Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and Humanities

The Burqa and the Political Realm

“The presence of others who see what we see and hear what we hear assures us of the reality of the world and ourselves.”

-Hannah Arendt,  The Human Condition

Over the past decade, European public opinion has roiled with controversy over the full face covering – the niqab or burqa - of Muslim women. According to a Pew Global Attitudes Survey, conducted between April 7th and May 8th 2010, the majority of citizens in France, Germany, Britain, and Spain approve of banning veils that cover the whole face. Subsequently, France and Belgium have implemented national laws that ban the full veil in public places.

Municipal bans are sprinkled across Europe as a whole. Is there an Arendtian angle on the discomfiture that one finds in Europe over the niqab and the burqa (hereafter N/B), a properly political angle that avoids pathologizing the response as simply Islamophobic or xenophobic?

Arendt claimed that the word public evokes two “interrelated phenomena”. First:

everything that appears in public can be seen and heard by everybody and has the widest possible publicity. For us, appearance – something that is being seen and heard by others as well as by ourselves – constitutes reality. Compared with the reality which comes from being seen and heard, even the greatest forces of intimate life – the passions of the heart, the thoughts of the mind, the delights of the senses – lead an uncertain, shadowy kind of existence unless and until they are transformed, deprivatized and deindividualized, as it were, into a shape to fit them for public appearance…The presence of others who see what we see and hear what we hear assures us of the reality of the world and ourselves…

The second referent of public is “the world itself, in so far as it is common to all of us and distinguished from our privately owned place in it.”

Arendt captures an idea prominent in Western traditions: the notion, both intuitive and articulated, that being visible to one another is an integral part of politics. This expectation is registered in theories of judgment (consider the role played by the “spectator” in Adam Smith and Kant’s theories of judgment) and in some of our most potent democratic metaphors: enlightenment, openness, transparency, illumination, recognition, social legibility, accountability, “publicity” and, not least, public. Liberals trumpet the virtue of the Open Society and liberalized Marxists idealize the translucent speech-situation. Socialists and radicals extol debunking, the heir of Rousseau’s crusade to remove the “deceitful veil of politeness” which conceals “fear, coldness, reserve, hate, and fraud”. Negating these images are opacity, the Dark Ages, the dark arts, dark times, heart of darkness, artifice, living in the closet, a shadowy realm, cave-like illusion,  Stygian gloom, moral blindness, the id, concealment, inscrutability, subterfuge, murkiness, obscurantism, and backroom deals - notions which variously imply various states of ignorance, menace and deceit. True, prominent French intellectuals of the last century sought to demote vision’s status in the pantheon of sensibility, while conservatives still remain attached to the “decent drapery of life” (Burke). Yet these perspectives have done little to impede the centrality of seeing within the Western, Apollonian political aesthetic.

This formulation suggests what is discordant about the N/B’s existence in the Western political space. While for its bearer the N/B may be understood as a badge of tradition and piety, from the standpoint of a constitutional pluralist citizenry it is a mode of concealment incompatible with public recognition in which visibility of face is central. The N/B denudes facial and, to a degree, vocal recognition. It standardizes human features and hence contributes to the very stereotyping that N/B wearers themselves deplore.  Faces and voices are all different, evidence of human plurality. The N/B literally effaces these variations, with the partial exception of the eyes that may sometimes be seen. The N/B also symbolically ruptures the bond of citizenship reciprocity because while its wearer can see her real or potential interlocutor, can take advantage of the visibility of others, non-wearers are denied such access.

Consider two objections to this line of reasoning.

Users of the Internet are often obscured from view and no one assumes that their being invisible is uncitizenly.  Indeed, under some definitions of politics, the internet might be considered the quintessentially modern medium of political life: informing the public of political events, orchestrating voting, requesting or inciting people to participate in demonstrations, directing attention to abuses of rule, mobilizing citizens for collective action.  Search engines like Google ever more assume traditional government functions. Its engineers claim that the company’s predictions of flu epidemics and employment trends are already more accurate than those of the Centers for Disease Control and the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Even so, in Western societies the Internet is an ancillary to public display not a substitute for it, a tool to expand communication, rather than an obstacle to constrict it. Computer webcams are employed between interactants and in web chat rooms; interviews of foreign job applicants conducted via Skype grow daily in popularity. And it is no coincidence that the world’s most prominent social networking site is called Facebook. Moreover, where Internet use takes place without face recognition (as with email or instant messaging) it typically does so reciprocally: both users are in the same position and hence issues of visibility imbalance and citizen asymmetry do not arise.

A second objection to the claim that N/B attire in public places is uncitizenly turns the tables on the author: it draws on the Graeco-Roman tradition itself, the origins of Western notions of citizenship. In that tradition, being a public person was considered a kind of theatricality in which an agent adopts a persona, a mask. But the comparison between the N/B and the persona is superficial and not only because one mask is made of cloth while another is a metaphor. In antiquity, the function of persona was not to conceal public visibility but precisely to do the opposite: to shine the light of the ­polis on the political actor, to dramatize the fact that the individual had entered the public stage and that, as such, had left the private world of intimacy so as to consort freely with his peers and deliberate on political affairs. The political persona was, then, an addition to, or rather a rupture with, private life, not a replication or extension of it, a vehicle of distinction, not a mantle contrived to expunge from public view the unique personality of the woman beneath its folds. Politics, in Western traditions, entails a split within the being that engages in it, the construction of a second self: as an equal of others who are familial strangers bound together by the common tie of citizenship; a self able to cooperate with these strangers, to “see” things from multiple points of view and be seen seeing.

The N/B, however, is not a fictive mask designed to open up its wearer to the public recognition of peers acting in concert or in conflict; it is a carapace projected into the public space, a material mask that signals exclusivity, an emblem of segmental occlusion, of what Durkheim, discussing the primacy of resemblance in tribal societies, called the politico-familial.

