The current development in Europe over an issue that seems split between religion and social value may unwittingly be opening another frontier of clash for Islamic fanatics against societies across the globe. Led by France, Belgium and Netherland, European countries, in their pursuit of defence of human rights, are planning to ban wearing of hijab in public. This is already generating controversy and heated debates in Europe and in other countries of the world. SEGUN OTOKITI finds what the controversies are and what the ban is likely to generate among the global human communities.
In recent months, several European governments have begun to legislate restrictions on both the niqab, a face veil that leaves the area around the eyes clear and is usually combined with a full body covering, and the burqa, which covers the entire face and body, leaving just a mesh screen to see through. On 29 April, Belgium became the first European country to impose a nationwide ban on wearing a full face veil in public.
According to a report by Mehdi Hasan, Senior Editor (Politics) of the New Statesman, a European tabloid, the legislation in Belgium does not specifically mention veils, the BBC’s Dominic Hughes in Brussels says. Everyone should be free to express themselves the way they want according to their conviction and religion. Instead, it says the ban applies to clothing that hides someone’s identity in public places such as parks, buildings and on the street. Anyone who ignores the ban would face a fine of 15-25 euros (£13-£21; $20-34) and/or a jail sentence of up to seven days, unless they have police permission to wear such garments.
Supporters of the bill - which has cross-party support - say it is necessary as a security measure, to allow police to correctly identify people. Stefaan van Heck, an MP with the Belgian Green Party, said it was also important for social integration. “If you want good integration and good communication between all the many different communities we have in Brussels, it’s important that we see each other when we can speak to each other,” he argued.
It’s a similar story in other European countries, but the anti-burqa cause is spreading. France, Italy and the Netherlands are also considering nationwide bans. In the Netherlands several draft laws concerning the wearing of the veil are in the making, including a measure which would ban the garment for teachers and another for civil servants.
In Denmark the government is currently discussing the possibility of limiting wearing of the veil in public places, including school and courts. It is awaiting the opinion of a government commission before deciding.
In Italy a 1975 law, aimed at protecting public order, makes it illegal to cover one’s face in public places. The provision applies equally to the veil and motorcycle helmets. Some mayors from the anti-immigrant Northern League have banned the wearing of the full veil, and the Muslim swimsuit, locally.
In Britain the education ministry in March 2007 published directives allowing directors of public establishments and denominational schools to ban the Niqab, after several high-profile court cases.
In Austria Social Democratic Women’s Minister Gabriele Heinisch-Hosek launched the debate recently and is mulling a ban on the full veil in public spaces if the number of women veiled from head to toe increases dramatically.
In Belgium numerous districts ban the full veil in public places under local laws and police ban the wearing of masks in the street except during the period of carnival.
In a speech at the Palace of Versailles last year June, Nicolas Sarkozy, French president, said the burqa was “a sign of subservience” and that “it’s not welcome” in France. He said the full veils “do not pose a problem in a religious sense, but threaten the dignity of women”. And in line with the President’s interest, the French National Assembly passed a non-binding resolution condemning the face veil as “an affront to the nation’s values of dignity and equality”, and the French cabinet has approved a bill making it illegal to wear clothing designed to cover the face in public.
And the penalties in France is much higher than in Belgium. The fine for a first offence will be €150 (£130). And a man who is found to have forced a woman to wear a full-length veil by “violence or threats” will be punished with a fine of €15,000 and face imprisonment. The crackdown on the veil has come from the very top of the political establishment, with President Nicolas Sarkozy declaring that the burqa is “not welcome” in France and denouncing it as a symbol of female “subservience and debasement”.
But the proposal has provoked intense debate in France about religious freedom in a secular society, as well as the position of Muslims in France. It has also created storms of protest all over the world among Muslim communities. The country’s highest administrative body, the State Council, has however suggested such a law might be unconstitutional.
The veil is banned by French law since 2004 from primary and secondary school classrooms but still permitted in public spaces such as universities and hospitals. The reason of the ban was to control religious symbols in schools. The French security services estimate that 2,000 of the roughly two million adult Muslim women in France - 0.1 per cent - wear the full face veil, and a third of them are thought to be converts to Islam. Yet the French are planning “emergency legislation” to ban the burqa and niqab before the country’s legislators go on their summer holiday this month.
Such has been the hysteria that controversy and debate on the veil has stirred that Europe has been hit by “burqa rage”. On 15 May, a Muslim woman leaving a shoe shop in Trignac, near Saint-Nazaire on the west coast of France, is said to have overheard a 60-year-old woman lawyer making “snide remarks about her black burqa”. The 26-year-old Muslim convert later described to reporters how “things got nasty. The older woman grabbed my veil to the point of ripping it off.” The two women allegedly traded blows before being separated by shop assistants and were then arrested by the police.
An officer close to the case said: “The lawyer said she was not happy seeing a fellow shopper wearing a veil and wanted the ban introduced as soon as possible.” She is also said to have likened the Muslim woman to Belphegor, a mythical demon who frequently covers up his hideous features using a mask.
Yet the proposed ban may, in fact, be unconstitutional. The Council of State, France’s highest legal and administrative authority, warned in March that “a general and absolute ban on the full veil as such can have no incontestable judicial basis”, and that it could be rejected by the courts for violating both national law and the European Convention on Human Rights. As the Moroccan-American academic Laila Lalami, who has written extensively on the politics of the veil, pointed out: “The societies that already have coercive laws - Iran and Saudi Arabia, for example, which force women to wear headscarves, Turkey and Tunisia, which forbid women to wear face veils - are not known for respect of human rights.”
