France was the first European country that forbid a complete veiling in 2011. Belgium followed this example. Bulgaria has the law since 2016. Austria passed the law in 2017 and Switzerland will vote upon it in the following months. Italy has a general ban on veiling for many years. In the Netherlands and in parts of Germany veiling is forbidden in works of civil service such as schools.
These bans mostly state that the complete or partly veiling of the face is forbidden in public. It does not point concretely towards religious veiling. Therefore, the bans include wearing a Niqab or a Burqa as well as veiling in demonstrations or wearing a mask.
In some cases, like in France, women sued in front of the European Court of Justice (ECJ) – but without any success. The ECJ pronounced in its judgement that the ban is not against any human right or religious freedom. The judges justified their decision recently again by stating the ban is “necessary in a democratic society” and a “condition for living together” as a complete veiling creates a barrier between the women and her environment. It “secures the rights and freedoms of others”. Furthermore, they stated that if a fully veiling is accepted it is the decision of the society itself and not of an international court of justice. With its judgement, the ECJ leaves the decision of a ban as a task for the individual states. They value the right of the state to regulate religious symbols higher than the right of religious freedom of every individual citizen. Some Western scientists in Islamic Studies also argue the Quran does not demand a complete veiling like a Niqab or a Burqa and therefore the ban would not be incompatible with the religion as wearing the Hijab is still alowed.
A woman who sued against the ban explained she laid down her veiling although it was against her religious conviction because she was afraid of the fine. Another woman stated the ban is restricting her freedom of movement and mobility as she stays at home now instead of leaving the house without the veiling.
Many countries argue that a ban is necessary due to national security as a veiling makes controls difficult or to achieve a successful integration in European countries. But the most used argument is that a Niqab or a Burqa is a sign of oppression of women and should be not allowed in Europe. The Austrian FPÖ, a right-wing populist party which initiated the “Burqa-Ban” in Austria even states on their website that Islam does not know equality between man and women and that women are treated as second-rated people. The FPÖ sees the Burqa as an evidence for this oppression.
The Hijab as a sign of freedom?
The question is: Did any of these European politicians ever talk to a Muslim woman wearing a Niqab or a Burqa? This can be doubted. Otherwise they would know that most Muslim women wear a Hijab, a Niqab or a Burqa with pride as a sign of their religion which is not different from wearing a cross. They wear it by their free choice and in most of the cases no men forced them to do so. The writer Naheed Mustafa even explained the Hijab is for her a sign of freedom, the ultimate feminist symbol. It frees her from constantly being reduced to her body as nobody can see if she is beautiful or not. With the Hijab, she does not feel the pressure anymore to meet the beauty standards men and society would expect from her.
In history and until now there has always been a problem in analysing cultures and especially women in different cultures. The Egyptian professor Fadwa El Guindi explains this problem in her work which was published by the Georgetown University. Women’s problems have always been seen independent from culture and specific cultural circumstances. Women were segregated from the society as a whole and looked at as a universal group.
But nevertheless, this kind of feminism is rooted in Western thoughts and societies where cultural values developed out of an Euro-Christian ethos and colonial encounters. Through this Euro-Christian lenses the understanding of the Middle East resulted in distorted perspectives about Muslim constructions of gender and sexuality. This problem can not only be found in Islamic countries but nearly in all former colonised regions. The Indian professor Uma Narayan criticises the problem of generalisation in feminism as well. Every woman in the world is supposed to have the same problems which are especially constructed as problems of a white, western, privileged, heterosexual woman. Cultural differences between women are ignored in science and politics. The distorted picture of “colonized cultures” which was mostly painted by prejudices and stereotypes held by Western colonizers is remaining until today.
Some people argue that the Niqab and Burqa are mainly worn in states which count as fundamental such as Afghanistan or Saudi Arabia. In these countries, a patriarchal order is usual and therefore, the argument concludes, Niqab or Burqa are a sign of oppression. But even if this may be true – should it not be a personal matter that just concerns the women in these countries? If the women themselves see it as a sign of oppression they should stand up for themselves or ask for help. It definitely would not help them if European countries forbid them to wear their traditional clothing.
The veiling-ban: Not compatible with democratic values
This kind of thinking is an imperialist thinking which does not try to understand the symbolic or religious meaning behind a Hijab, Niqab or Burqa. This way of thinking is not able to just accept a difference in clothing but sees its own European way of life as superior. Although a “Burqa-Ban” is rather a restriction of the freedom of expression of Muslim women and therefore not compatible with European and democratic values.
But Mulim women in Europe have luck. The Algerian-French millionaire Rachid Nekkaz and his organisation are paying the fees for women who violate the Burqa-law. He justifies this action as a defense of religious freedom. And because of him the banning of Niqab and Burqa did not have a great effect in Europe until now. Nevertheless, no woman in the world should ever be told what or what not to wear – neither by a man of their family nor by any European government.
By Sabrina Ahmed