Tough Questions: On The Burqa Ban

Whether or not it is a good strategy to ban burqas is something that I have heard hotly debated, even amongst fervent SJWs. On the one hand, burqas are used as a tool of oppression of women, and are inconsistent with secular, western values. On the other hand, legally forcing women to uncover their faces when they are uncomfortable in doing so seems harsh, a western cultural imposition on women from other countries, and has led to a further marginalization of Muslim women in Europe. It can feel like further picking on an already very disenfranchised group of people. I also find myself torn between these two points of view, both of which, in my opinion, have some merit. However, I noticed that my position on the matter also wavers based on how, or why, burqa bans are passed and enforced. Often we talk about the French ban on burqas, but it is important to note that other countries also have these laws, though they came about for very different reasons.

In 2010, France passed a law which prohibits people from covering their faces in public. While the law was couched in a lot of language meant to disguise the fact that it was specifically targeting Muslim women, the intent was quite plain. While women who wear a face veil face fines, men who force women to wear veils face jail time, and an “educational period” was introduced to explain to Muslim women that they will no longer be allowed to cover their faces in public. Then President Sarkozy made it quite plain that the purpose behind the law was specifically about Muslims, saying “France is a country where there is no place for the burqa, where there is no place for the subservience of women,”

This, of course, led to several consequences in France. It seemed to embolden people who already held prejudices against Muslims, and some violent attacks on women wearing veils did follow. While these kinds of attacks do also happen in countries which do not have a “burqa ban”, the fact that wearing a veil was illegal definitely stoked the flames of French Islamophobia. If this was supposedly an effort to help some of the most disenfranchised citizens in France, it didn’t seem to be working, and the laws were condemned by many, including Ammesty International. In this context, I find myself against the burqa ban.

However, I start to waver when I speak to Italians about this issue.

In the days of Sarkozy, Berlusconi wanted to win brownie points and throw his hat in the race for biggest bigot of the year. However, the fact of the matter is, covering your face in public has already been illegal in Italy since 1975. The law does not specifically refer to burqas or niqabs, because the law had absolutely nothing to do with Muslims, but rather was imposed to combat things like bank robberies, and a rash of homegrown national terrorism. Some articles referred to Berlusconi’s actions as an attempt to “revive a defunct old law from the 70s” but that is incorrect, Italians know perfectly well that it is illegal to cover one’s face in public, and it is so commonplace in the culture that many are amazed that the same laws do not already exist in other countries. While Berlusconi’s attempt to include language in the original law which specifically includes burqas and niqabs fizzled out and died, the heart of the question is still fundamentally different. It is no longer a question of “should we pass a law to target this specific group of people”, but rather “should we provide a religious exemption to our existing laws to accommodate Muslim women who wear burqas?”

Italian law remains ambiguous on this point (at least as of 2015), but when seen from this perspective, I find myself wavering to the other side. I’m generally against religious exemptions, I think that laws either make sense or they don’t. Native Americans want to smoke peyote? I don’t think that there should be a law prohibiting anyone from smoking peyote, so sure let them do it, but let everyone do it whether for religious purposes or not. Christian pharmacists don’t want to sell birth control? Well fuck you, if you want to be a pharmacist you have to be able to do your job, and that includes selling birth control, so either suck it up or find yourself another job, no religious exemption for you. So now, when it comes to burqas in Italy, I find myself torn: Should we not allow Muslim women to cover their faces, because we’re generally against religious exemptions, or should we scrap the 1975 law altogether, because it doesn’t make sense to have it anymore?

