Sarkozy’s Burqa Ban

Note: I will hereafter refer to the “burqa” as “niqab” which is the Arabic term for the face-covering. For more information see here.

That the niqab is not mandated by Islam has nothing to do with Sarko’s right to ban it. Many Muslims have expressed acceptance of or even outright support for Sarko’s move stating that the niqab is a bedaa (something that was not actually practiced by the Prophet Muhammad PBUH but is a later invention wrongly made in the name of Islam). Some Muslims also agree that the niqab is an imposition of extremists on our moderate religion in an attempt to control women. Those women who freely choose to wear it are dismissed by both Sarko and his supporters – Muslim or otherwise – as brainwashed, oppressed, extremists, or people who surrendered rather than fought for their rights and thus are unworthy of our support for their rights.

I happen to agree that the niqab is not mandated by Islam, the Qur’an and the sunnah (the Prophet Muhammad’s traditions and sayings) are clear on the hijab (head-covering) and say nothing about covering the face. An ongoing debate now is whether those women who choose to wear it get “extra points” for their devotion to God – for wanting nothing from this life and wanting everything from the next – or whether they are actually committing sin by isolating themselves from society and painting a negative misrepresentation of Islam. The latter argument may be true in a country like France, where niqabis are almost necessarily isolated and cannot work or participate in community acivities.

But in Egypt I know firsthand that the argument doesn’t apply.

Just 2 weeks ago I was on a work trip to Aswan to visit some youth centres and interview some of their participants. One of those I interviewed was a niqabi woman who used to be the head of the centre’s Youth Parliament – voted in the position by her colleagues (both girls and boys) – and after a few years was given a management role in the centre. Her daily work entailed working with and managing both men and women. During my interview with her we talked, we laughed, she was funny and clever and when one of her subordinates – a man – informed her that he hadn’t completed one of his tasks, she let him know he better get his act together. Not seeing her face was not a problem at all. I could see her eyes, I could hear her voice, and as Egyptians in general we like to talk with our hands, what more do I need to have a conversation? During the interview a male colleague of hers joined us, and they laughingly reminesced about their days together in the youth parliament (when she was leading him).

Granted, this type of story is not exactly probable in France, and women in France may choose to don the niqab for very different reasons than women in Egypt do. But that shouldn’t matter! People’s reasons for dressing a certain way is personal and completely irrelevant to the debate, which is a debate about RIGHTS. The point here is: Citizens have the right to wear whatever they want in public (minus walking around naked). Governments should not have the right to interfere in what people wear in public.

Sarko’s comments render the supposedly democratic French government no different than the Saudi Arabian or Iranian governments in their belief that government has the right to judge what people can and cannot wear. How can we in good concience argue so vehemently against Saudi Arabia’s and Iran’s strict dress codes and then accept Sarko’s move just because we don’t like the niqab? Anybody noticing a double-standard here??

Many Sarko supporters are using the well-worn argument “if a woman wears skimpy clothing in Saudi Arabia or Iran they get punished for it”. Is that really what the French people aspire for their government to be?

June 30, 2009 - Posted by | International Affairs, Islam


  1. I can’t understand how Muslims agreeing with Sarkozi based on their belief that Niqab is nothing more than a habit that is imposed on Islam miss a very clear point. Human rights don’t deal with beliefs as such but deal with individuals with beliefs. This means that it is not of anyone’s business to judge whether a specific practice is rightly attributed to one belief or another. Someone who believes in some totally fabricated cult that demands its followers to shave bald their heads is totally free to perform this act in accordance with his belief. We have no right to argue that his belief is false or that his whole cult is a nonsense fabricated rubbish even if we do think so.

    I don’t like Niqab and I do think it is humiliating and degrading. Still a woman wearing it in accordance with her beliefs is absolutely free to do so.

    Comment by مهندس حر | June 30, 2009 | Reply

    • Tamer, my point exactly. I was so annoyed when I read this argument because it is a complete double standard. Like you said, if somebody wants to walk around with tattoos all over their body or shave their head or wear crazy clothes they are free to do that. Whether or not we (as citizens and as government) agree with them is irrelevant.

      I followed your debate with Mar3e about self-inflicted harm, it was interesting and got me thinking. I think the issue is that anyone can judge whether you have harmed yourself physically, physical harm is objective, whereas emotional harm is subjective, so who is going to judge that?
      Anyway, thanks again for the RT!

      Comment by lozah | June 30, 2009 | Reply

  2. I just like to note that my debate with Mar3ee was for arguments exploration purposes. I don’t think wearing a Niqab is a kind of self-inflected harm or at least such view can never be generalized.

    Comment by مهندس حر | June 30, 2009 | Reply

  3. the key in the french response is based on their belief to protect the “freedom from”…rather than the “freedom to” often upheld in other countries such as the USA for example. The french in general believe in extensive government regulation to protect people from certain things deemed destructive..as they see the niqab to be debasing to women and society, this is just an extension of that principle. and since this is the country that outlawed scientology and pronounced it a cult, its clamp down on other religious matters deemed to be unhealthy is not really surprising. Also, france is very secular and such radical signs of religious worship make the french uncomfortable…france follows an immigration policy of assimilation and integration, rather than multiculturalism, and the niqab is not seen to be “french” enough. the reason this issue isnt brought up in the united states for example is because they like to adhere strictly to the “freedom to” outlook..freedom to wear whatever you want for example-the US government has always avoided regulation much more than some european counterparts. the US also is not a secular nation compared to french standards, and they believe in the “melting pot” theory of immigration rather than assimilation. from this context, i can see how such a ban might make sense.

