Home > Commentary > A Primer on ‘Hijab Debate 2009′.

A Primer on ‘Hijab Debate 2009′.


The garments.

The beginning of the new school year is as good a time as any to take stock of Europe’s seemingly boundless obsession with Muslim women’s dress. I blogged on the hijab in Ireland’s schools for the CCJHR blog in June of last year. Since then, RTE has produced a radio documentary about Shekinah Egan, whose case sparked Irish engagement with this issue.

When I talk about Muslim women’s dress, I have in mind a number of  types of garment which cover the face and body to varying degrees. They are displayed and labelled in the picture on the right, adapted from the BBC website.  The European debates have revolved around the permissibilty of restrictions on this broad class of dress. Even as it becomes a visible part of European popular culture and lived multiculturalism;  in rap music, art and sport, ‘the veil’ excites ever more exclusionary policy-making. This post is intended as an entry level guide to current debates and is confined to a selection of the most important ‘hijab’ stories which have been reported since January. Rather than getting into my own analysis  (or indeed, into the law or the voluminous academic commentary) in any detail in this post, I wanted to write a ‘basics’ post now which will introduce readers to the topic and ground my later contributions.

The European engagement with Islamic dress can be understood in terms of four broad themes: the what, who, where and why of restrictions on Muslim women’s dress.

(1) What?

It is commonly argued that garments which leave the whole of the woman’s face exposed – such as the chador or the headscarf – ought to be treated differently than those which cover all or part of her face. This much is reflected in the approach finally taken by the Irish Departments of Education and Integration to the issue of whether girls should be permitted to wear headscarves in school. Headscarves come under the general principle permitting schools to set their own uniform rules, but direction was given that the niqab and the burkha should not be permitted. In the past year, the governments of a number of countries have considered prohibiting women from wearing the burkha and niqab in situations where wearing the hijab is permissible.  In France, following an important speech by Nicolas Sarkozy, a parliamentary commission has begun  a fact-finding investigation into the wearing of the burqa (apparently a marginal phenomenon in France) and may propose that laws be enacted to ban it.  In August, the Danish governing Liberal Party rejected a proposal from its coalition partner, the Conservative Party, which would have instituted a ban on wearing the burkha and niqab in public, with one exception: burkhas would not be permitted for those working in the public sector. And on September 3, the Belgian Liberal Party proposed a general ban on wearing the burkha in public Several Belgian towns have already prohibited the wearing of the burkha in public but it appears that the Antwerp police have been unwilling to enforce the law.

(2) Who?

The first ‘who’ question is a short one: ‘Who decides?’ Should the state government regulate women’s dress or should this task be left to sub-state agents such as schools and employers? As we have seen, in Ireland, the Department of Education has expressly left the question of whether girls may wear headscarves to school to the schools themselves. Similarly, in Antwerp in Belgium, there are no general rules on the wearing of headscarves in school. This July, two city high schools instituted a ban. Following significant protests, the Antwerp education agency has decided to review this ‘hands off’ policy.

Second,  we can ask a ‘who’ question about participation in governance decisions. Who is consulted when the decision is taken to restrict religious dress? There are no easy assumptions about representative bodies, or indeed about the power which women hold within those bodies. If anything, the hijab debate has underscored the complexity of  European Muslim ‘voice’ . For instance, two high profile supporters of the burkha ban proposals in France and Denmark; French urban regeneration minister Fadela Amara and Danish Conservative Party integration spokesman Naser Khader are Muslim.

Third, where it is proposed to regulate Muslim women’s dress, categories of women are frequently distinguished from one another on the basis of occupation. It is sometimes suggested that those in certain public positions should not wear the hijab, particularly where a visible symbol of religious affiliation ostensibly clashes – as in the case of the police and soldiers – with a felt need to express neutrality as between groups or loyalty to the state.  Along these lines, Denmark announced in August that female members of the armed forces would not be allowed to wear hijab, while in Norway in February a proposal that Muslim policewomen be allowed to wear a headscarf with their uniform failed. By contrast, from this year in the UK, Avon and Somerset policewomen are issued with headscarves to wear when they enter mosques, as an expression of respect for their surroundings. Teachers can also be affected, if a teacher’s dress is felt to be incompatible with the aims of the state educational system. While in June, Belgium’s State Council held that teachers could not be prevented from wearing headscarves to teach, several German states do just that. Importance is also placed on the woman’s age. A number of European countries prohibit children in public schools from wearing religious symbols, including the hijab, though adult women do not face such restrictions. France’s policy is the most well known, though Bulgaria has taken steps to introduce  similar measures. In May, the Norwegian Progress Party proposed that hijabs should be banned in all schools, and the parents of girls who wear them should be deported.

(3) Where?

