As the French ban on the burqa comes into force today, here is part of an essay I wrote last year, when the French debate first kicked off, for the Swedish newspaper Göteborgs-Posten.

THERE IS CERTAINLY SOMETHING MEDIEVAL ABOUT THE BURQA AND THE NIQAB. The idea that in the 21st century women should be hidden from view for reasons of modesty or religious belief is both troubling and astonishing. Yet, there is also something surreal about the way that this piece of cloth has been turned into a battleground for Western values and about the idea that the burqa poses some kind of existential threat to the West.

The campaign against the burqa is particularly puzzling when in reality so few women choose to wear it. The sight of a burqa in Paris or Brussels is almost as rare as a glimpse of a bikini in Riyadh or Karachi. France has a Muslim population of 5 million. Its government estimates that fewer than 2000 women wear a niqab or burqa. (The original survey, conducted by DCRI, the French secret service, came up with the oddly precise figure of 367; that was so low that the Interior Ministry told the DCRI to count again.) In Holland some 500 women in a Muslim population of one million do so, in Denmark the estimate is fewer than 200 out of 170,000 Muslims.

So why, at a time when Europe is beset by so many fundamental economic and social problems, have legislators become so obsessed by this piece of cloth? There are three main kinds of arguments against the burqa: practical, political and existential.

The burqa, Jean-Francois Copé, leader of the majority UNP party in the French National Assembly, has suggested, ‘poses a serious safety problem at a time when security cameras play an important role in the protection of public order’. Many worry that the burqa would allow terrorists to evade airport security or provide the perfect camouflage for bank robbers. Others fret that wearing the burqa makes it difficult to perform certain jobs, particularly those that require face-to-face contact with clients or the public – doctors, nurses, teachers, police officers.

There are clearly practical problems that come with wearing the burqa. It is, after all, a piece of clothing designed for feudal life, not the modern world. Practical problems, however, can usually be solved on a case-by-case basis without the need for national soul searching or draconian legislation. Airports already require veiled women to reveal their features when passing through security. Police have no problem demanding to see faces when checking ID cards. And if banks insist that people should not wear bulky clothing, so be it. But that is very different from the state imposing an outright ban on such clothes.

If wearing a burqa is incompatible with the needs of particular jobs, then those particular employers – hospitals, schools, shops even- can legitimately demand that employees not be clad from head to foot. But again, one can impose dress codes for certain jobs without banning a type of clothing for everyone. After all, we don’t have judges and teachers wearing bikinis on the job either.

The practical arguments for a ban on the burqa are weak and shallow. More profound is the political case. The burqa, proponents of a ban argue, undermines gender equality and makes social integration impossible. It is, Bernard-Henri Lévy has written, ‘not a dress, it’s a message, one that clearly communicates the subjugation, subservience, the crushing and the defeat of women.’

The burqa is certainly demeaning to women, and often used to enchain them. Many other practices and rituals that Western societies tolerate are, however, also degrading. Orthodox Jewish women must shave their heads and wear a wig when they marry. The Catholic Church forbids women priests. Many Protestant evangelical churches insist that wives must ‘obey’ their husbands and that the role of women is to breed new evangelicals. Nobody seriously suggests that Jewish marriage rituals be banned or that the Catholic church be forced to accept gender equality in choosing priests or that evangelical wives be saved by state legislation from being baby factories.

A liberal society accepts that individuals should be free to make choices that may not be in their own interests and that, to liberal eyes, demean them. This applies even to particularly distasteful expressions of degradation, such as the wearing of the burqa.

What of the suggestion that women are forced to wear the burqa, and so need protection from the law? It is true that in countries such as Saudi Arabia or Yemen women have little choice but to cover up their face. That in itself is a good reason for liberal societies not to impose coercive dress codes.

If women are forced to do something against their will, the law already protects them in democratic countries. But what evidence exists, suggests that in Europe most burqa-clad women do not act from a sense of compulsion. According to the DCRI report in France, the majority of women wearing the burqa do so voluntarily, largely as an expression of identity and as an act of provocation. A second French report by the information authority, the SGDI, came to similar conclusions. Burqa wearers, it suggested, sought to ‘provoke society, or one’s family’, and saw it as a ‘badge of militancy’, and of ‘Salafist origins’. The burqa ban will only deepen the sense of alienation out which the desire for such provocation emerges.

The burqa is a symbol of the oppression of women, not its cause. If legislators really want to help Muslim women, they could begin not by banning the burqa, but by challenging the policies and processes that marginalize migrant communities: on the one hand, the racism, social discrimination and police harassment that all too often disfigure migrant lives, and, on the other, the multicultural policies that treat minorities as members of ethnic groups rather than as citizens. Both help sideline migrant communities, aid the standing of conservative ‘community leaders’ and make life more difficult for women and other disadvantaged groups within those communities.

