Unease over Islam takes form of bans on Muslim garments
(10-22) 04:00 PDT Paris — When Nora Labrak arrived at a private employment agency last summer near the French city of Lyon, the first question she heard was not about her resume.
“I was asked to remove my head scarf at the lobby,” Labrak recalled in a telephone interview. When the 29-year-old refused, she was hustled to the door.
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Long or short, sober black or brightly hued, the Muslim women’s head covering is drawing growing objections, and in some places downright hostility, in Europe. It has been banned from public schools in France and Belgium, and its strictest, face-concealing variation, the niqab, has been outlawed in several European towns.
Even in multicultural Britain, the niqab has sparked ferocious debate after the suspension of a Muslim teaching assistant and remarks by Prime Minister Tony Blair on Tuesday that the garment was “a mark of separation.”
Feeding the division are a number of other incidents over the past two years that have embroiled European Muslims and non-Muslims in controversy, sometimes setting communities against one another: last year’s violent riots in French immigrant neighborhoods; Danish cartoons satirizing the prophet Muhammad; the slaying of Dutch filmmaker Theo Van Gogh by an Islamic extremist; honor killings and forced marriages in Germany and Austria; deadly terrorist attacks in Britain and Spain; Pope Benedict XVI’s public reflections on the nature of Islam in a scholarly speech last month in Germany; and general concerns over illegal immigration, which comes largely from North Africa.
“There’s a rise in Islamo-skepticism,” said Franck Fregosi, an expert on Islam at France’s National Center for Scientific Research, referring to the unease many non-Muslims feel about the seeming reluctance of Muslims to be part of the mainstream culture. “There’s a fear and tension that’s installed in certain parts of the population, and I don’t think it bodes well for the future.”
In Brussels, 41-year-old Nicole Thill shares that foreboding.
“I haven’t had problems until now, but things are changing,” said Thill, who converted to Islam and began wearing the veil in 2001. “People’s looks are increasingly hostile. And there’s less and less respect. People don’t mind jostling you on the street because, after all, you’re only a veiled woman.”
To be sure, sentiments about Muslims vary widely in Europe. Polls offer a fractured snapshot about how the region’s Islamic community is viewed — and how it views itself.
A survey by the Pew Research Center, released in July, found that a majority of European Muslims did not sense hostility from non-Muslims. But a significant number — 39 percent in France, 42 percent in Britain and 51 percent in Germany — reported otherwise.
Islam requires that women dress modestly. Perhaps more than any other symbol, the hijab — women’s head and body coverings, which vary in type and extensiveness depending on the country of origin — physically sets Muslims apart in a largely secular continent. While worn by only a minority of Muslim women in Europe, head coverings can be an easy target for negative stereotypes and scathing remarks.
The head scarf, ultra-nationalist French politician Jean-Marie Le Pen once quipped, “protects us from ugly women.”
In interviews, half a dozen veiled women in Europe said they braced themselves before going out in public. Several cited the head covering as a barrier to employment.
“I have some friends who agreed to take their head scarves off or to wear a bandana to get a job — but not by choice,” said Labrak, the Lyon resident.
She has since filed charges against the job agency that expelled her from its premises and awaits a court ruling.
On Thursday, Aishah Azmi, a British teaching assistant who had been suspended after she refused to remove her niqab during lessons, won an award of about $2,000 in a victimization suit against her school, but she lost two key claims of discrimination and harassment by her employer.
Azmi’s case before the government’s Employment Tribunal had become the center of a wide-ranging debate over the decision by some Muslim women to wear full veils and the participation of religious groups in British society. While less than 3 percent of the population is Muslim, Britain — due largely to its colonial past — has a long history of multiracialism.
Note the hypocrisy of the person involved.
The uproar over Azmi’s suit added to the uncomfortable political debate that included comments by Jack Straw, the head of the House of Commons, that Muslim women should take off their veils in meetings with him, as well as a statement by Culture Secretary Tessa Jowell calling veils a “symbol of women’s subjugation to men.”
“Sadly, the intervention of ministers in my case makes me fearful of the consequences for Muslim women in this country who want to work,” Azmi told reporters Thursday. “Politicians need to recognize that what they say can have a very dangerous impact on the lives of the minorities they treat as outcasts. Integration requires people like me to be in the workplace so that people can see that we are not to be feared or mistrusted.” European politicians critical of the veil, particularly in its more conservative manifestations, cite the importance of integrating ethnic African, Arab and Turkish immigrant populations. That was the message behind French legislation two years ago that banned the head scarf and other religious symbols in public schools.
