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Fear Factor: Europe bans the burqa

Face-covering prohibitions in Europe are typically passed on the basis of three arguments: security, women’s rights and secularism. Rational as they may seem, these arguments do not stand up to scrutiny.
Herman Salton
8 November 2010

Fear has become the defining trait of contemporary Europe. A savage financial crisis, a single currency in disarray, Greece’s economic turmoil and doubts about further EU integration are good reasons to worry about the future. Yet these are epiphenomena of more fundamental troubles, for Europe’s systemic fears involve nothing less than the extent of her territorial and cultural boundaries. To put it bluntly, an aged Europe feels under threat from a world she once dominated, but which she never properly understood. It is this post-colonial world that is coming back to haunt her. And it is wearing a burqa.

A full veil with a grill through which women can see, this garment was originally introduced by the Taliban and quickly came to be seen in Europe as a sign of oppression, sexual discrimination and religious fundamentalism. Outside of Afghanistan, however, the burqa remains very unusual. Slightly more common, but still rare, is the niqab, where only a slit is left for the eyes. The headscarf, or hijab - a form of headgear that leaves the face uncovered - is by far the most widespread of Europe’s “foreign-looking” female apparels. In theory, these garments are subject to different legal treatments in Europe, with the hijab usually tolerated and face coverings increasingly restricted. As the French case suggests, however, in practice the difference is minimal - and shrinking.

Burqa = backward

Let us consider the ‘burqa’ first. In Europe, this word no longer refers to Afghan apparel, but has become a scary catchall for every form of female face-covering thought to be rooted in the Muslim religion (the parliamentary debates of several European countries are instructive on the point). This, however, is doubly incorrect, for neither the Afghan burqa, nor the niqab, are usually worn by Muslims. They stem from cultural rather than religious practices, and there is no trace of them in the Koran.

And yet, in a curious post-colonial turn, Islam has somehow become synonymous with face-coverings. There is no doubt that they are increasingly hated by Europe’s politicians and their voters (who is influencing whom is hard to say). In Belgium, the Lower House passed a ‘burqa’ ban by 136 to 0 in April 2010, with usually-at-war Flemish and Walloon politicians rejoicing that the law restored “a pride in being Belgian” (60% of the population support the ban). In France, President Sarkozy stated that the ‘burqa’ is “a sign of submission which is unwelcome here” and, on 19 May 2010, vowed to outlaw it (57% of his fellow citizens agree, and the bill became law in September 2010). After making history for prohibiting the construction of new minarets - a move that was endorsed by 58% of the population - some of Switzerland’s cantons are considering a ‘burqa’ ban, and so is the Dutch government (with 66% support). In Spain, some city councils (such as Barcelona) have banned the wearing of face coverings, while Zapatero’s Education Minister supports a ban on Muslim headscarves at school. Although he eventually opposed a formal prohibition, Swedish Prime Minister Reinfeldt stated that “we don’t need to hide our faces in this way here” and indicated that he did not wish to see more women in ‘burqas’ (53% of Swedes would introduce a ban). Finally, in Denmark, a government spokesperson made it clear that “burqas and niqabs don’t belong in Danish society”, while in Italy, politicians are unearthing fascist-era legislation in order to fine the handful of women wearing face-coverings there.

Such prohibitions are typically passed on the basis of three arguments: security, women’s rights and secularism. After 9/11, security is an especially serious concern, and since face coverings hinder identification and have occasionally been used to commit crimes (such as bank robberies), banning them sounds reasonable to many. “It is not about introducing any form of discrimination”, the Belgian MP who instigated the burqa ban bill said, “it is aimed at forcing people to make themselves identifiable”. After all, several countries already have laws requiring visible faces in public, it is argued, so the ban has nothing to do with ‘burqas’ or indeed religion - as a Dutch government spokesman put it, “It’s a safety measure: you don’t see who’s in it”. Women’s rights are also routinely used to justify a prohibition of face veils: “Burqas are contrary to the ideals we have of women’s dignity”, Sarkozy stated, suggesting that they are demeaning regardless of the wearer’s beliefs. Austria’s women’s minister agrees - “I consider the burqa as a sign of the submission of women”, she declared - while a German minister defined it as “a full-body prison”. Last but not least, face coverings are said to clash with Europe’s hard-won division between church and state. Having spent centuries fighting each other on religious grounds, most Europeans do not want to go back to a time when God, rather than the State, made decisions about public space. “Other countries accept, without any problem or debate, visible religious signs in the public sphere”, one French MP stated, “but it is not our case. We claim this choice; better still, we are proud of it”. Faced with fundamentalist Islam, a strong political signal was needed, a Dutch MP agreed, to “give a political answer to a political problem”.