Honestly, I’m not sure. I wasn’t around in pre-1975 Italy, I have no idea what it was like, how much the law helped, or what kinds of repercussions would follow if the law were scrapped, if any. I don’t know if forcing Muslim women to obey the law in Italy would lead to a similar violent fervor as the one we saw in France, though I definitely think that not making such a big deal about it is less likely to foment anti-Muslim hatred. Approaching the situation from a perspective of “these are our laws, and everyone has to respect them if they want to move here, that includes you” is very different from one that says “What’s with all these burqas amirite? We’re banning them! Screw you and your customs!” This is not to excuse Berlusconi and the Italian right for making a valiant effort to foment anti-Muslim hatred in Italy, I am perfectly aware that they did so, but that does not mean that there is not a more mature way to handle the question in an Italian legal context.

So, despite it all, I am torn. Am I pro or anti the burqa ban? Context matters, always, but I cannot find a firm position on it, given the multifaceted nature of the issue. Your thoughts are always welcome.





  1. sonofrojblake says

    should we scrap the 1975 law altogether, because it doesn’t make sense to have it anymore?

    It makes perfect sense to have it. Muslim women might call them something else, but I neither know nor care to what their language calls it. They’re in England, I have an English word for what they’re wearing, no problem. It’s a mask. And we have a long standing cultural tradition regarding masks, and it is this: the people who wear them are criminals out to conceal their identities so as to escape responsibility for their actions.

    There are exceptions, occasions when masks have a function other than concealment – in an operating theatre, in a fire or other place where there are poisonous gases, in a fancy-dress party or other performance space, while playing ice-hockey, masks have a very few very narrow, culturally-acceptable places where the covering of the face is secondary to the intended function.

    Out in public, though, here in the civilised world, wearing a mask sends a powerful message and we make the reasonable assumption that anyone with their face covered is up to no good. Some countries (e.g. Italy) have actually legislated for it, but most haven’t bothered, probably because it’s such an ingrained, universally-understood thing. This is not news to anyone. If you walk around in such a culture wearing a mask, it is egregious in the extreme to then complain about the entirely predictable reaction you get. I wouldn’t expect to be able to walk down Riyadh high street wearing a shirt with a picture of Mohammed on it and go unmolested, which is one of the reasons I’m happy to say I’ve never been within a thousand miles of the place and never will. Saudis are entitled to their sensitivities in their own country, just as long as they and their ilk respect mine in mine.

    forcing women to uncover their faces when they are uncomfortable in doing so seems harsh, a western cultural imposition on women from other countries

    I’d totally agree with you if the women being imposed on stayed in those other countries – that would be the worst kind of colonialism, to go to another person’s country and dictate what they wear. But that’s not what’s happening.

    If you’re uncomfortable conforming to the cultural traditions of a country – don’t go there. Especially don’t expect to live there comfortably. And if you find yourself uncomfortable with the cultural traditions of the country you call home – suck it up, or go live somewhere where you’re more comfortable.

    It’s also worth saying that time and again it has been explained by Muslims that there is no requirement in Islam for women to wear a mask. It’s just not a religious requirement, and more than it’s a requirement that Christians wear a visible cross, so that entire argument in its defence is bullshit before it starts.

    • says

      When I was little it was the cultural tradition here that my mother couldn’t use the same bathroom as white women. I’m glad this country did away with that, rather than expecting people to “suck it up”

      • sonofrojblake says

        And if, in the due course of time, the relative breeding rates of Muslims and civilised people mean Muslims become the majority, or even just a sufficiently dominant cultural force, then maybe centuries of getting along just fine being able to see each other’s faces will come to be regarded with the same revulsion that racism is now. Maybe. I shall not hold my breath.

        But in there here and now, someone appears to be trying to draw a parallel between racism as practiced in the USA in the fifties, and civilised countries preferring that people don’t go about their business in public masked as if preparing to commit a crime. It’s not quite Godwin, but it’s most of the way there.

    • Beatrice, an amateur cynic looking for a happy thought says

      Against a burqa-specific ban, definitely. I’d be fine with women having to take off their covering while in a bank or on an airport security check (I went through airport security check just today and an old Catholic nun was politely asked to step in a curtained off part where she presumably had to take off her hair covering), or some other security heavy places.

