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'The right to choose how we dress:' American Muslim women speak out on French burqa ban

Kenza Drider, one of the most vocal opponents of France's burqa ban, April 2011
Kenza Drider, one of the most vocal opponents of France's burqa ban, April 2011
Photo by Siobhán Silke/Flickr (Creative Commons)

On Monday, France implemented a controversial ban on the face-covering veils worn by some Muslim women, which are referred to there as burqa or niqab. Women who continue to wear the veils are subject to steep fines if cited. The French government defends the ban as promoting sexual equality, while critics have called it a blatant appeal to anti-Muslim voters. Meanwhile, there has been mixed reaction from Muslim women as the ban is debated around the world.

KPCC intern Yasmin Nouh, a recent graduate of UC Irvine who herself is Muslim and wears hijab, the traditional head scarf, interviewed three prominent Muslim women in California on reaction to the ban. She spoke with Hadeer Soliman, vice president of the Muslim Student Union at UC Irvine; Edina Lekovic, director of policy and programming for the Muslim Public Affairs Council in Los Angeles; and Zahra Billoo, executive director of the San Francisco Bay Area chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations. Here's what they had to say about the burqa ban, how it affects Muslim women here, and broader concerns they see surrounding it.

Q: What has the reaction been amongst Muslim women that you interact with regarding the new law?

Hadeer: The reaction amongst Muslim women varies, but I think a common sentiment is that this law denies women in France the right to choose what to wear. The new law will not create a "moderate" Islam, as some French officials claim it will; rather, it alienates and and infringes on the rights of a significant portion of the French population.

Edina: The vast majority of Muslim women I know are wholly against burqas or niqabs because they have no religious foundation in the Quran. They're based on a hyper-strict interpretation of the Quran, not on what it says in the text at all. That said, they uniformly oppose the French government's decision to ban them because it sends a completely counterproductive message to French Muslims and French society.

Banning burqas - just like banning books - will only make them more popular as a symbol of resistance. If the goal is to encourage integration of Muslim immigrants into French society, creating opportunities for participation and empowerment is the answer, not excluding and fining people based on how they dress.

Zahra: Many of the Muslim women I have spoken to about the new law are concerned. The general sentiment is that women should have the right to choose what to wear, be it as little or as much as they please. This law, under the guise of protecting and liberating them, actually harms women.

Q. Do Muslim women in the U.S. feel affected by this law? In what way? If so, how has that manifested?

Hadeer: Although the law does not directly affect Muslim women in the U.S., the sentiment it creates certainly does. There's currently a rise in Islamophobia in the U.S., and news of this recent ban of the face covering in Europe is a testament to a similar Islamophobia in Europe. While I personally don't choose to cover my face, the chilling effect of dictating how individuals dress does make me (and others, Muslims and non-Muslims) question the motives for such a destructive law and wonder what the next step is in the government telling its citizens what to wear.

Edina: It's difficult to watch this kind of insult and marginalization of any minority population based on their religious practice. When I talk to other Muslim women, what I hear over and over again is that we have to continue going out there and speaking for ourselves and for the rights of all people to choose and practice their own faith and expressions of their faith. For Muslim American women we have to speak for ourselves and represent what Muslim women are really like and how we're contributing to our communities and our country.

Zahra: Less with this law specifically, and more so with the general rise in anti-Muslim sentiment and legislation coming out of Europe, there is a concern that the trend will spread.

Q. What kinds of action, if any, are Muslim women, or the Muslim community in general, taking regarding the new law?

Hadeer: Firstly, many women are raising awareness about the new law through social networking websites like Facebook. By posting articles and sharing their opinions, they hope to inform others on why such a law has negative consequences. There have been demonstrations in the past against the proposal of the Niqab/Burqa ban, but I don't know of any upcoming demonstrations. Generally, the idea would be to raise awareness about the destructive nature of denying a woman the right to decide for herself how she dresses and to both demand an end to this law and ensure that no similar laws are passed elsewhere.

Edina: I'm not aware of any actions that are taking place.

Zahra: In the past, and more specifically with laws limiting the head veil, American Muslim women worked to organize protests and raise international human rights concerns. I have not seen any such organizing on this issue. It may be because a) the face veil ban impacts fewer women and/or b) people are in crisis fatigue.

Q: The law in France is not the first of its kind. A ban against hijab (not even niqab) has taken place across various parts of Europe and even in Turkey. Given the rise of Islamophobia in the United States, specifically in the political arena, are Muslim women concerned with such a law being implemented, let alone considered, in the U.S.?

Hadeer: Hijab bans across Europe and in Turkey are certainly concerning because they are a testament to the rise of Islamophobia. In the U.S., where elected officials can make racist comments against Muslims and not receive any political or social backlash, Islamophobia and its dangerous consequences are concerning. Recently in Yorba Linda, Councilwoman Deborah Pauly called for the killing of Muslims with no apology. American Muslims have called for her to step down because of her comments. (Rep.) Peter King's Homeland Security hearings also drew Americans' attention to the hatred and bigotry that exists in America.

As an American Muslim, I'm worried to see us move in the direction of targeting people because of their religious beliefs. Hate is a threat to democracy, and it's important for us to stand up against that.

Edina: Luckily, this kind of law is very unlikely in the U.S. because of our core values and right of religious freedom guaranteed by the Constitution. The law does send a chilling message from a Western country in its treatment of its Muslim population.

The burqa ban will likely be understood by Muslims as an outright rejection of their faith and their status as French citizens. I'm just glad that we know better here in the U.S. -- our democratic values guarantee freedom of religious practice, including the right to choose how we dress.

Zahra: I believe the concern we see in American Muslim women goes specifically to the hate and general rhetoric that comes with anti-hijab and anti-niqab efforts in Europe, which is similar to anti-mosque activities in the U.S. I don't know that there is an actual concern about hijab and niqab bans here, but rather a fear of the sentiment or rhetoric which accompanies those movements manifesting in different ways here.