|Researchers at Queen Mary University of London and the University of Sussex have published a paper examining the legislative prohibitions on face-veiling in European countries. ‘Reasons to Ban? The Anti-Burqa Movement in Western Europe’, documents what is happening in the various European countries which have already prohibited face-veiling, or are taking steps towards it.|
The paper analyses why it is happening and the various arguments used to justify the criminalisation of the face veil. The paper finally “explores the implications for our understanding of contemporary (ethnically and religiously) diverse societies and their governance.”
In exploring the background of the debate, the paper identifies the “current rush to legislation” as set against the context of a “’backlash’ against multiculturalism”, as well as a ‘cultural anxiety’ which has set in amidst a “background of economic and political change and uncertainty”. The paper argues that immigration has been central to this debate, in which European Muslims and Islam has been subsumed in general discourses about integration, security and secularism. The paper explores the arguments used to support the banning of the face veil, including:
- Secularism and the role of religion in public life.
- Whether the face-veil is a religious prescription or a cultural practice.
- Face veiling as apart from ‘our’ European culture.
- Face-veiling, communication and integration.
- Face-veiling and its implications for women’s subordination and agency.
- Identification and security.
A news release on the research paper states the following:
“Banning and criminalising the Muslim face veil tests the very foundations of modern liberal society, warn researchers from Queen Mary, University of London and the University of Sussex.
“The European movement against face-veiling is now widespread, with calls to implement a ban, or a ban being in place, in France, Belgium, Italy, Spain, the Netherlands, Scandinavia, and Germany.
“This move from country to country makes it seem like a form of “political Swine Flu”, suggests the paper’s authors, Prakash Shah, Senior Lecturer at the School of Law, QM and Ralph Grillo, Emeritus Professor of Social Anthropology at Sussex.
“Face-veiling is capable of multiple interpretations, by those who wear it and those who do not, both Muslim and non-Muslim. Dr Shah explains: “While some claim that face-veiling is a customary rather than religious practice, others condemn it as an instance of ‘quintessential radical Islam’ – a Western extreme interpretation of Islam and Muslim practice.”
“Despite less than one per cent of Muslim women wearing the burqa or niqab in the West, critics also argue that the veil impedes societal integration and breeds ‘dangers inherent in self-enclosed communities’. It is seen as a symbol of the failure of the Muslim women who wear the veil to visibly declare their loyalty to the nation-state where they reside.
“In Britain, and other countries too, multicultural ‘diversity’ is officially welcomed, but not when interpreted as ‘difference’.
“Dr Shah says: “What was previously thought tolerable has now become unacceptable, and moreover, subject to the law. The legislation which has criminalised face-veiling has clearly originated with the belief, that face-veiling does not fit with European society, culture and values, and has all manner of disagreeable if not downright dangerous implications, especially for women.”
“Face-veiling signifies an unwelcome racial or cultural presence, making it impossible for Muslims to be treated as ‘European’ unless they adopt ‘European’ sartorial practice.
““Face-veiling is one of those issues… affected by a ‘repressive’ liberalism of the kind advocated by numerous European leaders, including Angela Merkel, Nicolas Sarkozy and David Cameron, often with racist undertones.
““The educative role of law is brought to bear upon ethnic and religious minorities in an effort to instruct, by force if necessary, the values of liberalism,” warns Professor Grillo.
“It is also clear that many opponents sincerely believe that whether a religious or cultural symbol, face veiling is a non-liberal practice that penalises and subordinates women.
“If women claim that they are not coerced into face-veiling but do so because it accords with their faith, then it is countered by saying, they have been ‘brainwashed’, notes the research.
“Freeing women from what is believed to be their submission to a patriarchal society, overrides their freedom to choose and express their religious beliefs. Anti-face-veiling discourse operates like a closed system, impervious to argument,” says Professor Grillo.
“Criminalisation, the researchers argue, should always be a last resort, not least when it may harm those it is supposed to assist, for example, forcing women who voluntarily adopt the face-veil to disappear from public life."
In their concluding remarks, the authors argue that ‘multicultural liberalism’ “it is at risk, and there is a need to re-assert and defend that kind of liberalism…on which multicultural liberalism depends.
“We contend that the contemporary veiling controversy represents a struggle for a hegemonic interpretation/authorization of what face-veiling means. Legislators have sought to impose a particular narrative of the face-veil, and it is unfortunate that they have taken it upon themselves to declare a position strongly against face veiling based on a number of narrow grounds, thus stifling or impeding what might otherwise be a ‘natural’ conversational and dialogical development among Muslims, and with non-Muslims, about the significance of the face-veil.”
The prohibitions on the face veil have had a significant impact on the life of women who choose to wear it. As testimony from those Muslim women affected by the French ban demonstrates (see here and here), their freedom of movement and their quality of life have been heavily circumscribed.
A report published by Amnesty International last month raised concerns about the way that legislation on Muslim women’s dress had contributed to the marginalisation of women who dress in a certain way by excluding some women from labour market participation. It highlighted how bans on face-veils have often been brought despite reliable data “and without consulting women affected by such prohibition.” It concluded that “Such legislation and policies are detrimental to women’s equality and autonomy”.
In the UK, there have been attempts by members of Parliament to introduce, or call for, bans on face veils. And in the current climate of hostility towards women who veil their faces, or wear headscarves, there have been a number of incidents recorded demonstrating the type of verbal and physical assaults Muslim women have been subjected to (see here, here and here).
Shah and Grillo’s co-authored research paper is available to download here.
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