Europe's Muslims: burqa laws, women's lives

Several European states - France, Italy, Belgium and Britain among them - are involved in legal, social or political disputes over the dress-codes of Muslim women. A detailed and alert survey of the variegated experiences and attitudes involved is the best way to understand a complex issue, says Sara Silvestri.
Sara Silvestri
15 July 2010

The burqa, and items associated with some Muslim women’s dress (the niqab and jilbab) is once more at the centre of political controversy in Europe. In fact, the immediate event that has propelled it to the centre of attention - a near-unanimous vote by France’s lower house of parliament on 13 July 2010 in favour of a bill to prohibit concealment of the face in public places - is but one episode in a more or less continuous saga that tends to produce more speculation than informed understanding.

Perhaps then this is a good moment to disentangle some of the “burqa debate’s” many threads, in part by bringing to bear some of the detailed research I have been conducting into the issue of Muslim women’s dress and the wider question of “Muslim integration” across several European countries (see "Europe's Muslim women: potential, aspirations and challenges", King Baudouin Foundation, 2008).

Between law and politics

The evidence that the burqa and other coverings are increasingly becoming a matter of public discussion, emotion, regulation and legislation in Europe is widespread. Yet there is also little that is definitive about how this “problem” is defined or the measures taken to “solve” it.

The high-profile parliamentary vote in France is an example. The 335-1 result sounds overwhelming, but the bill remains highly divisive in the country; several parties (including the socialist, green and communist) abstained from voting; France’s council of state has already (in May 2010) issued an “unfavourable opinion” about a total ban of the burqa in public spaces, which it deemed legally “unfounded”; the senate (upper house) will examine the issue in September; and France’s constitutional council too may be called on give a ruling. Even after that, opponents of the measure could in the event it passes have recourse to the European Court of Human Rights.

Thus, the French vote is only part of a wider and more messy situation. This is true elsewhere, for example Belgium. Belgian MPs for their part have since the mid-2000s agreed that the “integral veil” should be banned. This was the eventual result of a gradual process whereby the hijab became condemend as a form of oppression of women. At the same time, Belgium’s internal political divisions have come into play in relation to the issue; the lower house of parliament voted in 2010 for a bill to prohibit clothes that do not allow the wearer to be identified (including the burqa and niqab), but a governmental crisis halted the bill before it could become law.

Yet the “contagious” element of the anti-burqa mood is undisputed. Spain, Britain and Italy have their own public campaigns, legal proposals and social sentiments on the issue. Everywhere the details are different, yet there are many crossovers of shared concern.

Is all this an indication that anti-Muslim feelings have spread and become rooted across Europe, five years after the 7/7 bombs in London that led to fears over security being linked to Muslim women’s dress? This may be a simplification which disregards other possible elements in play: that mixed feelings about how to respond to the epiphenomenon of the burqa/hijab finds in it a ready outlet for not-fully-understood uneasiness with Islam. A widespread confusion and ignorance about the Muslim population and its religion in general may also be part of the situation. Behind all this in turn, a host of experiences perceived as problems - globalisation, migration, financial crisis, shifting national identities, the changing balance of religion and secularism in society - can underlie the focus on an issue that seems to connect so many of them.

Between religion and fashion

What is the fuss about? The burqa, the hijab and the niqab may have come to be merged in the European psyche, yet these three pieces of cloth are - technically, stylistically and symbolically - completely different things, which individually look and are worn in many variations across Muslim-majority countries. The burqa covers the full body, with an embroidered opening for the eyes; the niqab is a veil of different colours, often black, covering the nose and the mouth only; the hijab is a scarf covering the head, loose or tight, of all sorts of colours (for instance black in Iran, bright in Malaysia, patterned in Turkey), and wrapped and knotted in different fashions under the neck or behind the head; the jilbab is normally a dark long dress or cloak, going from the head to the feet, usually covering other clothes underneath.

The Qu’ran does not prescribe specifically any of these coverings. It urges Muslim women to dress “modestly”; the verses about covering the head and the bosom have been interpreted in different ways. Most Muslims around the world would agree, in broad terms, that the hijab (head-cover or “headscarf”) is recommended, though not compulsory.

The jilbab-plus-niqab “twin-set” that is becoming increasingly popular across the world is a way of dressing imported from the Gulf region, and influenced by the conservative, puritanical and extremely prescriptive (Wahhabi/Salafi) version of Islam sanctioned in some of its states. It is not a general Arab, or Asian, or Balkan custom (although lighter forms of niqab were used up to the beginning of the 20th century, in Morocco and Egypt for instance). So it is not fully part of the “traditions of origin” of the majority of the Muslim population of Europe, but rather an “imported” product of globalisation (and it is particularly liked by young women, included educated ones and converts). It is this jilbab-plus-niqab combination that is appearing in Europe, rather than the burqa; although mentioning the more familiar burqa tends to be an easier route to public reaction, in part because it stirs awareness of how the Taliban regime imposed this rural tradition upon the female population of Afghanistan in the 1990s.

