Banning Burqas: A Preliminary Examination of the Bans on Hijab in Europe
Islamic religious law requires women to preserve their modesty (Q 24:31). To some, that means to wear looser fitting clothing and cover their hair when praying. To others it means to cover their hair at all times. And to others still, it means to cover the body from head to toe in a burqa–a very loose-fitting dress that allows only a woman’s eyes to be seen by men.
I am not a scholar of Islam–I study Hinduism and women in India. So while focus on Hindu women, I also read about Muslim women in South Asia, particularly those of Indian, Pakistani, or Bangla (Bangladesh) origin. As such, my specific vocabulary regarding Islamic dress was limited to the salwaar kameez and headscarf of Northern India. (Which conservative Hindu women consider more revealing than the saris they wear, despite exposing their midriffs.) There are differences between some of the terms that I’m using. Hijab is the general term for Islamic dress, ranging from headscarves to complete covering. A burqa shows only a woman’s eyes, and is considered the most conservative dress. Headscarves cover only the hair, though generally cover it completely. From what I can tell, the “veil” can refer either to the headscarf or to a full face covering, though typically means something that covers all but the eyes as well. Jilab is the Indonesian term for another type of full length garment that covers all but the hands, feet, and face, but has more shaping to it than a burqa. The salwaar kameez is pants with a long, usually loose, tunic (no head no head covering).
In 2004, the French government passed a law that made it illegal for Muslim women to wear headscarves (along with any other conspicuous religious symbols) in state schools. As of yet, no country bans the full veil nationwide. Eight of sixteen German states prohibit the veil to some extent, and Berlin prohibits all religious symbols in public. Some states will permit nuns’ habits, but not head scarves for Islamic teachers. In the past, the United Kingdom has ruled that cases are met on an individual basis concerning circumstance and does not seem to support a full ban. However, on March 30, 2010, the Belgian Justice and Home Affairs Committee voted to send a bill banning burqas nationwide to the full parliament. Parliament will vote on this bill on April 22, and it is expected to pass, enacting a €15-25 fine and a possible 1-7 days in jail.
On the heels of the committee vote in Belgium, President Nicolas Sarkozy announced France’s interest in expanding the 2004 restrictions to include a ban on the full Muslim veil.
At the center of the controversy lies two opposing political mindsets: one argues that the veil debases women and the other states that the veil allows those allied with extremist Islamasist groups to hide their identities and commit acts of terror. Somewhere between those two, Belgium cites the latter more frequently, but according the article posted above, Reformist Movement lawmaker Denis Ducarme says the veils oppose the “demands of a modern society” and “demands of public security.” (Quoting the article, not Durcarme.) The French government lies on the other end of the spectrum, claiming their wishes for women’s rights, freedoms, and liberties, within a secular society.
I missed the news of the Belgian vote because I was reading so much about the Pope and the Catholic priests and sex scandals, but I’m surprised that more attention has been directed towards Sarkozy’s address to Parliament than to the Belgian law. But according to a Wall Street Journal article by John W. Miller, most of the 400,000 Muslims living in Belgium are from Morocco or Turkey, where veils are rarely worn. And according to another WSJ article by Peter Berkowitz, the French Parliament isn’t likely to pass as such a bill would be difficult to enforce and probably unconstitutional.
But Belgium and France alike, politicians are making claims that this will benefit Islamic women: “‘To forbid the veil as a covering is to give [Muslim women] more freedom. I’m proud Belgium is the first country to do that,’ [Liberal Party head Daniel] Bacquelaine says,” in an NPR piece. Of course, Muslim women do not all agree. For them there are two sides. Many women choose to wear the veil themselves, as a symbol of their religion, and are proud of their choice. Other women are forced by male relatives to adopt more conservative dress, as was the case with Shabina Begum, a British Muslim of Bangla descent, cited above. (In Middle Eastern countries, such as Saudi Arabia, women are required to wear hijab at all times except during Hajj, but no European country has required hijab since the fall of the Ottoman Empire.) When Shabina Begum began wearing a jilab instead of the school uniform salwaar kameez, her classmates allegedly feared that their families would also require them to wear jilab. Belgium ministers hope to prevent the domination of men over women by banning veils.
Does the ban, either the French or Belgian version, actually protect women? Does it really liberate them? Or is it Big Brother State governing the personal rights and religious rights of the people? And most importantly is this infringing on the right of freedom of religion in a secular society? Any ban on headscarves in the US would very likely prove unconstitutional under the First Amendment, but in the UK in the case of Shabina Begum, the House of Lords ruled that the freedom of religion is a right, but “Freedom to manifest one’s religion or beliefs shall be subject only to such limitations as are prescribed by law and are necessary in a democratic society . . . for the protection of the rights and freedoms of others,” as stated in Article 9 of the Convention. And according to Lord Bingham of Cornhill of the House of Lords, “article 9 protects both the right to hold a belief, which is absolute, and a right to manifest belief, which is qualified.” (Emphasis mine.)
I know almost nothing about the constitutions of European countries, so beyond speculations comparing them to the US, I cannot speak to the legality of a ban. From the perspective of someone who studies and respects religions, I find it hard to accept a ban. (Constitutionally though, if all religious symbols are banned from public, then burqas could be banned without a legal issue, I’m guessing. But no religion could be exempt from the ban.) From the perspective of a feminist, it becomes even more complicated. This isn’t the same as a Sikh wearing a turban. Women don’t simply wear burqas because their religion prescribes them; they wear them because their religion mandates a separation of the sexes and relegates women to a lower class. By giving women no public identity, they are made less than human, and according to secular governments, cannot participate in society. I’m outraged on the one hand that women are required to go faceless, but on the other hand (again, from a feminist and not religionist perspective) furious that women cannot be given these choices on their own. When the government demands–even charges jail time–that they cannot wear a veil is that not the same force of oppression through which their relatives make them wear it?
Sadly, this post contains no real answers. I’m writing it to spark more conversation. Or am I the only one struggling for words when it comes to the rights of women, religious or otherwise? I look forward to comments, and hope to write a followup piece once the vote takes place in Belgium.