A poster showed at an exhibition in Istanbul in October 2005 by Turkish artist Burak Delier, showing a woman wearing a niqab with the European Union symbol.
Our story begins with a news item, "City to Pay Woman's Fine for Breach of Burka Ban," a title that neatly sums up the quandary of a newly assertive Europe.
The city council in Maaseik, Belgium on December 27, 2004 approved the so-called "burqa decision," criminalized the wearing of the burqa and the niqab (a face covering that covers the face up to the eyes) in its public places. Breach of the law carries a 125 fine.
Five women have been booked for this crime, one of whom, a young woman of Moroccan origin who wore a burqa, has now been found guilty and charged the fine. Ironically, in all five cases, the women are receiving social security payments – and these will pay for the fines.
Comment: I would be hard pressed to find a more apt illustration of the self-contradictory nature of European policy toward its Muslim minority. (August 25, 2005)
Aug. 30, 2005 update: The story gets more interesting. It turns out that the Maaseik woman not only refuses to pay the fine but also refuses to give her name or speak to the police or in any way cooperate with municipal authorities. And, it turns out, she is the wife of one Khalid Bouloudo, 30. A pastry chef in his civilian life, he is said to be the Belgian coordinator of the Groupe Islamique Combattant Marocain, an Islamist organization linked to both the 2003 Casablanca and 2004 Madrid bombings. In that capacity, Bouloudo just yesterday was accused in a Brussels court of aiding and abetting terrorists who carried off the Madrid attack.
Comment: In such circumstances, one can only wonder that his wife is making so much gratuitous trouble.
Oct. 14, 2005 update: The Utrecht City Council has voted to reduce benefits by 10 percent for unemployed women if (1) they refuse to take off their burqas and (2) that prevents them from finding a job. The council reached this decision after two Muslim women receiving 550 a month in unemployment benefits told announced that they had stopped going to job interviews because their burqas meant they had no success. A spokesman for the Dutch city noted that the problem is more one of principle than economics: "People get benefits when they are out of work but there is also an obligation to do everything to get a job. These women were educated, spoke good Dutch and had opportunities in the labour market." The city also noted that the official Equality Commission backed employers refusing positions to burqa-clad women, as seeing a person's face is essential to many jobs.
Oct. 16, 2005 update: "Holland fears killings over ban on burqa" reads the Sunday Times (London) headline. "Holland's Muslims have responded with outrage to government proposals to ban the burqa," it reads, "and there are fears that Rita Verdonk, the minister behind the move, will be added to a list of 'enemies of Islam' targeted for assassination."
Verdonk, minister of integration and immigration, noted in parliament that the "time of cosy tea-drinking" with Muslim groups is over and that a ban on burqas might be needed in some circumstances for the public safety. Her spokeswoman said that a ban "in certain circumstances seems quite sensible." Verdonk then initiated an investigation into whether Holland should prohibit the burqa.
The Times reporter, Matthew Campbell, notes the irony of this proposed legislation: "For a country that has legalised gay marriage, prostitution, euthanasia and cannabis, Holland seems in no mood for compromise when it comes to applying tough laws on immigration." If the legislation passes, the Netherlands would become the first European country to outlaw the body covering.
Apr. 21, 2006 update: Ahmed Aboutaleb, a member of the Dutch Labor Party (PvdA) and a Dutch citizen of Moroccan descent, has proposed legislation that would allow Amsterdam to end welfare payments to women whose wearing a burqa is the reason she can't find a job. "Nobody wants to hire someone with a burqa," Aboutaleb told the Dutch women's magazine Opzij. "In that case, I say: off with the burqa and apply for work. If you don't want to do that, that's fine, but you don't get a benefit payment." He added, in reference to a Muslim woman who refused to shake hands with men at work. "She has to realize that her behavior is building enormous obstacles for her in almost every situation. This woman must recognize that she is sidelining herself and that she runs the risk of being turned down for other jobs, too."
Apr. 29, 2006 update: The principal of a school in Tannenbusch, on the outskirts of Bonn, Germany, suspended two high school girls for two weeks when they insisted on wearing burqas to class after returning from the Easter recess, on the grounds that they were disturbing the peaceful running of the school. They are welcome to return once they shed the garb.
