dans la rue dans les atours aguicheurs qu'elle ne manquera pas de se choisir. Son regard s'épuisera sur les autres femmes, elle y verra comme dans un miroir sa propre indécence, sa futilité même la détournera de toute compétition malsaine avec l'homme. Quant à cette exposition de la féminité, elle ne saurait nuire à l'homme. Il s'y verra conforté dans son incontestable supériorité. Il saura, dans les autres burqas, reconnaître les hommes pieux et respectueux de la loi, et ainsi renforcera nécessairement la belle et indispensable communauté masculine.

Let the woman go out in the street wearing the enticing attire she will undoubtedly choose for herself. Her glances will tire out the other women, she will see in them, like in a mirror, her own indecency, her very frivolousness will turn her away from any unhealthy competition with men. And as for this exhibition of femininity, no way can it damage man. In it, he will see himself reinforced in his indisputable superiority. He will be able to recognize, in other burqas, devout and law-abiding men, and thus will just strengthen the beautiful and essential male community.

Researcher Farhad Khosrokhavar, from EHESS, worries that a ban might actually end up bolstering the more fundamentalist groups of Islam in France. His article can be read here [Fr].

Whatever the arguments, the debate was renewed on Sunday when news came that Lubna Ahmed Al-Hussein, a young Sudanese journalist working for the UN Mission in Sudan (Unmis), had been arrested, along with a dozen fellow countrywomen, some of them from non-Muslim south Sudan, during a party at a Khartoum restaurant for wearing trousers under their Islamic veil. Most of were released after a flogging; three are being taken to court and face a sentence of 40 lashes and a fine.  Loubna Ahmed Al-Hussein denied the diplomatic immunity she is entitled to as a UN worker, saying that she wants the trial to go to its end. Arab human rights activists, as well as some journalists, think the Sudanese regime «wants to smash a free pen», as she used to write a column in a non-governmental newspaper.

Some French bloggers did not fail to draw a parallel with the burqa issue.

Rimbus blog focuses on the necessary reciprocity of tolerance [Fr]:

Mais sur le fond, il s'agit de la même chose. Le pays occidental veut condamner l'expression d'une pensée qu'il combat, la dictature musulmane condamne l'expression du mode de vie occidental.

La seule position honorable pour la France serait de tolérer officiellement ces 400 femmes voilées intégralement, au nom de la liberté de pensée, et fort de ce principe, condamner vigoureusement l'attitude de Khartoum, par voie diplomatique et officielle. Dans le cas contraire, nous ne pourrions qu'accepter une réaction du pouvoir soudanais, comparable à la notre.

Il faut soutenir la journaliste soudanaise Loubna Ahmed al-Hussein, et laisser les femmes s'habiller librement, en mini-jupe comme en niqab, en garçon si elles le souhaitent.

Basically, though, it's the same issue. The Western nation wants to condemn the expression of a thinking it is fighting against, whereas the Muslim dictatorship condemns the expression of the Western way of life.

The only worthy stance would be for France to officially tolerate those 400 covered-up women, in the name of freedom of thought, and confident of this principle, strongly condemn Khartoum's position, through diplomatic and official ways. Otherwise, we could not help but accept the Sudanese government's reaction, comparable to our own.

We need to support Sudanese journalist Loubna Ahmed al- Hussein, and let women dress as they chose to, in mini-skirt or niqab, as a boy if such is their wish.

Allain Jules, writing on collective blogging website agoravox, is more scathing and wonders why the case did not draw more attention [Fr]:

La journaliste indique qu’elle en a assez du silence des femmes de son pays qui se laissent flageller pour rien. Ainsi, elle a déclaré : « Des milliers de femmes sont châtiées à coups de fouet mais elles restent silencieuses. La loi est utilisée pour harceler les femmes et je veux dénoncer cela ». Courageuse, elle est donc prête à subir ce châtiment. (…) Il est d’ailleurs étonnant de ne pas voir les défenseurs des droits de l’homme se lancer à corps perdu dans ce combat pour les droits des femmes. Mais où sont-ils passés ? Sont-ils plus préoccupés par leurs petits intérêts et trouvent ridicule le combat de cette femme courage ?

