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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. Nairb

    Damn Yank
    A woman is born naked. Could it be that this is a more natural state then any other.
    This IS about men telling women what to do. Radical Islamic Men with Religous Political agendas to gain power over other mildly religous muslims by scaring them with stories of eternal damnation.

    The person who has been behind thislaw is Fadela Amara – a muslim minister in the government and a Woman!

    July 9, 2010 at 9:17 pm |
    • One Whose Name Means Beloved of God

      did you ever consider that these women are choosing for themselves? that maybe this isn't all some secret conspiracy that the men set up just to keep the women down? heaven forbid a woman be in control of their own clothes!

      July 9, 2010 at 9:33 pm |
    • Nairb

      "How about you meet some of these oppressed French women before you make a stand?"

      I work with them. And the Womens rights movements are the origin and source of this campaign.
      They were by far the most vociferous during the the Year long debate on the subject.
      The government commission inteviewed alarge number of such people as well as religous and socuial and legal experts. I watched and read all of them.

      Yes they ARE beong liberated from BARBARIC religous practices.

      July 9, 2010 at 9:39 pm |
    • One Whose Name Means Beloved of God

      You say this was for women's rights–but what about her right to choose what she wears? You have made her choice for her–because you have made it a LAW.

      Command a woman to cast off her burka and you are no better than those who command her to get in one.

      July 9, 2010 at 11:31 pm |
  2. damn yank

    a government law banning burqas is a giant violation of separation of church and state....

    but, it's also no surprise. after all, men have been telling women what to where since the begining of time. some women feel the same way about the burqa...but we live in a playboy society.... in today's world, a woman walking around half naked is seen as free and modern.

    July 9, 2010 at 9:08 pm |
  3. Nairb

    Comment by LUKE
    "Once you step into the realm of interfering with religious practice, you tear apart the Bill of Rights and open the door to a Sh-t Storm you want no part of."

    This is utterly incorrect. Interfering with the Bill of Rights is agood thing in this instance.
    Have you considered what the bill of rights is protecting? Individual Rights or Community Rights?
    Individual Rights is the rthe right answer if you want to avoid mob rule and sectarian oppression of cults.

    Individual rights are what are important. Grouprights dont even make logical sense.

    France is introducing this rule to protect Individuals against the oppression of radical religion preying on poor people.
    They introduce barbaric practices that are discriminatory of women and they scare women into agreeing with stories of eternal damnation.

    In any other subject this would be considered unacceptable coersion and mental violence.

    When such a new instrument of violence is invented, it is only normal that the state intervenes to protect individuals.

    July 9, 2010 at 9:00 pm |
    • One Whose Name Means Beloved of God

      News flash–many Muslim women WANT to wear a head covering. France is not freeing them–they are just imposing their own culture. How about you meet some of these oppressed French women before you make a stand?

      July 9, 2010 at 9:30 pm |
    • Amy - who's name also means "beloved"

      And the muslim women are not "imposing" their culture on France? Why don't they just remain in their native country if it's so important?

      July 9, 2010 at 11:34 pm |
    • One Whose Name Means Beloved of God

      The Muslim women are not forcing France to do anything. How on earth are they imposing on France? By existing? How terribly cruel of them!!!!

      July 9, 2010 at 11:46 pm |
    • verify

      Muslim women can wear anything they want - women can wear Holly Hobbie dresses, with bonnets and gloves if they wish, but they may NOT conceal their identities by hiding their faces.

      July 9, 2010 at 11:57 pm |
    • Amy - who's name also means "beloved"

      Are the French no longer allowed to govern their own country? They have to establish rules to accomodate all outsiders? If the outsiders wish to become insiders, wouldn't it behoove them to assimilate? Otherwise, like I said before, they can stay in their native country.

      July 10, 2010 at 12:28 am |
    • One Whose Name Means Beloved of God

      Ah–the "go home" response. What if they *are* home? Perhaps you could read American Muslimah further down?

