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July 9th, 2010
12:06 PM ET

Europe's burqa wars: broad support for banning veils

Editor's Note: Stephen Prothero, a Boston University religion scholar and author of "God is Not One: The Eight Rival Religions that Run the World," is a regular CNN Belief Blog contributor.

By Stephen Prothero, Special to CNN

Legislation banning full veils for Muslim women is now under consideration across Western Europe.

On April 30, Belgium's lower house voted to ban Muslim women from wearing veils that cover their full faces. On June 30, a Tory MP introduced in the UK a Face Coverings (Regulation) Bill that would make it illegal for anyone to cover their face in public. And on July 6 the French parliament began debating legislation that would outlaw the wearing of burqas and niqabs in public places.

According to a Pew Global Attitudes Project survey released yesterday, support for a ban on veils that cover the whole face except the eyes is widespread across Europe, with strong majorities in Spain (59 percent), Britain (62 percent), Germany (71 percent) and France (82 percent) all supporting legislation outlawing such veils in schools, hospitals, and government offices.

Prohibiting a citizen from wearing religious garb—a yarmulke, a clerical collar, a Hare Krishna robe—would seem on the face of it to be a violation of religious freedom. And that is how Americans see it. Here only 28 percent approve of a ban on full veils, with 65 percent disapproving.

Proponents of the various burqa bans, however, cast themselves as defenders of the rights of women and even public safety. A fully veiled woman cannot be easily identified by police. Neither can a male drug dealer posing as a burqa-bound woman.

Professsor Kecia Ali, my Boston University colleague and the author of Sexual Ethics and Islam, sees this “current European fixation on Muslim women’s clothing” not as “a systematic push for gender equality” but as “a symbolic statement” that “plays into an us-versus-them mentality with brutal real-world consequences.”

The current furor, she told me in a recent e-mail, "distracts from real issues of class injustice, racial oppression, and continued discrimination and violence against women, Muslim and non-Muslim."

Anti-burqa legislation in Belgium, France, the UK and beyond raises all sorts of questions about immigration and assimilation, church and state. But lurking around each of these questions is the overarching matter of what the veil means. Is it a symbol of Islamic identity? A rejection of the hyper-sexualization of the female body? Or is it, in the words of French President Nicolas Sarkozy, "a sign of debasement"–a stiff-arm to country and community, and a symbol of sexism and misogyny?

How this question will settle out across Europe is anyone’s guess, but it is hard to deny that the burqa wars have already unsettled facile notions of Europe as a bastion of multicultural understanding. France, which has long prided itself on its cosmopolitanism, seems to be taking the rhetorical lead here. (Immigration minister Eric Besson has described the burqa as a "walking coffin.")

But what becomes of France's Holy Trinity of liberté, fraternité and equalité when bureaucrats start to dictate not only how people dress but also how they express their religion?

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Stephen Prothero.

- CNN Belief Blog contributor

Filed under: Belgium • Britain • Culture wars • Europe • France • Islam • Polls • Religious liberty

soundoff (332 Responses)
  1. Nabihah

    please check out http://www.islamicsolutions.com/unveiling-the-truth-behind-the-veil/

    July 16, 2010 at 3:31 pm |
  2. Pandora's Box

    I think Europe has finally realized that Pandora's Box has been opened, when they allowed massive immigration from the Muslim nations....and will pay the price...sadly. I think the fact that the majority of Muslims who aren't terrorists, don't condemn ( loudly and often ) the few that are....shows the future.

    July 14, 2010 at 11:31 am |
  3. drsolo

    The burka has serious health consequences for women as well. "99 percent of women in a recent study showed a deficiency of vitamin D. Scientists had previously found high rates of vitamin D deficiency in Arab and East Indian women living in the United Arab Emirates. A follow-up study investigated the effect of vitamin D supplements on 178 UAE women, many of whom covered themselves entirely, faces and hands included, when outside their homes"
    "breast cancer presents about 10 years younger in Arab women than it does here in the United States.”
    that isnt the only consequence of low levels of vit D:
    "Scientists are just beginning to put all of the pieces together, but the first symptoms of Vitamin D deficiency could be:
    • Colds and Flu
    • Periodontal Disease and Cavities
    • Depression and Seasonal Affective Disorder
    • Osteoporosis
    • Heart Failure and Cardiomyopathy
    • High blood pressure
    • Lung cancer
    • Ovarian cancer
    • Colon Cancer
    • Asthma
    • Breast Cancer
    • Multiple Sclerosis

    July 14, 2010 at 9:42 am |
  4. Shrike

    How do we know that there are women under those veils? Could be another guy. It's a way of hiding their homosexuality. Can't tell if is male or female. Humm. Possibility.

