Burqa, niqab. These were loaded words in Europe four years ago, inspiring fear, revulsion and even changes to the law.
Belgium took the first steps toward banning these face-covering veils worn by Muslim women in 2010. France followed soon after and was the first in Europe to approve a law. Spurred on, lawmakers across the continent considered similar measures as police and municipal officials took matters into their own hands: fining veiled women for driving (France), walking on the street (Italy) or barring them from public buildings (Spain).
What is it about a piece of fabric that causes such an uproar, I wondered back then. I was puzzled how such a ban could hold up especially under the European Convention on Human Rights.
Apparently, it does.
Last week, the European Court of Human Rights upheld the French ban, ruling it does not undermine freedom of religion, expression or constitute discrimination.
The reaction by French officials was euphoric. Other European countries desiring a ban but afraid of its legality were pleased. And many feminists in France and elsewhere expressed joy.
The International League of Women’s Rights, founded by French feminist Simone de Beauvoir, welcomed the ruling as a “victory for secularism and women’s rights,” Agence France Press reported.
In fact, the organization had filed a letter with the court in support of the ban: “The full-face veil, by literally burying the body and the face, erases the woman as an individual in the public sphere,” Annie Sugier, the head of the International League for Women’s Rights, wrote in the letter.
Aside from the so-called public safety concerns, this was the reason France had initially adopted the ban – to protect women.
André Gerin, the Communist Party lawmaker who led a parliamentary commission studying the issue in 2010, told us the law was necessary to combat Islamic fundamentalism in France and protect women.
“There are extremist gurus out there and we must stop their influence and barbaric ideologies,” he said. “It is a law that will protect women – covering one’s face undermines one’s identity, a woman’s femininity and gender equality.”
There is one problem with this: The French-born woman who filed suit in the test case at the European Court of Human Rights doesn’t see it this way. She didn’t ask for protection either.
“The applicant also emphasized that neither her husband nor any other member of her family put pressure on her to dress in this manner,” the court wrote in their ruling. “She added that she wore the niqab in public and in private, but not systematically. She was thus content not to wear the niqab in certain circumstances but wished to be able to wear it when she chose to do so. Lastly, her aim was not to annoy others but to feel at inner peace with herself.”
The key word in that paragraph is “chose.”
A German feminist told me privately that most of her fellow activists support such bans – in Germany, headscarves worn by Muslim women are forbidden in the workplace and schools in certain federal states.
“But it’s crazy to support that (ban),” she said. “Because aren’t we fighting for the right to equal treatment and the freedom of choice – to dress, work and live how we want?”
“And isn’t it condescending and old fashioned to think women need protecting?”
There’s the rub: Of course, to many, these veils are symbols of oppression. But to some of the women who wear them (and the headscarves), the issue isn’t about religion or culture, it’s about choice and identity.
The young women in Germany who cover their heads often do so because of a sense of liberation, politics, even as a banner of one’s difference, say scholars who have studied the issue. Some do so to thumb their noses at mainstream German society whom they say doesn’t accept them because of their immigrant background.
Interestingly, the debate over face-covering veils in France first started over women’s equality issues but changed into one focusing on national identity and values – the veil ban states that the French republic’s founding values of liberty, equality and fraternity are at stake.
“A veil that hides the face is detrimental to those values,” President Nicolas Sarkozy told the French Cabinet in May 2010 over the issue.
But whose values? The state’s? Because what is missing in this discussion among politicians, judges and feminists is the notion of inclusion, or in this case, the lack of it.
“(The veils) are a symbol,” anthropologist Ruth Mandel of University College London and author of the book, Cosmopolitan Anxieties told me when I asked her about the issue a few years ago. “These (fights) are touchstones for more substantial debates on whether and how those still seen as outsiders fit into mainstream European society.”
Again it is about identity: these laws are moving to protect the mainstream identity which doesn’t include the fact that France, Belgium and other European countries are now immigration countries – and have been for decades.
The court ruled that a general ban on the veils was not justified by reasons of public safety or to protect women but was allowable to allow for social cohesion, to improve the conditions of “living together” – but judges also noted with concern that the debate on the ban “had been marked by certain Islamophobic remarks.”
So to follow that logic, “living together” by forcing some to give up their choice and identity – which has been devalued in society by Islamophobic comments used to win elections – is supposed to improve social cohesion.
Regardless, for now, women in France and Belgium and possibly elsewhere soon won’t have the freedom to choose how to express their identity if it involves wearing a burqa or niqab – they will be fined €150 in France and maybe ordered to take a citizenship class, which is funny since many of this tiny minority of France’s 5 million Muslims who wear the veils are French-born or hold a French passport.
Like Kenza, a 30-something woman in southern France who is a French national of Moroccan heritage. She has vowed to keep wearing it as she has for 11 years – even if her husband doesn’t want her to and the local police fine her. I can assure you, this fiery young woman doesn’t need protection.
“I will continue to go out the way I do, wearing the niqab,” she said. “If they give me a €150 fine, I will accept it with pleasure. I will continue to wear the niqab and nothing, I repeat nothing, will stop me.”
Jabeen Bhatti has worked as a print journalist in the US and abroad for almost two decades, writing for The Wall Street Journal, USA Today, The Washington Times, The Washington Post, Time, Newsweek, Bloomberg and other publications. Originally from the Washington, DC area, Jabeen has lived in Poland, Denmark and South Korea, before moving to Berlin in 2003. In the US, she covered local and national news, and a variety of beats; overseas, she has covered spot news, and written news analysis and features on politics, society, arts, law and business, as well as covered energy/environment issues and intellectual property/data protection law. She has reported from Europe, the Middle East, South and Central Asia and North Africa. Jabeen holds a master’s degree from Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism in New York. She was a Fulbright scholar in 2006. She founded Associated Reporters Abroad (ARA Network) in 2008 and currently serves as its managing editor, where she works with more than 100 reporters around the globe.