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Burqa bans and gender (in) equality

Dr Erica HowardErica Howard is the author of a report for the European Commission on ‘Religious clothing and symbols in employment’ and a book on ‘Law and the wearing of religious symbols’ as well as a number of articles on this subject. Here, Erica shares her views on the recent banning of clothing which covers the face in public spaces by the Danish parliament.

Last week, the Danish parliament voted for a ban on covering the face in public. The ban will come into force on 1 August. Denmark follows France, Belgium, Austria and Bulgaria, which all have enacted legal bans on the wearing of face-covering clothing in public places (Religious clothing and symbols in employment). Such bans also exist at local level in some European States. Like in these other countries, the Danish ban is couched in neutral terms and prohibits the wearing of all clothing that covers the face in public spaces, but the bans are usually referred to colloquially as ‘burqa bans’, which indicates the real target of such bans: women who wear burqas – a long loose robe that covers the female from head to toe with the exception of the hands with gauze covering for the eyes – or niqabs – a veil that covers the head and face with the exception of the eyes. Although these bans are often referred to as ‘burqa bans’, very few women in Europe actually wear a burqa; the vast majority of women wearing face-covering veils in Europe wear the niqab or similar type veils.  The Independent reported on the Danish law with the headline: ‘Denmark becomes latest European country to ban burqas and niqabs’, again showing the real target of the ban.

So there are now 5 EU countries that ban face-covering clothing in all public places. This is so, despite the fact that the number of women in Europe who wear the niqab or burqa is very small. A  Danish research report from 2013, estimated that about 150 women in Denmark wore the niqab, half of which were ethnic Danish converts to Islam. This corresponds to about 0.1 or 0.2 percent of Muslim women in Denmark. These figures tally with current rough estimates of face veil wearing women in other European countries.

Image by Aslan Media (CC2.0)

Secular and democratic values

The reasons given for enacting the ban are the upholding of Danish secular and democratic values.  Supporters of the ban have also raised the issue that the veil is a form of female oppression as will be clear from the Independent and other press reports (see e.g. here and here) on the Danish ban. This is the argument I discuss in this blog post. The argument is based on the assertion that women wear burqas and niqabs because they are made to do so by men, be it spouses, family or religious leaders. These veils are thus seen as going against a woman’s fundamental rights and freedoms. The same argument has been put forward for bans on Muslim headscarves.

However, this is based on a very stereotypical view of Muslim women who are seen as the victim of a gender oppressive religion, who need to be rescued from this oppression and who need to be emancipated. Research in five European countries – Belgium, Denmark, France, the Netherlands, and the UK – showed that many of the face veil wearing women interviewed in the research emphasized that they wore the face veil of their own autonomous personal choice, often in spite of disapproval of parents or other close relatives (E. Brems (ed.) The Experience of Face Veil Wearers in Europe and the Law, Cambridge University Press, 2014).

There are many reasons why women wear face veils and the research did not deny that some women are indeed pressured to do so. But, would the fact that some women are under pressure, even if it is a small number, be a sufficient reason for a ban? I would argue that, whatever the number that is under pressure, it is not sufficient to justify a ban. Bans are not only unnecessary, but they are also counterproductive in achieving emancipation for women who are under pressure to wear the face-covering veil. Bans could very well lead to these women not being allowed to go out of the house at all and thus not being permitted to go to school, university or work. Rather than hindering their emancipation, allowing this group of women to wear face veils would promote their emancipation because it might well be the only way they can go outside the home to study and work. Banning the wearing of face veils in public places would also lead to the exclusion of these women from society and would thus punish the victims. Allowing face veils would thus give this group of women a chance to gain equality through work and education.

Paternalism or free choice?

There are two more problems with using gender equality as a reason for banning face veils. First of all, this is based on the view that Islam is a paternalistic religion where men determine what women should wear. But the accusation of paternalism can just as well be levelled at the people using the gender equality argument to support bans and at the state for enacting such bans: banning women from wearing face veils is just as paternalistic because it is another form of prescribing what women should or should not wear. Both sides here ignore a woman’s fundamental human right to autonomy and free choice.

The second problem with using the gender equality argument to support bans on face-covering clothing in public spaces is that the European Court of Human Rights has rejected this argument in a case challenging the face-covering clothing ban in France. In S.A.S. v France, the Court held that a state cannot invoke this argument in order to ban a practice that is defended by women such as the applicant in this case (paragraph 119).

Despite this rejection, the gender equality argument for enacting bans keeps cropping up in debates in many European countries about whether such bans are necessary, as it did in the Danish debates, and the stereotype of the Muslim woman as oppressed persists.