The journalist says that she's had enough of her countrywomen keeping silent and being flogged for nothing. So she stated : “Thousands of women are being punished by flogging, but they keep silent. The law is being used to harass women and I want to expose that”. Bravely, she is thus ready to suffer this punishment. (…) By the way, it comes as a surprise not to see human rights defenders throwing themselves headlong into this fight for women's rights. Where are they ? Are they more concerned with their petty interests, so as to deem ludicrous this courageous woman's fight ?


  • Tariq


    In my opinion, there is no flaw to wear burqa, chadar etc to cover the body. In islam, It is must for women to cover her body and avoid sensational dressing. It is Europe or western who are narrow minded and oppose this. Women can do all kind of chores and work even in office and are doing so. In a unbaised opinion, one should not attach the dressing with any kind of thought of school like taliban or should not degrade who wear it.
    Muslim never criticise what western people wear then why they criticize what muslims wear. The gap between west and east is widening due to this biased approach.


  • hi, its great to be chosen by you in this text, thank you !

  • Elsy

    I think people should be able to express themselves with their clothes …be it by covering their heads or not… in the end, it shouldn’t be anybody’s business, be it in France or in Sudan.

    Yet, the burka itself, (the covering-the-face outfit), I think it should be banned everywhere, because it is a problem for public safety. In the end, your freedom ends when mine begins. Anyone can be underneath that black cloth… It is like sitting next to a masked person on the bus… I don’t think many people would like that…

    And to Tariq who made the comment above… Many Muslims DO criticize what western people wear… just like many westerners Do criticize what Muslims wear… just like all the other Muslims and westerner who do not care at all what anybody wears…. So, please let us stop these accusations

  • J. Kactuz


    The issues is women being forced to wear a burqa or veil or chadar. Of course often it is impossible to know if a women is wearing any of these of her own will or because she is forced to.

    A woman does not have to wear a burqa to dress modestly. To equate modest dress to morality shows a lack of understanding of the concept of morals. Morality is much more than a garmet, it is attitudes and behavior. I can show you pictures of women in burkas carrying sign to kill infidels (from the cartoon protests). I have met veiled women that think that apostates should be killed. Is this your idea of morality? Is morality a cloth in Islam? If so, why don’t Muslim men wear it? (Oh yes, it is only for females. How convinient!)

    You say we should not degrade those who wear the burqa but you degrade those who don’t.

    As to the widening gap between “west and east” I hope you are right, but the issue to me is freedom, equality and human rights, not some stupid garmet. I will take these biases over your any day.

    Cases like these are just another example of Muslims wanting things for themselves that they deny to others. You have a right to your opinion, but when you talk about how the West mistreats Muslims please consider the evils that Muslims do to non-Muslims, such as the murders of Christians in Pakistan this week. That is imoral. To wear a blanket or not is of little consequence compared to live and liberty.


  • Ben jon

    Are we saying that when a catholic Nun wear a head covering she is forced to wear or lady dress in bikini is force to a bikini? No I dont think they are force wear so.

    Similarly if Muslim lady wants to cover herself she should wear it.

    What has happen to democracy? Freedom of choice.

    We breg so much of Democracy but we do not want to follow it?

    We breg so much of capitalisim? Capitalism has failed the ordinary US citizen by giving bailouts to greedy owners of Company? The same people who used to condemn USSR for socialism for nationalising companies are nationalising the US bank and motor companies by giving bailouts and controlling boards?

    If a lady wants to wear something let her wear it?

    What about the Iraqis and Afganis the US has killed on their War of terror?

    What about the millions of Palestanians killed in Isreal?

    What about the UN double standards regarding Isreal

  • Please, please, please : Don’t make the confusion between burqa and niqbar!
    Both are veils, but one hides the whole face, the other doesn’t.
    If you don’t know which one it is, please get informed.

  • Update : Loubna Ahmed Al-Hussein was finally sentenced by a Khartoum court to a SDD500 ($200) fine. As she refused to pay it, she has been jailed yesterday to serve one month prison time.

  • Update 2 : Loubna Al-Hussein was released after the Union of Sudanese Journalists paid her fine.

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