France and the Burka – An Assault on Religious Freedom

As some of you may know, the French government is currently considering banning the burka altogether from public life. French President Sarkozy created something of a controversy when he said the following to French lawmakers:

“The problem of the burka is not a religious problem. This is an issue of a woman’s freedom and dignity. This is not a religious symbol. It is a sign of subservience; it is a sign of lowering. I want to say solemnly, the burka is not welcome in France”.

The notion that the wearing of the burka is ‘not a religious problem’ or ‘religious symbol’ is preposterous. Of course it is a religious problem and a religious symbol. There is no way to evade that reality. Whether or not a literal interpretation of the Koran demands that women cover themselves, or whether it is a practice that has been grafted on over time is completely irrelevant; for millions of Muslim women, wearing the burka is a part of their religious practice and expression, however it came to be so.

 

The problems with this legislation are numerous and egregious, whether in the French context or that of any other democratic country. First, there is the obvious, blatant hypocrisy. It is absolutely ludicrous to argue that one can simultaneously respect women (or anyone for that matter) while depriving them of their right to make decisions about what they wear and how they express their religious beliefs. By banning the burka, by suggesting that it is necessarily and always a symbol of oppression, they insult and disrespect the millions of Muslim women who freely choose to wear these garments.

When I was in college, I would see Muslim women wearing headscarfs on campus all the time, and in my classes as well. Occasionally I would see women with their faces covered. They were as intelligent and as capable as anyone else of making their own decisions as citizens in a democratic society. The idea that these women must have been backwards, unenlightened dupes and/or helpless victims of male tyrants at home, on no other evidence than that they wore a burka or a headscarf, would have been laughable to me and extremely offensive to them.

Even if it were the case that many Muslim women are forced, or feel pressured against their will, to wear the burka (as I am sure it must be in some places less open than a college campus), banning its appearance in public would do nothing to solve the deeper problem of a controlling, possibly violent husband. In such a relationship being forced to a wear a burka would be among the least of a woman’s problems. This legislation is not for the benefit of the Muslim women of France. It serves another ideological purpose.

The French government wishes to do all in its power to retain France’s status as a “secular state”. Even seeing a headscarf or a veil covering the face in public – a full burka covering the entire body is, from what I understand, more rare – is a reminder that not everyone is on board with the project of total secularization. The burka has become more than a simple covering. It is a symbol of resistance, against secularization, against the assault of modernity, and heaven help us, post-modernity, on tradition.

As a Christian, and as a Catholic who is more partial to traditional forms of the liturgy, I stand in religious solidarity with the Muslim women who choose to wear the burka. I also stand with those women who choose not to wear it. But I will never stand with those who believe that Muslim women shouldn’t be able to make the decision for themselves, whether they are Muslim men, or European politicians.

And I hope America remains a society where women can wear burkas and I can attend a traditional Latin Mass without being singled out as an enemy of “progress” by the state.

Update I: I found another article that makes the following claim.

“A few thousand women wear the burka in France, many of whom are French converts who chose to cover themselves to assert their faith, according to Le Figaro.”

If this is true, it only reinforces everything I wrote above.

Update II: It appears President Obama agrees with me as well, and I’m not sure what to make of that.

In his speech to the “Muslim world” in Cairo early this month, Obama appeared to reference the case: “freedom in America is indivisible from the freedom to practice one’s religion … that’s why the United States government has gone to court to protect the right of women and girls to wear the hijab and to punish those who would deny it.”

Elsewhere in the address, Obama said it was important that Western countries not prevent Muslim citizens “from practicing religion as they see fit – for instance, by dictating what clothes a Muslim woman should wear. We can’t disguise hostility towards any religion behind the pretence of liberalism.”

http://www.catholic.org/international/international_story.php?id=33906&page=2

39 Responses to France and the Burka – An Assault on Religious Freedom

  • As a conservative, Sarkozy proves to me that Godless conservatism is no better than liberalism.

  • I think you’re right on this. While it is doubtless the case that some women are intimidated into wearing Burkas by men — the solution to that would be to do deal with the intimidation (which if it involves threats of physical violence, as it often does, would be illegal) not to ban the burkas.

    However distasteful some may find the strictures involved, the precedent of banning religious practices is not worth it. Not remotely.

  • When I was in college, I would see Muslim women wearing headscarfs on campus all the time, and in my classes as well. Occasionally I would see women with their faces covered.

    A burqa is not a headscarf. It’s a full body deal. I suppose that there are some women who choose to wear them not out of pressure from male relatives, but of their own free will, just as there were people during the Reformation whose religious convictions led them to go naked through the streets.

