In 2010, the French ban of the niqab (also known as the burqa or face veil) worn by Muslim women underscored an alarming trend of Islamophobia, now dubbed “burqaphobia,” that has resurged in Europe. The niqab debate in Europe is merely a symptom of a greater ailment afflicting various Western societies: fear of Islam. Throughout the region, Islam manifests itself in various cultural and ethno-religious ways and there is no denying a rising number of Muslim populations in the region through immigration and higher birth rates. The reactions to these changes have been resoundingly similar: legal prohibitions. Today, European public officials offer various justifications for dictating what Muslim women should or should not wear, including security issues, women’s rights, integration of Muslim communities and maintaining democratic values.
However, implementing discriminatory restrictions on Muslims does little to promote democracy, integration, empowerment or security, as policymakers claim. Rather, it only serves to fan the flames of intolerance and alienate local Muslim populations. Meanwhile, all citizens’ religious freedoms are at risk so long as Muslim women’s right to wear the burqa in accordance to their belief remains under threat throughout Europe.
In 2009, French President Nicolas Sarkozy said the burqa was not welcomed in France and went so far as to describe it as a “prison behind a screen.” The niqab is considered by many as antithetical to French culture and values. In September 2010, the French parliament passed legislation banning the face veil. This ban effectively denies any woman wearing a niqab access to hospitals, buses, welfare offices, supermarkets and other public facilities. The law imposes a fine of 150 Euros (about $200) to anyone who wears the veil. They must also go through a citizenship course as punishment. Those who force women to wear the veil will be punished with a year in prison or a 15,000 Euro (about $20,000) fine. Of course, this law affects only a small population of Muslim women. Of the 5 million Muslims in France, only an estimated 2,000 women don the full veil. But the issue of the niqab gave French politicians a cause to rally around and unify their political base. It also exposed their underlying fears of the growing number of Muslims within the French borders, now estimated at 5 percent of the population. Islam is also France’s No. 2 religion.
According to a survey by the Pew Research Center’s Global Attitudes Project, 82 percent of the French public supports the ban. Certainly, local Muslim leaders oppose the ban but their voices are often muted amid the ramblings of politicians and pundits. Nonetheless, some protesters have come up with creative ways to oppose the ban. One French protester’s tactic has gained much notice. Princess Hijab (religious affiliation unknown), an anonymous graffiti artist, has been spray-painting black hijabs and niqabs on women featured on billboards and posters on the streets of Paris. Her work, which she dubbs “hijabisation” or “niqabisation,” has gotten the attention of the international media. She chooses a billboard, stealthily sprays it and takes a picture, which she uploads online. She had a Facebook page that the social networking site has since removed. She told the Guardian newspaper that her graffiti is a challenge to society to better recognize minority rights.
“If it was only about the burqa ban, my work wouldn’t have a resonance for very long. But I think the burqa ban has given a global visibility to the issue of integration in France,” she told the newspaper. “We definitely can’t keep closing off and putting groups in boxes, always reducing them to the same old questions about religion or urban violence. Education levels are better and we can’t have the old Manichean discourse anymore.”
Meanwhile, two French students protested the ban by donning the top head-totorso portion of the black burqa and wearing high heels and daisy duke spandex shorts underneath. They videotaped themselves walking down French streets and recording people’s reactions. Their video, Niqabitch, has been posted on YouTube. But a few flamboyant French protesters do not make for a mass opposition movement. French society has long taken pride in its culture and democratic values. Despite these ideals, it may take many more years and many more Muslim protesters in that country before the French truly live by their national motto: “Liberté, égalité, fraternité.”
British Secretary of State and Chancellor Jack Straw publicly apologized for comments he made about the niqab in 2006. On numerous occasions, he said Muslim women should not cover their faces. When asked if he would support a ban on face veils, Straw stated, “Yes. It needs to be made clear I am not talking about being prescriptive, but with all the caveats, yes, I would rather.”
In April 2010, Straw apologized for his comments, saying:
“To be blunt, if I had realized the scale of publicity that they (his comments) received in October 2006, I wouldn’t have made them and I am sorry that it has caused problems and I offer that apology. Can I just say, this is about an issue of communication (you understand). I wasn’t raising it to say it (the burqa) should be banned – quite the opposite. Let me say, I’m not responsible for those in France or Germany or in this country pursuing this. That is their business. I am fundamentally opposed to what they are doing. But if you ask me the specific question: Do I regret the fact that it (my comments) had then got taken round the world and taken out of context? Yes of course I do and I go on seeing people – Muslim women, wearing the full veil in my constituency/advice surgery. I wouldn’t dream of treating them other than with respect and I think they know from me that I do give them respect and I give them as much help as I give anybody else whatever their faith. And I am really glad to have had that opportunity to clear that up.”