So, why pursue it? Polls suggest that a ban is popular, and Sarkozy’s personal poll rating is at an all-time low. For François Hollande, the former head of the French Socialist Party, “the tactic is clear. It’s about getting back a hold of a part of the electorate which has in part retreated into abstention or voting for the far right.”
For Fouad Lahssaini, a Green MP in Belgium who emigrated there from Morocco as a youth, passing a ban on the face veil is like “taking out a bazooka to kill a fly”.
About 215 women “at most” in Belgium wear the veil, according to Edouard Delruelle, co-director of the Belgian Institute for Equal Opportunities. Others put the number as low as 30, out of an estimated Muslim population of just over 600,000 and a total Belgian population of 10.8 million.
These arguments notwithstanding, support for a ban cuts across the left-right divide. In Belgium, the idea was first proposed by the Flemish far right; in France, it was pushed by a communist mayor. On the right, the veil is seen as a threat to European and in particular Christian culture; a symbol of a foreign, belligerent faith.
On the left, it is seen as a repressive garment that subjugates women and violates their rights. But it is argued that not every Muslim woman is forced, under threat of violence, to wear the veil by a husband, father or brother; some wear the niqab or burqa as a matter of choice.
Despite the ban being canvassed by both left and right as a measure to liberate oppressed Muslim women, it is opposed by leading human rights groups. “At a time when Muslims in Europe feel more vulnerable than ever, the last thing needed is a ban like this,” said Judith Sunderland of Human Rights Watch on 21 April. “Treating pious Muslim women like criminals won’t help integrate them.” The irony of using the threat of prison to free women from the so-called prison of the burqa is not lost on Muslim commentators, either. “The Belgians have a funny idea of liberation,” says the British Muslim writer and activist Myriam François-Cerrah: “criminalising women in order to free them.”
Amnesty International has condemned the Belgian move as “an attack on religious freedom”, and Sunderland has said that “restrictions on women wearing the veil in public life are as much a violation of the rights of women as is forcing them to wear a veil”. The award-winning Iranian graphic novelist Marjane Satrapi, an outspoken critic of the veil, agrees. “It is surely a basic human right that someone can choose what she wears without interference from the state,” she wrote.
In his report, Hasan claims he’s not defending a ban and says he agrees with the 100 or so imams and Muslim religious advisers from 40 different countries at a recent conference in Vienna organised by the Islamic Religious Authority in Austria, who concluded that Islam does not make it a requirement for women to wear face veils. After all, the face veil is mentioned nowhere in the Quran, nor is there a Quranic injunction to cover the face.
According to him, even in the traditions, or hadith, of the Prophet Muhammad, there is no explicit command for Muslim women to cover their faces - only their hair. In fact, Muslim women are forbidden from offering the five daily prayers and from going on the Hajj - the religious pilgrimage to Mecca - if their faces are covered.
Mohammad Marmaduke Pickthall, the renowned English convert to Islam and translater of the Quran, observed in his 1925 lecture “The Relation of the Sexes” that the veiling of the face by women was “not originally an Islamic custom. It was prevalent in many cities of the East before the coming of Islam, but not in the cities of Arabia.” Muslim leaders adopted the face veil for their women, he said, “when they entered the cities of Syria, Mesopotamia, Persia and Egypt. It was once a concession to the prevailing custom and was a protection to their women from misunderstanding by peoples accustomed to associate unveiled faces with loose character . . . It has nothing to do with the religion of Islam, and, for practical reasons, it has never been adopted by the great majority of Muslim women.”
Hasan says his own Muslim wife, of Indian origin but born and brought up in the United States, wears a headscarf (but not a face veil). “She made the decision to wear the hijab at the age of 25, and it was a spiritual, not a political or cultural choice. I accept that, for many Muslim women, covering their face is not a choice, but is a ban the best response? There are many reasons to believe it is self-defeating,” he argues.
For a start, state-imposed bans will poison relations between Muslims and non-Muslims even further. Bans often encourage defiance. In the words of the atheist writer Shikha Dalmia, of the Los Angeles-based Reason Foundation, “this law can’t help but inflame French Muslims, not encourage them to assimilate. Besieged minorities after all tighten - not loosen - their grip on their ways.”
During Britain’s own row over the veil in 2006, which was prompted by the then cabinet minister Jack Straw’s revelation that he had insisted Muslim women remove their face veils at his constituency surgeries in Blackburn, Islamic clothing stores across the north-west of England reported a rise in sales of niqabs, burqas and other veils. One Muslim teenager I later met told me it had been Straw’s remarks that prompted her to switch from wearing the hijab to the niqab.
Then there is the matter of enforcement. How will a ban work in practice? Will wealthy tourists from Gulf states also be prevented from wearing the niqab or the burqa as they shop along the Champs-Élysées? Or should the ban be limited to public buildings? If so, why the need for new legislation when a law already exists banning conspicuous religious symbols from public places such as hospitals and schools? Even Jean-Marie Le Pen’s Islamophobic National Front has questioned the need for new legislation, saying “it should simply be a police regulation”.
Most damningly, there is early evidence that a ban on the face veil could serve further to isolate and seclude the marginalised Muslim women whom it is supposed to help liberate. In Italy, at the end of April, Tunisian-born Amel Marmouri became the first woman to be fined for wearing a face veil when she was stopped outside a post office in the city of Novara. Marmouri was fined €500 - and her husband has said he will now ensure she stays at home so that she never again has to venture out without her veil.
Other opponents of the move point out that only tiny percentages of Muslim women wear such veils and that banning them risks isolating the women concerned and fuelling anger within the Muslim community.
01 August 2010, Nigerian Compass