By Vexen Crabtree 2017
France and Belgium in 2011 both moved to ban the covering of the face in public (in general)1, in both cases based on improving public safety. France also argued that full coverings made it impossible for immigrant communities to integrate into wider society. In Belgium it was argued that veiling represents the oppression of women. Bulgaria (2016) passed a similar law, in Austria at the start of 2017 is on the verge of following suit, and debates continue elsewhere in Europe such as Germany, Italy and The Netherlands.2,3,4
Critics of these limitations point out that the full-body coverings are worn by a tiny fraction of small immigrant populations which have not, so far, been the source of actual trouble, and that the laws are coming about in a "lynch mob atmosphere" rather than policy being driven by evidence-based research5. Others argue that the ban limit religious freedom, but, unfortunately, their argument is poor: laws, by their nature, tend to reduce freedom of one kind or another. The question is whether they should - the mere fact that a law is restrictive isn't an argument against it as long as the policy stands up to scrutiny. All these laws have been intently debated and are routinely appealed at national courts and the European Court of Human Rights, and most have been found to be legitimate and valid.
“Legislation on clothing and religious symbols in secular democracies should be based around the principal of maximum freedom, and no compulsion. This means, you can't force people to abide by other people's religious rules, and, people should be as free as possible to wear whatever they want. Therefore, people are free to voluntarily follow whatever religious codes that their religions insist upon. This allows maximum freedom of religion. But there are times when secular law should trump religious rules: (1) Requirements to wear safety equipment, (2) requirements for visual identification, (3) roles requiring face-to-face communication and (4) to prevent oppression within communities who wish to impose dress rules on others. In those cases, secular law can be enacted to limit other's dress in certain situations.
Conversely, laws should not be passed simply because clothing is offensive, unpopular, or disliked. There must be practical reasons behind legal restrictions on dress, not aesthetic ones. Likewise, laws should not be passed to exempt specific religions from requirements that everyone else has to follow (positive discrimination). It is not reasonable to expect rules to be modified to accommodate the strange codes of the world's various religions. The trick is: treat everyone equally and only enforce dress codes where there is good reason. Follow that advice, and there is no need to create religion-specific legislation.”
It can be seen in the list of positive practical reasons to restrict clothes in certain circumstances is reflected in the actions of several European countries that have legislated to prevent certain forms of dress in certain situations.
France (2011) became the first country in the European Union to ban the covering of the face in public1 after two decades of debates5. France has the largest Muslim population in Europe, and the fight against extremism inside Muslim communities is a serious problem. Such extremism infringes heavily upon the rights of women on those communities, and, as Muslim moderates do not speak out against hardliners, the only way to end the oppression of women is to enact laws that make it impossible for the extremists to get what they want.
“A law "banning the hiding of the face in public spaces" ... took effect in April 2011. The European Court of Human Rights upheld the burqa ban in 2014, rejecting arguments that outlawing full-face veils breached religious freedom. The law has resulted in around 1,500 arrests in the past five years, and violations can result in fines of up to €150 euros.”
Belgium (2011) in July 2011 enacted a similar law, after a unanimous vote by MPs (with two abstentions), after two decades of debates5 which had seen most large cities enact local bans public face covering6. The ban any coverings that obscure the identity of the wearer in public places like parks and on the street, on the grounds of security. Some MPs said that the full veil represents oppression of women, which is illegal on equality grounds.2. Violations can result in fines and possibly up to 7 days imprisonment. Exceptions exist for workplace requirements and carnival season activities.4
Bulgaria (2016) "approved a law that bans wearing in public clothing that partially or completely covers the face, with exceptions for health or professional reasons. Initial violations result in a fine" of €100, increasing to €750 on subsequent violations.
Austria (2017) to ban "full-face veils in public spaces such as courts and schools". The government doesn't single out Muslim niqab and burqa dress - the ban applies to all equally: It states "we are committed to an open society, which also presupposes open communication. A full-face veil in public places stands in its way and will therefore be banned". It is estimated that of the 8.5 million people in Austria, 150 Muslims wear the niqab.3
The UK: After the London riots in 2011 many called for a ban on face coverings in public places based purely on the grounds of public safety and anti-criminality. It is not possible to grant Muslims exemptions from such laws - it would be unfair, unequal, and biased in favour of Muslims to do so, and, you would simply end up with the case where every criminal would claim to be Muslim in order to evade the law! The UK did not pursue this course, and it is unlikely to do so in the future.
