Integration: Battle of the burka
25 June 2009
Whether it's the burka in France, or the niqab or headscarf in Belgium, the debate about whether to ban certain Islamic forms of dress is back on the European agenda. The European press has been weighing up the issue at a national level about the need to legislate or not.
In France, the debate on burkas (long robes that entirely cover the face and body worn by some Muslim women) was recently relaunched by a communist member of parliament. On 17 June, André Gerin submitted a proposal to create "a parliamentary commission of enquiry on the wearing of burkas or niqabs [which reveal the area around the eyes] on French national territory." A few days later, at a congress that brought together both houses of the French parliament in Versailles, President Sarkozy announced his position when he declared that "Burkas are not welcome on French national territory."
In the Daily Telegraph Cassandra Jardine wonders what would happen if the Queen of England went before a combined meeting of the House of Lords and Commons to announce that her government intended to "ban the burka?" Nothing of the kind is likely to happen in a country that tolerates the wearing of religious symbols, though the idea might be favourably received by some members of the Muslim community. Dr Taj Hargey of the Muslim Education Centre of Oxford praises the French President's initiative, and describes the growing belief that Muslim women should cover their faces as "doctrinaire brain-washing." Other Muslims were outraged to the point where they wondered if Nicolas Sarkozy had ever spoken to any of France's four million Muslims. They were also puzzled by the fact that he should choose to target the burka, which is only worn by 5% of Muslim women. Muslim News journalist Ahmed Versi remarks that when Labour Minister Jack Straw complained that he felt "uncomfortable" talking to someone whose face he could not see, “more women began to wear veils just to defy him.”
In France, there is a consensus that an enquiry should be undertaken to establish the extent of the phenomenon which jars with French social and cultural mores, but commentators have expressed doubts about the usefulness of a legalistic approach. In Le Monde, Hassan Safoui, the leader of the 15 March Committee, an association which advises Muslim schoolgirls on the 2004 law banning religious symbols in schools, questions the ability of legislation "to draw a distinction between someone who is forced to wear a burka and someone who wears one voluntarily." With a view to identifying people, managers of some public buildings like town halls, railway stations and banks, can refuse access to people wearing burkas or niqabs. But is it possible to regulate what adults wear in the street, without specifically targeting Muslims?
In Belgium, the election to the Brussels regional parliament of a veil-wearing representative – Mahimur Özdemir – and a Ministry of Justice proposal to allow civil servants to wear the veil, has reignited controversy on the issue of religious symbols and the non-interference of the state. Michel Konen, editor of La Libre Belgique reminds readers of the manner in which the issue is managed in Turkey. In 1999, a Turkish parliamentarian had her mandate withdrawn when she entered parliament wearing a veil. "In Brussels in 2009, should we be more indulgent with regard to individuals who want to display symbols of their religious opinions in the chambers where laws are decided?" wonders Konen. "Over the last two centuries, Western governments have been right to separate church and state, so as to safeguard freedom of speech. Now that these democratic values are well established, should we seek to prevent members of a parliament, where all manner of opinions both secular and religious can be freely expressed, from showing their allegiance to a particular religion?" In Flanders, debate has been heated since a high school in Anvers announced that it was banning the wearing of visible religious symbols next autumn. "The problem is that if we limit one personal freedom we will also inhibit the expression of a second personal freedom: when women no longer have the right to wear a veil, their right to not wear a veil disappears and they are simply left with an obligation not to wear one," says Rik Torfs, a professor of religious law at the University of Louvain, writing in De Standaard.
Mayrem Almaci, a Green party member of the Belgian federal parliament, believes that a ban would not reduce the pressure on young Muslim women, but would simply displace it onto other questions like "the length of their skirts, or their hairstyles and make-up […] Instead of undermining "victims", schools, communities and societies should attempt to influence boys' behaviour."