That Unwelcome Encounter With a Veil in the Supermarket

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By Kathryn Heffron

It is important for Western countries to avoid impeding Muslim citizens from practicing religion as they see fit—for instance, by dictating what clothes a Muslim woman should wear. We can’t disguise hostility towards any religion behind the pretense of liberalism.[1] –      President Obama

French President Nicholas Sarkozy had made it clear that the veil[2] is not welcome in France.[3] In January 2010, a French parliamentary committee proposed a partial ban on the veil in public spaces such as schools, public hospitals, and on public transport.[4] The debate is continuing in France. In March 2010, the French Council of State suggested that a full public ban on the veil violates the French Constitution and possibly the European Convention on Human Rights. However, it added that there could be justification for limitations on the veil in public spaces.[5] The policy to ban the veil is meant to defend France from extremists and comes just five years after France banned headscarves and other “conspicuous religious items” from schools.[6] Concerned with disruption to state secularism, the European Court of Human Rights has thus far upheld State measures to ban religious clothing in school.[7] Given the rising, prevalent discrimination against Muslims in Western nations[8], one can’t help but wonder whether it is the veil or the Muslim women who wear it, that is unwelcome in France.

There have been proposals to outlaw the veil in many nations besides France including Canada, the UK, Australia, The Netherlands, Switzerland, Germany, and Belgium. Recent news reports indicate that Belgium may become the first European country to ban the veil.[9] Additionally, many journalists in the United States applaud France’s efforts and call for public debate on whether the United States should publicly ban the veil. Those who propose a ban on the veil point to the thousands of women who are oppressed in Islamic countries; the veil is associated with individuals who are beaten, uneducated, sold into marriages, and silenced. The veil is condemned as being a mechanism for oppression as if banning it would magically raise the status of women around the world. However, for all of the observations made about oppressed Muslim women, few writers actually propose measures such as community-based programs in education, health and income generation that might actually serve to empower women in Islamic countries and the countries they immigrate to. The reason for this might be that policies aimed at banning the headscarves in school or the veil in public are more concerned with reinforcing dominant cultural values than improving the welfare of the individuals under their veils.

Virginia Haussegger of the Canberra Times writes of her experience encountering a woman in a burqa in a supermarket:

I’ve seen it elsewhere around the world, but I didn’t expect to see it here. Certainly not on a hot summer’s afternoon at the Canberra Centre. But there it was. A ghostly figure walking towards me, clad from head to toe in a heavy black niqab, black gloves and dark shoes. She was trailing along behind her husband and four little children. . . . The sight of this hideously shrouded figure in an Australian shopping mall is confronting and offensive. And it makes me angry, very angry. . . . I wanted to stop and ask why she had such disrespect for herself and our culture that she would hide her face and body under all that black cloth, designed to render her shapeless and inhuman. But her husband shot me a glance, and I was silenced. Dumbfounded.[10]

Haussegger is not the only woman who takes personal offense to the veil. In January 2010, Daily Politics writer Bonnie Erbe wrote an article proposing a ban on burqas in the United States. In the article, Ms. Erbe testified to her adherence to clothing norms in the countries she visited such as Egypt and Morocco. She then blasted those women in the United States who wear a veil for not returning the favor. “I often wish Muslim immigrant women would repay the courtesy here in the U.S. Whenever I see a woman in full body garment or head scarf — and there are plenty of them in my community, — I take it as an affront.”[11] Erbe also proposed some immigration reform to deal with this issue. “I wish the U.S. would pre-screen for women who want to take full advantage of the freedoms they gain by moving from a society that represses women to one that does not. Immigration is a privilege and not a right.”[12]

It is not too difficult to see why Ms. Erbe favors French policy so much; the French immigration policy seems to mirror her suggestions for the United States. In 2008, a Moroccan born woman was denied naturalization to France because her “radical practices” (wearing the niqab) were incompatible with French values.[13] Concern over the veil seems to be that those who live in France must integrate into the social mores and cultural traditions of that society.         Proponents of the ban claim that it is an “arrogant display” of disrespect to a Western way of life[14] and Sarkozy has acquired some key Muslim, political allies to support this rhetoric. On January 23, 2010, the Parisian Imam Hassan Chalghoumi extended his support for the ban of the veil, and French proposals that would deny citizenship to women who wear it: “Having French nationality means wanting to take part in society, in school, at work. But with a cloth over their faces, what can these women share with us? If they want to wear the veil, they can go back to a country where it’s tradition, like Saudi Arabia.”[15] Adrian Amstutz, Swiss Parliamentarian and one of the strongest supporters of the ban agrees: “Muslims must be spurred to integrate into society”, he said to Swiss News Worldwide.[16]

Taking this all into account, I wonder if an encounter with a woman in a veil at a supermarket goes a bit deeper than just an irate journalist’s anger over another woman’s acceptance of a “lowered status.” The encounter with a woman in a veil frightens many Westerners not because they actually believe that Islamic Sharia law will somehow influence their daily life, but rather because they fear an Islam that refuses to assimilate into their society. Seeing a woman in a veil is a personal encounter with that prototypical frightening “extreme” Muslim individual who is blasted in our media every day. Mona Eltahawy describes the media’s depiction of Muslim stereotypes: “[T]he [a]ngry [b]earded Muslim man: . . shouting . . . and burning something . . . .His female counterpart is [the] [c]overed in [b]lack Muslim [w]oman. She’s seen, never heard. Visible only in her invisibility . . . .”[17] The encounter with this woman reminds some people of a radical, extremist and even terrorist Islam. Arguably, banning the veil in France is not really motivated out of the desire to help the individuals who wear it. Rather the ban is used to send a clear message that France will not tolerate that which is so extremely foreign in its borders.

