| ||In April 2011, France sparked global controversy by becoming the first European country to implement a nation-wide ban on the face-covering, niqab. The ban is now creeping across Europe with countries like Belgium and Holland similarly banning the face-veil, and discussions on similar legislation taking place in Switzerland, Italy, Austria and Denmark. |
The Guardian G2 on Monday published an article reflecting on what the ban has meant for Muslim women living in France who have chosen to continue to wear the niqab in spite of the prohibition on them walking around in the public space or taking part in any public activity.
From the Guardian:
“French politicians in favour of the ban said they were acting to protect the "gender equality" and "dignity" of women. But five months after the law was introduced, the result is a mixture of confusion and apathy. Muslim groups report a worrying increase in discrimination and verbal and physical violence against women in veils. There have been instances of people in the street taking the law into their hands and trying to rip off full-face veils, of bus drivers refusing to carry women in niqab or of shop-owners trying to bar entry. A few women have taken to wearing bird-flu-style medical masks to keep their face covered; some describe a climate of divisiveness, mistrust and fear. One politician who backed the law said that women still going out in niqab were simply being "provocative".”
The Guardian gives testimony from women who wear the niqab, first from Ahmas, and Stephanie, both divorced single mothers:
“My quality of life has seriously deteriorated since the ban. In my head, I have to prepare for war every time I step outside, prepare to come up against people who want to put a bullet in my head. The politicians claimed they were liberating us; what they've done is to exclude us from the social sphere. Before this law, I never asked myself whether I'd be able to make it to a cafe or collect documents from a town hall. One politician in favour of the ban said niqabs were 'walking prisons'. Well, that's exactly where we've been stuck by this law."
“On the Cote d'Azur, Stéphanie, 31, still likes to go swimming in the sea off Nice wearing her niqab. But the former law student and convert to Islam tries to go when the beaches are quiet. The last time she went for a dip with her mother and 10-year-old daughter on a Sunday afternoon, a sunbather called the police. A group of officers arrived and hurried across the sand saying: "But Madame, what are you doing?" "I said: 'I'm drying myself.' They wrote in their notebooks, 'Swimming in niqab.'" Stephanie, who prefers not to give her surname, was summoned by the local state prosecutor.”
“Before the law, Stephanie would often be called names like "Batman, Zorro, or Ninja" in the street – often by pensioners. Now people favour swear words or sexual insults. She wants to work with children, but despite having a degree in theology, she can't find a job.”
Ahmas’s testimony, along with Stephanie’s, is demonstrative of the hatred and discrimination that Muslim women who wear the niqab have faced since the legislation came into force.
According to the legislation outlawing the face-veil, the French police can confront a woman in niqab (although they cannot make her to remove her veil) and refer the case to a local judge. The judge can then hand out a fine of €150, make the individual take a citizenship course, or penalise the individual with both of these measures.
The Council of Europe in 2010 passed a resolution staying that there ’should be no general prohibition on wearing the burqa and the niqab or other religious clothing [for those] who genuinely and freely desire to do so'.
A 2011 Open Society Institute report looking at why women wear the niqab in France found that of the 32 women interviewed, none had been forced to wear the veil, weakening significantly the argument of many French ultra-secularists that women who wear the niqab are forced to do so by controlling males.
Moreover, the Commissioner for Human Rights at the Council of Europe, Thomas Hammarberg has stated his concerns that legislation banning the niqab may be an invasion of individual privacy and contravene the European Convention of Human Rights. Hammarberg argues that even if the bans were legitimate in the “interests of public safety, for the protection of public order, health or morals, or for the protection of the rights and freedoms of others”, the fact that so few women wear it makes such bans unconvincing, and that “The way the dress of a small number of women has been portrayed as a key problem requiring urgent discussion and legislation is a sad capitulation to the prejudices of the xenophobes.”
As the French secularist, Agnes Poirier put it,
“It [the ban] stigmatises one religion in particular and it does so in what is not a formally public space, but – a crucial distinction – in a common and open space.”
The Guardian yesterday published letters in response to the G2 feature article. Some of these are excerpted below:
"No one in this article gives a reason for wanting to cover their faces more than having a job or says what their friendships with non-Muslims are like. That is the truly interesting article to be written."
"Nowhere in Islamic teaching are women required to wear the burqa, the niqab or any other swaths of clothing… As they choose to draw attention to themselves in this way they can hardly complain when people notice and comment… they should be prepared to accept the consequences in secular European countries. If wearing such clothes is so important to these women, perhaps they should find accommodation in one of the many countries that approve of them."
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