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The Burqa Debate: Are Women's Rights Really the Issue?

On Wednesday, Spain became the latest European country to advance legislation to ban burqas and other such face veils. Many of those in favor of such laws cite women's rights, but does criminalizing their clothing help?

A woman in Belgium wearing a niqab. Spain on Wednesday introduced legislation that would, as in Belgium, ban such garments. Zoom
REUTERS

A woman in Belgium wearing a niqab. Spain on Wednesday introduced legislation that would, as in Belgium, ban such garments.

When it comes to burqas, everyone, it would seem, is a feminist. In 2006, Dutch right-wing populist Geert Wilders argued that the burqa -- the full-body robes with just a mesh screen to look through -- is "a medieval symbol, a symbol against women." Last year, French President Nicolas Sarkozy called it "a sign of subservience." And on Wednesday, the Spanish Senate gave its approval to an anti-burqa motion supporting the outlawing of "any usage, custom or discriminatory practice that limits the freedom of women."

Spain, in fact, became the latest to join the European movement to ban the burqa and the niqab -- similar to a burqa but with a slit for the eyes instead of mesh. It joins France, Italy and Belgium with Holland, Austria and Switzerland also considering laws to get rid of the garment.

But can the rush to uncover Europe's most pious Muslims be explained solely by a newfound desire to protect the rights of women? The Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, which advises the council on human rights questions, certainly doesn't think so.

On Wednesday, the Parliamentary Assembly, known as PACE, passed a resolution urging European Union member states not to issue a ban on burqas "or other religious or special clothing." Rather, the resolution read, EU countries should focus their energies on protecting women's "free choice to wear religious or special clothing." In other words, PACE seemed to be saying, religious freedoms and human rights are at the crux of the burqa debate. And preventing them from wearing what they want is anti-feminist.

'Don't Have the Right to Be Human'

It is not an uncontroversial claim. Leading German feminist Alice Schwarzer said late last year that she thinks a burqa ban is "self evident." Women's rights activist Necla Kelek, likewise of Germany, says that burqas "have nothing to do with religion and religious freedoms." She says that the garment comes out of an ideology whereby "women in public don't have the right to be human."

As the debate has moved mainstream, it has become easier to ignore the fact that much of the momentum for bans of the burqa and the niqab come from right-wing populist parties. Wilders has been followed by the Belgian far-right party Vlaams Belang and the anti-Muslim German party Pro-NRW in calling for a ban. All of those groups would also like to see minarets disappear from European cityscapes and have attracted attention primarily due to their radically anti-Muslim rhetoric.

In its Wednesday resolution, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe made that connection as well. It preceded its recommendations by emphasizing the priority of "working towards ensuring freedom of thought, conscience and religion while combating religious intolerance and discrimination." The document then went on to urge Switzerland to revoke its ban on minarets, passed in a nationwide referendum last November.

'Emergency Legislation'

As more and more countries in Europe begin exploring a burqa ban, however, the idea is becoming disassociated from right-wing rhetoric. Swiss Foreign Minister Micheline Calmy-Rey, from the center-left Social Democratic Party of Switzerland, would like to see a ban. In France, Communist parliamentarian André Gerin has been leading the charge. In Britain, then cabinet minister Jack Straw, of the Labour Party, outed himself as being opposed to the wearing of the full veil in 2006. And in Germany, politicians from across the political spectrum have voiced their support for a burqa ban.

Lost in the debate, perhaps predictably, are the women who wear burqas and niqabs. According to a recent article in the New Statesmen, there aren't many. In France, security services estimate that just one-tenth of 1 percent of Muslim women in the country wear the burqa -- a number that seems to make a mockery of the effort to pass what has been called "emergency legislation" against the garment prior to parliament's summer recess. Sarkozy's cabinet approved a draft law last month. The number of women who wear the full veils in Belgium could be as low as 30.

On a continent where the integration of its ever-increasing Muslim population has caused politicians fits for years, though, it is perhaps not surprising that the burqa debate has grown steadily this year. Europeans are concerned about radical Islam and many associate a burqa ban with combatting extremism.

'Criminalizing Women to Free Them'

The opposite may be true. Last summer, the North African wing of al-Qaida threatened to "take revenge" on France as a result of the swelling debate there over banning the burqa. "We will not tolerate such provocations and injustices, and we will take our revenge from France," said the group's statement.

Human rights workers, for their part, worry that burqa bans may send the wrong message to Muslim women. "Treating pious Muslim women like criminals won't help integrate them," said Judith Sunderland of Human Rights Watch in April. Speaking of the Belgium ban, British writer Myriam Francois-Cerrah, a Muslim, said simply: "The Belgians have a funny idea of liberation, criminalizing women in order to free them."

For all the burqa ban's current popularity in Europe, it seems unlikely that German politicians will be forced to confront such legislation any time soon. According to an analysis carried out by the German parliament last month, a ban on the burqa would very likely find itself in violation of the German constitution. And Interior Minister Thomas de Maizière (of the center-right Christian Democrats) has voiced his opposition to such legislation in Germany. A burqa debate in Germany, he said, "is unnecessary."

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