And it was one reason Jan Creemers, mayor of the small Belgian town of Maaseik, outlawed the wearing of the face-concealing niqab in public earlier this year. Several other Belgian towns have since followed suit. A number of Belgium public schools also have banned students from wearing any kind of veil to class.
“We have many old people, and they were very afraid when they saw these women wearing the veil,” Creemers said. “It’s very important in our town and in our Western culture that people see each other face to face.”
Of the six women wearing the niqab in Maaseik, five removed the veil in public, Creemers said. The sixth backed down after police filed charges.
“There is a very good relationship between the community and the Muslim inhabitants,” Creemers added of Maaseik’s mostly Moroccan Islamic community, numbering about 700. “I was in contact with that community, and they support my opinion on this.”
Public wearing of the niqab is similarly banned in Italy under anti-terrorist laws making the hiding of people’s features an offense. And in Germany, four states have outlawed public school teachers from wearing head scarves — a ban that applies to all civil servants in the German state of Hesse.
Along with the school head scarf law, women employed in the public sector in France also are barred from wearing veils at work. That law has drawn widespread support — including from many Muslims.
“If you’re in Europe, you need to live according to European customs. Either you adapt or, if you want to wear Middle Eastern clothing, you leave,” said Khadija Khali, head of the Union des Femmes Musulmanes de France, a French Muslim women’s group.
“This veil is a political garment,” added Khali, a practicing Muslim who has gone to Mecca five times but does not cover her hair. “It creates rifts in this country.”
French-Algerian Sen. Bariza Khiari says France’s school head scarf law has helped emancipate some Muslim women. “Women are realizing they need to break from certain traditional ways and to think for themselves. That’s what the (French) Republican school is all about,” Khiari said.
But as in the Middle East, women’s dress is fraught with symbolism in Europe, adopted not only because of tradition or submission but out of rebellion and religious conviction. Even as supporters point to the success of French anti-veil laws, skeptics question their utility.
While relatively few complaints were registered after the implementation of France’s school law, for example, it’s unclear how many girls left public schools because of the ban on veils.
“This law pushes women not to feel comfortable with themselves,” said French Muslim activist Noura Jaballah. Her 12-year-old daughter now removes her head scarf before entering her public school but puts it back on when she leaves.
“What I hope is that someday the question of Muslims isn’t posed in Europe,” Jaballah said. “Like Christians and Jews, we’re part of this society.”
Europe and the veil
France: A ban on Muslim head scarves and other “conspicuous” religious symbols at state primary and secondary schools was introduced in 2004 to widespread public support in a country where the separation of church and state is enshrined in law. Head scarves can be worn in Muslim schools and on university campuses.
Britain: There is no ban on Islamic dress in place, but schools are allowed to write their own dress codes. When a schoolgirl complained that she was sent home for wearing a garment that covered almost her entire body, the courts said the school made sufficient concessions by allowing Islamic trousers and tunic. Last week, a Muslim teaching assistant wearing a garment that left only her eyes uncovered won a victimization award against school officials who told her to remove her full-face covering while teaching, but she lost her claims of religious discrimination and harassment.
Germany: In September 2003, the federal Constitutional Court ruled in favor of a teacher who wanted to wear an Islamic head scarf to school. But the court said individual states could change their laws if they wanted to. At least four German states have banned teachers from wearing head scarves, and in the state of Hesse the ban applies to all civil servants.
Italy: In September 2004, politicians in northern Italy resurrected old laws against the wearing of masks in order to ban Islamic garments covering women’s faces. In July 2005, the Italian Parliament passed anti-terrorist legislation making the hiding of facial features from the public — including through wearing Islamic garb — an offense.
Belgium: The city of Maaseik, on the Dutch border, has banned the niqab, which covers the whole body except for the eyes.
Turkey: In this secular state, head scarves are considered backward-looking, but nonetheless, an estimated two-thirds of Turkish women wear scarves. Head coverings are banned in civic spaces, including schools, universities — state or private — and government buildings. In November 2005, the European Court of Human Rights ruled the Turkish ban was legitimate.
Russia: Russia’s Supreme Court has overturned a 1997 Interior Ministry ruling forbidding women from wearing head scarves in passport photos.