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The Burka and Nikab: Soon Banned in Belgium?

Drawing a Line in the Sand in the Name of Security

, by Anonymous

It’s quite surprising to witness how Belgium will likely become the first European nation to ban the burka and nikab for legal reasons. There is a fairly high consensus in Belgium about the prohibition of all religious symbols and religion-propagating attire for anyone executing a job as a public civil servant. Here laid the seeds for the overall burka and nikab debate. So how fundamentally different is this new law, and how far does it limit people’s freedom in ‘displaying’ their attire? The only other precedents where this condition is turned into a law are Tunisia (the second Maghreb country – after Egypt – were women obtained suffrage) and Singapore.

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On the 29th of April, the Belgian Chamber of Representatives voted in favor of this following prohibition, initially approved by the parliamentary committee for Domestic Affairs: “It is prohibited to wear face-covering attire, rendering the face unrecognizable to others”. This also means wearing a total face-covering balaclava would be outlawed, save for in certain professional environments. That is less comfortable if you appreciate protection from the freezing cold, but it is doubtful whether someone wearing the balaclava would feel stripped of certain rights?

That is less comfortable if you appreciate protection from the freezing cold, but it is doubtful whether someone wearing the balaclava would feel stripped of certain rights?

This law concept is not yet in force, as Bart Tommelein (liberal party, Open VLD) indicated that the Senate would first reflect upon it. That however will not happen until after planned elections in June.

In any respect, this ban is far from comparable to the ban of lewd attire (or lack of decent ‘coverage’ of portions of the body). There are law enforcers who would charge or arrest you for wearing absurdly skimpy and revealing clothes, under the argument of it being a ‘vice’ and violating ‘public decency’. Quite the opposite of this is the burka. Belgian lawmakers argue that the ban is not an entirely new feature in the law. Many city and municipal laws already have regulations prohibiting anyone to appear in public with a mask, scarf or other apparel that entirely covers one’s face.

Police can stop you and bring you in for questioning for doing so, as it impairs facial recognition. Get into a bank, and you might as well pull a gun or a hand grenade and rob it without anyone being able to give a description of how the robber (m/f) looks. This is a rather classic, black-and-white utilitarian argument as to why the burka ought to be banned from the public scene. The only exceptions made are during public festivities (think carnival). So, this rule appears slightly stretchable according to its social context.

My body, my temple. My veiled/anonymous face, my own personal choice?

Note that the proposed ban formally does not mention cultural origins or connotations about the attire it wishes to outlaw. Even if the law is adopted in full, it’s still one’s right to wear a hijab (the headscarf symbolizing female chastity and modesty), the djellaba, chādor, khimār, shaylah and so on. Yet, if a women desires to cover up her face, save for a thin line revealing just her eyes, is it her fundamental right to do so? One has to qualify such right sincerely, before picking an answer. From our Western perspective, we tend to associate ‘hiding ones face’ with negative factoids (shame, oppression, lack of self-empowerment). From a psychological point of view, there is a strange phenomenon about ‘eyes without a face to it’. It is actually not the eyes, but rather the unidentifiable look that can have a chilling and uncomfortable, almost intimidating effect. Wearing oversize tinted (sun)glasses and a cap which basically covers all but your cheeks, lips and chin is however not in violation of said ‘facial recognition’ prerequisite. It is hard to contain this ‘war on the burka’ within the realm of legal argumentation, with application to law enforcement purposes. It is common sense to have a recognizable face on a passport or identity card, otherwise it would defeat the purpose of having the picture taken at all. No hats, (head)scarfs, glasses or fake noses allowed on those legal documents. Dura lex sed lex.

It might sound absolutely silly, but would someone really be intimidated or scared if you saw ninja’s creeping down a street in broad daylight? Still, if it were just you in a dark and cold alley… would the ‘masked eyes’ not also make you freeze? Perhaps the philosopher Emmanuel Levinas does make a point in case concerning our frail ‘human condition’ when he asks the question “do we have to be afraid of the look of The Other?” (see Le regard et le visage: De l’altérité chez J.P.Sartre et E. Lévinas).