      And I have no problem with the French requiring a woman to reveal her face to police when asked. That is whats is required for security. As I mentioned elsewhere–so it's used by badguys once in a while? So? Bad guys use backpacks all the time and yet we send our children to school in them. The security argument to ban the garb doesn't hold water.

      And as Amy shows–it's plainly prejudice against a different group. Assimilate or else is the actual rationale for this law.

      July 10, 2010 at 9:06 am |
  4. @ the truth sets you free

    @ the truth sets u free:
    In fact, a Muslim who helps a non-Muslim is considered a bad Muslim!!!) That is why Islam is a violent religion UNLIKE any other major religions. There's NO comparison like you tried to imply before.

    dude what? have you been smoking weed?
    HOW can u say that when a muslim helps a NON-MUSLIM he is considered a bad muslim?? i wonder What you have been reading and from WHERE you got this muslims helping nonmuslim considered bad.

    for the record,when Muhammad conquered Mecca all the non-muslims were forgiven and the ones who left were asked to come back and live in peace ALSO in ISLAM a MUSLIM can MARRY a JEW & CHRISTIAN,so go get ur facts right before you come here posting just afer you read some misleading articles on any tom dick or harrys website.

    July 9, 2010 at 8:55 pm |
    • Claire

      Islam is not a religion any more than Christianity was in the dark and Middle Ages. It's an all-encompassing totalitarian culture with "religion" being a small part used to indoctrinate ordinary citizens for the purpose of power-mongering and social control. A problem with Islam is that we treat it like a religion–we fund it with tax dollars. It's a political ideology, much like Catholicism was in Europe at one point in time. Claiming that banning clothing that creates national security problems is based on religious intolerance is silly.

      July 9, 2010 at 9:01 pm |
    • anne

      What! Are you talking about? I'm Muslim, I give to charities, I am generous with my friends, most of whom are not Muslim. We are encouraged to help Muslims for the same reason Christians are encouraged to help Christians – if we don't take care of them, who will? But it doesn't mean we are not allowed to help others, as well.

      July 10, 2010 at 7:49 pm |
  5. PaulC

    When Iran, Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan, etc. permit women and men to wear shorts and pant suits I will argue that France should permit the hijab, niquab, and burka. Fair?

    July 9, 2010 at 8:45 pm |
  6. Tim

    Mohammad said:

    "One of the best of actions is to love for the sake of allah and hate for the sake of allah"

    if this is not have preaching then what is

    July 9, 2010 at 8:25 pm |
    • Tim

      sirry meant to say "if this isnt hate preaching , what is"

      July 9, 2010 at 8:26 pm |
  7. American Muslimah

    So many people (mostly men) are talking about this but how many of you have actually TALKED to a Muslim woman about her views on this ban? As an American Muslimah who covers I am sickened by ANYONE who would FORCE me or any other woman to wear or NOT wear hijab/niquab/burka. To wear the hijab, niquab, and burka is a CHOICE that should be left to the WOMAN. What France is doing is WORSE than those extremists who force women to fully cover because it takes away the womans right to her own modesty and forces her to display a part of herself in public she feels religiously requried to cover. You are NOT saving us by banning our veils you are OPRESSING US! You are DENYING US OUR DIGNITY by taking away our right to cover ourselves in public! LET US the Muslim women decide what we wear and leave us alone. No one, not a man and not a goverment has the right to tell us how to dress PERIOD!

    July 9, 2010 at 7:58 pm |
    • Thorrsman

      Your face must appear on an American driver's licence or valid ID card. If you have any sort of police contact, they will request–a request you can not deny–to see your face to be certain that you are who you claim to be.

      July 9, 2010 at 8:28 pm |
    • PaulC

      You come to the U.S. and whine about being oppressed! Iran, Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan and several other Muslim countries will FORCE you to wear the hijab, niquab, or burka. You cannot go out without a males permission or escort. Did you express your outrage in your homeland before you became a feminist?

      July 9, 2010 at 8:35 pm |
    • American Muslimah

      Paul I am an American citizen who was born here, my family has been in the USA for OVER 125 years. Reality check not all Muslims are immigrants!

      July 9, 2010 at 8:48 pm |
    • American Muslimah

      Thorrsman- In my ID my face is uncovered as is the law and HOW IT SHOULD BE on an ID. We are perfectly fine with showing our face to law enforcement officers male OR female for identification purposes or in other cases where making a proper identification is required we do this all the time without issues.

      July 9, 2010 at 8:53 pm |
    • Claire

      Sorry, but national security is more important than your cultural preference. If you wish to live in a Western country and go out in public, stop complaining that they don't cave to your cultural wishes. Men frequently don such garb to hide in public in the Middle East, and it's a clear security risk.

      July 9, 2010 at 8:55 pm |
    • One Whose Name Means Beloved of God

      Thank you for speaking up! I agree with you that it should be up to the woman to choose if she wants to wear it or not.

      Also–since you are complying with the US laws about identification, I don't think everyone should be freaking out about this. They say bad guys could use it to smuggle stuff–so? Bad guys use backpacks all the time, yet we put them on our children for school. The argument doesn't hold water.

      July 9, 2010 at 9:26 pm |
    • Kafir

      This is just the beginning! Today in France, tomorrow in Holland, then after that all over the world! the world is sick and tired of muslims! will your hypocrete mullahs let a American girl to roam around wearing a mini skirt in Saudi Arabia?
      learn how to respect everybody and don't blame others for your own problem!

      July 9, 2010 at 11:23 pm |
    • Lance

      @ American Muslimah

      So many people (mostly men) are talking about this but how many of you have actually TALKED to a Muslim woman about her views on this ban? As an American Muslimah who covers I am sickened by ANYONE who would FORCE me or any other woman to wear or NOT wear hijab/niquab/burka. To wear the hijab, niquab, and burka is a CHOICE that should be left to the WOMAN. What France is doing is WORSE than those extremists who force women to fully cover because it takes away the womans right to her own modesty and forces her to display a part of herself in public she feels religiously requried to cover.

      What you may be forgetting about France is that unlike the American Revolution, the French Revolution was an attempt to truely get rid of the influence of religion in the public sphere. The Catholic Church was a land-owning entity which could not be taxed by the state. Secondly, the clergy hierarchy was largely made up of members of the nobility. The French revolution destroyed not only the Ancien Régime, made up of the Monarchy, the Church and the Courts, it gave people unalienable rights, one of which was the right not to believe in religion, and the right of women as equals. Now it sounds equal on paper, but France is also experiencing a huge problem about integrating minorities into its society.
      Unfortunately, the recent immigrants to France from the Mahgreb and from former French colonies in Africa do not believe in the largely secular nature of French society. If the French govt. was serious about having them merge successfully, there would be better jobs for them, better education reforms etc. Thus, the communities close in become more Arab-centred. I would not even say most women are forced to wear the hijab; some even wear it as a sign of their culture, just as Indians in Britain cling to their Indian identity even harder than Indians in India would. But, it is this: French society is largely laic and it is seen, fairly or unfairly as a threat to the national image, especially when Western women are forced to cover up in their own country, and the exsitence of an overtly religious symbol like the hijab threatens the society.

      July 12, 2010 at 4:05 am |
  8. german

    Please, we are not telling you how to govern your country so don't tell us how to governs ours. Also, you could study European laws and constitutions, which are NOT THE SAME AS American ones. Can you respect our right to think in different ways?

    July 9, 2010 at 7:56 pm |
  9. James Walsh

    The niqab and burka need to be banned because their objective is to obscure the facial features and thereby it prevents facial recognition or proper communication. In Western societies only terrorists and criminals seek to obscure their features in public, no to exceptions for any religion or cult! I don't care if muslim women want to cover their hair and wear conservative clothing, it's up to them, but an uncovered face is non-negotiable! Anyone who wants to compare halloween masks or motorcycle helmets to niqabs completely misses the point. As a real-life example a wanted murderer of a policewoman escaped the UK in 2006 by wearing his sister's burqa and using her passport, no one checked his identity for fear of offending muslim sensibilities, this sort of groveling to aggressive islamism has to stop!

