Banning the veil
THE DANGEROUS folly of attempting to ban the public wearing of the veil has been highlighted by events in recent days in Belgium. The arrest of a young woman last week for breaching the country’s ban on the full face veil predictably provoked a riot, followed on Tuesday by an inflammatory intervention by the Flemish nationalist far right, certain to spark further violence. Vlaams Belang, a party with neo-Nazi roots, has offered a €250 reward to anyone who reports a veiled woman to the police.
Belgium and France both introduced the ban on veils that cover the face last year, an affirmation of what then-president Nicolas Sarkozy dubiously insisted was simply a commitment to laicité – the secular state. It was widely branded, however, as a racist pandering to anti-Muslim sentiment and strongly opposed by Muslim organisations. But the issue has also divided the left, notably its hardline secularists, while some feminists also backed the ban, insisting the veil represents a form of oppression of women.
Quebec has proposed a ban, Bill 94, which would ban women from wearing face veils when receiving services at public institutions, while Canada has banned the wearing of the veil during Canadian citizenship ceremonies. The city of Barcelona enforces a ban on burkas in public places such as municipal offices, libraries and public markets.
In truth, however, neither the niqab, a veil with just a slit for the eyes, nor the burka, with a mesh covering for the eyes, are worn by more than handfuls of women in any of these countries, although the bans will, if anything, encourage more to do so out of solidarity with their sisters. They certainly do not threaten the secular foundations of the state, while other ostensible excuses, such as the fear that veils could conceal the faces of wanted terrorists, are almost laughable. Vlaams Belang’s profession of concern for women’s rights – “It’s a textile prison for the women who have to live under it,” according to former leader Filip Dewinter – marks a new departure for the party. It has certainly never before offered rewards for championing the feminist cause.
Belgium has seen several legal disputes in recent years involving Muslims who say they lost work because of their headscarves, and Muslim communities barred from building a minaret for their mosques because, allegedly, they do not fit in to the surroundings. There may well be justifiable reasons for their sense that Belgium does not want to make them feel at home.