    July 14, 2010 at 7:38 am |
  5. Chuuck

    Look what our tolerance to Islam has brought. 911 terrorists and suicide bombers in Israel, iraq, India, Pakistan, and Afghanistan The burka subjugates women under the iron rule of this barbaric religion. Just as Klansmen went around in sheets the burka sends an equivalent message of sinister motives. The US should ban it also. Europe got it right this time.

    July 14, 2010 at 12:48 am |
  6. Dee

    I don't know what the answer to this one is. Regardless of how people personally feel about the burqa, there are 1st amendment issues that are going to keep a complete ban out of the question. However there may be some room to regular. Incidentlaly burqas were used to conceal explosive devices strapped to the bodies of the women involved in the Moscow theater bombing.

    July 13, 2010 at 10:58 pm |
  7. JennyTX

    I'm not religious, but I support the notion of freedom of religion as long as no crimes are committed. But I hate seeing the way these poor Muslim women are treated by their society! It's just not right. Women deserve to show their face, get an education, have a job, etc etc etc - everything the Taliban wants to take away.

    July 13, 2010 at 10:38 pm |
  8. SHHH

    Traditionalist muslim women wearing burquas are in essence hating the way of the 'western woman'. A fallen away Muslim told me, that the burqua clad woman will spit on the ground underneath their garb upon passing a 'western' lady, no matter how she's dressed. Hate is overpowering these women and they curse our ways. Every ounce of compassion is truly wasted on these moslems. I fully agree with the ban of the burquas, because there is another option – go back to the middle east! And never come back.

    July 13, 2010 at 10:08 pm |
  9. oneStarman

    Liberté, égalité, Fraternité = unless you are Muslim.

    July 13, 2010 at 6:02 pm |
  10. Conrad Shull

    The French hate all public displays of religion. Remember, their revolution had as a central theme hangng the last king with the entrails of the last priest.

    July 13, 2010 at 5:57 pm |
  11. Guy

    So why is it that Arab countries can require that women wear a burqa, but it's wrong for European countries to say they can't? When in Rome...

    July 13, 2010 at 5:07 pm |
  12. Michael

    Call me racist or prejudice I dont really care but these burqas are rediculous. And I can say for a fact that in the Baltimore area there have been at least two banks robbed by a woman sporting a burqa (she is still on the loose). How can police or anyone identify the a person under the burqa? They can't! How do you people take a photo ID? Do they take it with a the burqa on? If there is any law passed it should be that the Burqa must be removed upon request for identification purposes by anyone that needs to see ID for financial transactions or police work etc. I mean if you want to walk around looking like an idiot that is your right too but you have to have some give and take for the sake of common sense.

    July 13, 2010 at 4:37 pm |
  13. Gwenie

    If I went to Saudia Arabia, I wouldn't be allowed to walk around without my head and body covered because that is the law of that country for women....So if they want to live in another country where Islam is not the main religion, then they have to follow the rule of that country that say you cannot wear burqas....

    July 13, 2010 at 4:36 pm |
  14. Doug

    How ironic. People who wag their finger at Christians saying "don't impose your beliefs and values on me!" see no problem with imposing their beliefs and values on others. It seems so often that those who preach tolerance are, in fact, the most INtolerant.

    July 13, 2010 at 4:24 pm |
  15. Liz

    If Europe and the US bans burqas, then many fundamentalist fathers and husbands may force their wives and daughters to stay home. How is this advancing these women? We need social workers and investigations into how these women are being treated, and real solutions like helping them escape. When I see a burqa, I think abuse, and I sincerely worry about these women.

    July 13, 2010 at 2:36 pm |
  16. Debbie

    My bank requires that all hats and sunglasses be removed when entering. Sooo-being totally disguised with a burqa is allowed?

    Is that really Muslim woman in there or is it a guy with a machine gun of a bomb.

    July 13, 2010 at 2:35 pm |
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.