What of the impact of the burqa on social integration? The veil has been rightly described as ‘ghetto walls that a person wears’. It often inhibits normal social interaction – that, after all, is its very purpose – and may preclude those who wear it from integrating into society. But given that virtually no Muslim woman actually wears the burqa, it can hardly be held responsible for creating a sense of social separation.

The real significance of the burqa is that it has become a symbol of the anxieties that have come to beset Western nations. What does it mean to be French? Or British? Or Swedish? Most Western nations have undergone a crisis of identity as both traditional values, and trust in the institutions in which those values were invested, have become eroded. Unable to define clearly the ideas and values that characterize the nation, still less to win people to those ideas and values, politicians have taken the easy step of railing against symbols of ‘alienness’. In this sense the burqa bans are similar to the prohibition imposed two years ago by the Italian city of Lucca on kebab shops ‘to protect our culinary tradition’ or to the decree by the mayor of Rome that schools can no longer serve couscous or Chinese fried rice but only ‘regional cuisine dishes’. They are attempts to define ‘Western values’ or the republican tradition by showing what such values or traditions are not at a time when politicians find it increasingly difficult to express what they are.

And this takes us to the existential argument against the burqa. ‘This is not about the burqa’, Bernard-Henri Lévy claims. ‘It’s about Voltaire. What is at stake is the Enlightenment of yesterday and today, and the heritage of both, no less sacred than that of the three monotheisms. A step backwards, just one, on this front would give the nod, all fanaticism, all the true thoughts of hatred and violence.’

The idea that the entire weight of the Enlightenment tradition should rest on banning a piece of cloth worn by a few hundred women shows how absurd has become the debate about the burqa. Certainly, it is important to defend liberal social values, the secular society and the heritage of the Enlightenment. But we cannot do so by promoting illiberal policies, stigmatizing immigrants, or banning symbols of ‘otherness’. The very values that Lévy believes are undermined by the burqa demand that we oppose any attempt by the state to ban it.

(First published in the Göteborgs-Posten, 13 June 2010)


  1. Miriam S.

    “Orthodox Jewish women must shave their heads and wear a wig when they marry” – not true. There is a very small number of Orthodox Jewish women who have this custom. The rest have a variety of customs, which run from not covering their hair at all, to wearing a headscarf, hat or a baseball cap (sometimes revealing some hair, sometimes covering it all), to wearing a wig over hair. Some also cover their wig with another hat so that no one mistakes their wig for real hair. But the number that shave their heads is minute.

    • That’s true. I wasn’t trying to suggest that all Orthodox women do so, only that some do. The same is true of Muslims and the burqa. The number of Muslim women who wear the burqa or niqab is tiny. The issue is not the numbers involved, but whether the state should interfere.

  2. There are compelling practical and security reasons for banning burqas and voluminous women’s clothing. The middle east has seen terrorists donning women’s garb after throwing a bomb and escaping. They can conceal weapons as well as identities. To ignore this in today’s climate would be foolish. It is all very well to defend a person’s right to wear what they please but this right is not defensible today. One can be a staunch libertarian on individual rights but they stop at the door of public safety and collective good, which must come first in any democratic and stable society. The use of these powers must of course be legitimate, not arbitrary, but given the clear risk of terrorism and the need for society to identify individuals at all times, the power to ban certain clothing is quite defensible. And as you point our yourself, today the burqa is either a political statement or it is forced on women by their husbands and fathers, as is the rest of their behavior. Allowing burqas therefore is a form of legitimizing patriarchy and misogyny and the mistreatment of women, not a religious statement. Talking about ideals in the abstract is no longer tenable. Also, were there no OTHER problems with radical Islam – were women fully equal and enfranchised and free beings, were there no honor killings, were there protections for free speech and dissent, were there free inquiry, and were there tolerance for other religions and no anti semitism, then wearing the burqa would have no political connotations nor would there be these security concerns. But this is a pipe dream. The reality of radical Islam is quite different and to ignore the context of the burqa is to ignore what is in front of our face and MUST be confronted and rolled back: the domination of Muslim men and their determination to impose their religious tenets not only on Muslim women but the whole Muslim world. This is what the burqa represents, not free choice or religion.

    • Lorna, you’re simply repeating here the same arguments that, in the essay, I have shown are wanting. Let’s not pretend that the burqa ban has anything to do with security. It may be that there are a few cases in the Middle East of terrorists using burqas as camouflage. But the ban is taking place in France, not in Iraq or Saudi Arabia. When was the last time a terrorist in France used a burqa to hide a bomb? If you’re really obsessed by security you’d be better off banning rucksacks and underpants. As I wrote in the essay, specific security issues can be dealt with on a case-by-case basis. But there is no reason for draconian legislation of this sort.

