Islamophobic dress decrees have become as much a feature of contemporary Europe as fine wines, ancient patrimony and al fresco dining, writes Susan Ram
Boris Johnson’s carefully calculated attack on women who wear the burqa or niqab illustrates yet again how Islamophobia, often with Muslim women in its sights, has become the cutting edge of racist ideology.
Stoked by the ‘War on Terror’ and the resulting refugee crisis, the process of positioning Muslims as some kind of civilisational threat to the West has taken hold across Europe while digging deep into the sludge of US mainstream politics.
In country after country, racist state policies, often lifted wholesale from the far and fascist Right, now bear down upon those who, by dint of religious faith, cultural heritage, mode of dress, dietary code or other signifier of Islamic ‘otherness’, are deemed to require intrusive monitoring and interventions ranging from the petty to the harshly punitive. This is the context in which the dress choices of some Muslim women are under attack.
Nowhere has the assault gone further, or taken such virulent forms, as in the European Union.
The map accompanying a Wikipedia entry on ‘British debate over veils’ shows how far things have already gone in Europe. Outright bans on wearing the burqa virtually anywhere outside the home are in place in France, Belgium, Austria, Denmark, Bulgaria and the Baltic states. A partial ban, proscribing veil-wearing in schools and other specified work settings, applies in Norway. In the Netherlands, it is illegal to wear the burqa or the niqab on public transport or in ‘public areas’ such as hospitals. Other European states, including Italy and Spain, permit local bodies to put in place.
Germany, too, is hostile terrain for Muslim women who opt to veil. In line with Chancellor Merkel’s full-throated declaration, in 2016, that "the full face veil is not acceptable in our country. It should be banned, wherever it is legally possible."
The Bundestag in 2017 enacted a ban on wearing the niqab and burqa for women working the civil service, judiciary and military. A more far-reaching ban operates in Bavaria, homeland of Horst Seehofer, the CSU leader who crowned his appointment as interior minister in Angela Merkel’s coalition government by declaring: “Islam does not belong in Germany.”
But perhaps no European state has gone further than France in delegitimising the sartorial choices of Muslim women. Since 2004, when small girls across France were banned from wearing headscarves at school, the French state and a pliable legal system have made it their business to ridicule, humiliate, browbeat, proscribe, and -- as on French beaches a couple of years ago -- resort to brute force.
In 2011, France stole a march on the rest of Europe by becoming the first EU member to outlaw the burqa and the niqab in public places, making their wearing illegal virtually anywhere outside the home. Those ‘violating’ the ban are subject to fines of up to 150 euros and may be required to undergo citizenship education. Anyone judged to have forced (“by violence, threats or abuse of power”) another to wear face coverings is liable to a 30,000 euro fine and/or one year’s imprisonment.
It’s instructive to recall the context of the 2011 ban: Marine Le Pen, recently elected leader of the Front National, was already proving herself an inventive architect of Islamophobia, an instigator of expressions and modalities of anti-Muslim racism particularly suited to the French context (she famously compared the sight of Muslims praying in the street to the Nazi occupation of France.)
No one understood better than Nicolas Sarkozy, the then French president, the political capital to be reaped from a bold shift on to the territory of the fascist Right. As Jim Wolfreys puts it in his new study of Islamophobia in France*:
“[Sarkozy] appeared to grasp better than any other mainstream figure the relationship between racist demagogy and authoritarianism that underpinned the electoral success of the FN… Following [Jean-Marie] Le Pen’s poor showing in the second round of the 2002 presidential election …Sarkozy moved to position himself as the figure capable not just of making speeches about the danger of immigration, but of acting upon them…Sarkozysme was a symptom of the evolution of the French right as it embraced a neoliberal outlook reliant on a negative charge of scapegoating and discrimination” (pp 54-55).
A useful feature of Wolfreys’ study is the linkages it establishes between reactionary, racist cultural policy and neoliberal imperatives. Noting the multiple ways in which neoliberal policies have worked to hollow out core French political formations, particularly the mainstream parties of the left (the Parti Socialiste) and the right (the former UMP, now restyled as Les Républicains), Wolfreys correctly identifies this as part of a Europe-wide phenomenon, one subject to subtle national variation even as it tightens its grip across the continent.
This helps explain why Islamophobic dress decrees have become as much a feature of contemporary Europe as fine wines, ancient patrimony and al fresco dining.
Thus far legal challenges to the kind of full spectrum ban operative in France and Belgium have failed. In 2014, for example, the European Court of Human Rights upheld the French law of 2011, accepting the French government’s argument that the ban was based on “a certain idea of living together.”
In March 2017, the European Court of Justice – the EU’s highest court – lent its venerable weight to the harassing of Muslim women when it ruled on the issue of women wearing headscarves at work. Such garments could indeed be banned, averred the court, if part of a general policy barring all visible political and religious symbols.
Throughout Europe, the ECJ’s ruling was accurately identified as offering a green light for further bans. In Germany, the fascist AfD hailed the declaration for sending out “the right signal.” The French right was ecstatic: “Even the ECJ votes Marine!” brayed one prominent supporter of the Front National.
On the Wikipedia map showing burqa bans across Europe, what stand out are the exceptions to the prohibition (full or partial) rule. Portugal, Greece and Sweden are among a handful of European states not to have imposed restrictions on what Muslim women may wear as they go about their business and live their lives. Another exception is Britain.
There is something thoroughly EU-compatible about the Boris burqa would-be bandwagon and its mission to change the map.
Susan Ram is a writer, editor and journalist based in south-west France. She's currently at work on a book about the French Left, for publication in India, where she lived for many years.