French Law is Anti-Feminist. It is even Anti-Fashion

My name is Leila Levi and I am a feminist.

I wanted to come clean by being upfront with what many millennials see as a dirty word.The connotation of being a feminist among young women in 2011 can be of bra burners and man-haters. I despise that such a narrow and derogatory view of feminism is expressed so frequently. I call it derogatory because it labels women who are feminists negatively, as if they are screaming stereotypes relegated to the fringes of society. Feminists are in every corner of the globe and come from all walks of life.

Feminism is about equality and civil rights, believes that women are created equal and, with very rare exception, should be treated equally under the law.

It is from this feminist lens which I look at the new law in France, the so called burqa ban, which went into effect last month. The law bans the niqab and the burqa from public places. The niqab is a face veil that only leaves a slot for the eyes, and the burqa is a full-body covering, including a mesh cover for the face. The French law bans their use in public places, including on the streets, government buildings, schools, and movie theaters.

Visually, I find the niqab and the burqa very different than hijab. A hijab, a headscarf, covers a woman’s hair, and her face is fully visible. Admittedly, the Niqab and the burqa do appear to my American eyes as oppressive, and the idea that a woman would want to be fully covered is foreign to me. I have also never lived in a society where they are seen even occasionally. However, this begs the question, is it my place to make the judgment?

Is it my place to judge what appears oppressive?

Even if it makes me uncomfortable that women wear this, it goes against all my values in free exercise, liberty and civil rights to endorse a ban on the niqab and the burqa. As a feminist who grew up in a different culture than many of those in the Muslim world, I would be lying if I said I thought it did not at least appear repressive.

Not only is it not my place to judge what appears oppressive, it is not the French government’s place either. While I recognize France is trying to be secular, it would be unacceptable to ban Jewish men from wearing kippah or banning sikhs from wearing their turban or iron bracelet. Additionally, I hope that in France, the burqa and the niqab are not imposed against the women’s will, as it was in Afghanistan.

Women who choose this level of piety use the dress to be able to leave their homes.

The burqa ban is actually more oppressive than it is liberating because the law will doubtfully cause these women to stop wearing a burqa or a niqab, and thereby limits their ability to move freely in society while maintaining the same level of piety they formerly enjoyed. Instead, resources and time are used to curb religious freedom and unnecessarily single out these women. Interviews with niqab wearing women in France reveal they do it by their own volition. Similar statements were found in Britain and the U.S.

As I have been struggling to reconcile my feminist views with my view of religious freedom, I looked to the rationale of the law. President Sarkozy’s stated that the niqab was ‘a sign of debasement and subservience.’ However, a strong example of debasement and subservience is shown in the law’s contempt for these women’s rights without real investigation. The French parliament’s inquiry discussing ban lasted six months. The inquiry ultimately recommended the ban be passed. At the inquiry, there were 211 witnesses who  provided testimony on the issue. Only one of the 211 witnesses was a woman who wore a niqab. In fact, she was only permitted to testify after she repeatedly insisted.

The French commission’s report is 658 pages and a total of one paragraph is devoted to this woman’s testimony.

Why did parliament’s extensive inquiry not include the voices of those who would be affected by the law?

This paternalistic view is unacceptable and the answer is that these men in the French government continue to be afraid of what they don’t know- the alien habits of a different culture and gender.

Friends I know who wear the hijab often use it as a fashion statement.

Women all over the world wear scarves by designers such as Christian Dior, Hermes, Gucci, Dolce & Gabbana, Yves Saint-Laurent and Jean-Paul Gaultier to name a few. So why should niqab and burqa be different? The clothing line Arabesque is a collection of sheilas (veils) and abayas (gowns) for Muslim women by Dubai-based French designer Judith Duriez. The collection debuted in 2005, and has continued to expand.

Whether it is or is not a fashion statement is quite another debate.

The law shows itself to be repressive to women’s right to wear what they choose or exercise their religion freely. Though the burqa and niqab are foreign to some of us in the West, the French state has no right to intervene and say what women can or cannot wear. By banning the niqab and burqa, the government is adding fuel to the fire of already rampant French Islamaphobia.

Fear of foreign culture, religion, or dress was the first step in rhetoric that has sad and dangerous history in Western Europe.

This excessive entanglement with religion in the United States has been stricken , and it should be so stricken in France.

**All images taken from **


Leila Levi recently graduated with her Juris Doctor from American University, Washington College of Law, where she studied international human rights law. She works at the Office of Civil Rights at the U.S. Department of Agriculture in Washington, DC. She can be reached at on LinkedIN.



1) National Public Radio
2) Literally, Hijab means “a veil”, “curtain”, “partition” or “separation,” and can refer to modesty in dress. A popular and common meaning of Hijab today is the headscarf dressing for women. This article uses hijab in this common meaning.
3) In 2004, France banned headscarves, Jewish kippa skullcaps and large Christian crosses from primary and secondary school in a law which banned all types of obvious religious symbols in education. Teachers and civil servants, too, could not wear any types of religious symbols to work. As adults, university students could wear headscarves.
4) Muslim Women News
5) Telegraph UK
6) Telegraph UK2
7) Slate
9) DTIC and Religious Liberty TV which struck down a ban on teacher’s religious clothing.

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  1. This article demonstrates a logical way of seeing and evaluating the challenges of civil rights in the 21st Century. Great investigative journalism. It is inexcusable for the French government to have evaluated the implications of the law without substantial testimony of hijab-wearing women! France, like the United States, is mired in hypocrisy when faced with these sorts of problems. The first step to solving issues that involve relations between Western and Islamic cultures is discussion and open discourse.

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