      Women who are forced to wear the burqa, or indeed anyone who is compelled to do anything against his or her will, already receive protection through laws that make such coercion illegal. But you seem to be suggesting that even if a woman voluntary dons a burqa as a political statement she should be banned from doing so, because you don’t like that statement. That’s an extraordinarily authoritarian demand. Should only political statements that you approve of be legal?

      I’m fiercely opposed to Islamism – I’ve written a book about it – and as I wrote in the essay, I see the burqa as ‘medieval’. But that’s very different from believing that the state should ban either Islamist ideas or the burqa. Such state coercion is the hallmark not of a liberal democracy but of theocracies or authoritarian regimes.

  3. I am an atheist so I have nothing to say about Islam or Islamic tradition. I don’t care about religious rights because I am not secularist, I am simply Atheist.

    But when we talk about Burqa/Niqab or full faced veil, then I would say that it is a natural right of any person to decide what to wear or what not to wear.

    if a person decides to grow his hair and use a turban as a sikh, it is his right. If a girl decide to use veils to protect her face and other skin parts from hot summer sun and dust in India or any other country, then it is her personal right, In fact,if a girl decides to wear burqa or any other cloth for any purpose or tradition (including religious, then it is her personal right just like she has a right to hide her other womanly assets.

    However, when people combine issue of Burqa with religious freedom or right, then I get confused. I don’t know what Islam says about Burqa, but no man can produce that much heat that may cause skin burns on a girl’s face. I don’t see any logic of use of veil by any girl other than the simple logic to protect her face and other skin parts from hot sun rays, dust, dirt and pollutants.

    And if a girl is trying to protect herself from pollution, then it is her right.

    We in India protect our faces while driving bikes on roads against pollution, sun rays and dust by using a full-faced white veil which is certainly different from Burqa. Some political outfits tried to ban these veils here a few years ago but they failed.

    They failed because we do not care for religious rights, we remain ready to die for INDIVIDUAL RIGHTS which includes the right to decide what to wear or what not to wear. By saying so, I am exactly supporting Right TO Go Nude and Exhibit everything.

    Oh By the way, we Indians were the very first Nudist in this world.

  4. Tran

    Kenan Malik, I found this article extrememly refreshing than the prejudiced words of those who are ignorant of the cold hard facts. I agree with everything you have said whole-heartedly, and I am glad that you have written this piece.

  5. I think a little of the old-style Soviet wisdom would work here: The USSR did not ban religion, but neither did it ban propaganda against it. Fine; let us not ban the burqa. But, it would be wise to promote public campaigns in favour of gender equality, coming to terms that it is oppresive (regardless of how consensual women may be about it) to wear burqas.
    On the other hand, I am not sure that consensus is a crucial factor here. Latin America is known for female beatings and domestic violence. Latin American women seem not to care much about being abused. Yet, that is not justification enough for the State not to intervene.

  6. Ataturk set Turkey free of the Islamic regime by forbidding religious symbols, dresses and hairdressing. Clearly abruptly forbidding backward culture and believes, helped to get the people out of oppression and prepared them for new and better times.
    At the moment there is a strong backlash, instigated by imam that are afraid to loose their power when people choose to enjoy the modern ways and may be even choose to be free from religion. It is sad to see that western societies are so ready to accept and respect religious demands that come from a backward world where oppression and disrespect for freethinking is the norm.
    I think that everyone should be free to choose their own dress, but most people are not aware that religion and freedom are incompatible. A world free from religion is the one that we should accept.and respect.

  7. They just introduced this in the Netherlands too. What a ridiculous law. I am an atheist, lesbian, and vegan. I am bothered by the sight of Dutch mens’ skinny white hairy legs in summer, when they all wear their horrible bermuda shorts. Can we have a ban for that too?

    This law has not been installed to protect women’s rights. In this country, women have long been free to choose their style of clothing. Nobody is forced to wear a burqa, and nobody should be forced to take it off if they want to wear it. As long as nobody gets hurt and there’s no harm to public goods or the environment, people should be free to choose whatever lifestyle they wish to pursue. Including wearing burqas.

    What’s next? Will Wilders and the Dutch government force us all to eat meat, just because that’s the ‘Jewish-Christian tradition’ of the Netherlands? This law makes me shiver.

  8. redkabukicho

    Dear sir, I hope you know the ‘burqa’ and ‘niqaab’ are not and never were Islamic. They’re cultural, and have had the title of ‘Muslim tradition’ slapped onto it. Just thought I’d let you know.

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