Europe: up to its eyes in the burqa

When it comes to legislation about the full Islamic veil, France is far from being the most repressive in comparison to its European neighbours. In Norway and the United Kingdom, the burqa may be part of the national identity, yet in certain parts of Belgium and Luxembourg, it is strictly forbidden outside the Carnival period.
Reactions to the burqa vary greatly from one country to another, even within the borders of Europe. Government bills are already being drawn in some EU countries. In the past four or five years, the full veil has become a hot topic across the continent. The wearing of the burqa is a controversial question not only in countries like France, where secularism is strongly defended, but also in countries like the United Kingdom, where multiculturalism has become a tradition. The first national laws may be voted as early on as 2009, and may spread like wildfire across the whole of Europe.

The Netherlands
In the Netherlands, the burqa debate was triggered off by the extreme right. However, there is now a general consensus across the different political parties on the necessity of legislating on the burqa. In 2005, Geert Wilders, famous author of the film Fitna, and currently an EMP (PVV : Party for Freedom) suggested that the full Islamic veil be banned across the country. At the end of the day, the ban was restricted to schools and public transport. Wishing to drive the matter further, current Minister of Education Ronald Plasterk proposed to ban the burqa from Dutch universities, arguing that schooling and education sometimes necessitate both verbal and nonverbal communication. It was not until 2008 that the debate hit the whole country : a parliamentary debate on the subject took place on October 19. During the debate, Immigration and Integration Minister Rita Verdonk expressed her wish to ban the burqa from public places and with it, "any other kind of headscarf that covers the face."
A commission – made up of legal experts, a specialist of Islam and an imam – was set up to report on the issue. To this day, no law has yet been voted. Local authorities may, however, ban these headscarves and transport companies are authorized to fix rules about the behaviour of their passengers. Interior Minister Guusje ter Horst is expected to issue a directive to directors and employees working in the public sector in the aim of banning the burqa and encouraging other local and regional authorities to fix similar rules.

Belgium and Luxembourg
Recently, the politician Anne-Marie Lizin suggested that a specific commission be set up to study the issue of the burqa (June 2009). This commission – working under the direct supervision of the Prime Minister – is to investigate on the current situation in order to acquire a better understanding of this phenomenon and subsequently make adequate proposals.
In 2005, MP François-Xavier de Donnea proposed a motion to forbid anyone from appearing in public wearing anything that covers their face. In Flanders, there has been a legal ban on the wearing of the burqa since 2004, and in some Belgian communes (Schaerbeek, Molenbeek, Anvers…), municipal injunctions state that "outside the Carnival period, no one may dress up as a transvestite or go around wearing a mask that covers the face, unless a special authorization is issued by the bourgmestre". Anyone breaking this rule may be fined 150 euros. According to a University study published in May 2008, 33 fines had been issued. In some parts of Luxembourg, similar injunctions have been introduced in order to ban the burqa.

Europe: up to its eyes in the burqa
"I appeal to Muslim women: Arrive in the present day, arrive in Germany – you live here, so take off the head scarf" Ekin Deligoz, an MP of Turkish descent, told Bild am Sonntag (the Sunday edition of the Bild newspaper) on October 15, 2008. Her position was backed by several other politicians of Turkish descent. Soon after, Ms Deligoz was placed under police surveillance, having received a number of death threats.
The issue was thus raised again, this time by the Muslim immigrant community itself. In 2006, two girls were excluded from a high school in Bonn after wearing the outfit imposed on women in Afghanistan. They could not take part either in physical education classes or lab work. The debate raged on when Erhart Körting, Senator for the Interior and Sports, authorised the wearing of burkinis (cover-all swimsuits ; the term derives from the words ‘bikini’ and ‘burqa’) in some Berlin swimming pools (December 2008). Turkish-born German sociologist Necla Kelek caused a stir when she compared the burkini to "a huge condom".

In Italy, the mayors representing the North League are at the forefront of the war against the burqa. The burqa is banned in the Azzano Decimo territory, an area counting 14000 inhabitants in the Friuli region (North-East Italy). Women may be fined 500 euros if they are found to be wearing the burqa.
Mayor Enzo Bortolotti said that there should be a national ban as the burqa prevents identification. Last April, another mayor, Giorgio Cancellieri (Fermignano), submitted a proposal to the Minister of Interior for an anti-burqa bylaw. The text suggests that any person wearing some kind of garment that covers the head and prevents their identification should be forbidden access to schools, communal buildings, banks and shops. They should also be forbidden from taking part in public protests. Other communes in North Italy are expected to submit similar proposals. At present, the only existing national legislation obliges those women who wear the full Islamic veil to uncover their face whenever the police require them to do so.

According to the Danish embassy, "there is no general legislation as far as the full Islamic veil is concerned. No bills have been proposed and no report has been commissioned to investigate the question of the burqa". The only restriction that exists applies to judges "who are not allowed to wear any political or religious symbol during the exercise of their functions in law courts".

In an official promotional video clip of Norway, one can catch a glimpse of a woman wearing the full Islamic veil. Should this be taken as a sign that the burqa has become part of the Norwegian identity ? The answer is not that straightforward. At the end of August 2007, the Minister of Justice declared that forbidding students from wearing clothing that covered the face partially or entirely was not in violation of the idea of freedom of religion as defined by the Convention of Human Rights.
The issue came up when two students attending a high school in Oslo starting wearing their niqab to class. Education Minister Oystein Djupedal encouraged educational institutions to ban any form of head garment that would also cover the face. Djupedal, however, did not go as far as proposing a bill on the subject. Oslo is currently the only city in Norway where the niqab is banned, but school bodies are authorized to do the same if they deem it necessary. Norway has also come back on the decision it had taken earlier on this year to authorize the headscarf within its police force. This decision had caused great uproar both in the police force and within the Muslim community itself.

United Kingdom
The UK is the most indulgent country when it comes to the wearing of the burqa in public places. Nevertheless the debate on the issue remains stormy. Women can wear the burqa at all times. The only exceptions are job interviews and competitive entrance examinations. In the North of the UK, one hospital even proposes a burqa patient’s gown. In October 2006, Minister Jack Straw declared that he was personally against the wearing of the full Islamic veil. His comment received backing from Tony Blair but was vehemently criticized by Ken Livingstone, ex-mayor of London. In 2004, Livingstone had invited Islamic preacher and close friend Al Qaradawi to the inauguration event of the "pro-hijab" movement.

Yann Barte
Translated by Nadia Mifsud Mutschler

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