Sep. 8, 2006 update: An immigrant female Muslim teacher at Vader Rijn College in Utrecht, the Netherlands, has been fired for deciding, after a year on the job, that, for religious reasons, she could not shake hands with male colleagues. School director Bart Engbers explained his logic. "If she doesn't want to shake hands at home, fine. But everyone is welcome at this school. Discussion is great, but religious and political flag-waving must stay at home." Teachers, he said, have to set a good example. "We are preparing our boys and girls for the labour market. We all know how fragile the situation is for allochtone [non native Dutch] young people. Therefore it is good that they shake hands during a job interview. We believe that is important." Also, refusing to shake hands with men amounts to discrimination, he added.
Oct. 25, 2006 update: I offer my opinion on this issue at "An Unveiling: Separate, but Acceptable?"
Nov. 29, 2006 update: A British poll finds that only 33 percent of the public want the burqa banned, with 56 percent against such a measure.
Mar. 22, 2007 update: The director-general of elections in Quebec, Marcel Blanchet, has decided that Muslim women wearing the niqab or burqa may vote in elections without showing their faces. The decision goes against the electoral law, which requires voters to present photo-I.D. Covered women can avoid that by swearing they are who they say they are, or have an adult with them to verify their identity. Mar. 24, 2007 update: Blanchet has reversed himself and women wearing burqas must show their faces to identify themselves before casting their votes. As the National Post explains, "The move was made after rumours of disruptions to Monday's provincial vote and threats to his personal safety. After a protest movement mobilized on the Internet encouraging people to wear Darth Vader masks or paper bags over their heads when they head to the polls, Marcel Blanchet exercised his discretionary powers, ruling all Quebecers will have to show their face when they vote." Also noteworthy: "Security was also increased around Mr. Blanchet yesterday due to the tone of angry messages that deluged his office. Two bodyguards now accompany the chief electoral officer at all times."
June 22, 2009 update: Nicolas Sarkozy, the president of France, heightened the stakes by battling the burqa in a major address, delivered at Versailles, no less, to the parliament.
Le problème de la burka n'est pas un problème religieux. C'est un problème de liberté de la femme, c'est un problème de dignité de la femme. La burka, ce n'est pas un signe religieux, c'est un signe d'asservissement, c'est un signe d'abaissement. Je veux le dire solennellement, elle ne sera pas la bienvenue sur le territoire de la République française. Nous ne pouvons pas accepter dans notre pays des femmes prisonnières derrière un grillage, coupées de toute vie sociale, privées de toute identité. Ce n'est pas l'idée que la République française se fait de la dignité de la femme.
The problem of the burqa is not a religious problem. It is a problem concerning the freedom of women, the dignity of women. The burqa is not a religious symbol but a sign of subservience, of abasement. I want to say solemnly that it is not welcome on the territory of the French Republic. We can not accept in our country women who area prisoners behind a grill, cut off from all social life, deprived of any identity. This is not the the French Republic's idea about the dignity of women.
According to the Daily Telegraph, "The call won instant support from members of Mr Sarkozy's centre-Right government but was opposed by the Socialists, the main opposition party."
July 8, 2009 update: Losing no time, a French parliamentary task force opened hearings on banning the burqa.
At the first hearing, two academics described wearing the burka as a throwback to a form of archaic Islam and a type of cult-like behaviour, incompatible with modern France. Islam expert Abdennour Bidar called the full veil a "pathology of Islam" embraced by hardline Salafists who tell Muslim women to cover themselves as a way to "get back to their roots." "It's up to the republic to help Islam in our country choose its destiny and help French Muslims resist this pressure," said Bidar. "We must find ways to prevent the burka from spreading. Whether that would be a law or something else is not for me to say."
Anthropologist Dounia Bouzar said young women had in recent years taken to wearing the full veil after being indoctrinated by "gurus" who pervert Islam's teachings. "Even imams are having difficulties countering this type of message," she said, adding that there was nothing in the Koran that dictated to women that they must fully cover themselves. The niqab entered Islam's history a little more than 70 years ago while Islam dates back 14 centuries," noted Bouzar.
Bouzar suggested that the burqa not be banned on its own but as part of a general prohibition against concealing their identities. As such, it would apply equally to all citizens and not stigmatize Muslims.
The task force is scheduled to present its report at the end of January 2010. Jean-Francois Cope, leader of Sarkozy's UMP party in parliament, said in an interview that the burqa ban should not be put in place until after a period of "dialogue" lasting six to twelve months. "We must prohibit what should be prohibited but only after having explained why."
Fadela Amara, French minister for urban regeneration.
Fadela Amara, French minister for urban regeneration.
The garment represents, she told the Financial Times, "not a piece of fabric but the political manipulation of a religion that enslaves women and disputes the principal of equality between men and women, one of the founding principles of our republic." It also represents "the oppression of women, their enslavement, their humiliation." In addition to sexual oppression and poverty, she asserts, Muslim women suffer "a third form of oppression - extreme religiosity." She holds that the "vast majority of Muslims" are against the burqa.
