Three weeks ago the French Senate passed a piece of legislation 246 votes to one to outlaw the face veil worn by a small number of the country’s Muslim women, with President Nicolas Sarkozy stating, in no uncertain terms, that the face veil is “not welcome” in France. The law follows at the heels of the Belgian parliament’s ban on the full face veil–known as the burqa or niqab–in public places.
“It is necessary that the law forbids the wearing of clothes that totally mask and enclose an individual,” said Daniel Bacquelaine, who proposed the bill, adding that he was not targeting the classic headscarf worn by many Muslim women. “Wearing the burqa in public is not compatible with an open, liberal, tolerant society,” he declared to the press.
Although the Strasbourg-based European Court of Human Rights can challenge such a ban as a violation of international human rights laws, Italy and the Netherlands have not been dissuaded from considering joining the fray. The hostility towards Muslims, in particular Muslim women and their garb, appears ubiquitous in Europe these days and can only be described as a step backwards for Western society.
As a Muslim female, who does her best to select items for her wardrobe that meet the Islamic guidelines of modesty, I do not believe that the face veil is mandated by my religion, though its proponents insist that it is. Prior to Prophet Muhammad’s (peace be upon him) arrival in seventh century Arabia, concealing one’s face symbolized a high class status in the Persian Empire, as well as in parts of Europe. In fact, both men and women draped the veil over their faces to project an image of wealth and status.
The great majority of Islamic scholars today however, identify the full face veil as a cultural relic, not an Islamic religious duty decreed by the Q’uran. This is not to suggest that Muslim women who wear the face veil are oppressed creatures–take Hissa Hilal, for example, a Saudi woman in niqab who writes scathing poetic invectives criticizing extremist Saudi clerics and their rulings. The debate on the merits of the face veil must come from within the religion, not imposed from without. When European governments inject themselves into the discourse, and dismiss the veil’s religious validity, they do nothing but engender anger and resentment in their Muslim communities.
In an ironic twist, many supporters of the ban argue that the face veil is an expression of patriarchal control; a woman would only cover herself in such a manner if a man had intimidated her into doing so. Assuming that all women who wear the burka or the niqab are wearing it under duress, it doesn’t follow that men, like the French President Nicolas Sarkozy, ought to command a woman not to wear it. That too is an expression of patriarchy. Although the Belgian and French governments make the specious claim that the ban against the face veil restores women’s rights, it, in fact, restricts them.
Islamic scholar Michael Privot has pointed out that Belgium and France have now joined Iran and Saudi Arabia “in that exclusive but unenviable rare club of countries to impose a dress code in the public domain.” It seems clear that fear and racism are masquerading as liberalism, because there is nothing liberal about targeting a community over a form of dress. And it is not a great stretch of the imagination to see that perhaps European governments’ insistence on banning the face veil under the false pretext of defending women’s freedom is an example of the imperialist mind frame–the civilized ‘white man’ has a mission to liberate the colonized from their inferior and outdated traditions.
If France’s ban is not an example of Europe’s ill concealed feelings of cultural supremacy, it is certainly a clever political tactic. After his party was beaten badly in regional elections in March, and as Sarkozy watched his poll numbers plummet, the French President decided that to restore his and the party’s popularity, he must win over the extremist anti-immigration bloc. Why else would he propose a ban against the garb of a negligible fraction of France’s Muslim population–no more than an estimated few hundred women wear the face veil in France? After all, rallying people against a minority in order to distract them from real problems, such as unemployment or pension reform, is an effective, albeit shortsighted, political maneuver. And unfortunately the French citizenry seems to have fallen for this smokescreen, making Muslim women the scapegoats for their fears.
The tactic is a shameful one, because Sarkozy fails to see how this issue has international consequences beyond his immediate political survival. The ban is a blow to Europe in the war of public opinion more than anything else; extremist Muslims, who are in the business of recruiting impressionable youth to carry out acts of violence, smile at such bans because they strengthen the case against the so-called liberal Western world and its anti-Muslim sentiments.
Whatever the reasons for France and Belgium’s decisions to ban face veils, if the objective was to liberate Muslim women and assimilate European Muslims into the larger population, then both nations have failed marvelously. The bans slice a country’s population into two: one group’s unfounded fears about the other are confirmed by the prohibition, while the other resents the secular government vilifying what the group considers either its religious obligation or its cultural tradition.
If European public policy makers are using an enforced dress code as a social engineering tool to design a more homogenous society, then they are further pushing an already marginalized immigrant community to the sidelines. Shedding the burqa or niqab will not make Muslim women in France or Belgium more European, but it does pander to the xenophobic constituents, antagonize Europe’s estimated 20 million Muslims and confirm the assumption that the two identities–European and Muslim–are irreconcilable.
Zehra Rizavi is Associate Editor of Altmuslimah