Rational as they may seem, these arguments do not stand up to scrutiny. Security is of course important, but face veils can hardly be regarded as a major threat. If there is a genuine belief that someone under a ‘burqa’ is a terrorist, police can invoke existing stop-and-search laws on grounds of reasonable suspicion, and Europe’s few veiled women can be asked to lift them in certain situations (e.g. before entering a bank). There is, after all, a reason why the existing laws requiring clear faces in public remain mostly unapplied: not only are they invasive, they are also virtually impossible to enforce - and so much so that the proposed bans on face-coverings contain a plethora of curious exceptions (for funeral veils, carnival masks, motorcycle helmets, etc). Moreover, numbers just do not support the view of the burqa as a security issue. In Belgium, this garment is worn by only about thirty women (out of a population of half a million, 3% of which is Muslim). In Switzerland, estimates mention a hundred women covering their faces in total:“If you have seen a burqa”, a local journalist commented, “chances are the wearer was a rich tourist”. In Denmark, the centre-right government abandoned plans to impose a ban after discovering that only three women in the entire country wear the burqa (around 200 wear niqabs). In Italy (population 56 million), there are only a few hundred face-covered women, while in France (population 60 million and home to Europe’s largest Muslim minority), TV crews were at pains to find women wearing burqas (there are about 2,000 niqabs). Despite the stereotyped view of ‘burqa’-covered terrorists, security threats involving this piece of clothing are rare and Europe’s current witch-hunting climate makes it an unlikely catalyst for crime.

Women’s rights are crucial and certain forms of veiling have historically been associated with misogyny (not only among Muslims but in most patriarchal societies). Sociological research, however, suggests that a growing number of women - especially young ones - do want to wear coverings for a variety of reasons: out of rebellion, as a statement of identity or modesty, for religious or traditional motives, and even as a fashion statement (the so-called ‘Chanel veils’). Should we really be restricting women who choose to wear veils as a way of punishing those who force women to wear them? And will the day ever come when women can simply wear what they want, without any patronizing intervention from overwhelmingly male legislators (or from their husbands)? It is of course encouraging to see so much interest in (and defence of) women’s rights among Europe’s male MPs. Centuries of barely-concealed misogyny, however, suggest some caution when assessing such passionate calls, not least because the most vocal supporters of the ‘burqa’ bans are often the most unlikely proponents of women’s rights: not the left-leaning ‘feminists’, say, but right-wing parties (such as the UKIP in the UK and the Northern League in Italy) that typically have little female representation except for the position of an equality spokesperson (one wonders why women should have a monopoly on this post, but I digress). So in Holland, for instance, hard-line immigration minister Rita Verdonk loudly invoked women’s rights to oppose the burqa, but her ministerial record suggests that she was motivated by anti-Muslim prejudice more than anything else. The same can be said for Italian equality minister Mara Carfagna, whose personal story is instructive of how women’s rights are easily trumpeted for political gains by unlikely defenders of female equality. A former show-girl, she is a junior member in the male-dominated government of Silvio Berlusconi, a serial womanizer known for his sexist slurs who has openly admitted choosing his female aides on the basis of their physical appearance (he also dismissed Zapatero’s government, which contained equal numbers of men and women, as “too pink”).

Last but not least, secularism is an especially rickety argument, for one only needs to look at the de-facto dominance of public space that religion exercises in places like Poland and Italy, to see that Europe is hardly consistent when it comes to the separation of church and state. Who can credibly argue that the ubiquitous presence of crucifixes in Italian classrooms is less of a threat to secularism than an individual’s attire? Moreover, such contradictions are by no means confined to traditionally Catholic countries. In Germany, certain states (such as Bavaria and Baden-Württemberg) prohibit Muslim teachers from wearing the headscarf, but allow others to wear Christian clothing (such as the nun’s habit). And even in supposedly hyper-secular France, strict laïcité is, like in most of Europe, à la carte: the majority of Catholic churches still belong to the French state and the French President is still chanoine honoraire (honorary clergyman) of the Lateran basilica in Rome (he is also the Prince of Andorra, a place where Catholicism is the official religion). More substantially, in some French regions Muslim girls are made to unveil before entering a classroom with a Christian crucifix. France happily allows exceptions to laïcité grounded on strong religious feelings in places like Alsace-Moselle for 2.5 million people (less than 5% of the population). But it does not cater for the needs of its 5 million-plus Muslim minority (10% of the same population).

From colonizer to colonized?

