Europe’s problem with the burqa

Is there an anthropological explanation for the high level of disapproval for a garment worn by so f

This week members of the lower house of the National Assembly of France approved a bill, which, if ratified by the Senate in September, will make it illegal for women to wear the burqa or niqab in public.

In France, it is estimated that only around 1,900 women, out of a total Muslim population of about five million, wear the full-body veil. In the UK, Germany and Spain the number is almost certainly smaller, yet a survey has shown that the public in all four countries overwhelmingly supports the measure.

Why should a relatively small number of Muslim women who wear this item of clothing in a small number of European towns and cities generate such a high level of disapproval from their fellow citizens?

There is no doubt that in modern multicultural societies -- open societies, in other words -- the tolerated range of behaviour, what people can say and do, including how they dress, is much greater than at any other time in human history.

This makes the widespread opposition to the burqa very puzzling. Part of the explanation must lie in the way that the symbolism of the garment relates to the key economic and social values of the dominant culture.

First, it is obvious that advanced economies require a pool of socially and geographically mobile labour. For better or worse, this means that a very high premium is placed on good social and interpersonal skills. For communication to be effective, it is obvious that a person's face and eyes have to be visible, not least because of the significance of face-to-face encounters in the workplace (even the virtual workplace). In other words, the face becomes symbolic of the whole person.

Moreover, this pattern is not confined to the world of work, but extends to free time as well. For example, it is no accident that a photograph of a face typically dominates a member's profile on social networking sites such as Facebook and MySpace. Information conveyed by text is a secondary consideration, often simply filling out details already conveyed by the image.

Image of power

Nevertheless, this emphasis on individuality, interpersonal skills and friendship networks, symbolised by a public face, comes at a price, as it necessarily devalues the role and significance of family and community -- the very aspects of social life that wearers of the burqa are trying to defend. In addition, they and the kinship group to which they belong see themselves pursuing a spiritual, rather than economic identity, guided by a more authentic form of Islam (though many other Muslims will dispute this). For them, the veil is a means to that end because, like all sacred objects, it is believed to be a source of metaphysical power.

Second, it is evident that in the advanced economies of Europe, the main focus of human activity is the production and consumption of secular goods and services. By default, religion has been relegated to the periphery. For most of the population, the evidence suggests that religion forms only a backdrop, mainly concerned with life-cycle rituals connected with birth, marriage and death.

The exception to this pattern is the very small number of seriously committed, full-time religious specialists who live in closed or semi-closed communities. In most of western Europe, the model of appropriate behaviour, including the dress code that is so important in distinguishing religious personnel from laypeople, comes from the Roman Catholic tradition.

It is also worth highlighting that nearly all religious specialists tend to reside within (or near) sacred spaces such convents, monasteries and churches, which are conventionally protected from the profane world by high walls. This is the way they and the secular majority like it; the physical separation permits the sacred status of religious personnel to be maintained.

The argument works the other way round, of course; the absence of religious specialists from mainstream work and leisure spaces ensures that the integrity or purity of the secular world is not contaminated in any way.

Wearers of the burqa, on the other hand, appear to violate this rule concerning division, because although their appearance suggests to many of the secular majority that they are full-time religious specialists who might be expected to behave like celibate Catholic nuns and live in a closed institution, they are to be found in ordinary houses, are often married and often have children, and they shop at the supermarket. Like all behaviour that is perceived as anomalous, this is a source of fear and anxiety for those in the population who do not understand the rules of the game.

Hail the puritans?

There is a further point. A significant segment of socially progressive Europeans, male and female, evidently find it very difficult to understand why women would voluntarily choose to wear the veil. For them, wearing the garment will be perceived as act of betrayal, an attempt to turn back the clock on often hard-won rights. Put simply, the visible marking of a rigidly defined gender role, the elimination of social mobility by restricting access to the mainstream job market, and the removal of a group of young women from interacting with people from other social groups does not sit well with the "open" values of a postmodern world.

For a variety of reasons, therefore, the veil looks certain to remain an important battleground in an ongoing struggle between the dominant secular culture of western Europe and a religious minority struggling to establish the right to worship in accordance with its religious world-view.

But it is important to keep a sense of perspective. Like any sectarian movement trying to make headway in the advanced economies of Europe, the burqa wearers are likely to remain tiny in number. We should also bear in mind that, although for many Europeans, wearers of the burqa resemble anomalous Roman Catholic nuns, these Muslims are, in reality, anti-ritualists, ideologically more akin to the radical puritans of Protestant tradition, another important strand in contemporary western culture.