  • If they don’t wear the burka their menfolk will kill them. I’m glad France isn’t turning a blind eye to that.

  • “A burqa is not a headscarf.”

    I realize this. But it is viewed in the same way. Some are more tolerant of the headscarf, others see the burka and the headscarf both as ‘symbols of oppression’ or whatever. France had its headscarf controversy already. I see the issues as related; if one is banned, the other may be not far behind.

  • And, aside from the snide comment, do you, BA, think that women should have the right to decide whether or not to wear a burka?

  • And, aside from the snide comment, do you, BA, think that women should have the right to decide whether or not to wear a burka?

    I don’t have a strong opinion on it one way or the other. It’s hard for me to see it as anything but a symbol of oppression, but that doesn’t mean it should be banned. The question is whether or not it is disruptive of the public order. If it is, it should be banned (just as religiously motivated public nudity should be banned). If not, not. That’s a factual question, and not having lived in France, it’s hard for me to evaluate.

  • In what way could it be “disruptive”?

    That’s twice now you’ve compared it to nudity. Do you really think that is fair?

  • You know, never mind that. The politicians involved have said nothing of public disruption, and I wouldn’t accept any argument as genuine that claimed seeing a woman in a burka actually prevented them from functioning in society.

    It’s ridiculous and absurd on its face – and that is why no one is making that claim. This is the persecution of a religious minority. What happened to freedom and all that jazz?

    It’s really neat to hear you talk about the integrity of the public order, too. Heaven forbid we regulate markets and income to preserve the public order. Instead lets pick on a handful of women who want to express their faith in a way that doesn’t harm anyone.

    I hope when the day comes that crosses and cassocks are deemed “disruptive of the public order” we’ll find you on the right side of the issue. I hope when public prayer to Christ is compared with public nudity as a public menace, you’ll change your tune. I really do. No sarcasm here.

  • As I recall, there are several groups made up of Muslim-origin women who have petitioned France to ban the burka, arguing that it’s almost always imposed via threats and used as a means of oppression.

    I’d see the precedent of banning a religious practice as being dangerous enough not to be worth getting involved in what’s essentially an intra-Muslim quarrel — even if one is doing so in the name of protecting women’s freedom. However, I can see why one would go the other way.

  • “As I recall, there are several groups made up of Muslim-origin women who have petitioned France to ban the burka, arguing that it’s almost always imposed via threats and used as a means of oppression.”

    And it is yet another example of the irrationality of this hysterical secular/liberal mindset. If women are actually being forced to wear burkas, then how in the name of heaven and all that is holy will banning the burka affect the situation of the woman at home?

    This can’t possibly be about protecting women. These arguments are being made by fanatics who can’t stand to see such a bold religious statement made in public.

    As Sarkozy and the politicians who support this measure make clear, it is about preserving “secular France”, about making a statement. They say it is a statement about women’s oppression all they are doing is, in their own way, what the stereotypical Muslim man does – insist, on pain of punishment and possibly violence, upon what a woman can or cannot wear. You cannot oppress people and free them at the same time.

  • I have no doubt that there are people who are into oppressing others – and that this can become reflected in many religions. Also that historically women were not afforded their proper dignity. However, I think it’s wrong to assume that the burka is simply about oppression. It seems the religious mandate varies by sect – not necessarily by the whim of any given husband/father. To that degree a woman is abiding by her faith and is quite possibly happy with it and would have it no other way. Is it ridiculous and oppressive for nuns to wear a habit?

    While my Catholic and Western sensibilities lead me to dislike the burka and consider it extreme and disordered, I have to at least consider how it is so. I view it as something in pursuit of a good – modesty – modesty as a personal virtue and to benefit the social order. However, like many good things, they become disordered when taken to an extreme and then have negative consequences and often fail to achieve their purpose. It’s such things that are the backbone of every heresy.

    In the West we have gone to the opposite extreme. We erroneously think the absence of norms of decency and gender and familial roles is liberating. We stop treating women with dignity and treating them like just another guy and call that women’s liberation. We’re grateful that women have the liberty to wear mini-skirts and heels – not because their dignity is increased or that we’re celebrating their liberty, but because it affects us in a base manner.

  • The politicians involved have said nothing of public disruption, and I wouldn’t accept any argument as genuine that claimed seeing a woman in a burka actually prevented them from functioning in society.

    I don’t know much about the specifics of the French case (which is why I did not express an opinion). I recall that in Britain a while back there was a controversy about a decision that Muslim grade school teachers couldn’t wear the burqa while teaching. In that case the disruption seemed pretty clear and obvious. A more general ban on burqas in public spaces would, of course, be a harder case to make.

