Atheists and Religious Garb

September 16, 2009

Some government officials in France, a self-proclaimed secular state, have called for a ban on the burqa, the head-to-toe garment worn by some Islamic women. Not only did President Sarkozy state in July that the burqa was not welcome in France, but recently one of his ministers, Fadela Amara, called for a complete ban on the burqa, arguing that the garment both constitutes and represents oppression of women. Hearings are being held on this issue.

This debate reminded me of the internal discussions we had at CFI when we recently revised our mission statement to state explicitly that CFI aims "to foster a secular society." Some thought this wording would be perceived as anti-religious, in the sense that we want to eliminate all public expression of religious beliefs.

No, that's not what we want or mean. A secular society is perfectly compatible with the free exercise of religion. A secular society shows equal respect for the religious and the nonreligious. Moreover --and this is my personal view, not necessarily CFI's position --we should not ban the burqa or any religious garb (except for safety concerns or similar reasons).

I understand that the burqa, the hijab, and other special garments for women are often imposed on women against their will and to a certain extent represent the view that women are lesser beings, who should not have the same rights to participate in society as men. Nonetheless, some women, especially in Western countries, voluntarily don these outfits.

And if we ban the burqa or hijab, how about habits for nuns, seventeenth century clothing for the Amish, monks' robes, bow ties for Black Muslims, or the black hats and untrimmed side curls of Hassidic Jews?

I say let the different religious groups wear their costumes if they want. If they want to look silly because they think Jehovah, Jesus, Allah, or whoever wants them to wear distinctive clothing, that's fine with me. Among other things it makes religious fundamentalists easier to spot.

Moreover, it underscores one major advantage to being nonreligious. We have no dress code.


#1 Hugues on Thursday September 17, 2009 at 3:21am

Hello Ron,

I live in Switzerland, near France.

I checked the recent news and it seems the debate is about the “voile intégral” meaning the burqa covering completely the head and face of the women. This would not be allowed in a public institutions like in a school or city hall. How would teachers or city employees know with whom they are dealing with if they cannot see the face of the person. I don’t think it’s about banning the type of dress you see on the picture you show above, or banning it at home for example.

Different debate in my opinion. Nuns and monks are able to show their face when needed,

my 2 cents, or 2 centimes i must say…


#2 Edwardson on Thursday September 17, 2009 at 8:50am

As I see it, there are several issues: Is the veil male-imposed? If so then the burka is oppressive. Are there women who wear it willingly? Do they want to? Fashion preference is a right. It’s been said that a full burka and an opaque one causes Vitamin D deficiency. If so then this poses a medical threat. Are there women who wear it to hide themselves? If so then this is a psychological matter.

I think it’s the fact that the face is totally covered that’s ticking off a lot of us. I for one would have no problem if women who voluntarily wear the burka covered themselves from head to toe as long as they keep faces visible, at least outside their homes and when they start interacting with others. Or as a compromise how about wearing a translucent veil over their faces?

#3 Scott Stafiej on Thursday September 17, 2009 at 9:39am

My wife is French and she and I have discussed this issue at length.

I, like you, believe that one should be free to don whatever garb they desire.  My wife falls more on the side of banning the burqa (full coverage) completely due to the fact that, in her opinion, it is often imposed upon women.

The problem, as I see it, is that we have little data - or at least I have seen little data - polling islamic women about their preferences.  One can understand that in a fundamentally oppressive culture, such statistics from women would be hard to come by.

In my opinion, the best thing the french state could do to oppose oppression of women while still respecting a minority culture is to create centers for psychological and physical abuse in predominantly muslim areas and begin a campaign to promote such centers and women’s rights.  If the women have the infrastructure to support their “escape” and feel that there will be a community to welcome them, they will be more inclined to speak up and act out.  The action has to come from the women.

Thank you for the article!

#4 Claire Berjot (Guest) on Thursday September 17, 2009 at 12:50pm

I am a French women (Scott’s wife, commenting above), and I wanted to share my thoughts on the matter.

The Burka is the traditional muslim outfit of women in Afghanistan.  They are different variations of the outfit in the various muslim countries.  In Algeria they have the mleya, in Iran the tchador.  The picture that was posted has nothing to do with a burka!
Here is a typography of some muslim veils (the burka being the most extreme of them)

#5 Claire Berjot (Guest) on Thursday September 17, 2009 at 12:52pm

#6 ClaireBerjot on Thursday September 17, 2009 at 12:53pm

The burka is oppressive most of the time.  I don’t know many human beings who would volunteer to live as a ghosts.  If you have never tried such an outfit, I encourage you to do so… it’s more of an experience then it seems.  The Burka is not only a full “coverage” for the sake of fashion, it has a very precise meaning - it affirms the submission of women to God’s will -concretely to their men’s relatives.  In countries where the Burka is common practice, it is also common practice to stone women to death if they have been raped…  These societies are not at the same stage of development than western europe in terms of education, democracy and basic human rights.

Yes, some women in France and in the western world wear the burka as a personal choice.  By doing so, they recognize that they willingly give up on social life and volunteer to be their husband’s possession. 

While it is their “choice”, the idea is to say that France doesn’t want to foster a society where women volunteer to be slaves.  It is all the more a topic that France is a very secular country.  There is no debate over abortion there; most people have never heard of creationism; nobody cares if the president is religious or not.  Southern baptists don’t exists there either.  So to see women wearing the Burka (and they are not so many), has a strong effect on many people. 

I think it is a good thing that the french president openly affirms that the “Burka is not welcomed” in our country.  By doing so he re-affirms the values of equality and laicity that are a core of the french society.  It is courageous, and it is needed.

This being said, giving one’s opinion is different than having a law implementing it.  While wearing the Burka is extreme, it would also be extreme to officially forbid it.  The real problem it religious fundamentalism and needs to be addressed at its core.

#7 ClaireBerjot on Thursday September 17, 2009 at 12:54pm

The typography of veils I was mentioning earlier:,47-0,54-1210688,0.html

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