Perhaps it would be helpful if Christian religious and political leaders pointed this out to their followers and constituents before matters get out of hand. For whichever way you look at it, it is surely in no one's interest that those in Europe who choose to wear the veil should be turned into martyrs.

Dr Sean Carey is research fellow at the Centre for Research on Nationalism, Ethnicity and Multiculturalism (CRONEM) at Roehampton University.

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Inside the progressive alliance that beat Zac Goldsmith in Richmond

Frantic phone calls, hundreds of volunteers, and Labour MPs constrained by their party. 

Politics for a progressive has been gloomy for a long time. On Thursday, in Richmond Park of all places, there was a ray of light. Progressive parties (at least some of them) and ordinary voters combined to beat Ukip, the Tories and their "hard Brexit, soft racist" candidate.

It didn’t happen by accident. Let's be clear, the Liberal Democrats do by-elections really well. Their activists flood in, and good luck to them. But Richmond Park was too big a mountain for even their focused efforts. No, the narrow win was also down to the fast growing idea of a progressive alliance. 

The progressive alliance is both a defensive and offensive move. It recognises the tactical weakness of progressives under first past the post – a system the Tories and their press know how to game. With progressive forces spilt between Labour, Liberal Democrats, Greens, the SNP, Plaid Cymru, the Women’s Equality Party and more – there is no choice but to co-operate, bring in proportional representation and then a whole new political world begins.

This move opens up the wider strategy – to end the domination of the City, and right-wing newspapers like the Mail, so Britain can have a real debate and make real choices about what sort of economy and society it wants. A pipedream? Well, maybe. But last night the fuse was lit in Richmond Park. The progressive alliance can work.

Months before the by-election, the pressure group for a progressive alliance that I chair, Compass, the Greens, and some Labour, Liberal Democrat and SNP MPs and activists, began considering this. The alternative after Brexit was staring into the void.

Then the Tory MP Zac Goldsmith stepped down over Heathrow. To be fair, he had pledged to do this, and we should have been better prepared. In the event, urgent behind-the-scenes calls were made between the Greens and the Liberal Democrats. Compass acted as the safe house. The Greens, wonderfully, clung onto democracy – the local party had to decide. And they decided to stand up for a new politics. Andree Frieze would have been the Green candidate, and enjoyed her moment in the autumn sun. She and her party turned it down for a greater good. So did the Women’s Equality Party.

Meanwhile, what about Labour? Last time, they came a distant third. Again the phones were hit and meetings held. There was growing support not to stand. But what would they get back from the Liberal Democrats, and what did the rules say about not standing? It was getting close to the wire. I spent an hour after midnight, in the freezing cold of Aberdeen, on the phone to a sympathetic Labour MP trying to work out what the party rule book said before the selection meeting.

At the meeting, I am told, a move was made from the floor not to select. The London regional official ruled it out of order and said a candidate would be imposed if they didn’t select. Some members walked out at this point. Where was the new kinder, gentler politics? Where was membership democracy? Fast forward to last night, and the Labour candidate got less votes than the party has members.

The idea of a progressive alliance in Richmond was then cemented in a draughty church hall on the first Tuesday of the campaign – the Unitarian Church of course. Within 48 hours notice, 200 local activist of all parties and none had come together to hear the case for a progressive alliance. Both the Greens and Compass produced literature to make the case for voting for the best-placed progressive candidate. The Liberal Democrats wove their by-election magic. And together we won.

It’s a small victory – but it shows what is possible. Labour is going to have to think very hard whether it wants to stay outside of this, when so many MPs and members see it as common sense. The lurch to the right has to be stopped – a progressive alliance, in which Labour is the biggest tent in the campsite, is the only hope.

In the New Year, the Progressive Alliance will be officially launched with a steering committee, website and activists tool-kit. There will also be a trained by-election hit squad, manifestos of ideas and alliances build locally and across civil society.

There are lots of problems that lie ahead - Labour tribalism, the 52 per cent versus the 48 per cent, Scottish independence and the rest. But there were lots of problems in Richmond Park, and we overcame them. And you know, working together felt good – it felt like the future. The Tories, Ukip and Arron Banks want a different future – a regressive alliance. We have to do better than them. On Thursday, we showed we could.

Could the progressive alliance be the start of the new politics we have all hoped for?

Neal Lawson is the Chair of Compass, the pressure group for the progressive alliance.

Neal Lawson is chair of the pressure group Compass, which brings together progressives from all parties and none. His views on internal Labour matters are personal ones.