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Thinly veiled threat: Mehdi Hasan on the niqab

A spectre is haunting Europe – the spectre of the niqab and the burqa. Why have the Continent’s political leaders, confronted by economic and social malaise, declared war on a piece of cloth?

It has been condemned as sinister, frightening, misogynistic and oppressive. Indeed, nothing seems to provoke more suspicion of Europe's 15 million Muslims than the face veil worn by a tiny minority of women. Even many followers of Islam are keen to disown and denounce it. In heated discussions with my own father over the past few weeks, I discovered that he is one of those who take a sterner line, describing the face veil as "un-Islamic and unnecessary".

“If not for anything else," he told me, "it should be banned for security reasons." I am no fan of the face veil, but I disagree with Dad. Moves to ban it will surely backfire.

In recent months, several European governments have begun to legislate restrictions on both the niqab, a face veil that leaves the area around the eyes clear and is usually combined with a full body covering, and the burqa, which covers the entire face and body, leaving just a mesh screen to see through. On 29 April, Belgium became the first European country to impose a nationwide ban on wearing a full face veil in public. Just three days earlier, the five-month-old government of the Belgian prime minister Yves Leterme had collapsed amid bitter feuding between the political parties, but legislators in the House of Representatives found time to push through the bill with almost unanimous support. Hostility towards the veil has united a divided nation.

Anyone found flouting the new law, which will come into force after Belgium's general election on 13 June, will face a fine of up to €25 (£21) and possibly seven days in jail. For Fouad Lahssaini, a Green MP in Belgium who emigrated there from Morocco as a youth, passing a ban on the face veil is like "taking out a bazooka to kill a fly".

About 215 women "at most" in Belgium wear the veil, according to Edouard Delruelle, co-director of the Belgian Institute for Equal Opportunities. Others put the number as low as 30, out of an estimated Muslim population of just over 600,000 and a total Belgian population of 10.8 million. Most Belgians will never meet a niqab-clad woman.

It's a similar story in other European countries, but the anti-burqa cause is spreading. France, Italy and the Netherlands are also considering nationwide bans. The French security services estimate that 2,000 of the roughly two million adult Muslim women in France - 0.1 per cent - wear the full face veil, and a third of them are thought to be converts to Islam. Yet the French are planning "emergency legislation" to ban the burqa and niqab before the country's legislators go on their summer holiday in August. The National Assembly has passed a non-binding resolution condemning the face veil as "an affront to the nation's values of dignity and equality", and the French cabinet has approved a bill making it illegal to wear clothing designed to cover the face in public.

The penalties in France will be much higher than in Belgium. The fine for a first offence will be €150 (£130). And a man who is found to have forced a woman to wear a full-length veil by "violence or threats" will be punished with a fine of €15,000 and face imprisonment. The crackdown on the veil has come from the very top of the political establishment, with President Nicolas Sarkozy declaring that the burqa is "not welcome" in France and denouncing it as a symbol of female "subservience and debasement".

Such has been the hysteria that French politicians and pundits have whipped up over the veil that the country has been hit by "burqa rage". On 15 May, a Muslim woman leaving a shoe shop in Trignac, near Saint-Nazaire on the west coast of France, is said to have overheard a 60-year-old woman lawyer making "snide remarks about her black burqa". The 26-year-old Muslim convert later described to reporters how "things got nasty. The older woman grabbed my veil to the point of ripping it off." The two women allegedly traded blows before being separated by shop assistants and were then arrested by the police.

An officer close to the case said: "The lawyer said she was not happy seeing a fellow shopper wearing a veil and wanted the ban introduced as soon as possible." She is also said to have likened the Muslim woman to Belphegor, a mythical demon who frequently covers up his hideous features using a mask.

