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Research: To Cover or Not to Cover? Burka Issue Resurfaces in Europe

  • August 4, 2009

by Susan Welch, Hewitt Research –

It seems head coverings and the Western world don’t always get along.

In the United Kingdom two years ago, isolated incidents of women wearing niqabs (head scarves) created controversies that grabbed global headlines: A lawyer was not allowed to represent her client while wearing the niqab because the judge could not hear her; a niqab-wearing teacher was dismissed from her school.1 For the past handful of years, officials in Belgium and the Netherlands have weighed various efforts to ban women from wearing burkas in public.2

Most recently, President Nicolas Sarkozy of France touched off a debate when, in an address to parliament, he declared that burkas and niqabs no longer would be welcome on French soil.3 This followed an ongoing legislative review of burka wearing in France, after more and more women began wearing burkas in France. Sarkozy called the burka “a sign of subservience – a sign of debasement.”4

Why does a simple veil or head scarf stir such controversy?

It might help to understand what these head coverings are. In essence, they are an item of clothing worn by Muslim women as part of sharia, Islamic religious law. According to the Qu’ran, both men and women are to guard their private parts and “not display their ornaments,”5 but for men this means merely covering themselves from the knee to the waist. For women it means covering everything except their hands and face; in some Islamic countries the requirements are more restrictive and mean covering most or all of the face and hands.6

The veil in general is referred to as a hijab, and most typically covers only the head and neck, leaving the face free. The niqab goes one step further, covering the face but leaving the eye-area exposed. Most conservative is the burka, which covers the entire face and body. Women wearing a burka can see only through a small mesh slit.7

There’s a spectrum of views around the burka within the Muslim community and within this diversity there are Muslim women who feel it’s a choice they willingly make and not forced to make. In fact, for many, appropriate dress reflects modesty and reserve. One article quoted a hijab-clad French shopper, named Amira, as saying, “I wear this for modesty, and it’s my choice. Politicians. act as if no Muslim would wear the veil unless she was coerced by a man, and that is not true.”

Muslims are comfortable and, indeed, prefer to see their women covered appropriately, and find nothing unusual about this attire. In fact, for Muslims, appropriate dress reflects modesty and reserve. One article quoted a hijab-clad French shopper, named Amira, as saying, “I wear this for modesty, and it’s my choice. [Politicians] act as if no Muslim would wear the veil unless she was coerced by a man, and that is not true.”8

Western Europeans, however, often find themselves disconcerted when they interact with a woman they can hardly see. Perhaps it suggests the wearer has more to hide than simply her face.

Western women, in particular, struggle with the burka issue. While Muslim women view any form of hijab as a religious display of modesty, Western women perceive women being treated as property, or being restrained, or otherwise being unfairly restricted. Indeed, Sarkozy said the veil makes women “prisoners behind a screen, cut off from all social life, deprived of all identity.”9 A deputy for France’s Socialist Party, Sandrine Mazetier, said, “The wearing of the burka is the equivalent of someone walking around with a sandwich board proclaiming that men and women are not equal.”10

On a societal level, burkas pose safety and security threats. With their vision obstructed, can these women be considered safe? And more, with their identities hidden, burka-wearing people may have ulterior motives. In late July, several men and women disguised themselves by wearing burkas — and then carried out a suicide bombing in Afghanistan.11

But what is the truth? Are hijabs in their various forms, and the controversy they stir, the result of cultural and religious differences—more precisely, an inability to acknowledge these differences? Or are they a form of suppression against Muslim women? Does the potential security risk outweigh the need for religious tolerance? Where does this particular line get drawn?

Employers face a delicate challenge when addressing the burka or niqab issue. The need to display sensitivity toward all religions and cultures must be balanced with the need to ensure the comfort and safety of all workers, as well as the need to avoid workplace disruptions. Incorporating head scarves of any kind into the dress code is a starting point, particularly if tolerance toward the more general hijab is displayed. Issues involving burkas or niqabs are best addressed on an individual basis, taking into account the various people involved and the work situation.

Some day a more complete answer may present itself, but for now, burkas and niqabs remain an unresolved difference, one that can be surmounted only at an individual level, when those involved choose to act inclusively.


1. Perlez, Jane. ”Muslims’ Veils Test Limits of British Tolerance.” Speigel Online International. June 22, 2007.

2. Mardell, Mark. “Europe diary: Banning the veil.” BBC News Online. January 19, 2006.

3. Kirby, Emma Jane. “Sarkozy stirs French burka debate.” BBC News Online. June 22, 2009.

4. “Sarkozy: France ‘Cannot Accept’ Burqas.” FoxNews.com. June 22, 2009.

5. Qu’ran, 24:31

6. “Women in Islam – Clothing.” Global Oneness website.

7. “In graphics: Muslim veils.” BBC News Online.

8. Sachs, Susan. “Fashion on trial: France debates whether women can wear niqabs.” The Globe and Mail online. July 6, 2009.

9. “Sarkozy: France ‘Cannot Accept’ Burqas.” FoxNews.com. June 22, 2009.

10. Sac

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