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International Politics

Reflections on anti-burqa laws

Dr Sara Silvestri

Last September the French Parliament passed a law, the first in Europe, against "hiding the face in public spaces". In practice it is aimed at banning a particular style of Islamic clothing, the so-called "integral veil", which comes in two main forms, the "burqa", promoted and imposed by the Talibans in Afghanistan in the past twenty years, and the "niqab", the face veil. The latter has appeared in Europe promoted by some conservative puritanical movements of Wahhabi/ Salafi inspiration that are based in the Gulf region.

Calls to adopt similar "anti-burqa" laws have been coming from all corners of Europe, from Belgium, to Spain to Italy. The latest was an appeal by right wing Dutch politician Wilders. But more than "unveiling" Muslim women, these debates unveil a number of interconnected dimensions of a rather complex story, which are often rooted in country-specific histories and models of managing religious diversity and migration.

The French vote for instance points to a French-specific debate about the political construction of a united "nation", which is based on the denial of difference and on the idea that the cohesion of society can only be constructed once the norms of the (supposed) secular public sphere will have overcome religion, ensuring that it remains relegated to the "private" sphere.

To a certain extent, the increased visibility of full veiling in European streets is as much a sign of loss of trust in political institutions and economic models as a sign of the failure of integration, for instance when individuals from disadvantaged socio-economic situations take up an aggressive stance and use the niqab as an instrument to indicate that they feel isolated, alienated, let down by a European society that in principle should guarantee justice, security, jobs but has failed to deliver.

This use of the niqab has more to do with economic and political situation than with religion per se. But this explanation of the spreading of the integral veil does not account for those relatively well-educated and well-off women, often converts, who also adopt this practice. In their case the issue of "integration" does not hold and for them the debate is centred on a clash of individual rights pertaining the free practice of religion.

In terms of rights however, it would be inaccurate to see the ongoing debate as a controversy between the secular individual-focused approach to religious freedom and the notion of group rights: wearing the niqab or the burqa is not a compulsory practice in Islam: these are clothing styles that reflect a particular minority interpretation of religion, they are not proper religious symbols.

The French ban outlaws anyone who imposes the burqa or niqab on a Muslim woman. These appear to be a sensible measure shared by a large part of the European population, Muslims and non Muslims. However, the law fails its intentions when it is presented as a way to "liberate" Muslim women from the domination of their bodies on the part of "fanatical Muslim men". This is a rather simplistic and thin argument that does not account for Muslim women's agency, for those women within Muslim communities who are engaged in a lively debate about the pros and cons of integral veiling, and for those who have freely decided (often openly against their families wishes) to adopt this clothing style.

Finally, the ongoing controversy across Europe points to a worrying spreading of essentialist homogeneous thinking accompanied by a mismatch of perceptions and expectations that facilitates a dangerous polarisation of society. On the one hand we have the propagandistic messages of a far right discourse that politicises the Christian roots of Europe and sees integration into Europe as a univocal effort that needs to be completed by minorities only.

On the other hand there is a dogmatic thinking rising within Muslim communities that seeks to "sell" the full veil fashion to Muslim women whose religious upbringing and cultural origin have nothing to do with a practice that has been "imported" from a particular restrictive and puritanical understanding of Islam that is common in the Gulf region.

Both ways of positing relations between Muslims and non Muslims and their cohabitation in the same shared European space in aggressive and antagonistic terms. Both ways of thinking are at the root of the problem. I am doubtful that a law will be able to solve these deeper layers of the debate. If anything it is likely to animate spirits further.