Muslim Women Stroll Down the Champs ElyseesMuslim men and women stroll down the Champs-Élysées in Paris. (photo: Archibald Ballantine/Flickr, cc by 2.0)

“Of course, I’m at home (laughter). Who else’s (country) am I in? I feel at home. I have my family here, we live, we eat, we cry, we laugh, we suffer, we don’t suffer. Some people are pleasant, some insult us. But truthfully, the day the law will be (implemented), I’ll no longer feel at home.”
—Camile, Paris

Camile is one of the Muslim women interviewed in “Unveiling the Truth: Why 32 Muslim Women Wear the Full-face Veil in France,” a report written as part of the “At Home in Europe Project” of the Open Society Foundations. The report was released in April, as the ban on the covering of the face, such as with the niqab or burqa, went into effect on April 11.

The law has been fiercely debated since the French National Assembly voted in favor of it (336-1) in July 2010, six years after the banning of conspicuous religious symbols in French public schools. The ban makes it illegal to wear any face covering in public spaces in France, and thus, from the perspectives of the opponents of the law, a religious act and symbol has been criminalized. France, with an estimated 6-7 million Muslims, is the first European country to make it illegal. Belgium and the Netherlands may soon follow suit.

The “burqa ban” and its current popularity in Europe raise several questions pertaining to religious expressions in public, freedom of expression, the future of Islam, and the growing Muslim population in Europe, but also, as the quote of Camile points to, national identity and citizenship. The ban rests on the salient notion of French secularism, laïcité, the separation of church and state and the division between private life and public sphere.

Laïcité requires that in order for the state to secure the equality of all citizens, these individuals have to present themselves as free from religion. Consequently, the notion of laïcité, together with a prevalent public discourse of Islam and Muslims as the ultimate “other” incompatible with “French values,” has made Muslims, who publicly display their religious affiliation, the target and object of scrutiny. In effect, a woman who does not abide by the law could be fined up to €150, and in some cases be required to take citizenship classes.

But why this urgent and intense focus on Muslim women’s garments? The relationship of the West to the veil and Islamic dress code is a complex political and social phenomenon, with a long history, suggesting several interrelated factors at play. Considering the very small number of women in France who wear the full-face veil (estimates range from 400-2000), one wonders if this is, as the proponents argue, an effective means to combat Islamic extremism and enhance integration. In which ways can policies prohibiting certain attire promote the preservation of “French culture” as well as the assimilation of Muslim immigrants into the French mainstream?

This kind of state regulation and control over certain gendered and religious (as well as political) bodies demonstrates the symbolic meaning and weight a national community can place on women’s dress and conduct in public, as women represent, in Cynthia Enloe’s words, “nationalist wombs;” they are not only bearers of the future generation, but also the ones transmitting the nation’s culture and values from one generation to the next.

Furthermore, it is hard not to make historical parallels to colonial times in places such as Egypt and Algeria where the “veil” and “the Muslim woman” became the battlefield between the anti-veil colonialists and the native, national liberation movement. Similar to the colonial politics of the veil and the discourse of “saving the Muslim woman” from her oppressive and traditional man and religion, French president Nicolas Sarkozy uses “feminist” rhetoric arguing for Muslim women’s dignity and equality in the French Republic. Interestingly, 10 of the 32 women interviewed in the report indicated that they had started to wear the niqab as a protest to the ban.

In response to the ban, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, which makes recommendations on human rights issues, passed a resolution that emphasizes “freedom of thought, conscience and religion while combating religious intolerance and discrimination,” urging EU countries to protect women’s “free choice to wear religious or special clothing.” While perhaps not representative, the many personal experiences and testimonies of Muslim women featured in the report “Unveiling the Truth” resonate with this declaration.

To the proponents of the ban, the face veil symbolizes the most extreme version of Islam and poses a threat to national culture and secularism, but the women who claim to have chosen to wear the face veil, speak of the niqab as part of a spiritual journey, as reflecting a deepened relationship with God and the desire to follow the actions of the prophet Mohammad’s wives for guidance. The question now is how and to what extent the ban is going to be implemented, the social and political implications of it, and whether some of these women, such as Camile, will ever feel at home in their own home country.

References in This Article


Anna Mansson McGintyAnna Mansson McGinty is Assistant Professor of Geography and Women’s Studies at University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. She is the author of Becoming Muslim: Western Women’s Conversions to Islam.

This article is reprinted with permission of Sightings from the Martin Marty Center at the University of Chicago Divinity School.


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