For those not used to seeing them, a face veil can be frightening to behold on a person. One is tempted to gawk at women covered from head to toe with their individuality stripped away. If they are wearing a niqab, it is possible to glimpse a set of eyes through a slit in the garment. If they are wearing a burqa, even the eyes are hidden under a mesh cloth.
Normal body movements appear to become decidedly more challenging under the restrictive clothing. Eating, running, and playing sports are awkwardly accomplished (when not rendered impossible).
The physicality of the practice is not its worst feature. The doctrine that justifies and sanctifies the covering of women is far more objectionable to modern Western sensibilities. Islam is a gendered religion, and the rights and obligations of women compared to those of men betray not just a separation but a distinct subordination. The greater freedom granted to men in the realm of outer expression is a reflection of the broader freedoms granted to them in the law.
In the secular West, equality between the sexes is a desired norm, but the Muslim minorities of Europe have not entirely followed the lead of the native population. Practices such as wearing the face veil (the burqa and the niqab) act as visual representations of a complete rejection of Western secular values.
Departing from cherished traditions of freedom of expression, the number of European countries placing restrictions on the practice is steadily rising. France, the Netherlands, Belgium, Austria, and (as of this May) Denmark have all introduced some form of “burqa ban.” A litany of defenses of such measures are usually offered—the foremost among them a concern for “security.”
The reasoning is simple: the inability to properly identify those underneath the veils can jeopardize public safety. Certainly, a face cover can make getting away with a crime an easier task.
If a tactic truly is an asset for criminality, we would see its widespread (or at the very least increasing) use. Yet there is scant evidence to support crimes at all by those in a niqab or burqa and no evidence of crime sprees. As it turns out, the criminal potential of the niqab has remained just that. But in a reversal of the norm in legislation, European politicians are banning a practice well before a documented risk.
In any case, how many women wear a face veil anyway? Although there are some indications that veiling in general has become more common among European Muslims, it isn’t always easy to get a grasp on just how many cover and to what extent.
One 2013 Danish study attempted to estimate the number of niqabi women in the country. The researchers estimated the number to be around 150, corresponding to “0.1–0.2% of Muslim women in Denmark,” tallying with the “current rough estimates in other European countries.”
Face veiling, it appears, remains highly uncommon even among Muslims. And yet, country after country is passing laws banning the practice. But if security, in the technical sense, is not the prime driver of these laws, what is?
The Symbolic Victory
The past decade has been a bloody one for Europeans, as everyday life is punctuated by Islamic terror. Meanwhile, the general crime statistics—both concerning violent crimes and sexual assaults—bolster far-Right narratives that paint a besieged landscape swelling with foreign invaders. Far-Right parties across Europe regularly reach levels of electoral success once thought impossible. And while Muslim migrants continue to arrive seeking shelter in the West, Muslims who were born on European soil remain less willing to integrate to the native culture than was previously hoped. Political leaders, meanwhile, offer few practical solutions. However, they know that the sense of security is a valuable commodity. Frightened citizens want to know their leaders are protecting them and will punish those who allow chaos to erupt.
This context helps explain the psychological drive for a symbolic victory, an assertion that may revive a lost sense of control. What better symbol of “the threat” than the face veil? As the most visible aspect of Muslim practice, the hijab (and, especially, the face veil) is uniquely tied to our mental image of Islam. In this sense, the “burqa bans” are a potent message to comfort a frightened population in politically convenient wrapping.
If confronted with accusations of bigotry against Muslims, politicians can deny that the ban has to do with Islam, instead diverting the conversation to “security” or women’s rights. The voters can feel a satisfaction at the restriction on a symbol of what they fear (encroaching Islam), while the politicians can retain plausible deniability.
But while these “symbolic measures” may be politically useful, what effect might they have on the ground? To investigate the possibilities, let’s look into the motivations behind the practice.
While the face veil itself is seen even by Muslims as an extreme interpretation, the values that underlie the practice are commonly accepted. Morality and sexual purity are one and the same in Islam—only in chastity and modesty may female believers reach the gates of heaven. Sexual mores of the West, meanwhile, are deeply and widely reviled throughout the Muslim world.
Given the ideological roots that underlie practices such as the face veil, it is illogical to expect a shift in belief by banning the practice. Behavior follows belief, and banning a practice while leaving its roots untouched does nothing but build frustration and resentment.
Worse, due to the bans, the garment may be elevated to something more than simply religious piety—it will become a symbol of political dissent. Even Muslim women who choose not to wear a face veil will have reason to view the garment in a sympathetic light—as a symbol of state-sponsored persecution. Meanwhile, the most vulnerable women, the ones who cover due to coercion by family, are placed in a worse predicament. Rather than allow them to take off their veils, family members will forbid those women from going out in public at all.
While banning the face veil may not foster integration, it does achieve some of its superficial markers. However, a false sense of security can be worse than no sense at all. In this case, the cultural and religious divides remain but are hidden from view where they cannot be addressed.
To civil libertarians such as me, the ban is an affront to freedom of conscience. If personal religious expression is dependent upon the mercy of majority sensibilities, then the freedom of religion is a freedom only in name.
Meanwhile, the real work of integration remains neglected. In the past, some have viewed the process of integrating immigrants as a passive force, a kind of inevitability. Now, it appears that the opposing view is gaining popularity: an imperative to force the adoption of local customs on a minority that does not share majority values. The former has proved to be a naive dream, and the latter is destined for a similar kind of failure.
Some Europeans are now asking new arrivals to rapidly adopt a set of values that even their own countrymen initially rejected until they were persuaded into accepting them.
Europe did not spontaneously evolve into its current state. The shift in values was fought for by activists and educators who faced tremendous pushback. But slowly, painfully, and not always linearly, what we now understand to be “Western secular values” came to be adopted across the continent.
This history should be sobering, as it clarifies how wide a gap there is between the norms held by Muslim immigrants and those of their host countries. It also provides room for hope, a model of progress.
Meanwhile, the politicians and advocates for the veil should savor their “symbolic victory” and superficial integration for now and hope that in the real world their actions do no irreversible harm.
Marhit Warburg, Birgitte Schepelern Johansen, and Kate Østergaard. “Counting Niqabs and Burqas in Denmark: Methodological Aspects of Quantifying Rare and Elusive Religious Sub-cultures.” Journal of Contemporary Religion, Vol. 28, no. 1 (2013).