Is France/Belgium right to ban Muslim women from wearing religious veils in public?
Introduction: The debate on whether Muslim women should be allowed to wear religious veils in public has received huge media attention across Europe lately. This is because some European countries have banned the wearing of veils (such as the burqa or niqab) that largely cover the face in public. This has drawn huge criticisms from some in the Muslim communities not just in Europe but across the world – though it is worth remembering that many Muslims dislike the veil too and only a very small number wear it. Some Muslims consider the wearing of veils by women as a way of life and religion, though the habit is cultural and not demanded by any religious text; European authorities believe that these women are forced by their husbands and other male relatives in the patriarchy to wear these veils (Bullock, 2002). In the latter case, wearing of veils no longer remains a matter of choice or a way of life. Instead, it comes as an act of oppression from the Muslim men who compel their wives and other female relatives to move about with these veils. European authorities strongly condemn Muslim men (and culture) forcing women to wear veils (Wenthworth, 2008). This is because forcing a woman to wear a religious veil in public is depriving her of her basic human rights and freedoms. This essay will attempt to answer the above question on whether it is right or wrong for France and Belgium to ban Muslim women from wearing religious veils in public.
Case Study: France and Belgium
In late September, the French Senate voted to introduce a new law to ban women from wearing the burqa-style Islamic veil in public. The new law would only affect about 2000 women in France who still wore these veils (Akoachere, 2010). The Senate voted 246-1 and has now made the ban law. Although French authorities have hailed the new law for defending French values and its traditional separation of religion and state, as well as its defence of human rights, critics believe that it is unfair to introduce a legislation that deprives some Muslim women of their right to freely exercise their religion. In order to ensure that the new law is not criticised, the French Senate will ask its constitutional watch dog to review the law. After its validation, anyone seen appearing in public with such a veil would be severely punished (Le Saux, 2010). Fines for those wearing the veils have been set at 150 euros. Even tougher fines await anyone who forces another to wear any of these veils – male or female (as arguably, often the women in Muslim communities are the most conservative). The new law expects those who force others to wear these veils to pay a fine of 30,000 Euros (Le Saux, 2010). It is important to note that numerous reports of studies carried out by French NGOs suggest that most of the women wearing these veils are forced to do so by their husbands and other male relatives (Le Saux, 2010). But when asked in public, they would claim they choose to do so in order to avoid being punished by these men. France is the first European Union member nation to make this ban become a law. It is widely expected that others would do the same in the medium or long term future – for security reasons, if nothing else.
In April this year, Belgium banned Muslim women from wearing Islamic veils in public. The ban was acclaimed by many Belgians who considered it as a threat to their traditional way of life. Belgium’s lower chamber of the parliament quickly adopted the bill with a 100% vote (Kope, 2010). No-one in parliament objected to the said bill. In Belgium, the ban states that defaulters would be penalised with a fine which may go up to 25 Euros or seven days in jail, and in some cases, those who are caught wearing the veils might be sanctioned through the fine and jail term. In Belgium, security experts have hailed the new law saying it is important for every citizen to be identifiable in the public. This is because security cameras are quite helpful in resolving crimes. But when individuals are filmed by these cameras wearing either the burqa or the niqab, it becomes difficult to quickly identify whoever is filmed (Kope, 2010). If individuals are allowed to freely wear these veils in public, criminals and terrorists can easily hide behind these veils and go unidentified in the surveillance system, for example. For the security and safety of the public, it is good to enforce the new law that would ensure that every one is easily identified (Kope, 2010). In Belgium, some organisations have hailed the law as a liberator for the hundreds of Muslim women who are forced to wear these veils by their relatives and ‘village’ culture.
Can the Ban be justified?
