Here’s What Research Has to Say About Muslim Women Wearing Burqas

Surveys of burqa-wearers around Europe shed light on why some might choose burkinis.
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Surveys of burqa-wearers around Europe shed light on why some might choose burkinis.
Profile photo of the head of a woman wearing a burkini swimsuit

A Muslim model displays a burkini swimsuit.

In the wake of several terrorist attacks earlier this year, French Mediterranean cities began banning “ostentatiously ... religious” beachwear from their sands for the summer. Internet users around the world got to see this week what a so-called “burkini ban” looks like in action, when a photograph of police reprimanding a covered-up Muslim beachgoer in Nice went viral.

Since their creation, the Riviera’s burkini bans have been mired in controversy. French politicians have variously said burkinis represent radicalized Islam and “the enslavement of women,” the Guardian reports. Meanwhile, women who have written publicly about wearing burqas, including burkini inventor Aheda Zanetti, say they do so out of their own choice. What does the research say?

While we did not immediately find any studies of burkini-wearers, there have been several small surveys done of those who don non-aquatic burqas in Europe. The surveys were conducted between 2009 and 2011, as countries considered — or passed — bans on burqas and face veils. Some studies were commissioned by governments, some were conceived of by university researchers, and still others were conducted by the Open Society Foundations, a group that opposes burqa bans as discriminatory. Human-rights law researcher Eva Brems summarizes the evidence in her book, The Experiences of Face Veil Wearers in Europe and the Law. From the book, and from an Open Society Foundations report on 32 French burqa-wearers, we learned some surprising facts about those who choose to veil their faces:

  1. Burqa-wearers aren’t necessarily recent immigrants from Muslim-majority countries. It’s impossible to know how representative these surveys are, but, interestingly, most of the interviewees in Brems’ book were either European-born or had lived in Europe for most of their lives. Many were recent converts to Islam.
  2. All interviewees said they freely chose to veil their faces. Some did so against the wishes of their Muslim parents and husbands, who worried face-covering was too extreme and would prevent the women from getting jobs or, worse yet, expose them to abuse from the public. “In relation to my father, up until today I still wear it secretly [from him],” one 20-year-old Parisian told Open Society Foundations researcher Naima Bouteldja. “My mother, al hamdullilah [praise God], used to strongly disagree with it. She thought it was excessive.” Parents and spouses weren’t wrong to worry about street harassment. Nineteen of Bouteldja’s interviewees reported being publicly insulted “often” or “every time” they went out. Harassers tended to be white, middle-aged French women, but some were of Arab descent, who would say burqa-wearers gave French Muslims a bad reputation. All interviewees believed the burqa debate made harassment worse.
  3. There’s a real religious devotion associated with choosing the face veil. “It’s the highest degree, the highest level for a woman,” a 29-year-old Parisian told Bouteldja. “In other words, it’s just your Lord and yourself with no mediation. You live for your Lord.” Bouteldja’s interviewees also reported they were dismayed when Muslim leaders said face-covering wasn’t required by Islam.
  4. Burqa bans seemed to encourage some women to wear the garment. “It was the controversy that put a flea in my ear,” a 24-year-old told Bouteldja. Others began researching burqas after seeing them pop up in news reports. In the wake of the recent burkini conflicts, Zanetti has reported a 200 percent increase in sales for her company.