Academic journal article Middle East Quarterly

The Burqa Challenge to Europe

Academic journal article Middle East Quarterly

The Burqa Challenge to Europe

Article excerpt

In the summer of 2014, the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) upheld previously passed French legislation, popularly known as the "burqa ban."1 In doing so, it accepted the argument that the public wearing of this Islamically-connected fullbody and face veiling violated a core value of French society, the principle of "living together" (le vivre ensemble). A review of how the court arrived at this conclusion, and what other arguments against the burqa it chose to ignore, may offer clues as to what forebodes for European Union societies and their relations with burgeoning Muslim populations.

To Cover or Not to Cover?

The ECHR's decision originated in an application against the French Republic lodged with the court under Article 34 of the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms on April 11, 2011.2

The applicant, known only by her initials, S.A.S., is a Pakistani-born French national, who, according to her testimony, is a devout Muslim and wears the full-body and face veil. She claimed to do so in accordance with her Islamic faith, her culture, and her personal convictions, and she emphasized that neither her husband nor any other member of her family put pressure on her to dress in this manner.3

The burqa is a recent phenomenon in the West, virtually unseen before the year 2000, but, some ten years later, donned by approximately 1,900 women in France. The practice is controversial, not only due to its extreme nature but also because some Muslims question whether it is truly Islamic. The four Sunni schools of jurisprudence differ regarding the obligation for women to cover their face, with the Hanbali school, prevalent in Saudi Arabia, the strictest observer. For their part, Shiite Muslims do not believe that the face of a Muslim woman is a part of the body that needs to be covered in public although Iran's current theocratic rulers insist that women wear the chador, a cloak that leaves the face open, in public. In Turkey, Lebanon, Tunisia, Malaysia, and before the civil war, in Syria, the face veil has been subjected to bans, mostly in public and educational institutions, as it is considered to run counter to national values and traditions.4 Yet while women in Muslimmajority countries had been progressively un-veiling for most of the twentieth century, this practice has reversed due to the Islamist resurgence of the last four decades.

It is in the West that the most outspoken Muslim critics of full-face veiling are active. Sihem Habchi, for example, president of the French feminist movement Ni putes ni soumises (Neither whores nor submissives)5 has stated passionately and categorically: "As a woman, as a French citizen, and as a Muslim woman, I demand that the Republic protect me from the vilest fanaticism that is infecting our public space."6 These sentiments were echoed by French Muslim women's rights activist Fadela Amara who wrote that it "is a mistake to see the veil as only a religious issue. We must remember that it is first of all a tool of oppression, alienation, discrimination, and an instrument of men's power over women. It is not an accident that men do not wear the veil."7 Thus in the eyes of burqa opponents, the state must fulfil its positive obligation to protect human rights: Women should be made safe from severe pressure to cover.

At the same time, women, including many converts, voluntarily choose to cover their faces. When the French burqa prohibition came into force on April 11, 2011, S.A.S. found herself in a dilemma: Either obey the ban and compromise her personal beliefs, or ignore it and risk criminal charges in the form of a euro150 fine. Instead, she decided to put her faith in Strasbourg.

"Vivre Ensemble"

When the ECHR rendered its decision, it essentially echoed the reasoning found in the "Gérin report" of 2010. This derived from a June 2009 decision by the conference of presidents of the French National Assembly, which established a parliamentary commission comprising members from various parties and presided over by the left-wing politician André Gérin, with the task of drafting a report on "the wearing of the full-face veil on national territory. …

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