Sultana's Dream

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Sultana's Dream
September 2011


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All Quiet On The Burqa Front

On April 11 of this year, France’s controversial ban on face coverings came into effect. Whilst the “visage decouvert” (uncovered faces) law doesn’t specifically mention religious garb, it is widely recognised to be targeting the face veils worn by female adherents to ultra-conservative Islam.

That same day, French police arrested two Muslim women for covering their faces, with many others also stating they would flout the ban

Moroccan-born French businessman Rachid Neekaz even set up a fund to the tune of one million euros to pay for the fines of Muslim women caught covering their faces

Meanwhile, conservative president Nicolas Sarkozy declared France would not stand for a custom which “imprisons women and is an affront to French Republican principles of equality and secularism”,  whilst immigration minister Eric Besson simply called it a “walking coffin”. The stage looked set for a showdown between defiant Muslim women determined to adhere to their religion whatever the cost and an equally defiant state determined to eliminate the burqa from the fiercely secular country. The battle, it seemed, was only just beginning.

Except it wasn’t. Just one month later, in an article in Britain’s Guardian newspaper, dated May 5, writer Colin Randall asked whether France was "dithering over (the) burqa ban”. The story cited Rachid Neekaz who said that no fines had been imposed. This directly contradicts government claims that up to 28 women had been fined, including an American citizen living in France who was fined upon arrival at the airport. Neekaz even stated he had been deliberately “trying to goad the authorities into imposing fines in circumstances that can be captured by the media”, to no avail

For their part, French police had already expressed doubts about the ban, complaining they will be forced to go “burqa-chasing” despite having, as Denis Jacob of the Alliance police union states, “more important matters to be dealing with." 

Has the steam gone out of the French burqa-banning bandwagon already? The unwillingness to actually enforce the ban, after such a high profile campaign to have it banned, appears to lend credence to claims that the whole exercise was little more than a shameless grab for rightwing, anti-immigrant votes. Those critical of the burqa law and Sarkozy, say it is simply the latest in a long line of government policies designed to milk “the issue of immigration to gain political capital”, including the creation of the Ministry of Immigration and National Identity which, among other things, was responsible for the forced eviction of Roma people last year. Last year, the ministry also launched a public debate on the role of Islam in French society, under the banner of the protection of France's constitutionally enshrined secularist traditions.


In any case, regardless of the intention, the real problem with any ban on face coverings as it relates to Muslim women is that it targets the symptom rather than the problem. The argument that the ban won’t help women who are forced to wear it, as it will only confine them to the home is well worn, but nonetheless true.

Then there are the opponents who say it denies the right of women to dress as they please. Whilst this is, on the surface, true, it doesn’t really take into account the context for the choice these women make. The burqa is an attempt to adapt dress and behaviour to meet stringent demands patriarchy places on women’s ‘modesty’. Women who seek to gain status in a male dominated world are forced to do so by outdoing each other in submission to male demands on their behaviour. Thus, a woman in hijab can profess superiority over women who don’t cover their hair. And, in turn, women who cover their face can dismiss mere hijabis. Even amongst veiled women, there appears to be a competition, with many covering their eyes and donning black gloves.

As long as this status-seeking behaviour is encouraged, then what can a ban hope to achieve? Eliminate, or at least seriously challenge, patriarchal power structures, and the need for the burqa disappears. But as long as some religious leaders espouse modesty as the ultimate moral state for women, and women continue to comply, then no western-imposed ban can possibly succeed.  Unless, the initial aim was to stir anti-immigrant sentiment, in which case, it was very successful indeed.

Ruby Hamad