Germany's Angela Merkel has said "The full-face veil is not acceptable in our country... It should be banned, wherever it is legally possible"4.
The Netherlands has voted to ban the full-face burqa in schools, hospitals and on public transport (although legislation is not yet completely passed), and violations could result in a fine of up to €410.4
Italy is currently debating a law from 1975 that bans the covering of the face in public (including motorcycle helmets and masks) and "local bans can be found particularly in the north and north-east of the country... prohibiting any means intended to render the identification of a person difficult in spaces open to the public"7.
Switzerland in 2016 gave initial approval to a draft law to ban the burqa but it "remains far from becoming law. In the southern Tessin region however, the burqa has been forbidden since 1 July and violators face a minimum fine of 100 Swiss francs"4.
In Belgium, schools were free to make their own rules on headscarves. In Antwerp, schools began banning religious clothing because of the problems they create with cohesion amongst their students. One of the schools that continued to allow them was the Atheneum. The headmistress was Ms Heremans, and at her school between 2006 and 2008 the proportion of Muslim pupils increased from half to 80%. A trend had set in where the Muslim pupils were becoming more and more withdrawn from normal society, even though outside the school they were evidently freer to dress more liberally!
“'At the beginning, I didn't see a problem,' she explains. But then, a number of 'very conservative' families moved their daughters to the school. By 2007 about 15 girls came to school wearing all-concealing robes and gloves, with only their faces showing. Ms Heremans confronted them. 'I said: 'You're stigmatising yourselves. You're breaking with society by wearing those clothes.' The girls replied that she was stigmatising them. Pupils began donning longer scarves. Others started covering up at school, even though teachers saw the same girls walking in the streets unveiled. When questioned, such girls said they felt uncomfortable at school without head coverings. In 2007 it proved impossible to organize a two-day school trip to Paris - a long-standing annual treat for 15-year-old pupils. 'Suddenly it was a problem for girls to stay overnight. Their older brothers had to come too,' Ms Heremans says. Most of all, an oppressive 'heavy' atmosphere hung over the schoolyard.
On September 1st Ms Heremans reluctantly reversed herself and banned headscarves at her school. [...] About 100 of the school's 580 pupils have left. Local politicians have raised fears that some may not get an education at all. On September 11th the Flemish education board banned religious symbols in all 700 secular state schools under its control, including the Atheneum. (Religious schools remain free to set dress codes.) It was the opposite of what Ms Heremans once sought, she admits. 'But now I feel supported.' Some older girls quietly thanked her, saying: 'You've no idea of the pressure we were under.'”
It was the simple case that the religious dress of the pupils was interfering more and more with the normal operating of the school; in these cases, it is for the best to do what is required to keep the school running well, rather than sacrifice the quality of education and socialisation. Also, the factors at play were undermining the freedom of the children to dress how they pleased so, ironically, banning a certain style of dress made pupils freer, not more restricted.
Extremists have reacted against the laws which limit their ability to enforce dress codes on women, sometimes with violence. Take Mohammed Merah, a French national originally from Algeria, whose story was told by The Economist (2012)9. His beliefs led him to the wild conclusion that in order to be rewarded by God and thusly to live forever in paradise, he had to conduct a series of terror attacks in France. He did so, killing four adults and three children. He did it because in France, no-one is allowed to wear complete face and body coverings in public. But his victims included members of an Israeli family who were not even French and therefore were completely unrelated to the ban on complete body coverings - Mohammed Merah's excuse was that he also opposed Israel because it was also an enemy of Islam. When they raided his house on 2014 Mar 22, he shot and killed three paratroopers, before being himself killed. Try to imagine, exactly, how it is that this immoral monster can think that God endorses his actions? Because he has very strange beliefs, but not only that, but that he believes he must act on those beliefs no matter what. Only religion can instil such a dramatic sense of ultimate urgency and divine necessity upon murderers.
Current edition: 2017 Feb 24
Parent page: Human Religions
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The Economist. Published by The Economist Group, Ltd. A weekly newspaper in magazine format, famed for its accuracy, wide scope and intelligent content. See vexen.co.uk/references.html#Economist for some commentary on this source..
The Independent. UK newspaper. See Which are the Best and Worst Newspapers in the UK?. Respectable and generally well researched UK broadsheet newspaper.
Brems, Eva. Professor of Human Rights Law at Ghent University, Belgium.
(2014, Ed.) The Experiences of Face Veil Wearers in Europe and the Law. Hardback book. Published by Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK.