Home inContext Europe’s Burqa Battle

Europe’s Burqa Battle

Richard Smith and Samara Greenberg

France’s lower house of parliament overwhelmingly approved a bill yesterday that would ban wearing the Islamic full veil, or burqa, in public places such as post offices, universities, hospitals and state-owned premises, as well as public transport. Three-hundred and thirty-five members voted for the bill, and only one voted against it in the 557-seat National Assembly. Many of the opposition Socialists, who originally wanted the ban limited only to public buildings, abstained from voting. It must now be ratified by the Senate in September to become law.

The ban has strong public support. According to a survey by the Pew Research Center’s Global Attitudes Project, conducted April 7 to May 8, 2010, the French public overwhelmingly endorses this measure: 82% of the population approves banning Muslim women from wearing full veils in public, including schools, hospitals and government offices, while just 17% disapproves. Majorities in Germany (71%), Britain (62%) and Spain (59%) also support a similar ban in their respective countries.

In contrast, most Americans would oppose such a measure. While 65% say they would disapprove, 28% say they would approve of a burqa ban. Nevertheless, imposing such a ban would be a highly unlikely occurrence in the U.S: a ban on religious clothing would never hold up against the Constitution’s First Amendment. However, France’s vigorous tradition of secularism, known as laïcité, is enshrined in national law, ensuring that debates surrounding the existence of religion in French public life resurface periodically.

Simultaneously, the ban also highlights France’s struggle to assimilate its Muslim population. France is home to Europe’s largest Muslim population, estimated to be around 5 million of the country’s 64 million people. While ordinary headscarves are common, only around 1,900 women in France wear the burqa.

Above all, this latest round of religious legislation in France reinforces the rapid political shift that Europe is undergoing as a result of issues such as immigration and economic recession. Heavy right-wing gains in the 2009 European Parliament elections, the passing of a Swiss referendum banning minarets, and the recent Belgian decision to enact similar laws against the burqa have all left many Europeans wondering whether such legislation has more to do with prejudice than human rights.