Rather than being founded on rational arguments, therefore, Europe’s prohibitionist drives against the ‘burqa’ seem to stem from irrational fears. Indeed, it is possible to argue that the continent’s obsession with face coverings has less to do with security, gender equality or secularism, than with the three highly inflammable ingredients of post-colonial powerlessness, prejudice and guilt. They fuel the perceived image of the ‘burqa’ as backward and threatening, offering centre-stage to a marginal issue which is nevertheless symbolic of more systemic problems afflicting the continent.

Europe’s perceived powerlessness is problematic because it follows several centuries of almost unlimited dominance. Having lost its worldwide military and political primacy, and having had to surrender territories and peoples in spades, the continent is deeply nervous about its future. Economically, it feels threatened from the East (by China and Japan) as well as from the West (by America), while the South is quickly picking up too. Demographically, Europe has obvious problems adjusting to new migratory trends which, unlike in the past, it can no longer properly control. Two reactions are possible here, one forward-looking (to accept change and adapt to it, while remaining faithful to one’s history and ideals) and the other defensive (to refuse change and even deny it is happening). The burqa bans suggest that Europe is choosing the latter, preferring to conservatively cling onto its (revered) past, rather than deal with the (uncertain) present and (scary) future. This is not unprecedented: national, ethnic and religious communities routinely resist change. The continent’s problem, and the source of most of its identity issues, is that neither Europe as a region, nor the various European states, have ever been (or can easily be constructed as being) homogeneous. Indeed, Europe has always been multi-cultural - one only needs to drive from Portugal to Poland to realize that the continent’s linguistic, religious, and ethnic variety could hardly be greater. Perhaps uniquely, Europe is also home to distinctive national cultures and identities, which is why it has been savaged by wars until the economic interdependence of the twentieth century rendered them counter-productive. So the idea of a ‘common past’ and ‘imagined European community’ allegedly under threat from burqa-wearing ‘immigrants’ is particularly shaky.

Unifying a continent through fear

Isn’t this precisely where the ‘unifying’ character of the ‘burqa’ comes in? In the same way that diverse political groups, both on the left and on the right, find a common cause at the national levels by attacking this garment, so heterogeneous and divided Europeans are constructing a sense of common identity by banning it. In this context, it does not matter that there are only a handful of ‘burqas’ in the whole of Europe - after all, there were only four minarets in Switzerland before the passage of the 2009 referendum, and little appetite for more. What matters is the perception of the ‘burqa’ as problematic and non-European, thus creating an impression that there is such a thing as authentic ‘Europeanness’. The process employed by several European countries is instructive of this, for the political and journalistic exploitation of a few minor cases has managed to convince public opinion that the continent is facing a ‘burqa’ emergency, when in fact statistics suggest that the number of women wearing it is negligible (and declining). This inconvenient circumstance has not been raised. Indeed, at no stage has there been any systematic examination of the numerical impact of the ‘burqa problem’ in Europe. Legislators, officials, government-appointed sages and journalists are not bothering with it. Why? Because Europe’s problem - and the reason behind the bans - has never been the ‘burqa’.

This brings us to the second contributing factor to Europe’s fears: the prejudices about the world it once dominated of Europe’s politicians. As Michael Pritchard reminds us, “Fear is that little darkroom where negatives are developed”, and there is no doubt that such negatives abound among European MPs. They invest first and foremost in the sign itself: “The burqa is an element of submission and alienation, even if it is not perceived as such by those who wear it”, one French MP patronizingly stated during the debates. His Swiss counterpart agreed—“[s]omebody who walks around in a full-body veil is either doing it as a provocation or as a way of saying ‘I refuse to live with you’” - while a Swedish Christian Democrat commented that “[t]he burqa is un-hygienic and disgusting”. Fear (of the sign) and ignorance (of the facts) did not spare a Swiss government spokesperson either: “There may soon be an uncontrollable profusion of burqas on Swiss streets”, he worried. As the convenient confounding of veils with Islam suggests, however, ignorant prejudice quickly extends to the religion that is (erroneously) associated with face-coverings: “Western civilization is far superior to Islam”, Italian Prime Minister Berlusconi notably stated, while a French justice minister worried that “[w]hen there are more minarets than churches, then France will no longer be France”. His president agreed: “We need to create a culturally French Islam and we have a moral responsibility to uphold European values”, Sarkozy stated, adding that face-coverings are contrary to “our values as a civilization”. Considering these high-level comments, it is perhaps unsurprising that a British journalist who decided to wear a full veil for a day found herself at the receiving end of anti-Islamic and racial insults. There is no doubt that the ‘burqa’ bans are democratic - they are a democratic expression of racism and xenophobia.

