TOPIC GUIDE: Burqa bans

"European countries should take a lead from France and ban the burqa"

PUBLISHED: 09 May 2011

AUTHOR: Justine Brian

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On 11 April 2011 France became the first country to pass and enact legalisation preventing the wearing of certain types of dress in public. The new law, having been approved almost unanimously by the French Parliament in 2010, forbids people from concealing their faces in public. Although the law does not explicitly mention religious dress, nor the Muslim burqa, niqab or full-face veils [Ref: BBC News], it is widely recognised that these are the forms of dress the new law was specifically created for after president Nicolas Sarkozy’s speech to the French parliament in 2009 [Ref: BBC News]. Women clad in burqas or niqabs covering their faces risk a €150 fine and mandatory lessons on French citizenship. A man found guilty of forcing a woman to wear a veil faces a fine of €30,000 and a jail term. This decision by France, home to Europe’s largest Muslim community, has not happened in isolation; it follows other recent bans on face-veils elsewhere and is part of a larger discussion within Europe about cultural values. In 2010 the city of Barcelona banned the wearing of burqas and niqabs in government buildings, citing issues of identification and security [Ref: Telegraph] and in the same year Belgium passed similar legislation, which came into force in 2011 [Ref: Huffington Post], and under which two women have already been prosecuted. Italy is currently drafting a new law, and Austria, Denmark, the Netherlands and Switzerland are now also considering bans. But the French ban, more than others to date, has provoked world-wide discussion about contemporary social and political issues such as freedom of choice, religious tolerance, cultural integration and cultural clashes.

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This section provides a summary of the key issues in the debate, set in the context of recent discussions and the competing positions that have been adopted.

“Cultural apartheid…”?
For some commentators wearing the burqa or any type of full veil is more than just a matter of personal dress and more than a physical expression of religious belief, which many would want to protect and uphold the unhindered right to express. Instead it’s seen as an assertion of cultural separation and difference and the wearing of such garments, its critics argue, helps prevent the integration of Muslim communities into European societies and encourages a state of “cultural apartheid”. Supporters of the ban argue that “... these women implicitly…declare every time they walk in our streets: ‘I may be walking among you, but I will never be part of you: I reject your entire culture and everything you stand for’” [Ref: Catholic Herald]. Supporters of the French and other bans argue that they are neither anti-Muslim nor antithetical to democratic constitutions allowing freedom of expression and religious worship. Such bans should instead be seen as a positive assertion of upholding majority cultural values, such as the equality of men and women, which the acceptance of veils in public challenges [Ref: Forbes]. The issue of national security is also raised by the wearing of face coverings with supporters arguing that the increasing need to be able to identify people negates the possibility of hiding ones face. One of French President Sarkozy’s arguments against full-veils was that they are “a sign of debasement that imprison women” [Ref: BBC News] and many supporters of the ban both in France and elsewhere argue they seek to support and defend subjugated and alienated Muslim women oppressed by religious or cultural demands that they cover themselves. Even those who are uncomfortable with the notion of enacting bans to secure individual liberties argue that in the context of upholding western cultural norms the ban sends a strong message to a vocal minority of Islamic extremists within Europe and further afield that their ideas will not take hold in liberal, western democracies [Ref: Independent].

A counter-productive policy?
Those critical of the French ban, which has been the most highly debated, argue that banning the veil in public makes a mockery of Western liberal tolerance - the very principal those in support of a ban will claim to be upholding [Ref: New Statesman]. Attacking the free choice of a woman to wear a veil in public also sanctions state interference in private beliefs and thought. Many Muslim women and feminists have highlighted the irony of defending women’s rights by dictating what they can and can’t wear, in a similar manner to the religious strictures those in support of bans are supposedly arguing against [Ref: Telegraph]. Even those supporters of multi-cultural ideas of tolerance and mutual respect, who would ideally prefer not to have to defend a woman’s right to ‘oppress herself’ with a veil, argue that the French ban is an irrational over-reaction to something that affects a tiny number of people within Europe, and which must surely be seen as a symbol of women’s oppression rather than the cause. Current estimates suggest that in France only a couple of thousand women wear the burqa (and many of those women are French-born citizens). If these estimates are correct, what does that say about the wearing of the burqa today? Some argue that the number of women choosing to wear such clothing has more to do with making a statement about their personal identity (by choosing to visibly separate themselves from the majority) than one of religious faith or extremism [Ref: Telegraph]. Ultimately the question of freedom of choice and the defence of tolerance is paramount, argue the bans critics, regardless of what that freedom means people might choose to do in the case of personal choices about dress or religious expression [Ref: spiked].

