Click here if you don’t see subscription options
George M. AndersonMay 18, 2010

More European countries are moving toward making it illegal for Muslim women to wear burqas--full Islamic face veils--in public. For many of them, however, burqas are part of their culture. Forcing them to abandon them has been termed an act of  “cultural warfare.” The bans can include hefty fines. Municipalities in some Belgian areas prohibit any full face covering, and violations can mean fines of over $30 and even a week in jail. Two dozen municipalities already ban their use. If Belgium’s parliament adopts a current bill, it would be the first European country to impose a nationwide ban.

France has begun its own steps toward a ban, with President Sarkozy claiming that “the burqa has no place there.” Netherlands too is considering a ban. Some cities in Italy already have prohibitions in place. A young Tunisian woman in the northern city of Novara was fined for wearing a face veil that covered her face except for her eyes. She was on her way with her husband to prayers at a local mosque. The law forbids women from wearing clothing in public that prevents the police from identifying the wearer. The Tunisian woman must pay of fine of $650. The police inspector in Novara said that said, “we just enforced a local law that stops people from covering their faces near sensitive places like schools, hospitals and post offices.” Now Italy’s conservative Northern League is pressing for national legislation.

Not all European governments see the ban as desirable. Germany’s foreign minister, Thomas de Maiziere, for example, has said that imposing a ban on face veils is both “inappropriate and unnecessary.” Not surprisingly, European Muslim leaders have condemned the bans as discriminatory. Critics worldwide have said that the bans are in violation of the right to freedom of expression and of religious freedom, and point out that it would also worsen the growing intolerance toward Muslims in Europe. They are correct.

George Anderson, S.J.

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
11 years 6 months ago
Mary -

I don't think it's fair to compare cultural traditions in which physical harm occurs to traditions in which modesty is respected.

As far as I know, the burqa-wearing women in the EU are not forced to wear their burqas. But you and Ann beleive that they must be victims, because who, other than a victim, would voluntarily wear a burqa. This is the problem with liberal thinking and feminism: they seek to find victimhood where there is none; they seek to fix that which does not need fixing.

I've no doubt that such beliefs are of good intention, but what about the harm that is caused to the "oppressed" women by stripping them of their religious/cultural traditions that in many cases define their lives and their relationship with God?
11 years 6 months ago
''I don't think it's fair to compare cultural traditions in which physical harm occurs to traditions in which modesty is respected.''

Physical harm most certainly does occur to women where it is the norm (or indeed law) to wear the burqa. Even after the Taliban, some women in parts of Afghanistan continue to wear the burqa out of fear, not modesty. In Saudi Arabia women wear it because it is the law.

I'm not sure how you can defend a ''cultural tradition'' that involves civil rights violations and helps keep women in many parts of the Islam world as second class citizens.

''This is the problem with liberal thinking and feminism: they seek to find victimhood where there is none; they seek to fix that which does not need fixing.''

I'd like you to explain that logic to a child bride or a woman forced to wear a hot, synthetic tent because she fears she will be considered fair game by men if she shows any skin.

I would think a burqa should only be a choice when it is a choice made freely by every Muslim woman.
11 years 6 months ago
Ann -

I realize that in certain Muslim nations wearing the burqa is done out of fear; but what I was referring to are the nations, such as France, where Sharia law is not the law of the land and women are free to not wear the burqa.

What Sarkozy is proposing is to force those women to betray their religious choice, which I believe can be as bad as forcing others to wear burqas.

Jim McCrea
11 years 6 months ago
To equate burqa-wearing with modesty is a bit disingenuous.  Give these women the true freedom to decide whether or not to be totally covered except for eye slits and then we would know if they truly envision this garb as a sign of modesty.
There is a huge difference between the burqa and typical head/arm/leg coverings in the rest of Islam.
11 years 6 months ago
Jim -

I don't purport to know what goes on in the minds of women who wear burqas; what's disingenuous is suggesting that burkas are civil rights violations because they are different from what Western thought deems to be repressive.

Sure, give them the freedom to not wear them OR TO WEAR THEM; and give them the choice to follow their religious tradition or not. BUT there's no reason to convince them that their religion is wrong and that they should revolt, which seems to be what you're suggesting here. This is a problem with Western civilization: we think we have all the answers for everybody else. True freedom allows people to come to their own conclusions without coercion (even if you think it's for their own good) from others.
11 years 6 months ago
Nude beaches, pornography, good. Burkas, modesty, bad.