Some veils are worse than others

Post-colonial guilt is the third contributing factor to Europe’s anxiety. Because most Europeans recognize the devastating effects of colonialism and the fact that it blatantly contradicted the Enlightenment principles that the continent helped generate, they also theoretically acknowledge the need for equal rights to all - including their ill-treated colonial subjects. But there is a difference between a philosophical commitment to equality, on the one hand, and the reluctance of European politicians (and their voters) to provide it. Such reluctance is especially strong when a former colonial master sees its subjects coming to shore and expecting to be treated as equals, since this can reinforce a sense of threatened identity.

Indeed, it is possible to argue that what makes Europe uncomfortable is not so much its multicultural character, but the breakdown of the social hierarchy that used to segregate ethnic minorities from ‘autochthonous’ Europeans. After all, when Queen Victoria objected to the “importation of Negro servants into these kingdoms”, she did so not because of their colour, but because “they cease to consider themselves as slaves”. And given that France began the conquest of Algeria by forcibly unveiling local women in public squares, is it any wonder that many French people who are disturbed by the sight of Muslim headscarves in France are at the same time perfectly comfortable with Catholic nuns’ veils? When two scantily-dressed women decided to protest the French ban by wearing niqabs and little else, they attracted the enthusiastic appreciation of the Parisian male population (the so-called Niqa-Bitch video is a popular YouTube hit).

The riddle for Europeans then becomes: how can we resist the process of social mobility for erstwhile colonial subjects, while at the same time retaining some pretence of equality? And here is the answer: by eliminating the most visible signs of ‘foreignness’ - ‘burqas’ and minarets, for instance - from the public space, claiming that they go against supposedly common European ‘values’ (such as security, women’s rights and secularism). Given that the Enlightenment makes it hard for Europe to get rid of ‘foreigners’ altogether, the continent instead bans their most conspicuous symbols in a drive towards assimilation. This supports a xenophobic conception of national belonging, yet one of a peculiar kind: post-colonial, and thus distinctively European. For if the Enlightenment originated in Europe, the latter was also the cradle of colonialism: and the colonial spirit is the legitimate child of the refusal of diversity. Unable to deal with the root causes of the ‘burqa’ issue - i.e. Europe’s reluctance to absorb immigrants - Europeans content themselves with attacking symbols. And since a ‘burqa’ scares more than a headscarf (unless you are French), it is the former that usually gets banned, for this garment ludicrously symbolizes the ‘colonial’ takeover of Europe by ‘foreigners’ and brings back uncomfortable memories and guilt complexes that are all mixed up with economic uncertainty, racism and xenophobia.

The result is a series of seemingly general laws that are nevertheless meant to hit one community only. Thus, none of the European bans directly mention the ‘burqa’ (targeting one specific group would be illegal) but generically refer to ‘face coverings’ instead. Since this would also outlaw items that Europeans like, however, explicit exemptions are inserted, with the result that carnival masks, motorcycle helmets, funeral coverings, wedding veils - anything, in sum, except for ‘burqas’ - are admitted. This logic was also used in 2004 in France: although the public and parliamentary debates leave absolutely no doubt that the anti-veil legislation targets the Muslim headscarf, months of verbal acrobatics among MPs produced a law that has a veneer of generality (it prohibits ‘conspicuously worn religious symbols at school’) while exempting those signs regarded as acceptable (such as tattoos, Christian crosses, piercing and non-religious symbols), so far disproportionately impacting on the law’s real target (the Muslim veil).

“The only real prison is fear, and the only real freedom is freedom from fear”, Aung San Suu Kyi wrote. Unfortunately, there are worrying indicators that Europe is becoming prisoner to its own fears. The continent is going through a veritable identity crisis where the willingness to exclude the most visible manifestations of Islam reflects a desire for self-reassurance about its own image that is, however, trapped in a circularity.

The roots of Europe’s ‘burqa’ obsession do not lie with an unprecedented influx of ‘foreigners’ into an allegedly mono-cultural and monotheistic land, but with the continent’s inability to value and build on its own unique linguistic, cultural and religious diversity. As for women’s rights, regulating female clothing is an unwise ground for championing them. Indeed, prohibiting women from wearing something is no better than compelling them to do so. It puts supposedly liberal Europe on a par with the world’s most repressive regimes. If sexual equality is so crucial to Europe’s MPs, they should start with more pressing tasks, for instance, ensuring that there is an equal proportion of women in European parliaments. That would truly be a ground-breaking measure to take, and one which the opportunistic champions of women’s rights are unlikely to support.

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