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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Our union backed Brexit, but that doesn't mean scrapping freedom of movement

We can only improve the lives of our members, like those planning stike action at McDonalds, through solidarity.

The campaign to defend and extend free movement – highlighted by the launch of the Labour Campaign for Free Movement this month – is being seen in some circles as a back door strategy to re-run the EU referendum. If that was truly the case, then I don't think Unions like mine (the BFAWU) would be involved, especially as we campaigned to leave the EU ourselves.

In stark contrast to the rhetoric used by many sections of the Leave campaign, our argument wasn’t driven by fear and paranoia about migrant workers. A good number of the BFAWU’s membership is made up of workers not just from the EU, but from all corners of the world. They make a positive contribution to the industry that we represent. These people make a far larger and important contribution to our society and our communities than the wealthy Brexiteers, who sought to do nothing other than de-humanise them, cheered along by a rabid, right-wing press. 

Those who are calling for end to freedom of movement fail to realise that it’s people, rather than land and borders that makes the world we live in. Division works only in the interest of those that want to hold power, control, influence and wealth. Unfortunately, despite a rich history in terms of where division leads us, a good chunk of the UK population still falls for it. We believe that those who live and work here or in other countries should have their skills recognised and enjoy the same rights as those born in that country, including the democratic right to vote. 

Workers born outside of the UK contribute more than £328 million to the UK economy every day. Our NHS depends on their labour in order to keep it running; the leisure and hospitality industries depend on them in order to function; the food industry (including farming to a degree) is often propped up by their work.

The real architects of our misery and hardship reside in Westminster. It is they who introduced legislation designed to allow bosses to act with impunity and pay poverty wages. The only way we can really improve our lives is not as some would have you believe, by blaming other poor workers from other countries, it is through standing together in solidarity. By organising and combining that we become stronger as our fabulous members are showing through their decision to ballot for strike action in McDonalds.

Our members in McDonalds are both born in the UK and outside the UK, and where the bosses have separated groups of workers by pitting certain nationalities against each other, the workers organised have stood together and fought to win change for all, even organising themed social events to welcome each other in the face of the bosses ‘attempts to create divisions in the workplace.

Our union has held the long term view that we should have a planned economy with an ability to own and control the means of production. Our members saw the EU as a gravy train, working in the interests of wealthy elites and industrial scale tax avoidance. They felt that leaving the EU would give the UK the best opportunity to renationalise our key industries and begin a programme of manufacturing on a scale that would allow us to be self-sufficient and independent while enjoying solid trading relationships with other countries. Obviously, a key component in terms of facilitating this is continued freedom of movement.

Many of our members come from communities that voted to leave the EU. They are a reflection of real life that the movers and shakers in both the Leave and Remain campaigns took for granted. We weren’t surprised by the outcome of the EU referendum; after decades of politicians heaping blame on the EU for everything from the shape of fruit to personal hardship, what else could we possibly expect? However, we cannot allow migrant labour to remain as a political football to give succour to the prejudices of the uninformed. Given the same rights and freedoms as UK citizens, foreign workers have the ability to ensure that the UK actually makes a success of Brexit, one that benefits the many, rather than the few.

Ian Hodon is President of the Bakers and Allied Food Workers Union and founding signatory of the Labour Campaign for Free Movement.