France asks anthropologist to testify on burqa debate

France banned burqas in public schools in 2004

| Contributing Reporter
Wash. U. professor John Bowen has been asked by the French government to testify before a panel on the burqas often worn by Muslim women. (WUSTL Images)

Wash. U. professor John Bowen has been asked by the French government to testify before a panel on the burqas often worn by Muslim women. (WUSTL Images)

The burqa debate is back on in France, and a Washington University anthropologist has become part of it.

The French government has asked anthropology professor John Bowen to testify on the matter, as a parliamentary commission is investigating a possible ban on burqas in public places. France banned burqas in public schools in 2004.

The burqa differs from the headscarf in that it is a “complete cover” for Muslim women that “shows only the eyes, and sometimes not even the eyes,” according to Pascal Ifri, director of graduate studies in French.

There are different styles of what the French government collectively refers to as “burqas,” Bowen said. While the burqa covers the entire face including the eyes, Bowen added, the niqab leaves the eyes exposed. The potential ban would prohibit both the burqa and the niqab, although the French government refers to both styles as “burqas.”

“The assumption is that women who wear burqas are somehow oppressed,” Ifri said. “It’s not always a sign of oppression, but that is the assumption.”

The French commission investigating the potential ban rationalizes that “in a republic, where everybody is equal, there shouldn’t be obvious signs of oppression,” Ifri said.

Bowen said that none of the French Muslim women who have been interviewed on the matter have indicated that they wear burqas because they feel forced to do so, although he recognized the possibility that those women exist and simply have not provided interviews.

Most women who have been interviewed “said that they decided to put it on as part of an effort to discover what true Islam is,” Bowen said. “Some said they might wear it for a while and then decide whether to continue or to stop wearing it, but nobody reports they were forced to do it.”

Having the choice to wear a burqa ensures “that women have the freedom to explore their religiosity without being forced to do one thing or the other,” Bowen added.

“Some of them say, ‘I want to wear it. I feel better. I feel protected. I don’t feel like a target,’” Ifri said.

Sophomore Kelly Diabagate, who practices Islam, said that wearing the burqa “is a matter of modesty.” She added that in her experience, most women wear the burqa because of a personal choice, seeing it as a means of “expressing liberty and personal rights.”

Bowen said that only a few hundred women in France wear burqas. A ban, though, could potentially have a profound impact on some of those women.

If women who wear burqas are no longer allowed to wear them in public, “they may disappear from public view. It may be worse for them. They won’t go out anymore. That’s the danger,” Ifri said. “That’s one of the reasons why it may not pass.”

Diabagate said that she “would imagine it would be very difficult” for French women who wear burqas if the ban were to come to fruition.

“I can see a lot of people trying to leave” and moving somewhere where “they are given the right to exert their religion the way they see it,” Diabagate said. “Because obviously no one can stay home all day.”

“I feel like a lot of people will not be willing to compromise,” Diabagate added.

The issue of Muslim religious symbols in French public spaces gained prominence in 1989, when a public middle school expelled three Muslim girls for wearing head coverings, Bowen explained in his 2004 article “Muslims and Citizens: France’s headscarf controversy.”

While forbidding headscarves in public schools was initially at the discretion of individual principals, in 2004 the French government passed a law that officially banned headscarves in public schools, Ifri said.

The French government values laïcité, or public secularism, Ifri added.

“French politicians…don’t want obvious signs of religion if it offends some people,” he said.

While public secularism formed the basis of the headscarf ban, more practical reasons contributed as well.

Some public school students wore not only headscarves but also coverings that concealed their arms and legs, “and you cannot do gym if your legs and arms are covered,” Ifri said. “It’s not so much that it’s a religious sign, but can you be like every other kid, meaning can you do gym…when your legs and arms are covered?”

Ifri added that “there are very few cases of girls who don’t want to go to school” because of the headscarf ban, and “school is compulsory.” If a Muslim girl does decide not to attend public school because of the headscarf ban, she can “go to private school” or “have private tutoring,” he said.

Diabagate said that she would consider a burqa ban to be a constraint on religious expression. Bowen, though, said that the French government “protects organized religion…which refers to activities that take place in churches, temples, mosques, etcetera, and not to the behaviors of individuals outside of those places.” Religious protection, then, does not apply to the public spaces that the potential ban would include.

Ifri noted that right now the issue is simply a debate, and the French government is not close to passing a law banning the burqa. Bowen considers it highly unlikely that a ban would ever pass.

“What they really wanted to do was have a public discussion and debate about the issue and not necessarily propose a law,” Bowen said. “I think that French politicians will find that it would be absurd to create a set of clothing police to decide whether what a woman is wearing on the street counts as a burqa or a niqab…or just a headscarf.”

Diabagate does not think that the government should have the authority to ban religious dress.

“It’s your personal freedom,” she said. “No one can tell you how to practice your religion, especially if they’re not Muslims and they don’t know the rules of Islam.”

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