Weight is also commonly attached to the place where the garment is worn. In this respect – and this is related to the distinction on the basis of occupation already highlighted, and to the particular concern for schools as a training ground for citizenship -  the public-private divide has been a recurring theme. As a particularly important public sphere site, courts have been subject to scrutiny. Late last year, the Danish Justice Minister decided to prohibit the wearing of religious symbols by judges, on grounds of neutrality. A looser concept of the ‘public’  as shared space emerged summer in France, when it was reported that some swimming pools would not admit women wearing the burkini (a type of light wetsuit with a head-covering seen here). The burkini was also banned in a small town in northern Italy. By contrast, the Telegraph reports that some swimming pools in the UK are accommodating some Muslim patrons’ desire to swim in ‘modest’ clothing by imposing dress codes during particular sessions.

(4)  Why?

I want, finally, to outline some of the justifications commonly advanced for restrictions on Islamic garments. Some have a practical or  ‘common sense’  dimension: for instance, the Irish Department of Education preferred to bar niqabs from the classroom because they were felt to inhibit communication between teacher and pupil. In the same class are objections based on issues of evidence and identification. For instance, this year, the matter of witnesses in niqab has arisen in Toronto ( in the context of a sexual assault case) in Georgia, and in Michigan, as outlined at feministlawprofessors.  Similar issues of idenification arise in relation to crime (the Daily Mail warns of ‘burkha bandits’ here) and state ID documents.

Other, more abstract  justifications also emerge from the discourse. These may be classed as  ‘rights’ reasons and ‘belonging’ reasons. There are examples of each in France’s recent practice. First, Nicolas Sarkozy (glossing over the debate on choice and religious dress) said forcefully in his speech to the French Parliament in June that the matter is one of women’s freedom and dignity: the burqa, for him, is a sign of the submission of women to men. It rendered women ‘prisoners behind a screen’.  The freedom justification is subject to the critique that the cure might be worse than the disease. We can easily imagine circumstances in which a ban on religious dress may compound existing discrimination and practically hamper women’s autonomy in the short-term, as  argued by Naomi Norberg at IntLawGrrls; as where a teenager declines to return to a school where she cannot wear hijab.  In the same speech, M. Sarkozy opened a ‘belonging reason’ – a reason which paints certain cultural behaviour as incompatible with full membership in the national community – saying, in reference to the burkha: ‘I tell you, we must not be ashamed of our values, we must not be afraid of defending them’. His statement resonates with the decision of  July of last year in which France’s Conseil d’Etat upheld a decision to refuse citizenship to Faiza Silmi, in part because she wore the niqab outside and inside her home; behaviour which was considered incompatible with French conceptions of gender equality.

On September 3, the Belgian Liberal Party proposed a similar ban.
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  1. pmcauliffe
    September 9, 2009 at 10:43 am

    Very useful. The Irish Department of Education’s position on the niqab certainly seems quite sensible and objectively justifiable in the context of the classroom. Are there moves afoot to extend the policy elsewhere in the public service, e.g. hospitals? Does the same policy apply to the burqa?

  2. September 10, 2009 at 12:06 pm

    I have seen western educated Muslim women are in Burqa while their mothers never even covered their heads in Pakistan. I do not know whether it is due to western education or because they find themselves victim of racism. According to Lord Burtend Russell, western education makes a man stupid and selfish. The credit cruch in the world is due to the policies of blue eyed western educated elites. British schooling is also in a mess because of such western educated elites.

    Burqa is not locking women, it is a buffer line between protecting chasity and exposing. Being naked and drunk is acceptabl but being covered and modest is inhuman.

    French president wants Muslim women to be topless like his wife who posed topless in fashion shows. He has no right to ban the burqa because it is undemocratic and an unqualified attack on individual freedom. Burqa is not just a piece of cloth but a lot of ideological and cultural connotation to it. Women are just being exploited in the name of rights. Burqa protects women’s rights and treat each women like a princess. No one has the right to ban the freedom of choice in a secular and democratic country. The right to choice is a basic fundamental right the person should have.

    French president’s interpretation of burqa as a symbol of subservience is false. It is a usual habit of western ideologists to twist history and distort the facts inorder to project their culture as superior one. The president should be criminally tried for spreading such falsehood. To veil or not to veil should be an individual choice. Dress codes are for children, not for adults. Government legislated dress codes for the Taliban religious policy not western democracies. Women should be free to wear burqas. If women can get away with wearing cropped shirts and pants that show their panties, they should be able to waer burqas too.

    One Muslim woman, Caroline Chaiima, writing in Lepoint.fr, said she wore a veil: “Let those most closely concerned speak. I am a French woman born in France, with French parents, grandparents, great-grandparents, and I am a Muslim. I wear the full veil and I feel like saying: So what? I am happy behind the veil, I protect myself from depraved stares. Neither my father, nor my brother, nor my husband forced the full veil upon me; it’s a personal choice.”
    Iftikhar Ahmad
    London School of Islamics Trust
    http://www.londonschoolofislamics.org.uk

  3. Anya
    September 17, 2009 at 10:51 pm

    Children can wear special hijabs as well:

  1. February 20, 2010 at 12:24 pm
  2. February 21, 2010 at 12:21 pm

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