This came after a Muslim high school student, Shabina Begum, sued her school for not allowing her to wear a jilbab, a long loose robe, to school rather than the traditional shalwar kameez uniform given to Muslim girls. She lost the suit despite the fact that her defense lawyer was Cherie Booth, the wife of then Prime Minister Tony Blair. In 2006, after they won the case on appeal, the House of Lords overturned the decision saying the school had already “taken immense pains to devise a uniform policy which respected Muslim beliefs,” noting that Begum could have gone to other schools that allowed the jilbab. There are an estimated 1.5 million Muslims in Britain.
In April 2010, the Lower House of Parliament voted to ban the burqa and the measure still needs Senate approval. Under the proposed law, women wearing the burqa would face a fine of 250 Euros and up to a week in jail. Belgians have been among the most vocal about their opposition to the face veil. Efforts to ban the burqa began as early as 2004, when the Belgian interior minister drafted a standard ban of the face veil and sent it to the more than 300 municipalities in Flanders to adopt voluntarily. Six have implemented the all out ban. In 2009, Brussels fined 29 Muslim women for wearing the burqa. According to the BBC, only about 30 women in Belgium wear the full veil out of a population of 500,000 Muslims.
In May 2010, one Swiss canton proposed a ban on the burqa, claiming that it prevents integration into Swiss society. This, despite the fact that only an estimated 100 women wear the niqab in Switzerland. In November 2009, 58 percent of Swiss citizens voted in favor of a referendum to ban the building of mosque minarets in the country. Among a population of some 7.5 million, there are an estimated 400,000 Muslims in Switzerland and seven minarets.
In December 2010, the Catalonian town of Llieda became the first in the country to ban face coverings in municipal buildings. Whoever repeatedly violates this law will be fined 600 Euroes (about $800). The town’s mayor, Angel Ros, explained the rationale behind the prohibition to Agence France-Presse: “I believe the burqa and the hijab, as well as similar garments that completely cover the face, are an attack against equality between men and women, they are an attack against women’s dignity.”
An estimated 5.7 million Muslims live in Spain, which has a population of 47 million people.
Last year, Silvana Koch-Mehrin, a member of Germany’s Free Democratic Party and vice president of the European Parliament, called for a Europe-wide ban on the face veil.
In an editorial outlining her position, Koch-Mehrin argued that, “The burqa is a massive attack on the rights of women. It is a mobile prison.”
Sixteen German states have some sort of restriction on the hijab. In 2003, the German federal court ruled that states have the right to ban teachers from wearing the hijab in schools. In Baden-Württemberg, Muslim women in headscarves are banned from teaching in classrooms. Women in burqas or chadors are prohibited from driving vehicles for safety reasons. There are an estimated 3.5 million Muslims living in Germany.
In December 2010, Home Affairs Minister Piet Hein Donner drafted legislation for a ban on full face veils, which will be debated in 2011. The Dutch country has debated the issue since 2003, when two women were prevented from entering a college wearing the burqa because the dress violated the school’s clothing policy. One woman had her veil forcibly removed, drawing international media attention. The country’s Equality Commission sided with the school and enforced the ban. Since then, calls for a nationwide burqa ban have continued. A 2007 poll indicated that 66 percent of the local population supported such a prohibition.
Of course, this is the country that produced Ayaan Hirsi Ali, a Somali-Dutch feminist who is a fierce critic of Islam. In 2002, after renouncing Islam and becoming an atheist, she began actively writing papers critical of the religion. She was elected into the Dutch parliament in 2003 only to be forced to resign due to questions about her citizenship. Hirsi Ali wrote the screenplay for Theo Van Gogh’s highly controversial and anti-Muslim short film, “Submission,” which features naked women with verses of the Qur’an written on their bodies. Her anti-Islam rhetoric took root in the country and beyond. She continues her criticism from the United States, where she is a fellow for the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank in Washington, D.C.
THE DEBATE GOES ON
Last year, proposals for a burqa ban were also introduced in parts of Sweden, Italy, Norway and as far away as Canada. The debate over banning the niqab in Europe will likely continue for many years. How governments address the issue remains to be seen but all signs point to further legal prohibitions similar to France’s law.
However, amid all the burqaphobia, there is a glimmer of hope coming out of Vatican City. In November 2010, the Vatican came out against the French face veil ban. Pope Benedict XVI is reported as saying, “As far as the burqa is concerned, I do not see a reason for a general ban. Some women do not wear the burqa entirely voluntarily and it is correct to talk of a violation against that woman. Of course one cannot agree with that. But if they want to wear it voluntarily, I don’t know why one must ban them.”
Neither do I. §
Souheila Al-Jadda is a Peabody award-winning producer and journalist. She produced the Who Speaks for Islam? series on Link TV. She is the Senior Editor for The Islamic Monthly.