"The burqa is a massive attack on the rights of women. It is a mobile prison", Silvana Koch-Merin stated. Silvana, a German representative of the European Parliament, called for a ban on face-covering veils throughout Europe [1].There are many kinds of islamic veils, such as the niqab, burqa, chador, and khimar (see picture below). The Arabic word 'Hijab', which is closely linked with the concept of the islamic veil, means "to cover", "barrier" or "partition". In the context of the islam the word however has a broader meaning. It is concerned with modesty, privacy and morality. Besides the reference to the covering of the head of a woman, the word 'hijab' also refers to the modest dress style of a woman in general.

The wearing of full faced veils in public, such as the niqab (The whole body and face are covered except for the eyes) and the burqa (full coverage of body, face and the eyes, which are covered by a mesh screen), has lead to heated discussions and political turmoil in Europe. Besides this the fear of terrorism and islamic fundamentalism led to a less tolerant attitude towards islamic minorities in Europe. It was felt by many that wearing full-face covering veils in public - a symptom of growing islamic influence in European culture - clashes with the European and national secular identity.

The controversial issue has led to a number of national proposals for a law to ban the public use of the full-faced veil and the burqa. This led to criticism and further debate : does the banning of the burqa and niqab violate the freedom of religion of islamic minorities? Or should the secular state ban these religious symbols because they could pose a threat to security, national identity and the principles of the secular state?

Those who are against the public use of these full-face covering veils argue that the burqa and niqab arean expression of sexual discrimination and the violation of the rights of women; expressions of sexual inequality and male dominance. However, the current political debate and discussion of a ban of the face covering veil has been criticised by human rights organizations. Amnesty International for example, said that the planned Belgian law to ban the face covering veil "would violate the right to the freedom of expression, and of religion, of women who choose to express their identity or their beliefs in this way" [2].

In 2004 France accepted a law which outlaws the wearing of face veils in government buildings and primary and secondary school. Earlier this month the French Parliament decided to approve a ban on the full faced veil or niqab in public. In September the Senate will decide whether the law will pass. Other European countries have similar proposals in the pipeline.

On Tuesday July 20, 2010, the lower house of Spain rejected a proposal to ban the burqa. Nevertheless this fall the Spanish government plans to introduce legislation in order to ban the burqa in government buildings as part of Spain's Religious Freedom Bill, which is to be debated in the fall [3]. Belgium awaits Senate approval of a law banning the wearing of face veils in public. In Italy also measures have been taken to push back the wearing of the veil and islamic swim suits in public.

On the other hand, in The Netherlands, general public use of the veil is not prohibited. But the judiciary and civil servants in uniform are forbidden to wear a veil while they are excercising their profession. Public schools may not forbid the wearing of veils but confessional schools may ban the wearing of veils under special circumstances [4]. In the United Kingdom, a veil that covers the face is not forbidden. The British immigration minister Brian Green stated that to ban the face covering veil would be "rather un-British" and run contrary to the conventions of a "tolerant and mutually respectful society" and is therefore "undesirable". [5]. The Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) voted unanimously to reject any general prohibition on the wearing of the burqa or other religious clothing [6].

Several arguments are made in favor of the proposed bans of the islamic veil. For example, wearing face covering veils in public is disadvantageous to security. For security reasons it is also required that on the photographs of identity papers and driver's licences the whole face is visible. Another argument is that the burqa and the niqab could be seen as an expression of male domination and sexual inequality. The reason that women have to wear these body and face covering veils is that women are objectified as sex objects. According to islamic rules, a woman should cover her head (and breast) and wear modest clothing in order to keep her modesty and dignity and avoid evoking sexual feelings in other men besides her husband. Those in favor of banning public use of the burqa argue that most women wear these coverings because they are coerced to do so and that they would not wear it voluntarily.

In her opinion blog in the NYTimes, "Veiled threats" , Martha Nussbaum argues that not all the arguments in favor of outlawing the burqa are consistent [7]. For example, not only islamic women cover their faces in public life - so do dentists, physicians, skieers, football players, etc. And when it is freezing it is sensible to cover the head and face as best as possible to prevent it from the cold. Another inconsistency is that some islamic women do choose to wear the veil voluntarily. They regard the wearing of a veil as a part of their cultural and religious identity. The veil makes it possible for islamic women to take part in social life, while keeping their dignity. In their opinion, by wearing a veil, and opting for modest clothing, make-up and accessories, they also avoid the risk of drawing unwanted attention from men with unworthy intentions.

Certain Muslim organisations complained that the desire to safeguard the principles of secularism and the separation of state and religion is going too far. For example, Mohammed Bechari, president of the National Federation of French Muslims asked: "Where does it begin or end; what we are calling radical behavior?"['8]. The need to safeguard the laicité (separation of church and state) could lead to further bans related to wearing religious symbols and clothing styles in public. "Will we see a man refused citizenship because of the length of his beard ... or a man who is dressed as a rabbi, or a priest?"[9] The debate about the banning of the burqa and niqab is perhaps just an aspect of a growing secularist tendency.

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[1] As quoted from MEP calls for Europe-wide burqa ban The Parliament.com
[2] As quoted from MEP calls for Europe-wide burqa ban The Parliament.com
[3] As quoted from Spain lower house rejects proposal to ban burqa, Jurist
[4] Hoofddoek (headscarf), Wikipedia
[5] As quoted from
Burka ban ruled out by immigration minister, The Telegraph
Spain lower house rejects proposal to ban burqa, Jurist
"Veiled Threats" by Martha Nusbaum, The New York Times
[8] As quoted from
Burqa is a prison, says French minister The Telegraph
[9] As quoted from Burqa is a prison, says French minister The Telegraph


Muslim headscarves. Source: BBC News

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One Response to The Islamic veil, secularism and freedom of religion

  1. http://religion.blogs.cnn.com/2010/09/14/french-senate-approves-burqa-ban/?iref=allsearch

    The French Senate approves the Burqa Ban.

    A Burqa (and similar clothing meant to "cover up women") is generally being used as a tool of repression of women and to donate their status as "Property of their husband."

    The "religious excuse" is just that; an excuse brought forward on grounds of "religious freedom" as if religion has anything to do with this tool of oppression.

    The "Veil"/"Niqab"/"Harem" has been used before the time of Islam or any other religion in order to denote the property of women to their husbands.

    But those times are past and this is the 21st century and this is Europe.

    If states decide that women should carry veils/cover themselves by law (as States like Saudi Arabia and Iran do) and no-one cries about that, then it stands to reason that states deciding that this is not accaptable for reasons of integration, security and protection (like France) should also be allowed to make laws like that.

    France should have the support of all wellthinking people in Europe.

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