The debate on the ban of burqa and niqab (i.e., female Muslim dresses covering both body and face and hindering identification) is turning into a political trend in Western Europe. Belgium's parliament was the first to pass a prohibitive law, but similar bills are being drafted or discussed in France, the Netherlands, Austria, Denmark, and Italy. Following a Swiss referendum preventing any further construction of Muslim minarets, the nation's popular demand for the burqa ban is growing. In France, a Muslim woman was recently fined for wearing a burqa while driving. The fine was justified based on arguments concerning her restricted field of vision. Considerations of similar limitations imposed by safety helmets (a compulsory element of the protective gear of any motor-cyclist) were neglected. Similarly, a Tunesian immigrant living in northern Italy was fined for wearing the traditional dress in public. Her penalty was explained with reference to the Italian anti-terrorism law of 1975.
Officially, the actions against the controversial burqa are justified by liberal arguments regarding the necessity of individual identifiability. Noteworthy, however, is the timing of this concern which coincides with a peak of general Islamophobia and fear of Islamist terrorists. The penalty imposed in Italy, for example, was the first of its kind despite the law's existence for over 30 years.
One may therefore ask what other considerations are guiding this trend of dress-ban and what consequences it might have in the long term.
During the headscarf affair in France, different arguments opposing the religious dress have been proposed which are equally relevant to the current burqa debate. Secularists have argued in favour of state neutrality and the strict separation between private and public realm to avoid any public offense by religious costumes. Liberalists emphasized the liberal right to gender equality, interpreting the restrictive piece of clothing as a symbol of female suppression and degradation. Nationalists opposed the dress as provocative public statement representing the resurgence of political Islam.
None of these arguments, however, justify the total ban of burqas and niqabs from the public sphere. The claim of secularism is disputable due to its inconsistant application. So far, nobody has objected to the Sikh turban, the Jewish kippah or the varying costumes of Christian nuns and monks. Whereas the claim of female suppression may be justified in certain cases (although judgement is extremely difficult as cultural differences regarding societal values have to be taken into account), the complete ban of traditional dress might, in fact, aggravate the situation. It could further restrict the women's freedom by tying them to their private homes. Finally, the statement on the necessity of the symbolic fight against Islamism is based on a mistakenly homogenous perception of Islam as extremist and dangerous. Moreover, any generalized anti-Muslim sentiment might provoke terrorist retaliation.
Even though the burqa-specific argument concerning the importance of identifiability is certainly valid, one should question the adequacy and proportionality of a complete ban of the burqa in public. Compromising approaches based on the politics of recognition should be adopted in order to ensure equal respect paid to all cultures and religions represented within a state. The latter would entail the careful balancing between the importance of the liberal aims pursued and any discriminatory practices. With regard to the burqa discussion, the ban could be limited to hearings in court, police interviews, and safety checks at airports, where accurate identification is of crucial importance.
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