Behind France’s burka ban

People should be free to publish cartoons of Mohammad. They should be free to wear the burka. In a free society, men and women should be able to do, say, write, depict or wear what they like, so long as it does no significant harm to others.

Those who support a burka ban, like the one that goes into effect in France on Monday, must therefore show us the harm that comes from women being in public with their faces covered. So far, the supporters of a ban have advanced three main arguments.

First, they say the full-face veil is a threat to public safety. Jean-Francois Cope, leader of French President Nicolas Sarkozy’s party, the Union for a Popular Movement, has cited an armed robbery conducted “in the Paris suburbs by criminals dressed in burkas.” Others point to would-be suicide bombers hiding under burkas. But how many such incidents have there been? For the London and Madrid bombers, a backpack was an easier hiding place for a bomb. Meanwhile, violent street demonstrators have for decades hidden their faces behind balaclavas, and a nylon stocking over the head has long been the native dress of the armed robber. It is ridiculous to suggest that women who wear the burka (thought to be fewer than 2,000 in France, and fewer than 500 in Holland), suddenly constitute more of a security threat than those muffled and hooded men.

This takes us to the second argument: An open society is one in which we can see each other’s faces. I have much sympathy with this view. Most free societies have some rules about how we appear in public: no full nudity, for example, except in some designated locations. If for the last 50 years the uncovered face in public had been the settled legal norm of European societies, as is the covering of the pudenda, it would be reasonable to insist that those who choose to live here should abide by it. But while the French law is now presented in an egalitarian, universalist way, this is so obviously not what it really is.


In 2009, Sarkozy took up with a vengeance the demand to ban burkas. It is being implemented in the context of his party’s fierce defense of French-style secularism against the encroachments of Islam. And it is very much about attracting voters back from the xenophobic far right. This is a highly politicized burka ban hiding behind a thin universalist veil.

Finally, it is argued that the burka’s unacceptable harm is to the veiled women themselves. Silvana Koch-Mehrin, a vice president of the European Parliament, says the burka is “a mobile prison.” And the claim is often made that women are compelled to veil themselves by fathers or husbands.

Again, I start with sympathy for this view. John Stuart Mill, who enunciated the liberal’s classic “harm principle,” was himself passionate against “the almost despotic power of husbands over wives.” But shouldn’t we ask the women themselves?

A study by the Open Society Foundations, to be released Monday, reports in-depth interviews with 32 women who wear the full-face veil in France. All but two say they are the first members of their family to do so, and almost all insist this was a matter of free personal choice. Several chose to wear it against the initial resistance of husbands, fathers and mothers. (The families often feared hostility on the streets.)

These women often describe donning the niqab or burka as part of a spiritual journey. Some also explain it as a protest and defense against a highly sexualized, voyeuristic public space: “For us it’s a way of saying that we are not a piece of meat in a stall, we are not a commodity.” (Vivi, 39, South of France.)

We may not like their choice. We may find it disturbing and offensive. But it is, in its way, as much a form of free expression as cartoons of Mohammad, which these women, in turn, will find disturbing and offensive. And that’s the deal in a free society: The burka wearer has to put up with the cartoons; the cartoonist has to put up with the burkas.

Yes, there surely are also cases of women who wear the burka or the niqab out of fear of their menfolk. Every possible resource must be put at their disposal: anonymous help lines, community support, safe houses, fresh-start chances. They, too, must be free to choose. But how will a burka ban help them? Will not the reaction of such tyrannical men be to keep them even more tightly locked up at home?

Because one is so liable to be maliciously misinterpreted on this subject, I want to be very clear about where I stand. I think there are huge problems with the integration of people of migrant background and Muslim faith into most west European societies. We have made bad mistakes of omission and commission in this regard over the last 40 years, some of them in the name of a misconceived, morally relativist multiculturalism. We need a muscular liberalism fit for what are in reality already multicultural societies.


But let us, in the name of reason and common sense, concentrate on what is really vital. Let us defend free speech against violent Islamist intimidation. Let us ensure that children of migrant background get a good education in the language, history and politics of the European country in which they live and are equipped to do useful work and contribute fully as citizens. Let us not be distracted by a facile gesture politics, which legitimates far-right xenophobes even as it attempts to claw back their votes.

The burka ban is illiberal, unnecessary and will most likely be counterproductive. No one else should follow the French example, and France itself should reverse it.

Timothy Garton Ash is a contributing editor to Opinion. He is professor of European studies at Oxford University and a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University.