Since the end of 2009 a number of European countries have made moves towards a banning of the burqa, or hijab, the full Islamic headdress for women. Belgium has passed a law to be ratified by its Senate. France is pondering the constitutionality of such a legal decision, whilst Italy has seen its implementation at a local level. Various justifications have been put forward: national security, integration and women's liberation.
As has been pointed out by Sara Silvestri in her piece “Europe's Muslims: burqa laws, women's lives” much unease is felt by the public, civil society and decision-makers in relation to the ban, yet the idea seems to appeal to a large portion of the electorates. She argues that it is because to debate about the burqa or niqab is to debate about much deeper and larger matters, many of which she exposes. However, the affair can be disentangled further, and we should also pragmatically consider whether a ban would be an efficient solution given the aims declared. So is this wave of burqa banning really about the burqa? And is banning it the best way to tackle these issues anyway?
Everyone seems to have an opinion and expect one of those who will touch on the subject. Here is my own: I am a French-German woman who was raised in Europe by liberal parents. They infused in me an attachment to equality and freedom. I therefore cannot condone the oppression of women by religion, culture or politics. It is disturbing to me that a woman's body should be seen as a source of provocation and sin, and as a justification for her alienation under any circumstances. We have the bodies we do, and we should be subject to no particular obligations as to our behaviour or dress as a result. We are not guilty for having our physical appearance. The burqa, just like the Orthodox Jewish dress code for women, assumes that sin is inherent to the female body and that the man is weak. But dealing with temptation should fall on the woman as much as on the man.
In the case of the Burqa bans, however, it appears western societies given way to hysteria. Yes, in the last ten years there has been an increase of women wearing it across Europe. According to a 2009 report by the French interior ministry, 2000 women were wearing it in France. In the UK, which also has a large Muslim population, figures are likely to be similar. But given the millions of Muslims who live in both countries, burqa wearing women are a small minority. So is a ban justified?
The majority of Muslims are moderate, be they Sunni or Shiite. Still, it is undeniable that the burqa has been on the rise worldwide, because of the increasing influence of extremist Islamic sects, such as the Wahhabi, enforcing the full headdress. The image of an Afghani woman sat on the floor with her child in a blue headdress has now become an icon of our collective imagery. But this was photographed in Kabul, not Paris, Poole or Munich. As Silvestri mentions, extremist Islam, and its expression in dress prescription, is an importation. It is not a tradition of the countries of origins of most Islamic populations in Europe.
For years, European scholars and grassroots organisations have been saying that the portion of Muslim, and non-Muslims, turning to extremist Islam on the continent do so because of a feeling of marginalisation and abandonment by the state. Unemployment, discrimination when finding accommodation and failing educational policies plague millions of young Germans, French, British and Spaniards of immigrant origin. These problems are even worse when they originate from Muslim or Arab cultures.
We must remember that countries like France and Germany let large numbers of workers in from Algeria, Morocco, Tunisia and Turkey in the 50s and 60s, but expected them to return once they were no longer needed. They were not invited - and neither were their children or grand-children - to become part of the "Nation". Housing, pension and health schemes were set up for those populations only relatively recently, and in some cases, these are still contentious issues. It is often because those European citizens of foreign origin want to belong, and feel like they will never be allowed to do so fully in their country of birth, that they turn to Islam with the force of the pendulum's swing. They turn to a motherland, its culture and religion, few of them truly know and understand. The beard, the dress for women and men are a way to say loud and clear: “You don't want me, well neither do I want you. And I'll make it clear to see."
What is disconcerting about the burqa is that this particular public claim to identity, whether chosen or imposed, in fact hides away the individual. That is what makes it ambiguous and controversial. “I am what I am, and that means existing behind a piece of cloth.” One can barely distinguish the person who lives under it. In times when we live with the fear of a terrorist attack, and where paranoia pervades the public space encouraged by politicians, it is logical for the burqa to give rise to fear and concern. But to ban it because one can never be too sure who 'hides' under it is wrong.