In reaction to the new legislation, Islamic militants have continued to post video threats on the Internet condemning the move which they consider unjust. These groups have threatened to launch huge scale terror attacks against Belgium for banning these veils which they consider as religion and one of their various ways of worship. However, it is important to note that senior Muslim leaders and scholars say that the veils are not an Islamic requirement. These veils are relatively new and can be traced back to the 1979 Iranian revolution in some Muslim countries (Woodgate, 2010). Islam does not require that women hide their faces before appearing in public. This practice has been forced by conservative Muslim men who prefer to hide their wives and relatives behind these veils (Akoachere, 2010). Meanwhile some women’s rights organisation in Belgium stress the fact that the ban is expected to ensure that the Muslim women in Belgium live in freedom, Muslim critics think that forcing them to wear these veils is oppressing them (Dolliver, 2004). However, like France, Belgium is becoming more and more open as it continues to welcome immigrants from the newly admitted EU member nations (Dolliver, 2004). Despite its commitment to welcome new communities into her country, the Belgian government intends to also preserve traditional Belgian customs and values – which are essentially Western values of pluralism and tolerance. This explains why some argue that Belgium should not allow men (or women, or cultural pressures) to force women to wear religious veils in public (Wenthworth, 2008).
Despite all the progress that has been made across Europe on gender equality, it is shocking to learn about the high rate of women’s rights abuse that reigns within some Muslim communities across Europe (Bowen, 2004). Women within the Muslim community in France, for instance, are treated with a great deal of discrimination by their male counterparts. Wearing of face-covering veils in public has been cited as one of the many ways through which Muslim men oppress their wives. Most of the French Muslim community is made up of immigrants from Africa, the Middle East and Eastern Europe (Bowen, 2004). These men have travelled to France with their old ‘village’ customs and traditions as inherited from their parents in their various home countries. France has vowed that this attitude would not continue on French soil considering that France has her own values and tradition which she is not ready to give up (Bowen, 2004). Some critics fear that the new law is a blow to the Muslim religion, but it is important to note that some Muslim leaders in France hold that wearing of veils that cover the face is not required by Islam (Woodgate, 2010) and only a tiny minority of the more extreme Muslims wear this impractical garb anyway. That notwithstanding, these leaders believe that introducing a law that forbids these women from wearing these veils would instead stigmatise France’s Muslim population; it is doubtful that any other communities’ members would be allowed to wear such face coverings: people are frightened of Islamic terrorism and this cowardice and appeasement perhaps make them tolerate the more extreme Muslims and cave in to all their demands.
Wearing religious veils in public is a way of stratification. This is because it quickly announces the religious affiliation of who ever wears them and can lead to social ills such as favouritism and hatred in some cases (Wenthworth, 2008). It is possible that a Muslim man who meets two women on the street or an office with one of them wearing a veil and the other not wearing a veil would quickly identify with the one wearing a veil – though, as said before, most Muslim women do not wear veils. For this reason, it is preferable that Muslim women move without these veils so that they can move without symbols of their religious affiliation (Akoachere, 2010). This is not to say that discriminating between two people on the basis of their religion is correct, though this issue is about culture, really, and politics – not religion per se (which, in its text The Koran, recommends slavery and child rape too, it must be remembered!). Even though this is wrong, many people would be tempted to treat some women better because they have a common religious affiliation. On the other hand, this could lead to hatred. There are people who do not like a particular religion and once they identify a woman wearing a veil as from that religion, she might not be treated the same way as her counterpart who does not wear a veil.
In Muslim countries, the men almost always relegate women to the background and take the forefront when it comes to the social, political and religious aspects of life – though women arguably ‘rule the home’. The Koran is mostly read and interpreted by men (Joppke, 2009). Unfortunately, most of these men interpret the Koran in a way that protects most if not all their interests. They do not care about the way their interpretations of the holy book affect women in their communities. As a result, they blend extremist ideology with the Koran and then deliver these lectures to their women who are defenceless and unable to challenge their teachings. These women have little or no choice and just have to do like the men say even though they might not agree with the men. Many Muslim women do agree with these interpretations, however, too.
