On Tuesday, the European Court of Human Rights upheld Belgium’s burqa and niqab bans in public spaces. The court ruled that Belgium had the right to ban full-face veils in the name of integration, or “living together,” and the “protection of the rights and freedoms of others,” the Independent reported. The court also ruled the ban did not violate the defendants’ religious freedoms.
This case was initially brought up by two Muslim women, Samia Belcacemi and Yamina Oussar, who wore the niqab. In July 2011, Belgium implemented a law prohibiting anyone from wearing an article of clothing that would obscure the individual’s identity in public or while participating in the public workforce. People who did not comply with the burqa ban ran the risk of being subjected to fines and imprisonment.
Belcacemi and Oussar argued the ban infringed upon their right to privacy and also denied them their freedom to practice their religion, the Telegraph reported. Belcacemi said she ultimately stopped wearing her niqab in fear of being reprimanded with fines or jail time.
Oussar, on the other hand, said the ban made her hesitant to leave her home.
The argument used to justify burqa bans is two-fold: one that they liberate and protect Muslim women and as a result will help Muslim communities integrate better. The reasoning behind the ECHR and Belgium courts support for the ban is one rooted in a longtime push for Muslims to integrate into European society. But, as immigration and sociology experts argue, a law that restricts what Muslim women can wear ultimately hinders their ability to integrate.
According to Fareen Parvez, an assistant professor of sociology and religion at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, women who wear the niqab or burqa in Europe, especially in Belgium, represent a very small minority. She believes many women in Europe choose to veil, as opposed to being forced to — so full-face veil bans are more symbolic than functional.
“Laws targeting people’s religious practices may work against the goal of integration and can even backfire,” Parvez said in an email. “Even though many Muslim women do not wear a headscarf, and the vast majority of them have never worn a ‘burqa,’ these laws still stigmatize many who identify with Islam.”
Parvez mentioned that since France banned the headscarf and religious symbols in schools in 2004 they have been at the forefront of the banning movement in the name of laïcité (or a secular republic). Due to the crackdown on headscarves and religious symbols, Parvez said some young French Muslim women felt alienated from public schools and voluntarily withdrew.
The court’s decision to uphold the ban is a reflection of far-right nationalists’ rising political influence
Lila Charef, co-director of Collectif contre l’Islamophobie en France (The Collective Against Islamophobia in France), argues that the ECHR has no interest in promoting Muslim integration.
”The reasoning behind the court’s decision has nothing to do with integration,” Charef said in an email. “Again, the two women bringing in the cases were Belgian and totally fitting into the local culture, which is precisely why they appealed to human rights and fundamental freedoms to protect their right to chose how they want to dress.”
Charef says the integration debate has become toxic and the discussion on integration has been dominated by white Europeans who feel entitled to choose who is a worthy citizen or not. Charef argues that “pro-integration” laws like the burqa ban “creates categories and grades of citizens, classified depending on their fitting the stereotype of what it means to be French, English, German.”
She believes the ECHR’s ruling on the burqa ban is a reflection of the far-right nationalists’ influence over Belgian politics, which has grown significantly since the Brussels attack in March 2016.
“[The ECHR’s ruling], in a nutshell, is cynical politics 101,” Charef added. “It shows, if needed, that even human rights court are receptive to power struggles, at the expense of fundamental freedoms.”
“This is a serious blow to what is supposed to be a society united as one European people,” she added.
Veils could help women integrate into European society
In the case for the burkini, several advocates of its ban argued that it represented “an enslavement of women” and were at odds with France’s progressive values. But for hijab-wearing Muslim women, the burkini gave them the ability to swim in pools and beaches while also adhering to their religious principles. And just like the burkini, burqas and niqabs provide the freedom to move and take part in Western society while also complying with their own religious practice.
“Evidently, these kinds of curbs on religious liberties, whether the burkini or headscarf, do not help minority integration,” Parvez added, referring to a string of veil bans in Europe.
Charef said that burqas and niqabs can be compatible with European society if freedom of expression is viewed as a core tenet of their values.
“So as long as we believe that the freedom to dress however we want is part of our Western values, then the niqab can be compatible with a multicultural vision of society, where fundamental freedoms are valued,” Charef said in an email. “Then, the meaning of the niqab is a matter of individual choice and perspective.”
Experts say if integration is the goal, Europe should focus on discrimination and income inequality, not burqas
Parvez argues that Muslims have been integrated, some of them, she says, have lived in Europe for at least three generations. Others have intermarried and many have easily integrated their religious faith with their citizenship. But what Parvez says is the core challenge of Muslim integration is not one rooted in culture, but in socioeconomics.
In France, for example, a lot of Muslims live in banlieues, or what some might call “slums” in some of their more urban cities. The face an abnormal unemployment rate upwards to 40% while also enduring exponential rates of religious prejudice in the job market and racial discrimination in the criminal justice system.
Similar to France, Muslims in Belgium live in the ghettos, face job discrimination and criminal injustice. According to Parvez, any efforts to promote integration should start at analyzing and offering solutions to de-escalate the poor socioeconomic conditions of European Muslims.
“Those of Muslim origin suffer disproportionately from poverty, unemployment, poor housing and discrimination,” Parvez added. “I think focusing on women’s practices and religious choices is a distraction from these much more difficult issues.”