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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. M I Soregreu

    Learned apologist for Islam,Professsor Kecia Ali, please speak, if you want, only for muslims . Typical of Islamists – speak for the entire world even as they
    do as they please
    "Non muslim" women aren't bothered at all by the current movement of ban on burga

    July 10, 2010 at 1:36 am |
  2. Kevin

    It's NOT a ban, it's a repeal of a ban. Now women can express themselves freely instead of being censored by the men in their community.

    Most societies came around to this eons ago.

    July 10, 2010 at 1:36 am |
  3. Binoy

    I am from a small state in India with a significant Christian population where there has been serious debate about minor girls being forced to becoming nuns by families, ending up living a life of opression, dis-inherited and disowned by their families (check on internet for "Amen – Autobiography of a Nun"). The Leftist goverment of this state constituted a womens commission to go into the issues after a series of complaints, the commission recommended a few measures to reform the entire system, and promptly enough, the government lost the next elections, being voted out by the influence of the Church. Were I am from, we see the Church as being more "fundementalists" than the Islamic Clerics. In my view at least the burqa wearing women have a social & married life, some level of property rights of their spouse or parents, where as the nuns have no family life and no property rights of their parents. Let us say the government of India decides to ban nun's attire in public, does it seem right ?

    July 10, 2010 at 1:34 am |
  4. Chris

    What was that thought that just popped in my head? Oh, yeah! ... If they want to wear a burqa and nobody prevents them, maybe we can jest tag 'em like we tag cattle and let them scan themselves in and out of places in public. It brings up their ID overhead and rings a loud bell and announces their name loudly in public.

    Hey! that might work! ... That or a loud bell around their neck.

    July 10, 2010 at 1:03 am |
  5. andrew

    No Mosque, No Islam , No Muslim dress and No Muslim politicians in USA and All Europe.

    July 10, 2010 at 12:49 am |
  6. Carlos Marin

    The burqa is not a religious symbol in the same way that a fence around a piece of land is not a religious symbol. Religion is used as a justification for enforcing its use, but what it really does is protect property rights. In societies where it is obligatory it reflects the view that a woman's body is her husband's property, who enjoys sole and exclusive rights to view it. She does not have the right to allow any other male to view it.

    July 10, 2010 at 12:28 am |
    • Marky

      If it is illegal to be non-moslem in most moslem countries, and it is indeed–they´ll kill you call it holy murder or cut off your hands (as recently done to a Chrisitan university professor in Pakistan) or attack you in the streets and burn our home (again in Pakistan)–why indeed should the burka be tolerated outside their holy islamic nations? They should go back to their illiterate, violent, dangerous, suicide bomber counties where they belong if they want to wear their big black bags over their heads

      July 10, 2010 at 12:53 am |
    • Kevin

      Carlos, that's a ridiculously sick thing to believe. You're literally justifying domestic slavery. Something I'll happily re-enlist to the military to fight wherever people impose it.

      Human beings are their own property.

      July 10, 2010 at 1:39 am |
  7. BralenX

    Ban the burqa everywhere!!

    July 10, 2010 at 12:18 am |
  8. RRM

    If it is ILLEGAL to be Non-Muslim in most Arab Nations, why should it not be illegal to wear burqas in Western Nations??

    July 10, 2010 at 12:15 am |
    • Chris

      The radicals believe they are God's chosen people and are thereby decreed as ordained to be the world's conquerers.

      July 10, 2010 at 1:08 am |
    • anne

      Where are you getting THAT from? Can you cite evidence? Let's see...numerous Jews, and Christians in countries like Egypt, Lebanon actually has 40% Christians – in fact in Morocco, many of the King's advisors are Jewish. Gaza – yup, Christians and Jews – Turkey – oh yes. Nigeria is split about 50/50 Christian and Muslim. UAE has Christians and Jews. Qatar, Brunei. In fact, the only country I can think of where one HAS to be Muslim is Saudi Arabia. Please do research before making sweeping statements like that.

      July 10, 2010 at 3:40 am |
  9. Carlos Marin

    A rosary is a religious symbol. Nobody will be scandalized if a woman (or a man) fails to wear it. A burqa is more than a religious symbol, it is a practical mechanism to hide a woman's body. In countries where Islam defines laws (Saudi Arabia, Iran, Aghanistan under the Taliban) not wearing is burga is a grave and punishable offense. The reason is not that people are obligated to wear religious symbols but that a woman's body has been exposed. These societies consider the exposure of even minimal parts of a woman's body indecent. This reveals a perspective on women's position in society that is profoundly unhealthy. Women's bodies are not evil.