    It’s really neat to hear you talk about the integrity of the public order, too. Heaven forbid we regulate markets and income to preserve the public order.

    I’m all for regulating markets in cases where doing so actually does serve the public order (I’m not an anarchist). What I object to are regulations that claim to preserve the public order but don’t actually do this.

  • “I don’t know much about the specifics of the French case (which is why I did not express an opinion).”

    There are no specifics, BA. A French politician – a Communist, in fact – proposed a total public ban on burkas, and President Sarkozy expressed public support for it. It is being deliberated now in the government.

    Why can’t you express an opinion on a news item, exactly?

    “I’m all for regulating markets in cases where doing so actually does serve the public order (I’m not an anarchist).”

    Well, I learn something new every day. Glad we agree on that.

  • We’re grateful that women have the liberty to wear mini-skirts and heels – not because their dignity is increased or that we’re celebrating their liberty, but because it affects us in a base manner.

    Base? Base? Who are you calling base?

    ;-)

  • I found out these tidbits of information as well (oh, I know how much you dislike my “random” links, BA – sorry for that):

    “The Netherlands would become the first European country to ban the wearing of the burka in public situations, although there are already some local bans. Last year several Belgian towns, including Antwerp and Ghent, banned the wearing of the burka in public, and recently started issuing £100 spot fines for breaking the municipal ordinance. Several towns in Italy, including Como, have invoked legislation introduced by Mussolini that bans hiding one’s face in public to impose fines on burka-wearers. France and several regions of Germany have followed Turkey and Tunisia in banning the wearing of the hijab, which leaves the face visible, in public buildings, most controversially in schools. ”

    http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/world/europe/article577915.ece

    This goes beyond even religious persecution. These women are most likely immigrants, they most likely don’t have the money to spare to pay these ridiculous fines. THIS is the oppression of women. This is the oppression of the poor. Why in heaven’s name would you fine a woman for wearing a garment that you think she was coerced into wearing in the first place!

    This is madness, more secular, liberal madness.

  • Joe,

    According to the article you link to, both the Dutch and Italian bans are being justified on grounds of public safety. If the proposed French ban is supposed to be justified merely on the grounds that it preserves the secular nature of the French state, then obviously I don’t think that’s a good reason for a ban.

  • Oh please, they say “public safety” – they can say anything they like.

    As the woman quoted in the article said, if there is reasonable suspicion, then a person can be searched. In the context of so many other bans and controversies where public safety hasn’t been invoked at all, its obvious that it is just another cheap argument thrown in the mix.

  • I mean, if a burka is a threat to public safety, so is a backpack.

  • Base? Base? Who are you calling base?

    Heh. You’re in good company…err…well maybe not good company. But at least you’re not kidding yourself about what it is. ;)

  • And, I’d like an answer to my question, if it isn’t too much trouble.

    If the burka is a sign of oppression, does it make sense to punish the oppressed? If a woman is forced to wear a burka, is it just for the law to punish her?

    And if she isn’t forced, doesn’t that undermine most of the argument against it in the first place?

  • If the burka is a sign of oppression, does it make sense to punish the oppressed?

    I don’t see how prohibiting a woman from wearing a burka constitutes punishment. If she was wearing it out of intimidation, I would think this was just the opposite.

  • What generally happens when people do things that are prohibited by law? They are punished for them.

    Women will continue to wear the burka and the headscarf (which is also under constant attack and threat of being banned in Europe), whether it is legal or not. That means they will be punished, most likely fined. And since they are mostly immigrants, that means they are going to have to pay money they need for other necessities.

    Even the ones who wear it out of compulsion won’t benefit; they will be forced to stay at home and they will still have abusive husbands. The only people who benefit are the xenophobes and hysterical liberals who don’t want to see a physical reminder of a worldview different than their own.

    But the ones who are not compelled will continue to wear it and be fined. They will pay it because religious freedom is important to them. You can see for yourself if you do image searches on this; hundreds of Muslim women protesting for their right to wear the headscarf (and for all intents and purposes, the burka issue is the same issue).

    So the likelihood is that women will endure this punishment so they can continue wearing what they choose as an expression of their faith. And then what? Will the police be empowered to confiscate these dangerous pieces of cloth from the dangerous ladies that wear them? Where will it stop?

  • I would assume that the theory is that if the husbands/fathers are only making them do this out of desire to put women in their place, then when they realize they’d have to pay fines to make them keep wearing the burka they’d back off and figure it wasn’t worth the money.

