Last week, the Belgian parliament voted to ban women from covering their faces in public places, which means Muslim women in Belgium will be forced to abandon the burqa and niqab else risk imprisonment or fines. France, the Netherlands and Italy are mulling a similar law, which has been condemned by Amnesty International as an attack on religious freedom. There are also concerns that the ban may infringe international human-rights conventions and laws covering freedom of expression.
I must admit, the burqa isn't my favourite item of clothing. I wore one for a few hours some years ago for purely experiential reasons and couldn't wait to take it off. It was summer in Cairo and I thought I would expire from the heat at any moment. I hated being shrouded in such a cumbersome garment and disliked my reflection in the mirror. Moreover, I knew I would feel like a non-person were I to cover up for any length of time because in my own mind, rightly or wrongly, my face is inextricably linked with my sense of identity.
Anonymity is definitely not my thing. As I discovered during those fleeting hours, when your face is hidden you almost cease to exist as far as passersby and shopkeepers are concerned. When I popped into a coffee shop for my usual morning café latte I was ignored until I kicked up a fuss. But who am I to tell others what to do? If women choose to wear the burqa for religious, traditional or social reasons or want to avoid being hassled by men in the street, that's up to them. Or it should be.
As far as I'm concerned the burqa is far more visually appealing than exposed tattooed flesh, nose and lip rings, short shorts and bared pot-belly midriffs. It's just a piece of cloth. However, the Belgian and French leaderships find it offensive. They believe it denigrates women, which is quite laughable when they are so accepting of street prostitution, nude sunbathers and pornographic magazines openly displayed in newsagents.
The hypocrisy shown by proponents of the ban is nauseating. "We are the first country to break through the chain that kept countless women enslaved," said Belgian MP Denis Ducarme. I wonder how many Belgian women cheering on the proposed law wore an ‘enslaving' veil in church on their wedding day!
"It's a question of human dignity," said one of his fellow MPs, Daniel Bacquelaine, adding, "The full-face veil turns a woman into a walking prison." If that's his judgment he's wrong. Most women of cover say they are liberated by the burqa. Those parliamentarians are pretending to care about Muslim women when their opinion hasn't been sought and little thought, if any, has been given to the trauma experienced by citizens who are life-long wearers of the burqa or niqab. They are sure to feel violated by the prohibition and may feel they have no choice but to return to their country of origin. Perhaps that's the idea!
When the evidence is pieced together it's hard not to reach the conclusion that Europe has replaced anti-Semitism with Islamophobia. In 2004, Muslim girls attending French state schools were banned from wearing headscarves, while a Dutch filmmaker produced Submission, a documentary heavily critical of Islam.
The following year, the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten published 12 cartoons negatively depicting the Prophet Mohammad (PBUH), which the Danish government refused to condemn citing free speech.
In 2006, Britain's Secretary of State for Justice Jack Straw described the veil as "a visible statement of separation and difference", and asked women visiting his constituency office to consider removing it.
Last year, 57 per cent of Swiss voters backed a nationwide referendum to ban the construction of new minarets. The Swiss People's Party General-Secretary Martain Baltisser said at the time that "this was a vote against minarets as symbols of Islamic power".
Now France is poised to follow Belgium. French President Nicolas Sarkozy has led the charge to ban the veil, saying "it is contrary to the dignity of women". A survey found that 70 per cent of French people agree with him. Under his law, expected to come into force in the autumn, women will be taken to police stations where they will be fined and forcibly unveiled. Now that's what I call undignified!
It appears that some Europeans consider Muslims fair game. Imagine the outcry if police were empowered to whip off a Sikh's turban, a nun's habit or an orthodox Jew's tallit (prayer shawl). It just wouldn't happen.
If these bans were based primarily on security concerns, the Europeans would have a stronger argument. But they're not. Instead, Belgian and French politicians are fierce in their concern for the well-being of Muslim women all of a sudden. Do you seriously buy that? Thought not!
Linda S. Heard is a specialist writer on Middle East affairs. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org Some of the comments may be considered for publication.