    July 10, 2010 at 12:08 am |
  10. Safety?

    I can understand the issue of security when it comes t fully covering the face.
    Based on that concern, full faced ski masks and similar attire must also be banned.
    As for the lack of concern about infringement upon religious expression for the benefit of security, let's not forget that crimes – even murder – have been committed by those wearing clerical collars, nun's habits, monk's robes or those simply by wearing a suit, large cross and carrying a Bible.
    Should wigs, excessive make-up, hair dyes and bears also be banned?
    The point is that there are many ways of "disguising" one's appearance or hiding weapons. Do we single out one form of religious expression because we don't like it or because we think it is somehow worse than others?
    As for the concern about it degrading women: Though I do not believe that EVERY Muslim women wears a full viel because she WANTS to, I believe it is her right to do so if she wishes.
    I m sure some Amish children do not fully appreciate their prescribed attire, some conservative Christians may not like being told they are not allowed to wear shorts or that a woman's skirts and dresses must be mid-calf or longer or other similar religious, cultural or ethnic norms or idiosyncrasies.
    I may not like everyone else choice of dress, but I do not believe it is the government's prerogative to dictate what is allowed to be worn.
    Of course, some would suggest that the government does not have the right to insist that any clothing be worn!! 🙂

    July 9, 2010 at 11:40 pm |
    • Nairb

      Safety
      Ski masks are of course allso banned. Its a non religous ban of face coverings.
      The state DOES have the right to tell you what you wear. And for a long time has been telling you what you can and cannot wear.

      The fundamental Right of Freedom to wear what you wan- DOES NOT EXIST
      There is no such right and never has been.

      There is

      July 10, 2010 at 12:08 am |
  11. steven

    this world don't need a religion to move us around..what we need is just a set of rules, regulation, moral behavior and law to follow...time to changes..change for the best not going backward to your medieval time..if god really exist i do hope him to come down and give some advise to everyone....

    July 9, 2010 at 11:37 pm |
  12. AtheistBangali

    I am really tired of muslims in Europe and in United States always complaining about inequality. At least, in these countries, you have the 'right' to voice your dissent. In an islamic country, youhave absolutely no concept of free speech and tolerance. Question to all of the so-called 'progressive' muslims in america: Would you want your daughter to grow up, being single and ambitious and independent, in a muslim country?

    Burqa is a mechanism for subjugating women from a very early age. It indoctrinates women (young girls) to think of themselves as subservient to men with no identity ofthemselves. It amazes me that NOT A SINGLE MUSLIM LEADER expressed any dissent on executing a woman for adultery (where the confession was obtained after 90 lashes), where there was no evidence, just the opinion of some male judges. Legalized marital rape, suppression of women, executing only women for adultery, but never men - it happens as sanctioned by islamic law in muslim countries. This is the same group of people who call themselves 'progressives'.

    Note to liberal WASPS, like the author of this article: Please go to a muslim country and try to express your discontent about islam. If you are still alive, then come back and write about equal justice. Thank you.

    July 9, 2010 at 11:34 pm |
  13. Renee

    I say good for those Europeans! The moment I, as a western woman, can go to Iran or Saudi Arabia and not be required to wear anything in public because my religion/society does not demand it, OK, then they will have my support.

    People need to remember that Europe has a "native" population, that has bee living there for thousands of years, just like the majority of the Muslim countries. Society's rules of acceptance and tolerance will be different for countries that are younger and have been formed on the work of immigrants from all over the world. If I decide to move to Saudi Arabia, that is my choice and I will have to adapt to their way of life and wear full attire because that is how they live. Does not matter how I judge that or what religion I practice, that is how they live and I truly believe I should adapt to them and not the other way around.

    Now pray tell me, why should Europeans accept women veiled? It is not part of their culture, but for the sake of political correctness they are being forced fed that and required to accept it or be called prejudice or intolerant. I am all for acceptance and freedom of religion, but I think this has little to do with religion, it is a matter of social behavior.

    July 9, 2010 at 11:09 pm |
    • Nairb

      Comment by Renee : "Now pray tell me, why should Europeans accept women veiled? It is not part of their culture, "

      The ban goes further then what is acceptable by our culture.

      It also calls into question what the Right of EQUALITY and what it means in practice.
      It also raises the question of the States right to reserve action against communities in defense of the Individual.

