In the Atlantic, Sigal Samuel analyses the recent spate of the banning of the Muslim veil by European countries. Joining limitations on the wearing of these garments which have already been enforced in France, Belgium, Bulgaria, the Netherlands, and Austria, Denmark has just introduced a ban on any “garment that hides the face in public”, a move which is widely considered to be specifically aimed at targeting Islamic veils like the niqab and the burqa. This debate is not solely European; it has also been taking place in Canada and Australia.
Samuel observes that, “Despite regional differences, a similar pattern of events has recurred in some of the countries”. In the cases of France, Quebec, and Austria, the pattern begins with the proposition of the banning of the veil by politicians, despite the fact that the veil is only worn by a small amount of women. These politicians “argue that a ban will promote integration, or public safety, or that wearing a veil is inconsistent with national values like gender equality”. While few legal challenges are proposed, the topic is widely debated publically and in the press, ultimately ending with the ban being passed into law.
The next stage of the pattern sees Muslims and non-Muslims protest and another round of public debate. Samuel adds, “With time, reports indicate that discrimination against Muslims is rising in the country. Many Muslim women begin to hold more tightly to their religious identity, and some who didn’t wear the veil before the ban now start wearing it as an act of protest. Some others opt to stay home, though it’s impossible to say how widespread the phenomenon is”.
And then, Samuel notes, the ban backfires, as it becomes clear that it had the opposite of its intended effect of promoting gender equality. Then another country introduces its own ban and the whole process begins again, as Denmark’s recent legislation, which follows over nine years of debate on the issue, has demonstrated. Denmark’s ban should also be expected to backfire.
The recurring theme in the backfiring of these bans, as discussed above, is the fact that they are ultimately shown to work against the gender equality they are supposedly working to promote. While President Nicolas Sarkozy framed the French banning of headscarves in schools in 2004 and the banning of full-face veils from public spaces in 2010 in this way, declaring “It is a question of freedom and of women’s dignity. The burqa is not a religious sign. It is a sign of the subjugation, of the submission, of women”, the ban was regarded by many as denying women the liberty to wear what they want. In some cases, women began wearing the burqa after the ban was introduced as a form of protest, a phenomenon sociologist Jeffrey Reitz calls ‘reactive ethnicity’. Similar sentiments exist in Denmark. In the words of Sabina, a 21 year old Muslim living in Copenhagen whom Samuel interviewed, “The niqab is a huge part of my identity. It’s a very spiritual choice – and now it has also become a sign of protest”.
She added, “I actually believe that whenever politicians make these discriminatory laws, we only get stronger. We feel that this ban has made us a lot more vocal, brave, and strong. We are encouraging even more omen to wear the niqab. It has already resulted in me being more firm in my beliefs and holding more tightly to my niqab”.
As well as threatening individual liberties, banning the veil has also been shown to promote anti-Muslim violence. A report by the Open Society Foundation last year found that more Muslim women in France were staying at home in the wake of the ban because they felt at risk in society from members of the public emboldened by the legislation. This also undermines the ban’s supposed aim of gender equality; the report notes, “Restrictions on the movement and security of women in the public space has had significant detrimental consequences on their physical and mental health and on their relationships”. A similar correlation between discussion of ban on the veil (which has not been passed) and a rise in incidents of anti-Muslim hate towards women has also been seen in Canada and has been flagged up by several women’s organisations.
The sociologist Agnès De Féo observes that so-called burqa bans create discrimination and marginalisation amongst the whole Muslim community, “which feels that such measures, with such publicity, for such a small number of users, is a way of telling Muslims that … they are strangers”.
Bans have also been shown to be counter-productive through the unintended consequences they have resulted in. In Austria, where only about 150 people wear the veil, most of those arrested under the legislation were not veiled Muslims, but instead included people earing fancy dress, Asian tourists wearing anti-pollution masks, and “a leukaemia patient who’d been ordered to wear a mask to protect his immune system”.
So why do countries keep passing these laws? A theme that occurs throughout these debates is populism. In Denmark for example, shifts in public opinion over recent years has meant that a majority of the population now view Islam as threatening and this has pushed it high on the agenda in political rhetoric. As Stig Hjarvard, a professor at the University of Copenhagen, observes, the populist right have exploited these sentiments, and the wider trend for identity politics, by enacting the burqa ban. This trend is seen in other recent legislative decisions, such as requiring that children living in Muslim-majority immigrant communities in Denmark receive training in “Danish values”.
The European Court of Human Rights has consistently backed these bans in favour of countries determining what they think will promote public safety and social cohesion. In light of this, and in spite of the arguments disproving its effectiveness and proving its damaging consequences, it’s likely the burqa ban in Denmark will remain in place.
Open Societies Foundation. (2013) ‘After the Ban: The Experiences of 35 Women of the Full-Face Veil in France’. [online]. Accessible here: https://www.opensocietyfoundations.org/sites/default/files/after-the-ban-experience-full-face-veil-france-20140210.pdf.
Samuel, S. (2018) ‘Banning Muslim Veils Tends to Backfire – Why Do Countries Keep Doing It?’ [online] 3 August. https://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2018/08/denmark-burqa-veil-ban/566630/?utm_source=fbb. [Accessed 6 August 2018].