By Badra Djait
Belgium's effort to ban the face veil is a statement of female empowerment and a vote against religious fundamentalism.
3 May 2010
Belgium is on the verge of becoming the first country in the world to pass a law which would punish people who, in public, partially or fully cover their faces in such a way that they are no longer recognisable. Despite the broadness of the law, it has been dubbed the “burqa ban” because anyone caught wearing a burqa, which covers the entire body from head to toe, or a niqab, a face veil which leaves the eyes exposed, could face up to seven days imprisonment.
As a Flemish woman of Algerian origin, I can only welcome this bill. How can any western Muslim woman bring herself to wear the burqa, the internationally recognised symbol of exclusion in Afghanistan, and say that this has nothing to do with the oppression and the undervaluing of women?
In my parents' homeland, Algeria, the burqa is not welcome and people don't appreciate the typical black niqab imported from Saudi Arabia. Whereas women in a burqa or niqab are stared at in Brussels, in Algeria, they are tormented. A few years ago, a woman in a black niqab and her bearded husband boarded a bus in Algiers and, a few minutes later, they were hounded off by their fellow passengers.
I think Algerians see the face veil as a symbol of the fear and terror they experienced in the 1990s at the hands of the religious fundamentalist that swept the country at that time. They know well the religio-political message hiding behind this veil.
I am bewildered that various human rights organisations are against this ban. According to Amnesty International, a general ban on veils is a human rights infringement that contravenes people's freedom of religion and their freedom of expression.
Is Amnesty not aware that, mainly prior to the 11 September attacks, religious fanatics gained political asylum in the west, under the banner of freedom of religion and expression, and from here carried on their struggle to create theocracies in their homelands? Sometimes, I suspect that human rights groups are more occupied with theory and ideology than the reality on the ground.
Human Rights Watch is against the ban because society is obliged to protect women's freedom of choice. According to HRW, an individual approach is necessary when dealing with these issues. Does that mean that the government needs to assess the wardrobe choice of every woman and ask her whether or not she was forced to wear the burqa or niqab?
Baas Over Eigen Hoofd (BOEH!), a broad-based platform of Belgian Muslim and non-Muslim women's organisations whose name means literally “Boss of my Own Head”, believes that no specific law is necessary because this issue only affects a handful of women. The notion that we should ignore this problem because it is so insignificant has something of the politics of the ostrich about it. The situation in other European countries indicates that the problem in Belgium is likely to get worse.
Muslim groups are also against the ban. The state-appointed Muslim Executive, which a few years ago declared that the burqa was not a religious symbol and that it was contrary to Islam, now calls this proposed ban “discriminatory”. They, too, are labelling this a freedom of religion issue.
I once thought that the struggle waged by various Muslim organisations was one for acceptance, the acceptance of Muslim citizens as fellow citizens. I did not realise it was about the burqa or the niqab. Now, I'm beginning to doubt the noble intentions of some of these groups. Take, for example, the extremist group Sharia4Belgium which recently publicised its wish to turn Belgium into an Islamic state.
This article first appeared in the Guardian newspaper's Comment is Free section on 23 April 2010. Read the full discussion here. Republished here with the author's consent.