(Bowen, 2004). It is important to note that many Muslim women do not even know that the veils they put on are not required by the Islamic religion. As a result, they arguably continue to be oppressed by the men, their Imams and their culture. Much of what the men teach the women is based on the traditions of the Middle Eastern people – village peasants actually – and not on the teachings of the Koran (Wenthworth, 2008). This backwards ‘Wahabi’ culture has been promoted around the world by Saudi oil dollars in recent years. There is therefore a misunderstanding between the religion and culture in many Muslim countries. Culture is taught as religion and this lead to confusion and ignorance amongst uneducated Muslim women. It is difficult to draw a line between the Koran and culture in many Muslim nations, however.
Some human rights groups like Amnesty international have condemned the move to ban religious veils in public, though many members disagree with this stance. The global rights group defends its position by saying that those banning these veils are contradicting the very principles on which their countries are founded and challenging their own constitutions (Kope, 2010). If France and Belgium have to stick to their values, then one of the things they have to guarantee to both their citizens and those living in their territory from abroad is religious freedom (though most argue that veils are cultural and not religious at all!). If some members of the Muslim community have decided to start wearing veils as part of their personal devotional requirements, then they should not be challenged for doing so (Kope, 2010). Instead, these women should be allowed to wear these veils so long as they are doing so for the sake of their religion. Preventing them from wearing these veils is arguably usurping some of the freedoms guaranteed by the French and Belgian constitutions. One wonders, however, if the same people would be as tolerant to any white, non-religious citizens who decided to celebrate their ancient culture by wearing Halloween masks or painting their faces blue!
To conclude, the move to ban religious veils in France and Belgium is a complex one. This is because it depends on the angle from which the issue is examined. Considering the current geopolitical climate in which we live and the increase in terror-related activities, one might be tempted to think that it is logical to ban these veils because they can be used by violent criminals and terrorists who would want to go unnoticed by security and could kill thousands in the name of Islam. Besides making sure that everyone who moves in public can be easily identified, these veils tell the story of the oppression experienced by many Muslim women in Europe. Many of these women are forced to wear veils; it is not an issue of choice. This is a violation of the very principles and values that guide most Western European nations including France and Belgium. In this light, the banning of the veil is the way through which the Belgium and France can initiate a process to liberate Muslim women from the grip of their husbands, Imams and culture. However, it is important to note that not all women wearing veils are forced to do so. Some of them do wear these veils as a matter of choice. So banning the veil would mean such women would be deprived of their preferred way of dressing when going to public places. Most would argue, however, that that is a small price to pay to prevent terrorism and encourage integration and defend Enlightenment values of pluralism and tolerance which do not mean that we have to tolerate the intolerable, of course. For many, myself included, the wearing of the veil is intolerable affront to decent and rational Western values which, it should not be forgotten, defend and protect the rights of everyone, including Muslims.
Akoachere, J. M. (2010) Gender Inequality In Islam, Chicago: Chicago University Press
Bowen, J.R. (2004) Beyond Migration: Islam as a Transnational Public Space, Journal of Ethnic Migration Studies, Volume. 30, Issue 5, pp. 879
Bullock, K. (2002) Rethinking Muslim Women and The Veil: Challenging Historical and Modern Stereotypes, The International Institute of Islamic Thought: Virginia (USA)
Dolliver, G. F. (2004) ‘Who says Muslim women are averse to changes?’ New York: Basic Books
Le Saux, J. P. (2010) France OKs Religious Veil Ban, Le Monde, October 28th Edition
Joppke, C. (2009) Veil-Mirror of Identity, Oxford: John Wiley and Sons Ltd.
Kope, J.F. (2010) Op-Ed Contributor: Tearing Away the Veil, The New York Times, May 4th Online Edition (http://www.nytimes.com/2010/05/05/opinion/05cope.html)
Wenthworth, J. O. (2008) The Fundamentals of Islam, New York: Palgrave
Woodgate, K. L. (2010) The Muslim Woman In France, New York: Basic Books