      I haven’t yet read a piece of writing that would convince me that a burqa ban could be a real benefit to oppressed Muslim women, since defenders of France’s ban are mostly about that aspect. Want to help an oppressed group? Go after their oppressors.

      As for the “if you don’t want to obey our rules, don’t come here” attitude (example: sonofrojblake’s comments. Yeah…. no. Just look at the influx of refugees from Syria and other war and poverty torn countries. I’m not going to tell them to go back where they came from or to go look for another country that suits them more, because I’m offended by some woman’s head covering. If I drive her out, for whose benefit did I do that? What good would that do? To anyone. Her or me.

      • sonofrojblake says

        I haven’t yet read a piece of writing that would convince me that a burqa ban could be a real benefit to oppressed Muslim women

        Without wishing to sound harsh, who cares? It’s not (or should not) be about them. If one side effect is to make their lives better, great. If not, well, that’s unfortunate. The point of the ban is (or should be) a benefit to wider society resulting from people not being able to go around routinely masked in public. It’s only that community’s relatively recent behaviour that has necessitated such a law. Masked Muslims in the west really is something that’s only become a problem in the last couple of decades – I grew up near a town that had a large immigrant Muslim population, and in the 1970s masked Muslims were vanishingly rare. Nowadays on any visit to my local supermarket I’ll see three or four. Indigenous peoples and other immigrant communities don’t typically do things so outside cultural norms.

  2. doublereed says

    Honestly I don’t like burqa bans because it strikes me as policing women’s clothing and I just don’t understand why people want to get up in people’s business like that. It smacks of authoritarianism to me.

    As a security issue, fine, there are certainly cases where you need to see people’s faces. But that’s not all the time and that had better be the actual reason.

    It reminds me of when people were telling black people not to wear hoodies. There’s plenty of clothing that masks you like motorcycle helmets, sunglasses, hats. The government should not be policing this stuff unless specifically necessary.

    • doublereed says

      Like I’ve seen covered women at my grocery store. It would not be okay for me to go up to them and tell them to take off their covering. And doing that with the power of the government and police is worse, not better.

    • thoughtsofcrys says

      That’s interesting that you say that, because motorcycle helmets are specifically mentioned in the 1975 law in Italy. You’re not allowed to wear the helmets that obscure your face completely in public places. In Naples it’s particularly enforced, because they were often used by mafia hit men in motorcycle-by-shootings. That’s kind of my point: the 1975 law in Italy is something that everyone respects, so in Italy it became about whether or not to provide a religious exemption for Muslim women, not about and extra policing of clothing. You might think that the law should be scrapped altogether, but the original purpose of the law needs to be taken into account first, to see whether or not it still makes sense to have it.
      Hoodies, hats and sunglasses are all allowed, because they do not obscure the face completely (if at all), and because there is no “you might be confused for a thug” mentality

  3. Johnny Vector says

    Wait, what? Italy has a law against wearing masks in public? Italy, the birthplace of commedia dell’arte? Well that just seems wrong.

    Also, this would be an interesting conundrum in Japan, where people will give you the side-eye if you cough or sneeze and are not wearing a face mask.

    • thoughtsofcrys says

      You’re allowed to wear them in a theater on stage, and the rule is relaxed during carneval in Venice, though in the rest of Italy people mostly just paint their faces a bit. Other than that, it’s illegal. You can’t just walk down the street wearing a commedia dell’arte mask, you will be stopped and questioned.

  4. says

    I really don’t like the idea of banning them as it is a free speech and a freedom of religion issue. And I will use my free speech and freedom of religion to soundly condemn them.

  5. Johnny Vector says

    You can’t just walk down the street wearing a commedia dell’arte mask, you will be stopped and questioned.

    I hope whoever does the questioning at least has the decency to be carrying a slapstick.

  6. chigau (違う) says

    In Japan it is common to see people wearing surgical masks on the street, in shops, in banks, pretty much anywhere.
    They do this when they have a cold, so they don’t spread gems.
    or they want to avoid everyone else’s germs.
    Nodody is bothered.