    Comment by miss | July 1, 2009 | Reply

    • Interesting point, the “freedom from” versus “freedom to” mentalities, as well as the “assimilation” versus “multiculturalism” paradigms show the different forms that secularism can take. Most people are not entirely surprised that this came out of France. It’s a well-established fact that Sarko is a racist hypocrite and a dirty politician just like all the others.

      The outrage, on my part at least, the sheer hypocrisy of the supporters of this ban. Don’t claim to be a proponent of freedom, a bastion of democracy and human rights, and then in the same breath argue government interference in people’s dress. The phrase “banning for freedom” is an oxymoron, and any “liberator of women” who argues otherwise should be exposed for their biased, orientalist, and paternalistic ideas.

      Comment by lozah | July 8, 2009 | Reply

  4. Why I wear a Hijab ?
    By Raseena Sherif
    I was asked by a friend about why I wear a hijab. This is my answer.

    You asked me ages ago why I wore the hijab. It was always somewhere in my mind – not necessarily always the back – that I should reply and I finally decided I wouldn’t put off your reply any longer, and therefore you shall have it.

    Having grown up in a practising Muslim household, many things were just handed over to me. And having studied in an Islamic school all my life, consequently having an entirely Muslim circle of friends, I never questioned them. That was the way things were done in my little world, and it was therefore the way I did things too. The hijab was one of them. I grew up in it. Physically and also mentally. I think the question, or at least the one with the more interesting answer, is why I continue to wear the hijab even after having spent more than three years now, in Christian colleges, and with a friend circle that is largely non- Muslim.

    There are many things I found in the hijab as I grew up. Things as varied as the convenience of not having to spend considerable amount of worry and time on my wardrobe and outside appearance, to philosophical, spiritual, and you might be surprised to hear this, but even feminist concepts that I feel proud to stand up for and show my belief in.

    In wearing a hijab, a woman is identified by the things she does and the things she stands for, rather than her looks. Even as a woman, there are times when I have found myself identifying another woman by her looks, where I might ask “Oh, the one with the long hair?” In underplaying my looks, I force others to look for more in me.

    My hijab saves me a lot of the time, effort, thought and worry that would otherwise go into my dress, my hair, my skin and my make up. I think it’s a pity that while theoretically looks aren’t supposed to matter, one must spend so much time and money on them. With the hijab, looking good means looking neat and the best part is that I get to stop where others begin.

    Comments on: France ponders a burqa ban | No cover up | The Economist on Wednesday, 01-07-2009 at 09:35am

    Looking back now, at how I began to wear the hijab, I’m glad I did start the way I did. In spite of the fact that I prefer to find things out for myself, and hate taking things for granted, or doing things without really believing them. Because having started the way I did, to me, the hijab was always just another type of clothing.

    I think about the kind of stereotypes people have about hijabs, and women who wear them, and I know that if I were left to discover the hijab for myself, it would have been tough for me to go beyond those stereotypes, to go back on all that I grew up hearing, seeing and believing, and to allow myself to actually see the hijab for what it is and its beauty. Having grown up wearing it, in a society that didn’t jump to conclusions about me because I did, or look at me like I was weird, I have always felt comfortable in it, and never thought of myself as any different from the rest. It was just my way of dressing. And with the stage for objective evaluation of that type of dressing set, I have come to love that way of dressing above others.

    On the other hand, I know there are those that hate the hijab they wear. I feel bad for them – for the fact that they are forced to do something they don’t even understand, and the fact that they haven’t understood something so beautiful. However, I think the saddest part is that they are losing out on both the happiness they might have found in dressing the way they would have liked to, and the happiness they could have found in pleasing their Creator. It’s always our intentions that are considered and if you’re doing something only because you’re forced to, it doesn’t count. You might as well enjoy yourself living life the way you want to. And then if you are fortunate enough to find God for yourself, I think you are really lucky.

    In fact, I feel bad for all those Islamic ideologies that are reduced to meaningless customs and traditions, and the joke that they have been allowed to become in the minds of people. Anyway, I won’t start on that or I shall go on for a couple more pages. I just want to ask you to make a distinction between actual Islamic ideology and the actions that one sees from some people born into Muslim households – especially the kind I heard you grew up with.

    In the hijab, honestly, I feel blessed.

    Comment by Raseena Sherif | July 6, 2009 | Reply

  5. The whole issue goes through the idea of ‘rights’ which probably seems to have two definitions whenever their is a need to use it, don’t you think that, Lozah?

    That said, I think in France the problem is much deeper than the debat whether to wear or not because Europe in general is secular so they see ‘Hijab’, ‘Niqab’ as “symbols” which annoye their secular mentality.

    Comment by Hicham | July 8, 2009 | Reply

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