Shawana Bilqes, 18, was stopped from enrolling in a UK college last October because she refused to take off her burkha. “I tried to compromise, but they wouldn’t listen,” she said, “The college sent me a letter saying I could continue with my course only if I stopped wearing the face veil.” John Smith, principal of Burnley College, which denied her admission, defended the decision thus: “The highest standards of learning require unimpeded communication with students. This is not possible if the face is not fully visible.”
In 2002, Shabina Begum, then a 16-year-old student, famously took Denbigh School in Bedfordshire to court for disallowing a jilbab—a long gown covering her body but not face—over her school uniform, which she considered too tight, revealing of her body’s contours, and thus against her beliefs. After four years of a protracted legal case that went to the country’s apex Law Lords, the case was adjudged in Denbigh’s favour. The Law Lords accepted that a person’s right to hold a particular religious belief was absolute, but the right to manifest it was qualified, and in this case there were justifiable grounds for interference, one of them being protecting the rights of other female students who would not want to be pressured into adopting an extreme form of dress.
In multicultural UK, such cases typically go by individual merit, and if you ignore the Far Right, no political party wants to ban the burkha. It’s a subject of debate. In other parts of Europe, however, tolerance has worn thin. A month ago, the Belgian parliament agreed unanimously on a law that would forbid full veiling (either burkha or niqab) in public, though the required senate approval may not be so easy, as some members are doubtful of the constitutionality of such a ban.
Last week, the French cabinet introduced a similar bill, which if passed by parliament would have publicly veiled women fined €150 and bundled off to attend a rehab programme on ‘French values’. The controversial draft is up for final ratification in July, when President Nicolas Sarkozy’s right-wing majority might push it through. “The full veil that hides the face completely harms those values which are fundamental to us, so essential to the republican compact,” Sarkozy told his cabinet members.
Such moral arrogance upsets Muslim women in the West who’ve adopted the veil voluntarily. “I can understand a niqab being banned because it hinders security, or even because it prevents communication between people who can’t see each other’s face. But claiming they’re doing it to protect Muslim women from their religion... I find that offensive,” says Shirin Rizvi, 26, who chooses to wear a hijab (headscarf).
Most Muslim scholars agree that a burkha or niqab is not obligatory in Islam. The faith advocates that a woman should dress in a way that guards her modesty, and leaves it up to the individual to interpret this. The different types of veils have their origins in various countries’ cultural traditions, not in Islam. Most practising Muslim women in the West simply cover their hair with a headscarf, leaving their face open. But France has already banned headscarves from schools, and now the burkha and niqab are under threat even on the streets.
‘Is this a war against niqab, a war against hijab, a war against women’s rights, or a war against Islam?’ asks a Muslim woman blogger, and her question finds resonance in many quarters. “Does wearing a niqab pose a security threat? Does it inhibit integration? Are face veils a symbol of female repression? Or is it the other way round—perhaps people need to respect Muslim women and their choice of clothing as an expression of religious freedom?” asks Ayisha Siddique, who wears a burkha by choice. “I chose to wear a burkha because I find it liberating. I decide who can see me and who can’t, and most importantly I feel free of the shackles of fashion. I feel empowered rather than coerced,” adds the mother of two boys.
“A complete ban on the covering of the face would violate the rights to freedom of expression and religion of those women who wear the burkha as an expression of their identity or beliefs,” says John Dalhuisen, Amnesty International’s expert on discrimination in Europe. Countering France’s security point, he argues that targeted restrictions in well-defined high-risk locations can do the job well enough. “Individuals may be required to reveal their faces when objectively necessary,” he says, “for instance, for identity checks. French law already allows for such limited restrictions.”
The Conseil d’Etat, France’s top legal advisory, has expressed serious reservations about whether such a general ban gels with the French constitution and the country’s obligations under international human rights law. A commission of the Council of Europe, a 47-nation human rights institution, has also opposed the ban, for ‘it would rob women of their freedom of expression and violate their religious freedoms’. Its rulings are binding on all Council of Europe member states.
Meanwhile, France’s opposition Socialists have challenged the ban, proposing a milder bill based on practical issues. “What we want is efficiency rather than symbolism,” said Jean-Marc Ayrault, the party’s leader in parliament. “We believe that banning it from the public sphere… risks stigmatising people and above all being totally ineffective because it would be unenforceable,” added Martine Aubry, Socialist leader.
Sarkozy has argued that the ban protects women from being pressurised into wearing a burkha. But, counters Dalhuisen, “For those women who are being coerced, the ban means they will either face state punishment if they go out in public—or more likely—they will be confined to their homes. This is counter-productive.” To tackle coercion, he adds, one must combat gender stereotypes and discriminatory attitudes.
The debate rages elsewhere too. In the Netherlands, many bills are on their way. Right-wing politician Geert Wilders is pushing especially hard for a ban on veils. But Job Cohen, the Labour mayor of Amsterdam, is also calling for a measure that would take away unemployment payments from burkha-clad women who turn down job offers at workplaces that require unveiled attendance. In Austria, the far-right Alliance for the Future party is looking for a burkha ban, which the Social Democratic Chancellor Werner Faymann has offered to support in principle, though his coalition partners have called for a debate on the issue. In Switzerland, which recently banned the construction of minarets, the burkha issue is yet to heat up for some reason, but majority opinion in Denmark is reportedly in favour of a ban; the country’s coalition partners in parliament are not quite as united, preferring merely to ‘fight against’ face veils. A law might run into trouble with the justice ministry, but schools, public sector institutions and companies are expected to clamp down hard.
Ironically, only a tiny minority of Muslim women in Europe wear the burkha, and they do so as a matter of right—to dress as one wants.