    July 9, 2010 at 7:31 pm |
  10. John Toradze

    The author does not frame the issue of veils in Europe – period. Turkey, the former center of the Ottoman Empire has banned muslim headgear for nearly a century. The reason that Europeans want to do this has nothing to do with their intolerance. It is entirely because of the extreme bigotry, and murderous zealotry of muslims in Europe. Most European cities have muslim ares now where even the police don't go. We have nothing remotely like this in the USA. Because of that, we can continue to pretend that this is an issue of "freedom of expression" when it is not. The reality is that orthodox muslims use this to prevent women from being able to assimilate if they want to. They use it to oppress muslim women and target non-muslim women as "whores". Muslim girls get murdered for not wearing the burka. I am pretty appalled at the naivete of this "scholar" who has not done the most basic research on the matter. Instead, he cites a colleague, as if that has anything to do with scholarship.

    July 9, 2010 at 7:30 pm |
  11. Serge

    I remember reading a story where a woman wearing a burqa scared the hell out of children when she entered a kindergarden 😀

    July 9, 2010 at 7:19 pm |
  12. LuluMc

    Is the burqa really required by the Koran? If its purpose is to prevent sexual feelings in males not of her family, then why is the woman in picture wearing make-up like a fashion model? I googled this to see other images, and many, although not all, women with burqas were also wearing heavy make-up. Is this because their eyes are the only piece of themselves that they can use to express their individuality? They cannot show their expressions – smiles, frowns even a slight grimace – what must it be like to live life anonymously? I've even wondered about those with headscarves, whom I have seen here in the States and their elaborate cosmetics that seem to compensate for the lack of hairstyle. At least the headscarf allows for expression, and does not hide an identity – which is where the danger can arise. One person posted the question "has there been a rash of bank robberies from people wearing burqas?" But I agree it is just a matter of time. But more than that, iIt is a matter of subjugation, even if the woman says it is her choice, that decision still comes out of a fear of her family, and her fear of acceptance into society, and her fear of taking part in that society.

    July 9, 2010 at 7:17 pm |
    • anne

      Lulu – the woman in the picture is not wearing a burka, she is wearing niqab. Burka is the FULL covering (one piece) common in Afghanistan during Taliban rule (in fact, Taliban invented it, though many Afghan women still wear it because it is what they were used to wearing). Burka is the full covering, one piece, with a small mesh screen over the eyes. One cannot see a woman's eyes when she is in burka.

      Khol eyeliner was/is used in Arabia for medicinal purposes. Specifically, it protects one's eyes from the glare of the sun. In fact, many Arab men wear khol eyeliner for this very reason. Think pictures of ancient Egyptian pharoahs – they wore khol for the same reason. Granted, it has evolved for more cosmetic reasons, however, there is nothing in Islam saying you cannot be BEAUTIFUL, only that you cannot be immodest. In fact Mohamed's wives often used khol eyeliner, as well as crushed berries to enhance their complexion.

      July 10, 2010 at 4:00 am |
  13. frank.ghalili

    These old laws may have been relavant a thousand years ago with few nomads in the arabian deserts.Such Crude laws like many other non relavant islamic laws such as cutting the arms of any theif belong to and may only had relavance to that region and time.One should be ignorant to apply such laws in todays progressive societies with such shared global concerns which are far more visionary than these rules of the old deserts.

    July 9, 2010 at 7:15 pm |
  14. manal

    sorry not aviolent

    July 9, 2010 at 7:03 pm |
  15. manal

    hi ,im so sorry you r having a bad idea about islam ,as each religion is dividing to different type as an example christian there r two types catholic and Roman and many religious are dividing but islam is a violent religous ,islam is so simple is belive in god ,help people do good thing in your live but some people there country tradition affected on islam ,i am a muslime i and we do not belive in covering face ,so plz understand islam in a good way we r living in this world with love and clean heart to all kind of people with peace all the world should like friends and family

    July 9, 2010 at 7:01 pm |
    • Kafir

      The greatest joke is "islam teaches peace"! how?? by blowing yourself up, killing innocent non-muslims? forceable coversion of minorities in Muslim countries? stonning to death. cutting off hands, using women as child producing machines, cover them with burqas (like ghosts)??