The significance of these different pieces of fabric tends to change depending on the social, legal and political context of region or the country under consideration. This makes it important to make and be respectful of distinctions: for example, not to associate Muslim women born in Europe with what is happening in Saudi Arabia or Afghanistan, not to fuse fear of immigration or the unknown with support for a ban of the burqa/niqab.

This is but the surface of a complicated context full of passion where the wearing of dress can carry a symbolic and political charge. Those on different sides need to attend too to the paradoxical effect their views may have; one young niqabi told me that she felt the need to put on her face-veil and long black robe because otherwise people (i.e. non-Muslims) would not be interested to hear her opinions! More broadly, the multiply changing dress-codes among Europe’s Muslims suggest that (as Annelies Moors argues) the word “fashion” may in most cases be a more appropriate descriptive of their choices. This form of diversity is spreading in Europe as a consequence of the fragmentation-cum-globalisation of Islamic knowledge, what some have called “cut-and-paste” Islam. In addition, the fine work of Olivier Roy shows that many “religious” practices among Muslim young people in Europe are the product of peer-pressure rather than of knowledge of the the faith.

Between rejection and respect

Many critics argue that the existing French anti-religious-symbols law (passed in 2004) aims to protect Muslim women from the impositions coming from their religious community and from male members of the family. But even in cases of real oppression, how useful is a law that forbids the practice of total covering if as a result a woman is confined to the walls of her house? A number of scholars - Cécile Laborde and Martha Nussbaum among them - rightly holds that forbidding by law a “symbol” of perceived oppression does not equate with solving the oppression problem. It might even produce another form of oppression, of coercion of conscience on the part of the state, which would go well beyond reasonable concerns and security priorities.

The way that the issue of Muslim women’s dress is acquiring a pan-European dimension is indicated by the spread of concern about the “veil” to Spain, Italy and Austria. My research team and I have recently completed fieldwork with Muslim women in Spain and Italy, and we clearly detected fear and paranoia among our respondents. I have long stated in relation to the situation of Islam in Italy that although some issues were problematic (inconsistent immigration laws, restrictive access to citizenship), the veil was definitely not a concern - if anything because Italians (and Spaniards) were used to seeing and interacting with nuns. The situation has now reversed; the “non-issue” of the veil has been “imported”, and it polarises people.

Spanish and Italian local authorities have begun to propose or pass legislation against veiling (which has also attracted the support of national politicians, including from the left); but concerns had been latent for some time. Most of our interviewees in Zaragoza mentioned cases of women forced to take off their headscarves in order to be able to take up jobs. In Turin we detected fear among the women we approached in the streets; many educated and articulate Muslim women of Moroccan origin complained that when they went to public offices regarding citizenship or residency status, they would be treated with disrespect and as idiots. A young Italian convert told us how frustrated she felt when, the moment she started wearing the hijab, people in shops and in the street began to address her with the tu (“you”, singular) form and insisted she could not possibly be Italian, whereas before they would use the more formal lei (“you”, third person) form in similar situations.

Many Muslims have become very anxious about such developments, and middle-eastern governments and media often publicise Europe’s apparent anti-Islamic attitudes. Yet the situation may be more one of contradictory policy choices and attitudes coexisting, rather than of outright prejudice. In Paris, our French interviewees denounced general discrimination and vehemently criticised the 2004 law, but surprisingly did not want to comment much on the anti-burqa law: they saw it as something unwelcome but at the same time distant. It is not that many French Muslims would endorse this mode of dress (and indeed some Muslim activists in principle support the ban) but they feel scarred by a state that has increasingly interfered in religious matters in a way that appears to target Muslims.

Between state and individual

Many non-Muslim Europeans demand the “integration of Muslims” and the end of Muslim women’s “oppression” symbolised by the hijab; many Muslims (including women) respond by rejecting an oppressive stereotype and asking for a reform of citizenship laws as a way to integrate. Many Muslims across Europe are also opposed to niqabs and burqas and worried about creeping Salafi fashions that are alien to the cultural traditions (western European, Turkish, Moroccan, Egyptian, Pakistani, Bangladeshi, Somali…) of most Muslims in Europe. But they are also worried about the inability or unwillingness of non-Muslim publics and lawmakers to see that Muslim individual agency also underlies religious or quasi-religious beliefs and practices, and about the patronising tendency to define their campaigns as a way of protecting Muslims from their own oppressive religion.

The problem with the laws that are currently being discussed across Europe - even if, as has been seen, several have a long way to go to become effective - has a lot to do with the tone of discussion, and with the contradictory approach of European countries in matters relating to freedoms and diversity. The practice of talking to Muslims in antagonistic and aggressive terms, in particular when so many are citizens (as in Belgium, France or Britain) or aspiring citizens (as in Spain or Italy) is not an ideal way to promote the notion of a cohesive society with shared values working for the common good. Most political and popular talk in Europe these days tend to revert to the question of integrating and educating Muslims. Maybe a collective reflection and education effort in the direction of respecting the individual is more urgently needed.

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