Fear Unveiled Why Banning the Burqa Makes No Sense

Calls in Germany to ban the burqa are misguided and the move would do little to liberate Muslim women. The fight for emancipation must come from inside the religion.


A SPIEGEL Editorial by

There's one thing that the current debate in Germany over banning the burqa has nothing to do with: security. A weapon or explosives, after all, can be hidden under any jacket or in any backpack -- and whether a person's face is veiled has nothing to do with it. Nor does the debate really have anything to do with integration, because banning the burqa will not lead to anyone's integration. The debate isn't even addressing a real issue: Only a tiny fraction of Muslim women in Germany are entirely veiled.

The debate has more to do with party politics and electioneering. In a complicated integration debate, the burqa is like manna from heaven for those who seek to over-simplify: Everyone can have their say and a ban simulates decisiveness, making it look like one of the problems Germany faces when integrating Muslims has been solved.

In the final analysis, the debate is really about fear -- the fear German conservatives have of the right-wing populist party Alternative for Germany. And our fear of Islam. The burqa -- or more precisely, full body veils worn by Muslim women -- has become the symbol of everything that we reject in Islam. And when an enlightened society becomes engulfed in a debate over a symbolic problem, then this fear must be pretty big indeed.

Clothing, especially for females, has always been a part of the battlefield in the cultural clash between tradition and modernity. We long fought over how much skin it was acceptable to show, but today the debate is over the amount of veiling we are willing to accept. In Europe, veiling has become symbolic of Islam's suppression of women -- a point of view shared by some, but not all, Muslim women. But for us Westerners, veiling also represents foreignness and undesirability. Nothing symbolizes the ominous and opaque side of Islam better than a scarf that obscures a person's identity. Whether we tolerate the burqa or not is a question that serves to highlight the limits of our tolerance.

Domineering and Arrogant

Among those demanding a burqa ban, two motives are intertwined -- one egotistical and the other altruistic. The ban is to protect our free society from fundamentalist Islam -- that's the egotistical drive. But it is also meant to liberate Muslim women -- that's the altruistic part. Behind the second motive is the assumption that no woman voluntarily wears the veil, but that is wrong. It may be true that women in the Islamic world do not have equal rights. In Iran, there are millions of women who hate the headscarf and would happily shed it immediately. At the same time, in Egypt, Turkey or the Maghreb states of North Africa, where there are no laws requiring it, more women are wearing the headscarf today than did so 20 years ago. It's a symbol for them too -- a way of differentiating themselves from a West they view as domineering and arrogant.

A significant number of the women in full-body veils in Germany are Arab tourists on shopping trips. Many more are converts, women who, in their search for meaning, stability and community have found their way to radical Islam in much the same way people become Scientologists or Jehovah's Witnesses. To them, wearing the full-body covering is a form of targeted provocation, a kind of protest. We should react to them just as we do to mohawks and large tattoos, other forms of visible provocation.


You can't force societal progress by banning religious symbols and traditions. Every forced liberation evokes a counter-reaction: That was the case when Atatürk banned Turkish women from wearing the veil and when Reza Shah did the same in Iran. It also happened when Peter the Great ordered the Boyars to shave off their beards. Liberation must come from within -- Muslim women must win the battle on their own, and they've been fighting for some time.

Pick your battles, they say -- a sentiment that also applies to strong countries like Germany that are based on the rule of law. A few fully covered women do not threaten our freedoms. Nor will they set back women's emancipation in Europe. Of course we expect Muslims in Germany to adhere to our constitution. But that same constitution also sets high hurdles when it comes to curbing religious freedoms or other civil liberties. And clothing rules are a massive incursion on personal rights.

Banning the burqa is irrelevant to the fight Islamist fundamentalism and to the battle for the liberation of Muslim women. It would merely save us from having to look at them. What we should instead be doing is extending a helping hand to those who are suppressed in the form of language courses, neighborhood meetings or invitations for a coffee. We should be confident that our way of life is attractive enough that it encourages imitative forms of emancipation.