    • sonofrojblake says

      chigau: In Japan it is common to see people openly reading cartoon child porn on the subway, and possession of actual child porn was legal until less than two years ago. Nobody is bothered.

      It’s almost as though their culture is so wildly different from Western culture that any comparison between them seems ridiculous.

      • Beatrice, an amateur cynic looking for a happy thought says

        Just for kicks, which is this “Western culture” that you speak of?
        Does it include both US culture and French culture? Because there are some wiiiild differences there. How about the Balkans? Slovenia – yes, Bosnia -no?
        Then again Greece yes?

        Where I’m going is that this “Western culture” is actually pretty arbitrarily defined. Mostly, everyone that talks about it as “our” or “mine” presumes it includes the customs and common-sense beliefs of the country or culture they themselves come from. If we started digging into specifics, we’d realize that this Western culture really has many very different (and sometimes contradictory) facets as well as that some customs and freedoms that we try to exclusively connect with the title are far from unknown or disrespect in those other cultures.

      • EnlightenmentLiberal says

        To sonofrojblake
        Is your problem about viewing any porn in public? Or do you really care about the “age” of a cartoon character in a porn comic? Why? Sarcastic: So, you wouldn’t be bothered with people viewing cartoon porn in public as long as the cartoons were not “underage”?

        There is a purpose to actual laws against child porn. The legal purpose is not because looking at child porn is bad (at least for United States law). Such reasoning would grossly run afoul of the first amendment of the US constitution, and proper free speech jurisprudence globally. Laws against possession of child porn are to ensure that there is no economic incentive in order to commit a criminal act, sex with children, in order to protect children from rape e.g. lower rates of child rape. This reasoning is completely absent when we’re talking about cartoons.

        In short, you’re being a prude. Knock that shit off.

        • sonofrojblake says

          To EnlightenmentLiberal:
          A problem with Japanese people reading cartoon porn in public? I never said anything of the kind. In fact, I specifically said, and I quote, “nobody is bothered”. The point that sailed over your head was just that Japanese culture is not an example of somewhere that’s anything even vaguely like Europe. The “problem” I have is with someone saying “well, the Japanese sometimes go masked in public”, as though that has any relevance to European culture and its preferences for visible faces. Try to keep up, do.

          There’s a purpose to laws against child porn? Really? I never knew that. Thank you for, y’know, enlightening me. It’s such a good job you’re here.

          As you say – the reasoning is completely absent when talking about cartoons. And yet Australia, Canada, the Philippines, South Africa, South Korea and the United Kingdom all criminalise the ownership of such images. Did you even know that before you pronounced thus?

          In short, you’re being an arse. I wouldn’t presume to tell you to knock it off because I honestly can’t tell whether you can.

          • EnlightenmentLiberal says

            And yet Australia, Canada, the Philippines, South Africa, South Korea and the United Kingdom all criminalise the ownership of such images. Did you even know that before you pronounced thus?

            Yes, I did. It’s an outrage.

  7. dianne says

    One question re the 1975 law might be “Does it help?” That is, did banning face covering have any positive effect, i.e. lower crime, more crimes being solved because people saw the faces of the perpetrators, etc? Or is it just security theater? If the latter, then it becomes easy: dump the useless law. If there is any evidence that it’s helpful, it becomes a harder question. One might also consider the secondary consequences of the law. For example, the bit about motorcycle helmets. Riding a motorcycle without a helmet is highly dangerous and riding one without a face covering sounds…uncomfortable at least. Do the benefits in terms of reduced crime (if any) outweigh the risks? If the law can be relaxed during appropriate holidays without those holidays becoming a field day for assassinations and bank robberies, it seems to me likely that the law is outdated or possibly never was effective. But I’d like to see actual data, if any, before jumping to that conclusion.