      To both questions the answer in France is that Equality is guaranteed by the state towards women and secondly the state must take action to protect the individual when religion tries to encroach in the public space to manipulate individuals.

      As Rousseau said "It is the Action/Power of the state which creates the Liberty of the individuals"

      July 10, 2010 at 12:20 am |
  14. david

    égalité, you mean. équalité is not a word. that's embarassing.

    July 9, 2010 at 11:00 pm |
  15. euphoric

    By the way...the Koran was written 7 centuries after Christ. IIt is incredible this day and age, how people can get taken by fiction so easily.

    July 9, 2010 at 10:06 pm |
  16. D.R. Williams

    1) We as a world society have got to stop worrying about offending one group just to satisfy their "beliefs". In cases like this the needs of the few truly don't outweigh the needs of the majority. I support the Western European agenda in this matter fully. (2) My fellow Americans who feel so stronlgy against this issue are doing so because the majority of them have had to have an issue that directly relates to them ever come into question. We as Americans worry so much about civil liberties that we forget that sometimes you have to make some harsh rules for the good of all people, not just a few. (3) Question: If they pass this law how will that effect holidays & tradidtions like Halloween and Fahshing??

    July 9, 2010 at 10:02 pm |
    • Nairb

      (3) Question: If they pass this law how will that effect holidays & tradidtions like Halloween and Fahshing??

      Certain days like Mardi Gras may be excepted.
      In any case the ruling is a general rule. Its application will still allow for some intelligent flexibility

      July 9, 2010 at 10:13 pm |
    • Sagar

      What a stupid question by Nairb?
      This guy does not see a difference between permanently covering face and covering face for a function.

      July 9, 2010 at 11:18 pm |
    • Nairb

      Sagar

      Re read the text
      Its not my question. I was quoting the question from D. R . WIllliams

      July 10, 2010 at 12:11 am |
  17. colio

    Burqa has nothing to do with Islam, it was invented way after Islam came to existence. Islam mandates morality and modesty which can be achieved by less drastic means such as scarf etc. This Burqa ordeal is more of ego issue over clutural rights than a thing of religion. Isalm is not in Burqa, you wear Burqa to display modesty, if it offends ones neighbors than you can adopt other means non offensive to the people around you to fulfil religious obligations.

    July 9, 2010 at 10:02 pm |
    • Frogstomp

      A scarf makes you modest and moral? I didn't know it was that easy.

      July 13, 2010 at 12:16 pm |
  18. vincent

    why must the west be always the one to accomodate all cultures, music, food etc. etc. It's time for islamic fundamentalist to just get out of our countries. NOOO, too drastic, ...lets accomodate them like they haven't done since the stonage with other types of thought, culture, religions etc. etc.

    July 9, 2010 at 9:54 pm |
    • Chris

      It figures that they are so insecure that they have to conquer the world to think they are still serving their god. They don't seem to to be content with themselves as they seem to always be wanting more and what belongs to their fellowman. That's a crime called theft, in the least.

      They being radicals, at least.

      July 10, 2010 at 1:14 am |
  19. Nairb

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

    Not correct. In France seperation of church and state divides the world into 3 areas
    1. The State/Government Sphere ( eg public buildings, school hospitals etc)
    2. The Common Public area ( Roads, public parks, public commercial premises etc)
    3. Private property

    Seperation of church and state limits religous expression to 3 the private places of worship.
    You cannot have a religous march or service in 1 (Givernment buildings) or 2 ( the public arena)

    Yes, Governments cannot take postion or express any opinion.discriminate against any particular religions.
    But banning wearing descriminatory clothes is not anti religion. Atheists who wear bags on their heads or ski masks will suffer the same restriction.

    July 9, 2010 at 9:33 pm |
  20. AFD

    Try carrying a Bible or a rosary in Saudi Arabia! Try being a woman who doesn't want to wear a burka in Saudi Arabia or tribal lands of Afghanistan or Pakistan. The Koran says nothing about the burka as it is a cultural artifact more than a religious one. Oddly enough, or perhaps obviously enough, the freest females in the Muslim world have been under secular dictatorships–the Shah of Iran, Saddam's Iraq, Zia's Pakistan. If folks really want the burka, there are enough countries where this kind of attire is not only welcome but mandatory. They are free to move or return there.

    July 9, 2010 at 9:32 pm |
    • Faiz the Paki, Margalla Hills

      Zia was not secular. Musharraf was quasi-secular I guess.....true secularism died in Pakistan when Islam was declared the official religion in 1973

      July 13, 2010 at 12:20 am |
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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.