Burqa Ban: Coverage of a Law to ‘Free’ Women Leaves Them Voiceless

As France’s lower house of parliament approved a ban on wearing full-face Islamic veils such as the burqa or niqab, many U.S. news outlets left out a key voice in their reports: the Muslim women in France who are actually affected by the ban.

Several major outlets, including the New York Times (7/14/10), Washington Post (7/14/10) and the Los Angeles Times (7/14/10), have managed to cover the story without seeking commentary from a single Muslim woman. Out of 11 named sources used bythese newspapers in their July 14 reports, only two were Muslim–both men, one a rector and one leader of a government council, each of whom discourage women from wearing the burqa.

Furthermore, 10 out of the 11 sources on the issue came from French government officials, most of whom unsurprisingly (since the ban passed 335 to 1) echoed the sentiment of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe that these veils “could be a threat to women’s dignity and freedom” (Chicago Tribune, 6/24/10). While the New York Times (7/14/10) quoted Daniel Garrigue, the one parliament member who opposed the ban, and another anti-ban official, it followed up with five rebuttals, along with a poll that showed French voters as a whole–most of whom are little affected by the law–support the ban.

On CNN (7/13/10), Republican strategist Mary Matalin and journalist Roland Martin discussed the ban with no debate:

MATALIN: You know what, the vote was 336 to 1 [sic] in the lower house of the parliament, and it’s a good vote. The assimilation there of Muslims, who are the largest percentage in European countries are in France. Assimilation is tough when you have a full-face burqa. And it’s also oppressive to women. No woman chooses to wear that full-face burqa. So I say to France, tres bien, good vote.

MARTIN: And I will say this, I mean, you do have to understand the cultural issues there. I think what this really says though is about freedom for women, in terms of French saying, look, they perceive that as being oppressive to women. And then if you want to operate in this country, this is how we are going to operate here. And so I understand that.

But I do think we have to be careful to recognize that there are cultural things that happen, more different cultures we also have to respect.

MATALIN: That is–I completely agree with that. The veil is a beautiful thing. All of my Muslim girlfriends say it’s great. It’s not only respectful and mindful of their religion, it’s great for bad hair days. So we get that. But the full-face burqa, nyet.

MARTIN: Right, absolutely.

MATALIN: Tres bien, Francois.

But despite Matalinâ┚¬Ã¢”ž¢s assertion, not everyone agrees that the burqa is exclusively a tool of repression, or that banning the burqa is the best way to promote womenâ┚¬Ã¢”ž¢s equality–and many of the dissenters happen to be Muslim women. USA Today and NBC News both interviewed Kenza Drider, who was born and raised in France and has worn the burqa for 11 years, who said (NBC Nightly News, 7/7/10): “I’m a feminist. I wear this by choice, and I submit to no man, only God.” The Huffington Post (7/13/10) quoted an Islamic scholar, Abdelmotie Bayoumi, who has written books that include modern testimonies about the full-face veil: “A Muslim woman wears the niqab not because of religious duty, but as a personal freedom.” Sahar (Nuseiba.wordpress.com, 7/4/10), a Muslim blogger, said that though she isn’t personally fond of the burqa, she believes that “a woman’s right to choose how to express her religion… or her culture as she sees fit is fundamental to her dignity and should be protected.”

In covering a law targeting Muslim women, it is essential to include such perspectives, instead of simply packing the views of powerful leaders and Western ideology into a report.