      July 9, 2010 at 11:14 pm |
    • One Whose Name Means Beloved of God

      Manal,

      Please forgive Kafir. I understand that not all Muslims are cut from the same cloth. I also appreciate that you are peaceful; I would welcome anyone who lives a peaceful, tolerant, and just life. Do not let harsh words harden your heart.

      July 9, 2010 at 11:57 pm |
  16. oneStarman

    JUNIOR HIGH SCHOOL – had a strange (to me anyway) dress code which included a prohibition of jeans for girls. My 12 year old mind could not fathom a reason why it was OK for me to wear blue colored pants but the girl across the street could not. This was the mid sixties and I learned that only recently had girls been allowed to wear pants at all. Previously only skirts had been allowed. Are you going to tell me my Yamaka is VERBOTEN or that my CRUCIFIX will have to be traded in for a cruelty-free all INCLUSIVE Blank.

    July 9, 2010 at 6:59 pm |
  17. Billy

    I can't take psychedelics legally, even if it is a recognized religous rite. Why should walking around with my face covered like a bandit, be any different. I know these women are not bandits, but neither are all the other things that countries don't allow just because a preacher or mulla say it's the way it should be. Why don't they let the mormons have 8 wives and a new one everytime a girl in the church turns 14? Burqa's should go, unless I get to walk around with a bandana on my face everywhere I go and long trenchcoat that could be carrying anything under it.

    July 9, 2010 at 6:44 pm |
  18. Sylvia

    In my point of view in public places the most important thing in communication skills is our face reaction, when we talk to others, we have to look at each other, we have to thank God that he created us as his picture.. so no need to hide or cover when the most precious thing which God granted us.
    the most important thing to know our limits in everything

    July 9, 2010 at 6:36 pm |
  19. kiel

    If wearing a face covering is so important then why do you see so many muslims that dont cover the face. Also this seems to only apply to schools, hospitals and goverment buildings so is not a total ban at all.

    As for security concerns im sure that about 2 years ago 2 men who had committed a murder in England escaped to pakistan by wearing a full face covering as the security staff didnt want to get into trouble by asking the "ladies" to remove it.

    You wouldnt be allowed to walk through a school or an airport or a bank wearing a ski mask or motorbike helmet. Why should it be any different for a bit of cloth especially as it does not appear to be a specified part of their religion?

    July 9, 2010 at 6:20 pm |
    • Nairb

      Kiel said

      "You wouldnt be allowed to walk through a school or an airport or a bank wearing a ski mask or motorbike helmet. Why should it be any different for a bit of cloth especially as it does not appear to be a specified part of their religion?"

      In a secular country its IRRELEVANT whether its a "specified part of their religion" or NOT.
      Religion is not an excuse for anything.

      Freedom of religion means you can BELIEVE what you WISH.
      It does NOT mean you can DO as you WISH

      July 9, 2010 at 10:21 pm |
  20. David

    From what I can gather, following discussions with several Muslim friends of mine and reading books about the history of Arabia, the burqa is based on the preference that was widespread among a number of Arabic tribes in Mohammed's time (PBUH) for fair-skinned women. In order to keep their skin fair, the women would wear a garment similar to a burqa during the day to keep the sun off their skin. While in tents and during the night, they would remove the garment and wear the standard clothing of the day. When Muhammed (PBUH) was trying to spread Islam, the local tribes where this custom was practised only coverted to Islam when Muhammed (PBUH) reassured them they they could maintain this custom. The wearing ofa burqa originally had nothing to do with preserving the modesty of a women and it has become corrupted over the time.

    July 9, 2010 at 6:05 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.