So much for a secular state protecting religious freedom. Yet the proposed ban may, in fact, be unconstitutional. The Council of State, France's highest legal and administrative authority, warned in March that "a general and absolute ban on the full veil as such can have no incontestable judicial basis", and that it could be rejected by the courts for violating both national law and the European Convention on Human Rights. As the Moroccan-American academic Laila Lalami, who has written extensively on the politics of the veil, pointed out to me: "The societies that already have coercive laws - Iran and Saudi Arabia, for example, which force women to wear headscarves, Turkey and Tunisia, which forbid women to wear face veils - are not known for their respect of human rights."

So, why pursue it? Polls suggest that a ban is popular, and Sarkozy's personal poll rating is at an all-time low. For François Hollande, the former head of the French Socialist Party, "the tactic is clear. It's about getting back a hold of a part of the electorate which has in part retreated into abstention or voting for the far right."

Yet support for a ban cuts across the left-right divide. In Belgium, the idea was first proposed by the Flemish far right; in France, it was pushed by a communist mayor. On the right, the veil is seen as a threat to European and in particular Christian culture; a symbol of a foreign, belligerent faith community, the "other" - even though few Muslim women wear it.

On the left, it is seen as a repressive garment that subjugates women and violates their rights. Yet not every Muslim woman is forced, under threat of violence, to wear the veil by a husband, father or brother; some wear the niqab or burqa as a matter of choice.

Despite the ban being sold by both left and right as a measure to liberate oppressed Muslim women, it is opposed by leading human rights groups. "At a time when Muslims in Europe feel more vulnerable than ever, the last thing needed is a ban like this," said Judith Sunderland of Human Rights Watch on 21 April. "Treating pious Muslim women like criminals won't help integrate them." The irony of using the threat of prison to freewomen from the so-called prison of the burqa is not lost on Muslim commentators, either. "The Belgians have a funny idea of liberation," says the British Muslim writer and activist Myriam François-Cerrah: "criminalising women in order to free them."

Amnesty International has condemned the Belgian move as "an attack on religious freedom", and Sunderland has said that "restrictions on women wearing the veil in public life are as much a violation of the rights of women as is forcing them to wear a veil". The award-winning Iranian graphic novelist Marjane Satrapi, an outspoken critic of the veil, agrees. "It is surely a basic human right that someone can choose what she wears without interference from the state," she wrote in 2003.

But what else do we expect from the likes of Sarkozy in France or Silvio Berlusconi in Italy? Their co-opting of feminist rhetoric and the language of human rights cannot hide their abysmal form on gender issues - from Sar­kozy's ex-wife Cécilia branding him a "stingy philanderer" to Berlusconi's string of alleged affairs with very young women. In the UK, Nick Griffin and Malcolm Pearson, leaders of the BNP and Ukip respectively - the only
political parties advocating an outright ban on the veil in this country - have similarly questionable attitudes to the advancement of women's rights.
Western male politicians have a long history of hypocrisy in this area. In her iconoclastic book Women and Gender in Islam, the Egyptian American feminist Leila Ahmed reminds readers of Evelyn Baring, the Earl of Cromer, who served as Britain's first consul general of Egypt between 1883 and 1907. Cromer believed Islam degraded women and that it was essential that Egyptians "be persuaded or forced" into abandoning the veil, which he described as a "fatal obstacle" to the Egyptians' "mental and moral development".

Back in Britain, Ahmed notes, "this champion of the unveiling of Egyptian women" was the "founding member and some-time president of the Men's League for Opposing Woman Suffrage". She concludes: "Feminism on the home front and feminism directed against white men was to be resisted and suppressed; but taken abroad and directed against the cultures of colonised peoples, it could be promoted in ways that admirably served and furthered the project of the dominance of the white man."

I am not defending the face veil. I agree with the 100 or so imams and Muslim religious advisers from 40 different countries at a recent conference in Vienna organised by the Islamic Religious Authority in Austria, who concluded that Islam does not make it a requirement for women to wear face veils. After all, the face veil is mentioned nowhere in the Quran, nor is there a Quranic injunction to cover the face.

Even in the traditions, or hadith, of the Prophet Muhammad, there is no explicit command for Muslim women to cover their faces - only their hair. In fact, Muslim women are forbidden from offering the five daily prayers and from going on the Hajj - the religious pilgrimage to Mecca - if their faces are covered.

