Burquas: The Current Controversy


Imagine if suddenly your school banned the wearing of pants on school grounds. They gave you plenty of notice to prepare for the transition—to grow comfortable with the humiliating sensation of walking around… pant-less. To many students in France, these feelings of embarrassment and indecency would not be entirely unfamiliar.

Since its revolution between 1789 and 1799, France has struggled to clearly divide the authorities of the church and of the secular state. In order to free itself from the powerful influence of the Roman Catholic Church, French ‘laïcité’, or secularism, emerged as an overwhelming atmosphere of anti-clericalism. In true form to the national motto touting “Liberty, Equality, and Brotherhood”, France still struggles today to promote an atmosphere of neutrality. But in 2004, this goal of an unbiased, universally welcoming environment resulted in a controversial law.

The law bans the presence of religious symbols in public schools, including crucifixes, yarmulkes, and turbans. However, the population most affected – and most opposed – to the law is the faction of Muslim girls who wear burqas (headscarves). Therese Duplaix, a high-school principal in Paris, explained to Time magazine the reasoning behind the law: “A French state school is supposed to be a place of liberty where critical reason can be exercised… a haven where girls can evolve free of prohibitions based on gender, such as the wearing of a headscarf… The school should ultimately be a place that permits everyone, regardless of their specific community and the legitimate expression of their diversity… Secularism allows us to build on the attributes that unite us, and not those that separate us...”

However, not everyone shares this opinion. BBC interviewed Touria, a student in Delacroix, about 6 months after the law had passed. “What does this veil mean to me? It’s part of who I am. It’s not just some bit of fabric on my head. It’s everything.” Touria does not believe that the choice to wear a burqa belittles her status in society, nor does she claim that it was forced on her. To her, it is a voluntary statement of both her religion and her morals. In fact, while many anti-burqa proponents claim that it is a symbol of submission, Touria explains that, “I think it is those women [who do not wear a burqa] who are submissive, because it is what men want, women half naked.”

The question at hand: is this legal? Or is this ban an infringement on the right to the freedom of expression, of religion—or even equality?

Despite these unresolved debates, France is now considering expanding its legislation to all public services, including welfare offices, hospitals, and public transportation. As the Muslim population of France increases, the number of women wearing burqas and niqabs (facial coverings) has also increased. Some, like Duplaix, claim that the burqa and niqab are tools used to control women and depreciate their role in society; one Member of Parliament even goes so far as to refer to the niqab as a “portable coffin”. But others, like Touria, scoff at this claim; “It’s a personal decision, it’s their freedom.” 

Featured picture was taken from user el_en_houston on www.flickr.com which is permitted according to the Creative Commons license. The original picture can be found at http://www.flickr.com/photos/luiscerezo/1338920147/in/photostream/