Nor is the N/B artificial or dualistic. On the contrary, it signifies Sharia’s total claim on the individual in all her activities, the type of claim that the public-private distinction expressly repudiates. It transpires that the classical concept of the mask and the N/B have nothing substantively in common.

These brief reflections, prompted by my reading of Arendt, are not a rationale for banning the full veil but they do allow us to think of the European response to it in a political way. Readers who are interested in the more extensive argument that Dan Gordon (UMass Amherst) and I have developed on this topic, contrasting American and European legal regimes, may wish to read our “On the Edge of Solidarity: The Burqa and Public Life,” and “From the headscarf to the burqa: the role of social theorists in shaping laws against the veil,” Economy and Society 2012 (forthcoming).

-Peter Baehr, Lingnan University Hong Kong


Thinking through the Human Condition: Arendt and Anthropology

Modern secular-liberal sensibilities commonly presume that a fundamental opposition exists between freedom and authority, and they often equate freedom with autonomy of the will. That is, they associate freedom with an individual’s capacity to exercise a form of independent self-governance that does not bow to political dictates, religious injunctions, and other social constraints.

Hannah Arendt takes issue with this conception in her essay “What is Freedom?” Among her other objections, she insists that such a preoccupation with the autonomous will leads us to equate freedom with sovereignty (rather than, as in her argument, with the human penchant for making beginnings and bringing novelty into the world). “Within the conceptual framework of traditional philosophy,” she writes, “it is indeed very difficult to understand how freedom and non-sovereignty can exist together or, to put it another way, how freedom could have been given to men under the condition of non-sovereignty” (The Portable Hannah Arendt, p. 455).

Although Arendt had something somewhat different in mind, her remark aptly addresses many of the issues raised by recent anthropological work on the Islamic revival, including Mayanthi Fernando’s research on pious Muslim women in France. As Fernando relates in “Reconfiguring Freedom,” a 2010 article that appeared in American Ethnologist, many Muslim women regard their piety as an expression of their desire for a full and authentic relationship with God. On the one hand, they assert that they seek this relationship voluntarily and on the basis of their own reasoned convictions, not because it has been imposed on them by imams or male relatives. In this respect, they invoke a sense of personal autonomy that resonates with French secular-liberal sensibilities. 

On the other hand, these women regard their pious practices, including their adoption of the headscarf, as the means to realize true ethical selfhood through, rather than against, the authority of the Islamic tradition. In their understanding, veiling and other forms of Islamic devotion are not optional signs of their faith, but necessary and even obligatory modes of cultivating a Muslim subjectivity.


While the believer decides to pray, fast, and veil, she is also guided by authoritative texts and arguments that prescribe the norms to be adopted. In the process, these women “subtly but fundamentally reconfigure secular notions of personal autonomy and modern religiosity such that normative religious authority and inner, individual desire are not constituted by a relationship of opposition, but rather are inextricably linked” (Fernando, p. 26). They thereby challenge the notion that freedom is necessarily located within, and enacted by, a sovereign self.       

Significantly, this conception and practice of devotion is largely unintelligible within French law and wider public discourse. French legal thought draws a basic distinction between the believer’s “inner” conscience and the “outward” manifestation of that conscience, and it insists that limitations on the public expression of religious conviction do not fundamentally violate constitutionally guaranteed rights to religious liberty. This distinction was central to the 2004 law that banned the headscarf and other “conspicuous religious signs” in French public schools, but as I have already suggested, many French Muslim women (and men) do not regard their pious practices as merely contingent and dispensable expressions of their religious beliefs.

At the same time, secular-liberal critics of veiling continue to presume that the notion of religious obligation negates any claim that a pious practice is (also) the result of personal desire and decision-making. In this perspective, “individually inspired choices emerge in the absence of authority (religious or otherwise), and religious obligations (or ‘requirements’) are understood as non-autonomous behavior defined and compelled by normative authority” (Fernando, p. 27). Such an understanding fails to acknowledge many Muslim women’s avowal that they are genuinely following their conscience in a manner that aligns with secular-liberal sensibilities. Moreover, in its more pointed formulations, this conception presumes that women who veil limit other (non-veiling) women’s autonomy by effectively pressuring them to conform to authoritative religious norms.

In the face of such entrenched skepticism, many Muslim opponents of the 2004 law have sought to defend veiling as a matter of women’s personal choice and individual freedom. They have also avoided most references to religious obligation for fear of being disqualified from public debate as a “fundamentalist.”                   

To my mind, the preceding discussion illustrates the ongoing relevance of Arendt’s thought, but it also suggests that we should read her work with care. After all, she contends in her essay “What is Authority?” that the modern world has witnessed the thorough-going breakdown of established forms of religion, tradition, and authority. This claim is not borne out in Fernando’s work: indeed, many French Muslims continue to orient their lives toward a tradition “[handed] down from one generation to the next [through] the testimony of the ancestors, who first had witnessed and created the sacred founding and then augmented it by their authority through the centuries” (The Portable Hannah Arendt, p. 488).

This passage actually refers to the relationship the ancient Romans adopted toward the establishment of Rome and their defining body politic. But the thought relates remarkably well to Muslim understandings of the Prophet Muhammad’s revelation as the founding event of Islam as well as its later elaboration in the sunna, hadith, and other bodies of commentary. In the end, the Islamic revival in France and other countries reveals many Muslims’ active commitment to a mode of religious authority that rests, in Arendt’s words, on “an obedience in which men retain their freedom” (The Portable Hannah Arendt, p. 474). Such authority has not dissolved in the crucible of modernity. It has only been resituated and redefined.

-Jeff Jurgens