Mohammad Marmaduke Pickthall, the renowned English convert to Islam and translater of the Quran, observed in his 1925 lecture "The Relation of the Sexes" that the veiling of the face by women was "not originally an Islamic custom. It was prevalent in many cities of the East before the coming of Islam, but not in the cities of Arabia." Muslim leaders adopted the face veil for their women, he said, "when they entered the cities of Syria, Mesopotamia, Persia and Egypt. It was once a concession to the prevailing custom and was a protection to their women from misunderstanding by peoples accustomed to associate unveiled faces with loose character . . . It has nothing to do with the religion of Islam, and, for practical reasons, it has never been adopted by the great majority of Muslim women."

My own Muslim wife, of Indian origin but born and brought up in the United States, wears a headscarf (but not a face veil). She made the decision to wear the hijab at the age of 25, and it was a spiritual, not a political or cultural choice. I accept that, for many Muslim women, covering their face is not a choice, but is a ban the best response? There are many reasons to believe it is self-defeating.

For a start, state-imposed bans will poison relations between Muslims and non-Muslims even further. Bans often encourage defiance. In the words of the atheist writer Shikha Dalmia, of the Los Angeles-based Reason Foundation, "this law can't help but inflame French Muslims, not encourage them to assimilate. Besieged minorities after all tighten - not loosen - their grip on their ways."

During Britain's own row over the veil in 2006, which was prompted by the then cabinet minister Jack Straw's revelation that he had insisted Muslim women remove their face veils at his constituency surgeries in Blackburn, Islamic clothing stores across the north-west of England reported a rise in sales of niqabs, burqas and other veils. One Muslim teenager I later met told me it had been Straw's remarks that prompted her to switch from wearing the hijab to the niqab.

Then there is the matter of enforcement. How will a ban work in practice? Will wealthy tourists from Gulf states also be prevented from wearing the niqab or the burqa as they shop along the Champs-Élysées? Or should the ban be limited to public buildings? If so, why the need for new legislation when a law already exists banning conspicuous religious symbols from public places such as hospitals and schools? Even Jean-Marie Le Pen's Islamophobic National Front has questioned the need for new legislation, saying "it should simply be a police regulation".

Most damningly, there is early evidence that a ban on the face veil could serve further to isolate and seclude the marginalised Muslim women whom it is supposed to help liberate. In Italy, at the end of April, Tunisian-born Amel Marmouri became the first woman to be fined for wearing a face veil when she was stopped outside a post office in the city of Novara. Marmouri was fined €500 - and her husband has said he will now ensure she stays at home so that she never again has to venture out without her veil.

Is support for a ban among Europe's political leaders, and the alarmist and vitriolic rhetoric that so often goes with it, really an expression of concern for Muslim women? And why, when confronted with a multitude of social and economic problems, including a debt crisis that could destroy its common currency, are they so obsessed with a small piece of cloth that so few women wear over their face? It is difficult to understand why so much political capital across the continent is being spent passing legislation to ban it, despite its minuscule impact on European societies.

In truth, the moves towards a ban seem primarily driven by a fear of Islam, the fastest-growing faith on the continent, and an inability on the part of Muslims and non-Muslims alike to discuss the future of Islam in Europe calmly. As the hijab-wearing British Muslim writer Fareena Alam pointed out in 2006, the controversy over the veil "has more to do with Europe's own identity crisis than with the presence of some 'dangerous other'. At a time when post-communist, secular, democratic Europe was supposed to have been ascendant, playing its decisive role at the end of history, Islam came and spoiled the party."

Or, as Isabel Soumaya, a convert to Islam and vice-president of the Association of Belgian Muslims, put it in an interview with the Washington Post on 15 May, Europe's politicians are "preying on voters' fears". The veil ban, she said, "is racism and a form of Islamophobia".

Mehdi Hasan is senior editor (politics) of the New Statesman. Read his blog.

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

This article first appeared in the 31 May 2010 issue of the New Statesman, The war on the veil