Europe’s War Against The Veil And The Burqa: Liberation, Or Assault On Religious Freedom ?
Last month, French President Nicolas Sarkozy became the latest European leader to take the lead in an ongoing fight against Muslim women wearing Islamic garb, specifically the full-face veil, or niqba, and the burqa, in public when he promised to introduce a bill that would ban both items in France. But, it’s not just France where this is occurring, it’s quickly becoming a Europe-wide phenomenon:
These are uneasy times for the estimated 15 million Muslims of Western Europe, not only for fundamentalists such as Selma, but also for the vast majority who want to find their place as Muslims without confronting the Christian and secular traditions of the continent they have adopted as home.
Responding to a wave of resentment unfurling across European societies, several governments have begun to legislate restrictions on the most readily visible of Islamic ways, the full-face veil. Outside the gilded halls of parliaments and ministries, meanwhile, anti-Islamic sentiments have risen to the surface in a surge of Internet insults and physical attacks against Muslim symbols.
In Belgium, the Chamber of Representatives voted April 29 to impose a nationwide ban on full-face veils in public, making the country the first in Western Europe to pass such a measure. (The legislation, which needs Senate approval, has yet to take effect.) Some municipalities, including Brussels, have local anti-veil regulations. But legislators explained that they wanted to “send a signal” to fundamentalist Muslims and preserve the dignity and rights of women.
Proposals for anti-veil legislation also have been introduced in the parliaments of Italy and the Netherlands, although passage is less certain. Some cities in those countries have imposed local bans; a Tunisian immigrant was fined $650 two weeks ago in Novara, in northern Italy, for walking down the street on the way to a mosque with her face covered.
In Switzerland, where construction of minarets was banned in November, Justice Minister Eveline Widmer-Schlumpf said this week that the government plans to use similar administrative powers to forbid full-face veils. But the rules, she noted, will exempt Persian Gulf tourists, who spend lavishly in Swiss hotels and luxury shops.
Selma, the Brussels woman, who like many women who wear the full veil in Europe is a recent convert to Islam, vowed to continue covering her face in public despite the opprobrium it brings. She cited respect for “my creator, my husband and my modesty.”
The swell of concern over veils, she said, reflects fear of Islam
Even a normally stalwart defender of civil liberties like Christopher Hitchens sees the ban as a beneficial form as paternalism designed to “liberate” women from a backward religion:
The French legislators who seek to repudiate the wearing of the veil or the burqa—whether the garment covers “only” the face or the entire female body—are often described as seeking to impose a “ban.” To the contrary, they are attempting to lift a ban: a ban on the right of women to choose their own dress, a ban on the right of women to disagree with male and clerical authority, and a ban on the right of all citizens to look one another in the face. The proposed law is in the best traditions of the French republic, which declares all citizens equal before the law and—no less important—equal in the face of one another.
So it’s really quite simple. My right to see your face is the beginning of it, as is your right to see mine. Next but not least comes the right of women to show their faces, which easily trumps the right of their male relatives or their male imams to decide otherwise. The law must be decisively on the side of transparency. The French are striking a blow not just for liberty and equality and fraternity, but for sorority too.
The counter-argument to Hitchens, of course, is that it’s perfectly conceivable that a devout Muslim woman could choose to wear the niqba or the burqa as a sign of her religious devotion without being forced to do so by her husband, or Imam. In that case, what right does the state have to say that she can’t ?
Personally, I can’t come up with a good reason why it should.
H/T: Michael Powell