The debate on the veil in France

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This article is the first in a series of articles related to Wikiprogress.


A new law was adopted in France last April, banning the wearing of full face veils such as the niqab or the burqa. This has serious implications when one thinks about how a society is progressing. This new law is interesting as it raises issues such as freedom of expression, freedom of dress or the integration of immigrants in a given country. How can a diverse society progress together? How can we ensure the cohesiveness of a society while respecting its diversity? How can we measure it?

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A New Law

Woman in burqa.jpg
On 11 April 2011, a new law was put in place in France forbidding the niqab (the full veil, hiding the entire face with the exception of the eyes) and the burqa (a full-body covering that includes a mesh over the face). Anyone wearing one of those is facing a 150 euros fine or some lessons in French citizenship. The hijab and the chador (both not covering the face) are not banned by the law.[1] One of the reasons cited for this law is security[2], although it is really part of a wider political debate on the freedom of religion in France, which has started some 20 years ago. 

A little bit of history

The law separating the State and the Church was adopted on 9 December 1905[3] and reflects the secularist and republican values of France: “the secular laws of France prohibit the wearing of religious symbols of any nature in schools and certain public buildings. This is taken to include the wearing of the veil, the hijab or the Sikh turban”[4]. The principle of secularism was further sealed with the 1958 French Constitution, reinforcing State neutrality and guaranteeing national unity. But one has to remember that the 1905 law was adopted in a context where the dominant religion in France was Catholicism. Today, due to immigration flows, French society is a lot more religiously diverse. The challenge is therefore to reconcile national unity with the respect of diversity.[3]


Hijab woman Liverpool.jpg
The principle of secularism already started to be challenged in 1989, when three young girls came to a school in Creil wearing a chador. After being first expelled from school by the director, the girls were finally allowed to attend school on the condition that they would not wear their veil inside the classroom. The debate on the Islamic veil gets started. Lionel Jospin, Minister for Education at the time, highlighted the fact that due to secularism, it is not possible to wear ostentatious religious signs while at school; however he also insisted on the fact that school should welcome children, and not exclude them from education. His final say finally translates into a bill that gives the right to teachers in school to decide whether or not they accept the veil in their classroom. This did not solve the problem, as similar cases happened in school throughout 1990, and the media increasingly started to raise issues such as integration, women’s rights, or freedom of religion.[5]


The situation becomes complex, as there is no clear criteria upon which a teacher can decide whether such or such religious sign has to be banned from school. On 15 March 2004, a new law[2] is voted to reinforce the principle of secularism, whereby it is forbidden to wear ostentatious religious signs in schools; small religious signs such as a small catholic cross or the star of David are tolerated.[5]


The debate on national identity comes back. In a speech on 20 June 2009, Nicolas Sarkozy declares that the burqa will not be tolerated in France, not because it is a religious problem, but because it is questioning the freedom and dignity of women.[5] President Sarkozy even talked of the act of wearing a burqa as a modern form of “enslavement”.[6] The debate goes on, and a law is finally voted in October 2010 and proclaimed in April 2011. What is surprising is people’s reaction to this new law. The police, for example, judge the law “inapplicable” and stated that they would not harass women wearing a niqab or a burqa, unless they were threatening the public order; even then, enforcing the law could create riots, especially in sensitive areas with a majority of immigrants.[7] Shortly after the law was enacted, several press articles described the non-reaction of passers-by or the police as some women continued to go out in the streets wearing a niqab. Some argue that this indifference to the law comes with a change of landscape in French society, as the majority of the urban French population has been living side by side with immigrants for a long time now and has learnt to appreciate them, and so traditional discourses on national identity are not as effective or meaningful as they used to be.[8] 

The current debate

Not just a French problem

The debate has spread to foreign press and was highly debated around the world, in papers like the International Herald Tribune (NY Times)[9] and on TV channels like CNN (see video below).

France is the first country in Europe to enact such a law, but other European countries are likely to take on a similar stance.[2] Belgium could soon become the second European country to put a similar law into practice.[10]

What is being debated

Some key highlights of the current debate:

  • For the French government, enacting the law is linked to the issue of security – however, women wearing the full-face veil claim they are ready to comply with security processes when they are asked to show their face during identity checks (at airports, in a bank, etc.).
  • For some, including feminists, the law is another demonstration of men’s control over women, where men take the decision on what women should wear, and impose it with a law.
  • For some people in France, and in the context of a rising Muslim population in the country, the law is a way of preserving France’s culture and traditions.
  • Interestingly, and contrary to what the government is claiming, Muslim women do choose freely to wear the veil, they are not forced into it. According to some key findings from a report by the Open Society Foundations, parents/husbands have no influence on their daughter/wife’s choice of wearing the full-face veil. Most of the women wearing the niqab claim their freedom of religion – they say that wearing the niqab is their own choice and they were not forced into wearing it. Indeed, despite there being no express mandate in the Quran for women to wear a veil, many women still consider that wearing the veil is an integral expression of their faith.[11]
  • The law as a direct response to the threat of rising Islam in France? According to a Pew Forum report on the global Muslim population[2], the Muslim population in France currently represents 7.5% of the total population and it is expected to grow to 10.3% in the next 20 years. Also, the number of women wearing the full-face veil has significantly grown since 2005.[2]
  • If Muslim women are not able to wear the full-face veil in public spaces, it means that they might decide to stay at home and therefore they will have to leave school or work – this goes back to the question of integration.

Video-Debate on France's decision to ban face veils

Watch this video by CNN of two Muslim women debating France's decision to ban face veils (niqabs) in public:

What are your reactions? What is the situation in your country?

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See also

Other progress-related articles


  1. CNN, "France's Islamic veil ban spurs passionate reaction worldwide", by Michael Saba, available at:
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 2.3 2.4 University of Southern California, The Scoop, "Behind the Veil: France's Ban on the Burqa", by Robyn Carolyn Price, available at: ref
  3. 3.0 3.1 Commission Stasi,
  4. Wikigender, "Freedom of dress", France
  5. 5.0 5.1 5.2, "Du foulard au voile intégral, histoire d’un débat très politique", available at:
  6. The NY Time, "Sarkozy Backs Drive to Eliminate the Burqa", by Doreen Carvajal, available at:
  7. NY Times, "France Enforces Ban on Full-Face Veils in Public", by Steven Erlanger, available at:
  8. The Hindu, "Debating the veil" (viewpoint), by Sébastien Doubinsky, available at:
  9. NY Times, "France Enforces Ban on Full-Face Veils in Public", by Steven Erlanger, available at:
  10. Press TV, "Belgium inches closer to burqa ban", available at:
  11. CNN, "France's Islamic veil ban spurs passionate reaction worldwide", By Michael Saba, available at:

External links

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