June Issue 2010

By | Opinion | Speaker's Corner | Published 14 years ago

The European tradition of secularism appears to be haunted by the Islamic veil. After Belgium became the first European country to ban the burqa in public places, many others such as France, Austria, and the Netherlands are trying to follow suit. And while the question is still up for debate in most places, France has taken the plunge and joined Belgium’s boat in placing a total ban on the burqa.

On May 18, French President Nicolas Sarkozy received full backing from the Council of State — France’s highest legal advisory body — to pass the legislation that imposes this ban. The banning of the veil is in accordance with the state view that such clothing is “an affront to the nation’s values.” Now if a woman is caught wearing one beyond the enforcement date, she will be charged a fine of €150, or can choose to take a citizenship course as punishment. Furthermore, fathers and other relatives who force their women to wear the burqa can face imprisonment for up to a year, or pay an exorbitant fine of €15,000.

Placing restrictions on women wearing the veil in the public sphere is as much a violation of their rights as is forcing them to wear it. Both violate basic human rights, but I am surprised as to why, for the West, the latter is an act of extremism but not the former. When Islamic countries force women to cover their heads within state premises it is considered as extremist, illiterate and conservative behaviour. But when western countries deprive Muslim women of their right to cover their face and body, it becomes justifiable and is accepted.

Many human rights organisations have raised their voice against the ban on the burqa. Amnesty International said a ban would set a “dangerous precedent.” In an official statement, they said it would “violate the rights of freedom of expression and religion of those women who wear the burqa or niqab as an expression of their identity and beliefs.”

“I’m not oppressed; it was my choice, I chose to wear the naqab” is a recurring refrain among the many women who have been living in the West for several years now and wearing the burqa of their own free will. With the law banning the burqa, they feel they are being discriminated against. “People should have the right to wear what they want to wear, the government should not dictate what people should wear.” Others treat it as an attack on their faith and are ready to pay a fine rather than stop wearing the veil.

The ban exposes the dual standards of the supposedly ‘liberal and secular’ West. The French president, who calls himself the most moderate leader, recently said: “The burqa has no place in France.” Moderate indeed!

There is speculation that the ban on the the veil will have serious consequences for European countries on the economic front. France is the second most popular holiday destination for Middle Eastern travellers after Britain, and veiled women are a common sight in the luxury stores on Paris’ shopping boulevards. The full-face veil is particularly common in the Gulf, and France now risks losing hundreds of thousands of Middle Eastern tourists who fear their privacy will be violated if the country enforces the ban.

According to the manager of a UAE-based travel agency, “People from this region are particularly sensitive about their privacy. They want to enjoy themselves without the fear of harassment.” A general manager at a Saudi-based travel agency says since most Middle Eastern tourists travel in family groups, if even one member in the group wears the veil, France will automatically be struck off their holiday destinations.

Some time back, the International Federation of Association Football (FIFA), the sport’s Zurich-based governing body, replaced the Iranian girls’ football team with Thailand’s for the upcoming Youth Olympic Games in Singapore as some of the Iranian girls covered their heads. FIFA had to lift that ban after a letter it received from the Iranian authorities that stated: “The entire world should respect Muslims’ rights and consider Islamic rules and values as a crucial factor when dealing with Muslim countries’ women football teams. If the hijab covers the hair without violating the rules of the game, the female footballers must be allowed to use it and the Iranian players should be allowed to participate in this summer’s Olympic games in Singapore.”

This, and President Obama’s statement, “In the United States our basic attitude is that we’re not going to tell people what to wear,” makes Muslims and all human rights organisations hope that Europe, particularly France, will review the ban on the burqa.

This article originally appeared in the June 2010 print version of Newsline under the shortened headline “The European Extremists.”

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