    That said, this is a pretty good reminder that European liberalism has historically been much more hostile to religion than the American variety. France and Germany both went through repeated rounds of suppressing or expelling religious orders in the 19th century.

    It’s probably useful to keep that context in mind when encountering papal comments about political “liberalism” in the early social encyclicals.

  • I disfavor criminalizing the burka. That said, one would be naive to believe that it is not an emblem of oppression. Just because something is grounded in a religious belief does not make it good, and no society should be required to tolerate social evils just because they may have religious sources. But I do favor giving religious expression as wide a berth as practical, and would not outlaw the burka for that reason and because I’m sure many women wear burkas quite willingly. That said, the burka is nonetheless also mandated by societies that do indeed mean to keep women oppressed, and it would be naive to celebrate their presence.

  • As usual I oppose a French policy! I don’t like what I perceive the burka to stand for, but adults living in a free society have the right to choose their garb, and the choice should not be mandated by the state, unless we are talking about people choosing to appear in public wearing nothing at all!

  • “That said, one would be naive to believe that it is not an emblem of oppression”

    How could it be such an emblem for the women who choose to wear it?

    I celebrate the presence of any man or woman willing to stand up for the religious freedom in the face of hostile, militant secularism.

  • This is just the first of many steps in the secularists plan to remove all religious garb from the public square.

    If this passes it will not be that difficult of a leap for the state to then say we will ban the wearing of any religious garb in public that represents a religious faith which holds one or more views that are in opposition to the state view.

    For example gay marriage, gay adoption, abortion, etc., So don’t be surprised when they ban the wearing of Cassocks by priests in public because that is the symbol of the Catholic faith which is teaching views that are in opposition to that of the state.

    Then the state criminalizes the religious who refuse to comply. The devil is indeed devious, and it amazes me how many people around the world have their eyes wide shut as this is happening.

  • Sarkozy is merely expressing the general sentiments of the French public – that France is a secular state. Having gone through an extraordinary revulsion against the Church at the turn of 20th Century [no religious garb, no religious orders, no religious schools] in the name of The State, this action by Sarkozy is nothing new.
    Underlying his action is a general revulsion against Islam. The pied-noir influence in France is still quite strong.
    And the revulsion against Islam is growing stronger in the such countries as Denmark, Sweden, Norway, Belgium, Germany.
    I am not certain that Americans have much justification for criticising these countries.

  • Recently there was a somewhat similar controversy in the Chicago area, involving a Muslim woman who had been arrested and charged with beating a young relative (not her own child, I think it was her 3- or 4-year-old niece) to death. She had always kept her face veiled when in public, but the police insisted that she remove her veil when they took her mug shot.

    The mug shot was later published in the local newspaper, and the jailed woman and her husband then threatened to sue the police department and the city for religious discrimination. I don’t know whether they went through with it or not, and the criminal case has not yet been resolved.

    A lot of the normally conservative bloggers went off on how ridiculous this lawsuit was, and how could this woman/couple possibly deserve any respect when she had killed this child, etc. — forgetting, of course, that she is supposed to be presumed innocent until proven guilty.

    Well, suppose a devout Christian woman, or even a nun, were charged with a crime and had to be photographed by the police in the buff to show scars, etc. Should that photo be published in the newspaper? Does she lose all her rights the moment she is charged — not convicted, mind you, but charged — with a crime?

    Now I can see where it was necessary for the police to take her mug shot, but I don’t think the newspaper needed to publish it. She was already in jail — it was not as if she were still at large and the public had to be able to identify her. And if she wore her veil all the time in public, how could any of her neighbors, etc. have recognized her anyway?

    I believe there have also been cases in other states involving hijab (face veil) wearing women who were asked or required to remove their veils when getting pictures taken for their driver’s licenses. There may be a legitimate security or identification reason for that; but if that were the case, wouldn’t traditionally habited nuns (like Mother Angelica) have to take off their veils for their driver’s license pictures as well?

  • Speaking of freedom and something practical we can do about it… I just spotted this over on a couple of other Catholic blogs.

    If you use Twitter, set your location to Tehran and your time zone to GMT + 3:30. Word is that the Iranian government is attempting to hunt down dissidents by searching for “tweets” using this location and time. However, if millions of people from around the world do the same thing, it will, allegedly, make the dissidents harder to find — sort of a needle-in-a-haystack effect.

  • I think President Sarkozy’s comments reflect something deeper than “oppression of women”. They are subconsciously realizing that their godless secular agenda is eroding their moral fortitude as a country. Once they start de-christianization, Islam steps in to fill the vacuum.

    What they abhor is exactly that.

    What they propose is wrong. The French should have the freedom to wear what they like, or they will just make things worse.