Indeed, even though it has on occasion been used by terrorists in Afghanistan, in Russia and Central Asia, to pass a law for security reasons would induce the idea that under any burqa might lurk a bomber or a jihadist. This would set a public mood of suspicion towards the Muslim population as a whole, when anti-Muslim sentiments are high enough as it is. As Sara Silvestri has found in her studies, the European Muslim population is more likely to feel offended, if not openly discriminated against as a consequence of a ban. This could result in a further rift from the rest of the population, and an increase in home-grown terrorism. Effectively, this law might very well achieve the total opposite of its aim.
In fact, it is sad to see that for the past decade or so, there has been little in the way of positive discourse about Islam and few attempts to hold open dialogue with Muslim clerics. As Silvestri points out, non-Muslim European populations generally have a rather superficial and biased view of Islam. The mood towards all things Muslim is very much one of confrontation, or of assumed irreconcilable differences. At a time when globalisation blurs the lines of cultures, and makes identities increasingly porous, we have turned the burqa into a dividing line, a civilisational issue. It is as if it has come to be the last frontline of defence of 'our' civilisation.
This item of clothing could not only represent a danger to our physical security, but also to the security of our ideals according to politicians. “The burqa is not welcome on the Republican soil. That is not how the Republique conceives of the dignity of women.” said Nicolas Sarkozy on June 22nd 2009 to the French parliament. Talking about his bill to outlaw the burqa, British Tory MP Philip Hollobone said that Emeline Pankhurst, a major figure in the enfranchisement of women, “ would be extremely unhappy and distressed that British democracy had come to this.” This argument follows the assumption that the burqa, which is a cultural and not a religious prescription, necessarily indicates the oppression of women by men. While this is true in many cases, it is disturbing to note that the ban has been debated strictly in relation to Islamic dress, omitting the dress of Orthodox Jewish women, whose bodies are also best kept hidden by opaque tights, long-sleeved tops and wigs. It is only Muslim dress codes which our humanistic spirits cannot tolerate, which we have to forbid to help free these poor women from oppression.
This judgment is disavowed by several things. Firstly, as Ghazal Tipu reminds us not all burqa wearers do so under constraint. There are cases of women who lead active public and professional lives, are highly educated, and still choose to wear it. Such a headdress wearer is 40 year old, divorced French citizen Oumkheyr. Not exactly your stereotype of a submissive Muslim.
Secondly, for some women living in rough areas the burqa , and other headdresses, can act as a defence against abuse. The organisation ‘Ni putes, ni soumises’ in France sadly showed that some young women in the segregated suburbs were subjected to psychological and physical abuse, in more extreme case rape, from men of all origins, who sought someone weaker on whom to release their frustration and anger. The most publicised example was the burning of 17 year old Sohane Benziane in the suburb of Vitry-sur-Seine on October 22nd of 2002. Note, however, that the young men were not Muslim. Their conception of a woman was simply totally warped. Given this issue, much like the women who are forced by their partners to take to the burqa, banning it could mean that accessing public space becomes much more difficult, if not impossible. How would this help them gain more freedom? Out of sight, out of mind. They would be quickly forgotten, precisely because the eye sore of the burqa would be gone.
Of course, we must defend women’s rights, especially at home. Even in 2010, many women have internalised the idea that they are sexual objects, which must either be flaunted or hidden away. Most women dressing up in a sexually ostentatious manner are as oppressed as those covering up. Both behave according to what they think will give them more value in other people’s eyes. But have European parliaments called for a banning of beauty pageants? No, they have not, despite the fact that these are also incredibly diminishing, and carry the weight of centuries of a certain conception of the woman.
Women’s liberation is a battle that has been fought for over a century, and will have to continue through sheer dedication, advocacy and dialogue. Equally, ensuring national security and cohesion is a tedious task, which requires enormous amounts of personnel, intelligence and dialogue. In neither cases will a law banning the burqa truly help. It might give the illusion of political action, and reassure some that ‘sacred Western values’ are being preserved. But in fact, it will go a long way towards entrenching positions further, rendering dialogue harder, and making tensions run higher. A law will not resolve the identity crisis many European countries are going through, nor will it help towards the integration of European citizens. The burqa is but a crystallisation, an expression of these tensions.