What values are being defended?
The assertion of cultural norms and national identities is at the heart of both the recent French ban and the wider global discussion about the veil. Supporters of banning the veil argue that the wearing of it is a hostile act in western society, an assertion of otherness and a rejection of the values of the very society European Muslims are a part of. Opponents of banning the veil argue that the small number of people affected by such a ban make it a political and cultural statement of values rather than a workable and defendable law. As such, the ban isolates and potentially victimises a very small number of Muslim women in Europe without positively asserting what those values are that we might want to uphold and promote. When western cultural values appear to be under attack from an increasingly vocal extremist Islamic tradition isn’t it right for European and Western countries to take a stand and defend enlightenment values of individual liberty and tolerance? Or in the very act of asserting those values through restrictions and bans do we fundamentally destroy the very culture we seek to preserve? With both sides in this debate claiming to be defending what the other side is destroying, what does it mean to be liberal and tolerant today and how might we better assert our shared values?


It is crucial for debaters to have read the articles in this section, which provide essential information and arguments for and against the debate motion. Students will be expected to have additional evidence and examples derived from independent research, but they can expect to be criticised if they lack a basic familiarity with the issues raised in the essential reading.

Would the burqa ban stand up at the European Court?

Joshus Rozenberg Guardian 13 April 2011

Can Sarkozy Justify Banning the Veil?

Peter Berkowitz Wall Street Journal 5 April 2010


A Veiled Threat: Lessons from Paris

Oliver Duggan Independent 12 April 2011

France’s burka ban is a victory for tolerance

William Langley Telegraph 11 April 2011

They are right to ban the burka, even if it is for the wrong reasons

Yasmin Alibhai-Brown Independent 8 January 2010


Banning things and liberal values

David Allen Green New Statesman 11 April 2011

Banning the burqa: an assault on freedom

Brendan O’Neill spiked 11 April 2011

Banning the burka is a lot of hot air

Adrian Hamilton Independent 15 July 2010


A melting pot gone cold

Suzanne Fields Washington Times 20 April 2011

Banning the burqa

Gavin Hewitt BBC News 11 April 2011

Burka ban: Why must I cast off the veil?

Nesrine Malik Telegraph 17 July 2010

Why France is banning the veil

Ruth Harris Prospect 14 July 2010

Behind the burqa

Sandeep Gopalan New York Times 27 January 2010


Definitions of key concepts that are crucial for understanding the topic. Students should be familiar with these terms and the different ways in which they are used and interpreted and should be prepared to explain their significance.


Useful websites and materials that provide a good starting point for research.

We too should ban the burka

Allison Pearson Telegraph 13 April 2011

The absence of evidence for banning burqas

Martin Robbins Guardian 12 April 2011

Veiled Threats?

Martha Nussbaum New York Times 11 July 2010

Banning the burqa compromises the very principles that we value

Thorbjørn Jagland Independent 7 July 2010

Thinly veiled threat

Mehdi Hasan New Statesman 28 May 2010

For and against the face-veil

Aljazeera 28 January 2010

Why the burka is part of Britain

Cassandra Jardine Telegraph 24 June 2009


Links to organisations, campaign groups and official bodies who are referenced within the Topic Guide or which will be of use in providing additional research information.


Relevant recent news stories from a variety of sources, which ensure students have an up to date awareness of the state of the debate.



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