With her trademark fortitude and steely determination, Angela Merkel, the sitting Chancellor of Germany, announced her position on the divisive burqa ban while addressing her political party, the Christian Democratic Union, at a conference on Tuesday, December 6th.
“The full veil is not appropriate here, it should be forbidden wherever that is legally possible. It does not belong to us,” she asserted, all while the hall erupted in ecstatic applause. The Chancellor continued by making the argument that the covering of one’s face has effectively debilitated any wearer’s ability to culturally assimilate into German society. This concession by Merkel is largely seen as a political response to the rising trend of extreme-conservatism both in Germany and in Europe as a whole. As Merkel seeks reelection in 2017, she must gain back the support of a body politic that has begun to view her staunch efforts to open borders for refugees and migrants as foolhardy in the wake of terrorist attacks across Europe.
Germany is not unique in its pursuit of a ban of the Muslim veil that shrouds all but a wearer’s eyes. France spearheaded this movement back in 2011 when President Nicolas Sarkozy’s administration decreed that women wearing such a veil would not be allowed to leave their homes and enter the public sphere without the penalty of facing heavy fines. This law impacts a large portion of the population in a country with the greatest Muslim minority percentage in Western Europe. A study by the Pew Research Center found that there were 4.7 million Muslims in France as of 2010, accounting for 7.5 percent of the population.
Since France set this precedent, many European nations have followed suit with variations of this ban. Belgium and the Netherlands both have national-level bans on clothing that bars the identity of the wearer in public spaces like parks, schools, hospitals, and on public transit. In addition, several cities in Italy and Spain have instituted similar bans, including the major metropolitan area of Barcelona.
These laws have been upheld almost universally when taken in front of the courts across the continent. Rather than taking a religiously-discriminatory argument for justification, the reasoning behind the laws have largely focused on two major platforms: security and gender equality. The former is derived from that fear that authorities will be unable to detect and identify threats to society with potentially harmful individuals hiding their identity. Based on this reasoning, the ban often extends to all forms of clothing that result in the covering of one’s face, and cities like Barcelona have restricted usage of motorcycle-helmets and balaclavas in public spaces in addition to the burqa.
The latter argument that focuses on gender equality and feminist policy is much more common, however. In a 2009 speech that predicated the passage of the ban in France, President Sarkozy asserted that the burqa’s incompatible relationship with French society was not rooted in religious discrimination, but rather came from “a problem of liberty and women’s dignity. [The burqa] is … a sign of subservience and debasement.” Sarkozy argued that the burqa had been historically forced upon submissive Muslim women, and that such degradation should not be allowed in France.
Many have argued that women who chose to wear the traditional full-body scarves are not doing so as a result of a toxic patriarchy, but are rather choosing to be devoted followers of Islam. However, finding a textual justification for this claim from the Qu’ran, the Muslim spiritual text, can be difficult. The word “burqa” is never specifically used in the Qur’an, and codes of conduct regarding attire never become more specific than in 7:26, which states, “for both sexes; the best garment is righteousness and modest conduct.” Many historians have instead attributed the rise of the burqa to followers repeating the practices of the Muslim prophet Mohammed. The indeterminate rules regarding dress in Islamic culture have made such a retort legally difficult to formulate and justify.
The religious argument can be a flawed response in the eyes of many European governments, most notably France’s. While the ‘separation of church and state’ is not a novel concept for Americans, France has promoted this doctrine in a matter that is much more faithful (no pun intended) to the idea of complete secularism. Ever since the French Revolution, the nation has strived to support the ‘individual’ over any collective group, with religion being the most pervasive. Schools have been the largest example of religious-rejection, and in 1937, it was mandated that there be a complete ban of religious signs in public education institutions. While secularism in the United States is often viewed as a type of neutrality, with neither the religious nor non-religious holding some higher ground, in France, religion has been terminated in the public sphere.
While laws that limit the ability for Muslim women to wear the burqa are mostly rooted in positive activism that seeks to improve security and improve gender relations, they can also have Islamophobic ramifications. France’s National Observatory Against Islamophobia has reported an increase in hate crimes directed towards Muslim women, with one grisly 2013 attack resulting in a woman suffering a miscarriage. A more effective and pragmatic method for reducing domestic abuse and gender violence would be to broad-based policies that support victims, such as increasing funding for women’s shelters and facilitating awareness. For now, policies that ban burqas may serve to endanger, rather than empower, an already-subjugated minority.