Beyond the legal argument: the ‘perceived security ratio’

And this is what might drive the entire legal process to ban the burka, aside from the practical reason: the fact that we identify the more widespread wear of burkas with radicalization and anti-Westernization. This argument has however little footing in the ground. Yet, many (mainly elderly) adolescents admit to feel intimidated by the increased display of exotic robes, jilbāab, khaftans, takchita and the like.

And this is what might drive the entire legal process to ban the burka, aside from the practical reason: the fact that we identify the more widespread wear of burkas with radicalization and anti-Westernization.

Their familiar surroundings are not what they used to be... Have they any real reason to fear such attires? In fact, a lot of Maghreb or Middle-Eastern girls combine jeans with traditional influences, so acculturation and hybridization is also there.

It’s the core of burka- and nikab-wearing females (for instance in the Salafi movement) that - in the eyes of mainstream Westerners - does not find general approval. It even makes them feel uncomfortable. Burka-wearers defending their attire argue that such sentiments are uncalled for, and qualify the association with burka or nikab and ‘secretive’, ‘sinister’ or ‘dangerous’ as perceptive bias. The problem is that their perception is not mainstream in our culture. They are outnumbered by a Western perception that by far predates their custom, regardless of being true or false. This moral aversion and the legal principle (almost like customary law) were present long before the spread of women appearing with face-covering veils. The legal motivations to ban the burka and nikab are dominantly practical, yet underneath basic normative cultural perceptions carry their weight too.

Navel-gazing Muslim right-winged provocation?

Those who feel offended by the ban (even though everything they *do* in the streets is per definition public, not how they *look*) argue that the burka or nikab is inseparable from their identity, their lifestyle, their customs, beliefs and overall dignity. The civil law in Belgian clearly states that in the private sphere everyone is entitled to complete discretion about their affairs within a family setting, including what you wear (pending restrictions of illegal and prohibited acts). Unfortunately, this privilege is not universally applicable in the public sphere.

According to some legal experts, the outlawing of the face-covering veil could be unconstitutional. If the personal and democratic right to choose one’s attire is indeed absolute, then I guess it also becomes legal to wear a Nazi uniform in the streets, by comparison? It could be ‘not against the law’ (one would surely be prosecuted for that in Romania, yet likely acquitted in Lithuania), but the chances are real you would be molested (or worse) by walking in a Nazi outfit in the Jewish quarter of Antwerp. Because that community defines and sets the public ‘mores’ in their part of town. Cultural sensitivities do not always harmonize nicely, it is mostly a collective bargaining process. The burka and nikab, for the judicial system and the public morale, are still one bridge too far. The majority does not acknowledge the relation between this attire and ‘dignity’. Who defines the interpretations of ‘cultural authenticity’ or ‘cultural dignity’? Thus politicians abide to the voice of this majority. It discriminates masking and near-total veiling in the name of public safety.

If the law becomes applicable, for sure there will be news items about defiant burka-wearers protesting and defending it as a ‘fundamental right’ to be entirely veiled. They are more than welcome to bring their case for the European Court of Human Rights, to rule out whether the ban violates rules of equality, liberty of expression, or non-discrimination. I’m not sure if they can decide on the legality of the claim that it limits their civil liberties. Why derogate from a law that seeks to set conditions for more security? Anyone is entitled to security. Would a burka-wearing lady feel safe in the presence of a masked man coming into the bank just behind her? If the answer is no, then the legal argument makes of course little sense if it includes gender-discriminate derogations.

It’s also her right to feel safe under likely circumstances, in accordance to nondiscriminatory legal prerequisites.

For what it is worth, I am grateful that there are no burka-like attires in the other major religions living in our multicultural Belgium. We are not eager to start a revolt, not while we have a fragile political future up ahead, not to mention assuming a six-months presidency in June.

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Image: Three women with white Burka. Source: Flickr Creative Commons

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