Eliminating the burqa helps women stand up to the extremists. "Those who have struggled for women's rights back home in their own countries - I'm thinking particularly of Algeria - we know what it represents and what the obscurantist political project is that lies behind it, to confiscate the most fundamental liberties."
Naser Khader, integration spokesman for Denmark's Conservative Party.
Naser Khader, integration spokesman for Denmark's Conservative Party.
The Conservative Party won support of its ally in the government, the Danish People's Party, and also (surprisingly) the opposition Social Democrats. But the prime minister's Liberal Party rejected the idea, with one slight exception: "Burqas should not be permitted for people who work in the public sector," said the party's political spokesperson, Peter Christiansen. "But that's where we draw the line."
Comments: (1) How interesting that two major Muslim politicians, Amara in France and Khader in Denmark, have almost simultaneously come out with the same reasoning and policy prescription. Their resolve supports my view that Muslims must battle and ultimately defeat radical Islam, even in the West. (2) To those who claim no moderate Muslim exist, Amara and Khader are the unicorns who do exist.
Sep. 2, 2009 update: An internet poll of 1,545 people aged 18+ conducted by the French website oumma.com in July and August finds that:
86 percent of French Muslims oppose a ban on the burqa.
77 percent reject the idea that women who war the veil do so because they are coerced.
59 percent say that wearing the niqab or burqa is a Koranic injunction.
80 percent view the creation of a parliamentary commission on the burqa as a "stigmatization of Islam," 15 percent says it's "useless." and 5 percent call it "useful."
63 percent call the burqa a "cultural design of feminine modesty,", 14 percent say it's "sectarian," 9 percent deem it backward, and 4 percent see it as "oppression of woman."
54 percent say that the niqab or burqa is a "hallmark of religious commitment," 35 percent say it's a cultural practice, and 9 percent say it's a "demand of political nature"
Sep. 3, 2009 update: Belgium's Walloon Mouvement Reformiste will propose legislation to band the burqa nationally, reports Le Soir. The clothing is already prohibited in some municipalities.
Oct. 7, 2009 update: Two developments today: (1) Italy's Northern League party, a member of the ruling coalition, announced it is considering legislation to introduce a law to make wearing a burqa illegal in public places. (2) Canada's Muslim Canadian Congress is calling for a federal ban on wearing the burqa in public: "The burka has absolutely no place in Canada," said Farzana Hassan. "In Canada we recognize the equality of men and women. We want to recognize gender equality as an absolute. The burka marginalizes women."
Apr. 30, 2010 update: By an astonishingly unanimous vote, Belgium's lower house of parliament, the Chamber of Representatives, voted to ban the burqa in public places, the first such law in Western Europe. The unanimous vote comes against the background of Prime Minister Yves Leterme's government collapsing just a week earlier. The Senate must now vote on the bill. The law forbids appearance in public with one's face so covered that identification cannot be made. Violators face fines of $18 to $28 and prison terms of 1 to 7 days. It comes on top of two dozen jurisdictions in Belgium, including Brussels, having locally banned the burqa.
Nor are the Belgians alone: The French government plans to pass similar legislation by September and similar bills have been introduced in Italy and the Netherlands, where local jurisdictions have already imposed more-limited anti-veil measures. Leading politicians in Switzerland and Austria have suggested comparable legislation. Denmark's government has deemed the burqa contrary to Danish values but so few women wear it that no law was passed.
Nov. 8, 2010 update: U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had this to say during a stop in Australia:
"I know that in Pakistan, many of the men who are conducting suicide bombing missions arrive covered in a burqa. If you're a Pakistani police officer, respectful of the women of your culture and that's being abused and misused by the suicide terrorists, that causes a real dilemma. So if you are looking at other countries that are understandably nervous about extremist activity, like France and other European countries, I think it's a close question."
Mar. 4, 2013 update: In December 2010, the Catalan city of Lérida banned the burqa in public spaces; on Feb. 28, the Spanish Supreme Court (Tribunal Supremo), made public a 56-page ruling that overturns the ban as unconstitutional because it "constitutes a limitation to the fundamental right to the exercise of the freedom of religion, which is guaranteed by the Spanish Constitution."
