“It is more likely that such laws – so obviously targeting the adherents of one religious faith – would further stigmatise these women and lead to their alienation from the majority society. Banning women dressed in the burqa/niqab from public institutions like hospitals or government offices may only result in them avoiding such places entirely. This is not liberation.”
The press release cited an Open Society Foundations report which found that of 32 women interviewed, all of whom wore the face-veil in France, 30 had been verbally abused and some also physically assaulted. Such experiences mean that the women prefer now to limit time spent outside of their homes. This demonstrates how such legislation risks isolating elements of the Muslim community rather than integrating them.
Hammarberg highlighted that debates on relatively trivial matters such as the niqab have sidetracked the debate away from more important issues,
“The way the dress of a small number of women has been portrayed as a key problem requiring urgent discussion and legislation is a sad capitulation to the prejudices of the xenophobes.
“Much deeper problems of intercultural tensions and gaps have been sidetracked by the burqa and niqab discussions. Instead of encouraging this unfortunate discourse, political leaders and governments should take more resolute action against hate crimes and discrimination against minorities.”
In earlier comments in 2010, he stated that bans on the niqab and burqa may be an invasion of individual privacy and contravene the European Convention of Human Rights,
“Two rights in the Convention are particularly relevant. One is the right to respect for one’s private life and personal identity (Article 8). The other is the freedom to manifest one’s religion or belief “in worship, teaching, practice and observance” (Article 9).
He stated that limitations on such legislation may be implemented “in the interests of public safety, for the protection of public order, health or morals, or for the protection of the rights and freedoms of others.” However, those arguing for bans on the burqa and niqab have not managed to demonstrate any of these, and the fact that very small numbers of women wear such attire makes arguments for bans very unconvincing.
He also argued that there is no way to prove that women who wear it are any more oppressed than other women, and that “Those who have been interviewed in the media have presented a diversity of religious, political and personal arguments for their decision to dress themselves as they do”.
Hammarberg argued that many arguments for bans on the niqab and burqa are “clearly Islamophobic” because they focus on what is perceived as Muslim dress. He emphasises the need to discuss these issues openly, “However, attempts should be made to broaden the discourse to cover essential matters, including how to promote understanding of different religions, cultures and customs. Pluralism and multiculturalism are essential European values and should so remain.”
Hammarberg’s comments come as Belgium prepares to enforce a ban on the burqa from this Saturday the 23rd July. Individuals contravening the ban will face a €137.50 fine and up to 7 days in prison. It is estimated that just 270 people wear a full-face veil in Belgium.
Belgium will be the second European country to enforce such legislation after France, who enforced its ban from 11 April 2011.
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