    • thoughtsofcrys says

      As I said, I don’t know. I do know that, no matter what the law states, Naples will never allow full face motorcycle helmets. The last thing you want is to unwittingly take your motorbike down a road where mafia people are hanging out and have them think you might be there to kill them. That is something that is just as relevant now as it was in the 70s, unfortunately. But outside of Naples, Sicily and Calabria? I don’t know. I honestly can’t say. But Martedì Grasso in Venice is a poor example: it’s one day, and a day in which there is a giant presence of first aid, police etc, as there is on any day where thousands of people congregate in one place. It makes sense that there wouldnt be a giant outburst of robberies and assassinations in public on that day, regardless of the presence or absence of masks

      • Beatrice, an amateur cynic looking for a happy thought says

        I should really start reading some Italian news again. I kinda thought situation has become somewhat better in south Italy, at least when it comes to mafia.

        • thoughtsofcrys says

          Not in the slightest. We don’t like to talk about it much, but there’s actually a big problem now of mafia infiltrating legitimate business in the whole of Italy, in an effort to launder their money, thus opening things like restaurants and bars and things that regular business owners have a hard time competing against, seeing as the mafia-run places aren’t interested in turning a proper profit…

  8. dianne says

    it’s one day, and a day in which there is a giant presence of first aid, police etc, as there is on any day where thousands of people congregate in one place. It makes sense that there wouldnt be a giant outburst of robberies and assassinations in public on that day

    I don’t know…my evil side thinks that a day when the police and emergency personnel are busy doing other things (like keeping the celebrations from getting out of hand and making sure the drunks don’t drown themselves in the canals) would be a good day to rob a bank. And if your assassination target comes out for the festival, wouldn’t it be so much easier to get them then and blend into the crowd again than to try to find them when they’re more on their guard?

    OTOH, I have no practical experience with law breaking more serious than crossing against the light, so maybe my idea of how it’s done or not done is not the most realistic.

    • thoughtsofcrys says

      Not that I’m a criminal mastermind of any sort, but the way I see it, it’s a bad day to rob a bank when its closed (at least the masked come in shoot up and leave kind), bad day to kill someone in broad daylight where people are all over the place to scream and witness and watchful cops only a few steps away to come in asap… but that’s just me I guess!

      • dianne says

        Hmm…the bank being closed is a real problem for those who want to rob it. At least, those who want to do a classic “hold the place up with a gun” robbery. Despite being in Germany, I still operate under US “of course they’re going to be open on a holiday” assumptions, apparently.

  9. inquisitiveraven says

    Stores might be open, but US banks close for holidays all the time. Not most religious holidays (Christmas is the major exception and how religious is that nowadays?), but Thanksgiving, New Years, and a bunch of secular holidays mandated by law to fall on a Monday like Memorial Day which is coming up later this month.

    • dianne says

      Sigh. Okay, fine, so I tend to use online banking and haven’t been in a bank except to use the ATM in the past decade.

      Either that or I’m an evil AI and accidentally just revealed my lack of knowledge of human traditions. One of the two.

  10. sonofrojblake says

    Anjuli Pandavar has an excellent post pointing out another reason not to tolerate this shit: if you’re a civilised man, what is a woman wearing this stuff saying to you, and every other civilised man she sees?

    Answer: she is saying “I believe that if I did not wear this covering, the sight of me (even just my hair) would provoke your uncontrollable lust and there is a risk you would rape me.” Leaving aside the comedic narcissism this implies – fuck that. Fuck anyone who says that (figuratively, obviously).

    If I walked round pointing a rifle at anyone who looked a bit Muslim, just to protect myself in case they turned out to be a terrorist, I’d be rightly judged a pariah and a loony. What’s the difference?

    • dianne says

      If someone points a rifle at anyone they think might be Islamic, they are threatening those people with death or injury. If you are offended by the sight of a woman wearing the clothing she wishes to wear, you can avert your gaze. She is not threatening you.

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