Europe’s Burqa Wars

As Europe's Muslim population continues to grow, Islamic dress, particularly the controversial burqa, has become a focus for wrenching political disputes. From Belgium, which is leading the way toward a full ban, to Turkey, whose enforced secularism inspired the new policies in the West, here's a look at five places where the debate is most contentious.


View a slideshow of the always controversial burqa.


View a slideshow of the always controversial burqa.


The law: In 2004, France instituted a controversial ban on the wearing of religious symbols and clothing in schools — a law that was widely interpreted as targeting Islamic headscarves. More recently President Nicolas Sarkozy’s UMP party has begun a push to also ban the burqa (a garment that covers a woman’s entire face and body, leaving only a screen for the eyes) and the niqab (a veil for the face that leaves the area around the eyes open) in all public spaces in France. The parliament passed a nonbinding resolution on May 11 in support of such a ban.

The debate: France is the European country with the largest Muslim minority population (6 percent, or 4 million citizens). The proposed burqa ban has opened difficult questions about national identity and the place of religion in society. Sarkozy was quoted in June 2009 as saying “the burqa is not welcome in France” and has since argued that it is a tool for the suppression of women.

A parliamentary commission, which concluded earlier this year, recommended a partial ban in spaces like hospitals and on public transportation. In an attempt to minimize the controversy surrounding the legislative effort, Jean-François Copé, leader of the UMP party in parliament, argued last week that the ban is based on security concerns (“the visibility of the face in the public sphere … is essential to our security and is a condition for living together”), not religious discrimination.

Earlier this year, Prime Minister Francois Fillon asked the Council of State, a body that provides legal advice to the executive branch, to examine whether a full ban would be constitutional. The council found that such a law would most likely violate the French Constitution and could be challenged in court. However, it also found that a partial ban on face-covering garments could stand in certain “high-risk” places for security reasons. (A similar law is already on the books in Italy, where a woman was recently fined 500 euros for wearing a niqab in public.) Nonetheless, Copé says he will continue to pursue a full ban of the burqa in France.



The law: Belgium has taken great steps toward a ban on face-covering veils. On April 29, the lower house of parliament approved a bill that bans burqas and niqabs; the bill is expected the pass the upper house of parliament later this year. Human rights groups such as Amnesty International have forcefully condemned the bill.  The new law would impose a fine of 15 to 25 euros, or jail time of one to seven days.

The debate: If the ban is approved, Belgium will become the first country in Europe to completely outlaw face-covering veils. Although Belgium has an estimated Muslim population exceeding 600,000, legislators estimate that only a small percentage, 300 to 400 women, wear the burqa. Opponents of the bill therefore argue that the root issue is Islamophobia in a country with a rapidly growing Muslim population.

Meanwhile, in making the case for the ban, the head of the Liberal Party, Daniel Bacquelaine, told National Public Radio: “To forbid the veil as a covering is to give [Muslim women] more freedom. I’m proud Belgium is the first country to do that.”

Amnesty International’s John Dalhuisen, an expert on religious discrimination in Europe, counters, “The Belgian move to ban full-face veils, the first in Europe, sets a dangerous precedent. Restrictions on human rights must always be proportionate to a legitimate goal. A total ban on full-face veils would not be.”



The law: Half of Germany’s 16 states have passed laws restricting the wearing of religious clothing and symbols, including the burqa and hijab (headscarf), in schools. (Meanwhile, five of these states have made exceptions for Christian items.) Throughout Germany, women are not allowed to drive while wearing the burqa, allegedly for safety purposes.

The debate: This month Silvana Koch-Mehrin, a German representative in the European Parliament, called for a Europe-wide ban on face-covering veils, saying “the burqa is a massive attack on the rights of women. It is a mobile prison.”

In the wake of moves toward bans in Belgium and France, as well as Koch-Mehrin’s statement, German Muslim leaders such as Aiman Mazyek, chairman of the Central Council of Muslims, have voiced their disapproval of a similar national ban in Germany, calling it a “a completely senseless debate. It would only further widen the gap between Muslims and non-Muslims.” German politicians like Interior Minister Thomas de Maiziere agree with Mazyek, calling a ban “inappropriate and therefore unnecessary.”

Sean Gallup/Getty Images


The law: Geert Wilders, leader of the Party for Freedom and well-known anti-immigration politician, has been at the forefront of the international movement to ban burqas and veils. In 2006, he introduced legislation before the Dutch parliament to ban burqas, but worries that a ban would breach religious freedom laws together with personnel changes in the Dutch cabinet stopped it from being voted into law.

The debate: Because of concerns over freedom of religion and offending the country’s growing Muslim community, Dutch lawmakers have been especially reticent about a burqa ban in recent years. Yet 66 percent of the population would support it, according to a February 2007 opinion poll. Wilders attempted to once again put forward legislation banning the burqa in public places in 2008, but concerns about religious freedom have elevated the political opposition.

Wilders’s party gained in recent local elections, and with general elections scheduled for June, he will probably gain more seats in parliament. Last fall, Wilders suggested a 1,000 euro excise tax on headscarves, which he dubbed a “head-rag tax.”



The law: Turkey is officially a secular state; the wearing of veils almost vanished after Mustafa Kemal Ataturk launched his modernization drive in 1923. Headscarves were practically nonexistent in Turkey’s big cities by the 1960s, but this trend reversed thanks to a religious revival in the 1970s.

Today, all veils are banned in universities and public buildings. The ban was introduced after Turkey’s 1980 military coup; further restrictions were enacted in 1997. In November 2005, the European Court of Human Rights upheld the university headscarf ban against challenges, setting a precedent for current legislative efforts in Europe.

The debate: More recently, the election of Islamic-leaning parties such as Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) has led to enforcement of the ban being relaxed somewhat. Still, every year thousands of women — such as Leyla Sahin, the plaintiff in the European Court of Human Rights case — find themselves in trouble for refusing to remove their headscarves.

Lawmakers have made several attempts in the last decade to lift the ban, but all have been unsuccessful. Despite the growing influence of religious parties in government, the headscarf ban is unlikely to be overturned anytime soon; Turkish military leaders see themselves as protectors of Turkey’s secular status and remain fierce critics of religion entering the public space.


Kayvan Farzaneh is an editorial researcher at Foreign Policy.

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