July 1, 2014 update: The European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg has upheld the French ban on niqabs and burqas. Responding to a case was brought by a 24-year-old French woman, who argued that the ban on wearing the veil in public violated her freedom of religion and expression,
The Court emphasised that respect for the conditions of "living together" was a legitimate aim for the measure at issue and that, particularly as the State had a lot of room for manoeuvre ("a wide margin of appreciation") as regards this general policy question on which there were significant differences of opinion, the ban imposed by the Law of 11 October 2010 did not breach the Convention.
The judges' decision is final - there is no right of appeal.
July 24, 2014 update: In the aftermath of the ECHR ruling in favor of the French ban on the burqa, competing groups of British Muslims are petititoning Downing Street against and for a burqa ban, hoping to get to 100,000 signatures which then requires the House of Commons to consider the appeal.
Jan. 18, 2016 update: British prime minister David Cameron supports legislation that bans burqas and niqabs in schools, courts and other British institutions, wanting "proper and sensible" rules in place.
The petition opposing a ban on burqas argues that "British women should have the free right to choose how they dress." As one leader explains, "How do you liberate women by criminalising their clothing?" They have the Department for Culture Media and Sport on their side: "Any restrictions on what a woman can wear in public would be out of keeping with British values and our nation's longstanding record of religious tolerance and gender equality."
The petition in favor of the ban calls it the burqa a "disturbing social trend." It goes on:
Many Muslims have been misled by bogus propaganda from fundamentalists that the burqa/niqab is integral to Islam. This is untrue. It is a tribal cloth that is pre-Islamic, non-Qur'anic and un-Muslim. Female public anonymity is an imported Saudi-Afghan fad. The burqa/niqab must be resisted for compelling theological, social, health, security, gender equity and patriarchal reasons so that Britain's traditional character is preserved. We must oppose this salvo from theological extremists seeking to impose their warped version of Islam.
Taj Hargey, imam at the Muslim Educational Centre of Oxford, launched the petition, calls the burqa an "ugly tribal contraption" and "alien cultural monstrosity."
In the past, only rightwing groups wanted to proscribe the burka and niqab. The difference now is that progressive and integrated Muslims are in the forefront of this extraordinary endeavour. If Britain's political establishment do not tackle and defeat Islamic religious fanaticism now, it will become impossible to do so when Muslims become a bigger proportion of British society.
Jan. 13, 2015 update: In "an effort to curb growing extremism," the authorities in Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang, China's most heavily Muslim province and a city of 3.1 million, have banned the burqa. Their justification interestingly connects to Europe: "Burqas are not traditional dress for Uighur women, and wearing them in public places is banned in countries such as Belgium and France."
May 1, 2015 update: The government of Congo-Brazzaville has banned the burqa. According to the BBC, "A government spokesman said it was a secular country that respected all religions but added that some Muslim women had used the veil as a disguise in order to commit terrorist offences."
June 17, 2015 update: The nearby government of Chad has followed suit and gone further, entirely banning the burqa in the aftermath of two suicide bombings. The BBC reports:
The prime minister said the veil was used as a "camouflage" by militants and said the security forces will burn all full-face veils sold in markets. ... At a meeting with religious leaders, Prime Minister Kalzeube Pahimi Deubet said the ban applied everywhere, not only public places. He added that any clothing that covers everything but the eyes was a camouflage.
Aug. 3, 2015 update: The governments of Cameroon and Guinea have also banned the niqab, while the government of Gabon has indicated that anyone wearing this garb "will be subjected to a total inspection at police checkpoints."
Sep. 28, 2015 update: Walter Wobmann, the Swiss People's Party politician behind his country's 2009 ban on minarets, is now starting a campaign to ban the burqa by finding 100,000 signatures to bring the issue to referendum. He explained: "In our culture, you don't cover your face, you show it. That's our culture, that's our society. Veiling is a symbol of radical Islam, which we don't want here."
Nov. 23, 2015 update: The southernmost Swiss canton of Ticino has passed a law banning the burqa on pain of a fine between CHF100 and CHF 10,000 (the Swiss franc equals the U.S. dollar in value).
Apr. 20, 2016 update: Authorities in Latvia have begun the process to ban burqas.
July 30, 2016 update: Jens Spahn, a leading politician of the ruling CDU party in Germany, has proposed a ban on the burqa, saying "I don't want ever in this country to encounter a burqa. In this sense I am a burqa-phobe."
In the UK, 57 percent favor banning the burqa and 25 percent oppose this measure. In Germany, 62 percent favor a ban and 27 oppose it. Americans turn this around, with 27 favoring a ban and 59 percent opposing it.
Comment: As is so often the case, Europeans lead Americans attitudinally by some years, maybe as much as a decade.