    This idea of theirs is just a band aid to the broader issue of amoralization of their society.

  • Tito,

    I think you’re right about that.

    I am not sympathetic to the project of total secularization. People fear this thing they have created in their heads called “theocracy”. It is beyond their comprehension that a secular religion like liberalism, or as we see on the horizon, transhumanism, or as in the past, communism, can be enshrined by the state.

    I’ve been reading more reports that suggest that many Muslim women in the west wear burkas (less commonly) and the hijab (more commonly) AGAINST the advice of their families and even their husbands in some cases. This is truly amazing to me – the image of the dominated Muslim woman, turned upside down.

  • Once again, I’m with Joe on this topic! I happened to watch French TV regualrly (France 2, France 5, Canal+) and indeed, the main problem those french people have with the Burqua is that it threatens the quasireligious french “principle” of “laicite” (secularism). You know, for many of the french elite (both rightwing and leftwing), secularism is not neutral to religion as it is itself a form of civil religion with its so-called values and dogmas – a religion that is pretty much tantamount to state-sanctioned atheism.
    Joe mentioned Obama’s opinion on the subject; indeed the French elite is up in arms and hand-wringing concerning Obama’s quite pertinacious suggestion that this supposedly french “laicite” is just a bigoted anti-religious stance reminiscent of the pervasive anti-clerical attitude of the elite of past times.
    Joe also says:
    ” I hope when the day comes that crosses and cassocks are deemed “disruptive of the public order” we’ll find you on the right side of the issue. I hope when public prayer to Christ is compared with public nudity as a public menace, you’ll change your tune. I really do. No sarcasm here.”

    Well, you are a bit late there Joe! Five years ago, when the HEADSCARF (not burquas) debate was raging on, those enlightened french people actually voted a law which prohibits the display of -brace yourself for this moment of bigotry- “ostensible symbols of religion” in public places (school, state offices, etc) since it is the “imposition of one’s religion”. Of course, what that actually meant is the total ban on any symbols of religions including crosses worn by students at schools and, yes indeed, the cassoks of visiting priest in hospitals. And all that was done with the silent indifference or approval(?) of the french episcopate (shame on them!).

  • Mark & Joe,

    I think they are pushing secularism beyond what it was originally intended for.

    Laicite was wrong to begin with in my opinion.

    The French Revolution was a bloodbath and a complete failure. To think that the French Republic still celebrates this revolution that inspired Communism is beyond me.

  • Sarkozy is anti-immigrant and is his push for total secularization of France (no crosses – even on a necklace, Stars of Davids in public schools) is idiotic. If it was a public safety issue they would outlaw all full-body coverings (which would include nun’s habits and other garb), but that was not his intent – for now.

    I do have a question for Joe, however. I have agreed with most of what you have said, but if female circumcision were a religious practice rather than a cultural one (and perhaps it is to a degree), would the outlawing of this practice in France – or any country – be “anti-religious”?

  • Well, circumcision is something different.

    Headscarves and burkas don’t threaten anyone or anything. Banning them is a spiteful attack on tradition. Female circumcision, though, is a pretty gruesome mutilation of a human body. We wouldn’t allow child sacrifices as part of a religious tradition, and we rightfully don’t allow children to die of treatable illnesses because the parents don’t believe in medicine. So, female circumcision seems to come closer to that extreme.

    I believe in building the Culture of Life. That is my top priority. Preserving religious tradition is another high priority on my list, but not if/when it conflicts with the Culture of Life – as I believe this practice does.

  • The blanket ban is clearly unacceptable, but I also do not think there is an absolute right to wear the burka at all times and places. In Michigan, there was a lawsuit filed by a burka-clad Muslim woman who refused to remove the face veil during testimony. The trial court properly dismissed her case and the Michigan Supreme Court held issued a Court Rule holding that a judge had the power to control the garb of parties and witness in his or her courtroom.

    In some limited but crucial circumstances, the garb has to give way. Likewise mugshots, driver’s license pictures, voting, passing through security checkpoints and the like.

  • Raphael Lioger is the man…yesterday he confronted a set of secularist ideologues and denounce their supposedly universal idea of “laicite”, showing that the “universal values of the French republic” touted by those hacks are in fact ideologies that they subscribed to but would’nt dare to affirm as such in public :”Radical feminism, voltaire-type anti-religion doctrine, etc” – instead they say that they are defending the “foundation of the republic based on the enlightment”, etc….anyway I warmly recommend this book by Lioger :
    http://www.amazon.fr/Une-la%C3%AFcit%C3%A9-France-religions-dEtat/dp/2908606348

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