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"Should Belgium Ban the Burqa?" (L', 18/11/2010)

The Issue

On 31 March 2010, the Interior Affairs committee of the chambre (lower house) voted unanimously in favour of a new measure that would add to Belgium's criminal code a prohibition against "wearing of clothing that hides the face" and "covering the face in an excessive manner". On Thursday 27 April 2010, the Belgian Parliament's drive for a "burqa ban" bill cleared its penultimate hurdle by passing in the chambre by a vote of 136-0.

The text of the proposed law proscribes having "the face fully or partly covered so as to render" a person no longer recognizable." It does not specifically mention the burqa or niqab; ski masks would therefore also be illegal under the ruling. The garments worn by Muslim women, however, were the primary topic of debate in the Interior Affaris committee, and some politicians have made it perfectly clear for whom the law is intended.

Jean-Marie DEDECKER, Chamber of Representatives: "Yes. The burqa is a vestimentary prison for women."

The wearing of a head-scarf is, in its origin, not an Islamic but a Byzantine tradition. The earliest depiction dates from the first century AD in the Syrian town of Palmyra, i.e. 600 years before the birth of Mohammed. The face-veil was introduced as a status symbol, much in the same way Victorian women wore the corset and Chinese women got accustomed to footbinding.  These were all signs of material wellbeing since only affluent families could afford women that weren't fully fit to work.

After the wars of independence in Morocco and Algeria, veiling evolved from a bourgeois practice to a symbol of nationalism and Islamic resistance against the French way of life. By  the 1990s, unveiled women walking the streets of Algeria risked physical harassment from fundamentalists. From a status symbol, the veil became a vestimentary prison. The burqa then, the enveloping garment that includes the covering of the body and the head as well as a face-veil, is said to have its origins in the Arabic peninsula long before Islam, but got a new impetus around 1910, when the jealous king Habibullah Khan introduced it in Afghanistan. Today the burqa is the Islamic winding-sheet of freedom.

The revival of the veiled woman on western streets does not only reflect the growing number of Muslims in western societies but also and more importantly the rise of orthodox Islam. According to a 2007 survey, 58 percent of British Muslims advocated veiling women. Strikingly, 74 percent of the age group between 18 and 24 supported veiling, in contrast to merely 28 percent for Muslims older than 55. A majority of young Muslim men thus demand that their wives, sisters, mothers and daughters find shelter under a piece of cloth, away from the eyes of a sinful society. Wherever religious fanaticism reigns, women get oppressed.

From a healthy religious point of view, wearing a burqa can only be women's disgrace. A God willing to veil half of his creation is simply not worthy of his creation. The Islamic dress code has long transcended its original sense of devotion, respect and honor.  An unveiled woman is said to provoke men. In a reaction to this provocation men may harass that woman without falling into sin. A man has thus the right not to be provoked and is permitted to hide his wife in a textile jail.

So, wearing a burqa has, per se, nothing to do with the core of the Islamic religion. It rather is a challenging religious statement and a symbol of the oppression of women, a provocative attempt to measure the tolerance threshold between different cultures within our society. Its ardent defenders do not consider religion a private affair but instead aim at conquering all domains of public life. Religion as a raison d'Etat.

From a legal point of view wearing the burqa can easily be forbidden. In Belgium providing an ID through an ID-card is mandatory, as is exposing a full face. But forbidding the burqa is not for recognition purposes alone. Along with the multicultural character, a multireligiousness has crept into the fabric of our western societies. But only a religiously neutral state can master the challenges of such a plurality. All state officials should therefore be deprived of religious symbols when carrying out their mandate.

Secularization kicked off in our part of the world at the end of the 18th century and is irreversible. Theocracy and democracy are diametrically opposite. As the rights of women prevail over the archaic values of a desert religion, we have a duty to liberate every woman from a vestimentary prison.

On the 29th of April, the Belgium Chamber of Representatives unanimously passed a bill banning any clothing that would obscure the identity of the wearer in public places. The proposal went to the Senate but new elections were issued before a vote could be held.  French lawmakers were the first to officially ban the burqa last September. The French law will be effective in spring 2011.

In Belgium all will depend on the formation of a new government and the willingness of that majority to proceed with the legislation. The fastest way to do so is to pick things up where we left them and vote to make the proposal concrete. Only in this way can Belgian lawmakers send a loud and clear message. 


© 2009 L'Anglophone