The burqa is considered by many to represent a terrorist, radical Islam, which threatens the assimilation of Muslim immigrants into Western society.[18] France may not welcome Islam but it is at least open to the more progressive, “westernized” Muslims who wear French clothes and are sensitive enough not to practice their religion in a manner that makes French society uncomfortable. Islam, like all religions is practiced differently by individuals and

the majority of Muslims in France believe that the veil is not required by Islam. While it is true that only a minority of France’s Muslim population wear the veil, France has made it clear that what they deems as “radical” Islam is not to be practiced in public.

As a woman I am offended by the debate over the veil as well. I am angered at how women who wear a veil have lost their individual identity by the very leaders who claim to be empowering them. Opponents of the veil have framed the issue in essentialist terms, defining all those that wear the veil as oppressed women incapable of making choices for themselves. They can’t envision that an educated woman would make that free choice to cover herself.         Perhaps that is because the voices from those who wear the veil are missing from French debate. The forces that mandate a certain dress for women are just as threatening to women as those who seek to ban it because in both instances the woman has been deemed incapable of making a fundamental choice for herself. Contrary to popular belief, it is possible for women who have veils over their mouths to still share their values, ideas, and decisions. The communication channels may be different from those of “normal” French society but women who wear veils have voices if someone is actually willing to listen.

There appears to be an increasingly rapid movement to ban public practice of Islam (whether it be through the ban on a headscarf, burqa, or minarets) and it is time for human rights activists to expose leaders who suppress religious freedom in the name of women’s rights, human rights, secularism, or Western values. A ban on the veil does nothing to address the root causes of oppression that some Muslim and non-Muslim women experience around the world. More frightening, a ban on veils in Western countries will further stigmatize Muslim women, forcing them to choose between assimilation and migration. Those women who choose to stay but refuse to give up their practice will be shut inside their homes or may be subjected to heavy policing, immigration consequences, or fines they cannot afford. A ban on the veil does not serve to empower oppressed Muslim women; all it seems to achieve is to satiate a widespread xenophobia by preventing that frightening encounter with a woman in a veil in the supermarket.

[1] President’s Remarks in Cairo, 1 DAILY COMP. PRES. DOC. 436 (June 4, 2009).

[2] “[T]he the burqa is not welcome on the territory of the French Republic.” Stephen Erlanger,Burqa Furor Scrambles French Politics, N.Y. TIMES, Aug. 31, 2009, at A6 (quoting President Sarkozy). President Sarkozy’ references the type of veil that some Muslim women wear to cover their face. The niqab and the burqa are two types of veils that are commonly confused. The burqa is often described as “the all enveloping cloak, often blue, with a woven grill over the eyes that many Afghan women wear and [that] is almost never seen in France…[t]he niqab, often black leaves the eyes uncovered.” Id. “It is a measure of France’s confusion about Islam and its own Muslim citizens that in the public furor here over ‘banning the burka’ as the argument goes, the garment at issue is not really the burqa at all but the niqab.” Id.

[3] Sarkozy Says Burka “Not Welcome” in France, BBC NEWS, Jan. 14, 2010,

[4] France MP’s Report Backs Muslim Face Veil Ban, BBC NEWS, Jan. 26, 2010,

[5] French PM Advised Against Total Islamic Veil Ban, BBC NEWS, Mar. 30, 2010,

[6] French Scarf Ban Comes Into Force BBC NEWS, Sept. 2, 2004,

[7] Court Back Turkish Headscarf Ban, BBC NEWS, Nov. 10, 2005,; see Şahin v. Turkey, 44 Eur. Ct. H.R. 99 (2005) (holding Istanbul University policy banning the Muslim headscarf in class was not a violation of the European Convention on Human Rights).


[9] Belgian Committee Votes for Full Islamic Veil Ban, BBC NEWS, Mar. 31, 2010,

[10] Virginia Hausseger, Op-Ed., Ban UnAustralian Burka,CANBERRA TIMES, June 27, 2009, at 16, available at june-2009.html.

[11] Bonnie Erbe, France’s Proposed Burqa Ban: Why Americans Might Want to Consider it Too, POLITICS DAILY, Jan. 21, 2010, to-run-frances-proposed-burqa-ban-why-americans-might-w/.

[12] Id.

[13] Katrin Bennhold, A Muslim Woman Too Orthodox for France., N.Y. TIMES, July 18, 2008, france.4.14618011.html.

[14] Haussenger, supra note 6.

[15] Sophie Taylor, Paris Iman Backs France’s Burqa Ban. TELEGRAPH.COM, Jan. 22, 2010, imam-backs-Frances-burqa-ban.html.

[16] Vessela Evrova, Swiss Ban on Headscarves Overruled, RADIO NETHERLANDS WORLDWIDE, Jan. 5,2010, headscarves-overruled.

[17] Mona Eltahawy, Happy Muslim Men and Women Who Confuse You. PAK TEA HOUSE, Mar. 30, 2009, men-and-women-who-confuse-you/

[18] Liesl Gerntholz & Gauri van Gulik, Beyond the Burqa, HUMAN RIGHTS WATCH , July 2, 2009,