I know it's not that simple, but, man, it seems we are really on a bad track.
Bill Collier
11 years 6 months ago
This type of ban plays right into the hands of Islamic funadmentalists worldwide, and it widens the political, religious, and cultural divides between the Muslim and non-Muslim worlds even further. If there are individual concerns about the wearing of the burqa in some situations-legitimate security concerns, for example-then reasonable minds can devise standards and protocols for addressing the specific concerns. My own feeling is that the mere presence of burqas on the streets of Europe is a visual cue to some non-Muslim Europeans that triggers their irrational belief that they are being infiltrated by Muslims (with their relatively high birth rates), and that it is just a matter of time before Europe will become an extension of the Muslim hegemonies in the Middle East. Such an intolerant attitude fails to take into consideration that Muslims-like Christians, Jews, Hindus, etc.-are not a monolithic social or religious group, and that tolerance would be a far more effective way to foster assimilation of Muslims into European society.
Brian Thompson
11 years 6 months ago
I understand security concerns or whatever, but culture warfare is not appropriate. If Europe doesn't want a moslem majority, then they should consider reproducing and not destroying their own culture.
James Lindsay
11 years 6 months ago
Not good developments for the rule of law. Hopefully, these bans will be challenged in court. One would think it would be an easy win - with attorney's fees and penalties.
11 years 6 months ago
I've been thinking about this issue lately and wrote something on my own blog about it.  I wrote, in part ...
I'm for banning burqas in the West in public places. This is a tricky stance, though, because the issue is hard to pin down. Is wearing a burqa a religious thing or a cultural thing? Is banning the burqa nationalism disguised as feminism .... is it political conservatives who want to ban the burqa for jingoistic, xenophobic, or racist reasons? If banning it is about feminism and not nationalism, is it more "feminist" to ban a forced wearing of clothing that seems to dehumanize women, or is it more feminist to champion the rights of women who actually prefer to wear the burqa? ........
[M]y own feeling is that burqa-wearing is not a religious issue but a culturally driven discrimination against women issue ..... that while political right-wingers may be using the burqa issue to push their own agendas, there is no intrinsic link between the desire to ban burqas and nationalistic, xenophobic, anti-religious, mono-cultural jingoism ..... and, in my opinion, while it may seem like the desire to ban burqas, instead of freeing women, takes away their freedom of choice, actually this is not so .....
Gerelyn Hollingsworth
11 years 6 months ago
From an op-ed piece in the NYTimes earlier this month by the Mayor of Meaux:

''Indeed, French Muslim leaders have noted that the Koran does not instruct women to cover their faces, while in Tunisia and Turkey, it is forbidden in public buildings; it is even prohibited during the pilgrimage to Mecca.''


(Sarkozy also favors the ban on the full-body mask.)
11 years 6 months ago
"Critics worldwide have said that the bans are in violation of the right to freedom of expression and of religious freedom, and point out that it would also worsen the growing intolerance toward Muslims in Europe. They are correct."

Father, what about the rights of women? These women are indoctrinated from birth to be mere chattel, what about their rights?
Mary Sweeney
11 years 6 months ago
Culture is not an idol. Every culture is in need of challenge. Just because the burqa is allegedly part of the cultural expression of Islamic women, it is not subject to an automatic blessing in another country. Female genital mutilation is an accepted part of tradition in other cultures. Do we smile on that? In other cultures a widow is supposed to throw herself upon the flames of her husband's funeral bier? Is that okay too? How about child marriage? Do we want to sign on for that? The idea that women are THE source of temptation to men and must therefore be totally covered is oppressive and unjust and disrespectful of God's creation. If immigrants are unhappy, they perhaps should return to their homeland.

The latest from america

A Reflection for the Saturday of the First Week of Advent
Maurice Timothy ReidyDecember 04, 2021
“Here democracy was born,” Pope Francis said. “Yet we cannot avoid noting with concern how today — and not only in Europe — we are witnessing a retreat from democracy.”
Gerard O’ConnellDecember 04, 2021
Photo: iStock
You might call it the Walmart of hymnals. It doesn’t drill down into any one category. It doesn’t specialize. But it covers most of the bases that most parishes and parishioners would expect.
Addison Del MastroDecember 03, 2021
Photo: Apple Corps Ltd
Peter Jackson's "Get Back" is fascinating, tedious and indispensable all at the same time.
Bill McGarveyDecember 03, 2021