The governments of Belgium and France have both been working in recent days on laws aimed at banning the Islamic veil. Given that this is very much a minority practice in these countries, and one that doesn’t seem to cause any real problems, it is hard to see these efforts to ban the veil as anything other than a sop to right-wing, anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim sentiment.
Belgian government collapses: “The collapse of the Belgian government has thrown into doubt plans to pass a law that would ban Islamic veils in public.
MPs had been expected to pass a law today that would have made Belgium the first European country to ban the wearing of the burqa, which covers the face and body, or the niqab, which covers the face.
The bill, which has been criticised by human rights campaigners as a violation of the fundamental right to freedom of religion, was approved unanimously by the lower chamber’s home affairs committee last month.
The law would make it a crime to be in a public place with one’s face partially or wholly concealed in a way that would make identification impossible. Violators would be subject to a fine of €15-€25 (£12-£21) with a possible prison sentence of one to seven days.
A similar move is being considered in France, where President Nicolas Sarkozy has ordered legislation paving the way for a total ban on the full Islamic veil. Sarkozy is moving ahead on the ban despite the advice of experts who warned that such a broad ban risked contravening France’s constitution.
Sarkozy has repeatedly said that such clothing oppresses women and is ‘not welcome’ in France. A government spokesman, Luc Chatel, said after yesterday’s weekly cabinet meeting that the president decided the government should submit a bill to parliament in May on an overall ban on burqa-like veils.
‘The ban on veils covering the whole face should be general, in every public space, because the dignity of women cannot be put in doubt,’ Chatel said.
Muslim leaders in France say that the face-covering veil is not a religious requirement of Islam but have cautioned against banning the garment. Of France’s estimated 5 million Muslims, only a tiny minority wear the full veil. Some critics of the ban have warned that such a move will serve merely to reinforce the alienation of those women from mainstream society.
Human Rights Watch has strongly criticised planned legislation to ban face-covering veils on human rights and practical grounds.
‘Bans like this lead to a lose-lose situation,’ said Judith Sunderland, senior western Europe researcher at Human Rights Watch. ‘They violate the rights of those who choose to wear the veil and do nothing to help those who are compelled to do so.’
The group argues that there is no evidence that wearing the full veil in public threatens public safety, public order, health, morals, or the fundamental rights and freedoms of others – the only legitimate grounds for interference with fundamental rights, it said. Rather than help women who are coerced into wearing the veil, a ban would limit, if not eliminate, their ability to seek advice and support.
( via guardian.co.uk. )
Obviously, efforts to combat discrimination and oppression and violence against women – Christian, Muslim, or what have you – are more than welcome. However given the wide range of problems and inequalities that women still face, even so many decades after the start of the women’s movement, arguing against the veil because it “oppresses women” seems like an extremely cynical move to pass off an anti-immigrant/anti-Muslim move under the guise of feminism.
If the French government were really concerned about the oppression of women, I’m sure they could have found measures that would have had a much greater impact than banning the veil. When Sarkozy says that the veil is “not welcome” in France, I think a lot of people are going to hear him as really saying that it is Muslims that are “not welcome.”
In this regard – in terms of the laws’ failure to really address the oppression of women, and the likelihood of anti-Muslim sentiment being the primary driving force behind them – the point made by Human Rights Watch seems to me to take on additional significance: such laws “violate the rights of those who choose to wear the veil and do nothing to help those who are compelled to do so.”
One last thought: laws that “make it a crime to be in a public place with one’s face partially or wholly concealed” would seemingly also apply to protesters – such as Black Bloc-ers…