Banning the Burqa: Behind the Veil of France's New Law

What has prompted a secular government to involve itself in religious affairs and define what certain religious symbols mean?
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Two veiled women were arrested in France as they protested a law that effective that day, April 11, 2011, banned the wearing of burqas and niqabs in public spaces. The law is considered by some -- both Muslim and non-Muslim -- as a direct threat to religious freedom of expression and an attack on Islam as a whole.

Coverage of the ban was reported by all of the major media outlets including The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, The BBC, and The Wall Street Journal. However although the reports provided the obvious facts -- the passage of the law and the subsequent arrest of the women -- many journalists failed to provide the reader with any historical context, making it difficult to understand why French President Nicholas Sarkozy and the government would pass this type of legislation.

The law which prohibits people from concealing their faces in public spaces, but whose verbiage does not specifically reference Islam, still serves as a blatant social referendum by the French government on the religious practice.

Security reasons were cited as one of the government's motivations for the ban. The inability to see one's face in public, according to some lawmakers, compromises security and is a just reason for outlawing a religious practice that is sacred to many Muslims.

In almost all media reports there appeared to be a quiet assumption that the reader would be aware of why France might be suspicious of the burqa clad women, and why we needed to get a good look at their face, and into their eyes ... the same way that many of us did after 9/11 when boarding a plane with anyone who looked even remotely Muslim.

If this is a safety issue for France, are there any statistics that could help the reader to better understand the government's position? Are there any reports that indicate that crimes are being committed by people covering their faces or that police are facing increasing difficulty apprehending suspects because they are not easily identifiable on the street? Where there any events that prompted this legislation?

CNN quotes a government official stating that, "Given the damage it (wearing the forbidden clothing) produces on those rules which allow the life in community, ensure the dignity of the person and equality between sexes, this practice, even if it is voluntary, cannot be tolerated in any public place."

The protest where the two women were arrested took place, ironically, in front of Paris' famous and heralded Cathedral of Notre Dame, where women are not allowed to become priests.

French President Nicholas Sarkozy also stated that the burqa "is a sign of enslavement and debasement."

For some women who choose to wear the burqa, The Wall Street Journal reports, they "would get their friends to do shopping and run errands for them rather than go out in public with their faces uncovered." For them, the new law might feel more like a form of enslavement rather than the burqa that reflects their religious and personal sensibilities.

Not addressing these issues leaves the reader wondering why this apparel -- worn by Muslim women -- is being targeted as a security issue, as opposed to people wearing more Western fashion such as baseball caps, dark black sunglasses, and even designer scarves that cover their neck, mouth, and nose in the chillier months.

And if this is an issue of equality between the sexes, why is the burqa a threat to equality anymore than the denial of professional upward mobility in Catholicism if a woman wants to become a priest?

What has prompted a secular government to involve itself in religious affairs, and define what certain religious symbols mean?

As journalists fail to address important questions, maybe it does something even more damaging than leaving the reader with a flurry of unanswered questions and a one dimensional understanding. Maybe the impact this failure is having, serves to perpetuate existing stereotypes that assume the reader should understand why certain groups are being singled out -- allowing for what could be discrimination directed at a particular groups to become acceptable, normal, and unquestioned standards of behavior.

This is a revised version of an article first published at

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