Will Banning the Burka Just Make Things Worse for Everyone?

Tunisian women—one (2ndR) wearing a "burkini," a full-body swimsuit designed for Muslim women—walk in the water on August 16, 2016, at Ghar El Melh beach near Bizerte, Tunisia. (Fethi Belaid / Getty)
Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

On Friday, German Interior Minister Thomas de Maizière called for a ban on burkas because the Islamic garment “doesn’t fit in with our open society.” Krishnadev noted:

Germany already has bans in place for face coverings at demonstrations, such as protests, that conceal someone’s identity. But the proposal offered by conservative members of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s ruling bloc would prevent anyone from wearing partial face coverings in public educational institutions, public offices or while driving.

A reader sides with the German interior minister:

The burka is an instrument of oppression employed to assist in the relegating of women to second-class status in Islamic society. That’s not cool and should not be tolerated, not even in the name of religious liberty. This cannot be cast entirely as an issue of individual choice because Muslim women do not have a genuine un-coerced choice when it comes to wearing the burka. It’s not merely a garment, but part and parcel of a religion and culture which demands that women obey the demands of the theocratic patriarchy.

A reader in Germany, on the other hand, is outraged over the proposed ban:

It’s fallacious to just assume that women who wear veils must have been forced to do it and need to be rescued. There are converts who wear veils or headscarfs, while their families disapprove of it. Personal and religious freedom includes the freedom to subscribe to archaic codes of dress and behaviour.

This proposal is symbol-politics at its best. Terror attacks happened and now we need to do something, no matter if it has anything to do with the problem or not.

I study law in Germany and I am fairly certain such a bill would be thrown out by the constitutional court. Religious freedom is defined very broadly under the German constitution. It can only be limited through a bill if it (religious exercise) somehow comes in conflict with a different basic right or fundamental government interest equivalent to a basic right, and if the conflict cannot be resolved by less repressive means. I don’t believe that’s the case with veils.

A reader in the U.S. notes:

Covering your face in public is illegal in Georgia and much of the South. These laws were put in place in response to terrorism by the KKK. People used to cover their faces to commit crimes. I think it would be a bad idea to repeal these laws or make an exception for women.

This next reader sees a double standard when it comes to the bans in Europe—what he calls “government overreach”:

No matter how repugnant religious misogyny is, it isn’t the place of government to tell people what they can or can’t wear. If anything, I think these bans in Europe display bigotry, because they clearly place a much greater burden on Muslims than any other group. Where is the law requiring female priests? Are monks hoods also banned? As is always the case with bigotry, it is lazy and cowardly.

Education and outreach to women trapped in intensely misogynist communities is the real answer, but that would require resources and funding, not to mention the rather embarrassing fact that several Christian and Jewish sects have proven themselves equally deserving of such a program.

This next reader also wonders about double standards regarding the government of Nice, France, banning the burqini—a burka-like swimsuit—on Friday:

The objections to the burqini are not very coherent. How, exactly, does wearing a certain type of bathing suit lead to social collapse and promote terrorism? At what percentage of bodily coverage does swimwear cross over into forbidden burqini territory? Would a surfer or triathlete be forced by the police to take off her wetsuit because it covers as much skin as the banned burqini? What about women who cover up for sun protection or personal feelings of modesty (as opposed to religion)? Would Orthodox Jewish women also be hit with a ban, since they wear similar swimwear?

A burqini ban impossible to enforce without violating the liberty of female beach goers to dress as they please.

This final reader makes the strongest point thus far—that even if you don’t buy the religious freedom argument, banning the burqa would be counterproductive:

If you accept the notion that women who wear the veil do so because they are oppressed, presumably by their male relatives, then you must also accept the notion that these oppressed women are likely to find themselves confined to their homes by their oppressors should a ban on public veiling be instituted. Banning the veil is counterproductive to the aims of a liberal society, which include full and informed participation in public life. If women and girls find themselves confined to their homes, places of worship, and religious educational institutions, they are unlikely to be exposed to information and ideas that might challenge their assumptions, complacency, and/or complicity in their own oppression (if they are, in fact, oppressed).

You cannot liberate another person by force or compulsion. Liberation must first begin in the oppressed individual’s own mind.

If you have any strong views on the matter, particularly if you live in Germany, France, or another European country grappling with this issue, please send us a note: hello@theatlantic.com.

Update: A German court just ruled in favor of a school that expelled a student for wearing the niqab, a full-body veil. Here’s a key reason given by the school, via Deutsche Welle: “[School officials] couldn’t identify her—someone else could take a test for her, for example.” A reader reacts:

In the U.S., it is legal and acceptable for schools to mandate dress codes and uniforms. I can’t see why the Germans cannot set a dress code that supports their educational and community values.

Earlier this year we ran a nine-part reader series on school dress codes. Do you think Germany’s niqab ban is comparable to the way many American schools set dress codes? Let us know.