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Wetoldyouso 08/23/2016
1. More Blindered Liberal Propaganda
If you need to wear a burqa outside the home, you are only here for the money and you do not belong in a 21st century western democracy! You are simply setting up your own little foreign country inside the host country, and when enough of those are established, the host country (just as this author is supporting!) has to start adapting to you rather than the other way around. Tolerance of the burqa and niqab sends a terrible message to little girls throughout Europe: the government condones these symbols of an absolutely medieval view of women that it took us centuries to move past. Burqa wearing has no place in Europe. If you need to wear a burqa in the street, go back to Pakistan or Iraq or Afghanistan and other places where that view of women is the norm. We do not want neighbourhoods filled with women in veils in Europe. European values are being eroded and pushed to the wall by people who believe they have a right to come to our countries whilst ignoring our values. Take your burqa and go back where you belong: you do NOT belong in Europe!
distrak 08/23/2016
This last sentence asks the BIG question here..."What we should instead be doing is extending a helping hand to those who are suppressed in the form of language courses, neighborhood meetings or invitations for a coffee." What if muslim men don't ALLOW their wives or daughters out for language classes. How many muslim men, who require their wives to wear head covering would ALLOW their wives to go to an infidel's house alone for coffee. They don't trust them enough. They might get ideas the male cannot control. This is the point. The burka, hajib, etc. is a symbol of male muslim control over women. It is probably the males who are pushing this issue in Germany. Watch how quickly Erdogan makes the hajib NOT just an option in Turkey. France understands this. It is a religion imposing misogynistic male domination over women.
Kobayachi 08/23/2016
May I suggest you write another article on why an open door policy to millions of poeple from a different cultural background is looking for trouble. I hope I will not be called a Nazi for merely mentioning that you can only assimilate that many poeple at a time.
steve.landers79 08/23/2016
If your society has people who are actively excluding themselves and segregating from the rest you will have a massive problem. This is a step in that direction. If you as a society want to emulate Saudi Arabia or Afghanistan carry on this path. Try speaking to a person in a burqa or niqab as a man and almost certainly you will be brushed aside with curtness. These women are too afraid to speak for fear of their husbands, that's why they are separated from others to keep them subservient. How many are forced to wear them? We don't know, but certainly some are. You quote the example of Egypt not demanding full veils yet women there do so anyway. Perhaps because the women get less unwanted attention being covered up in this country. I certainly know from going there that foreign girls with their hair on display attract the leers and comments of men that the veiled women don't. This is the complete difference in our cultures to the Muslim world and you are importing more of that into our countries with the resultant attacks in Cologne and elsewhere in Europe. It's setting up a parallel culture within and that's not good for harmonious relationships or indeed any relationships. If this was whites wearing masks and alienating themselves, there would be uproar. The simple solution would be not to invite loads of Muslims into Europe and you'd have less of all these problems in the first place
mia_teal 08/24/2016
5. Demanding commitment to humanity, not to deity.
Current version of human rights is not serving well for human being. Freedom of religion should not be considered as rights. Freedom of thoughts comes free anyway, with or without rights, but duty to the commitment to humanity is necessary. Commitment to some deity is a vice. And this, of course include Christianity. People have rights to enjoy aroma therapy or Christianity or whatever make them feel good as far as their duty to the commitment to the humanity are observed. I agree that attacking veiling does not actually have much relevance in safety. But their duty to identify themselves for the security purposes should not be compromised for probabilistic assumption of being 'equivalent of Mohawk'. What people are concerned is about public safety. Citizens do have duty to cooperate. If removing veil is so difficult in front of uninterested person, male or female, there is something pathologically wrong with her mentality. If all male appear to be interested in all woman sexually, there is something pathologically wrong with her. If she believes wearing veil is more important than being considerate for safety-concerned fellow citizens, there is something wrong with her reasoning. As a citizen, regardless of religion, she has duty to cooperate with other citizens even at some emotional cost.
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