SHAFAQNA – Thirteen years in the making, since France banned the public display of religious symbols in 2004, European authorities have finally found a way to ban women from wearing the Islamic headscarf known as hijab. Muslims across the world have long suspected Europe’s legislative hammer would come down negatively on this controversial issue, and they were right. Although couched in terms that prohibit all displays of religious garb, as Muslims would expect, what we must realize is that the ruling mirrors supposedly liberal Europe’s hatred for and discrimination against not just Muslims or Islam or even religion, but ultimately with freedom and choice itself.
Now that one can essentially say that communism is dead, and that once Russia – and once again due to propaganda in America, at least – and then Vietnam, were our enemies, a new cast of characters to vilify has come to the fore. Although more focus is put on (so-called) Islamic terrorists, who, incidentally, have been proven time and again to have mental health issues, criminal pasts, addictions to drugs like Captagon, and oftentimes very loose attachments to the Islamic faith, the West has another subtler obsession – Muslim women who freely practice their faith according to the letter of the law and who freely choose to do so.
A common refrain among Muslim women was that if authorities ban the niqab, sooner or later, attempts would be made to ban the headscarf. Since Muslims are now the currently-constructed bogeyman for the West, the secularist war against religion and free thought begins with us, and it begins with women’s bodies and how we choose to attire ourselves, as if there was no choice but to be free except according to another’s definition. In other words, in an overtly “progressive” Western world, which limits your freedom to be yourself depending on what you choose, there is no freedom, no choice and no progression in countries who champion themselves as being quite the opposite of reality.
Last month, on March 14, the European Court of Justice, the EU’s highest court, ruled that employers can ban Muslim employees from wearing hijab. The court says that it is not an act of “direct discrimination” if the employer has a policy banning any “political, philosophical or religious sign.” The ruling was prompted by several lawsuits in which a Muslim woman in Belgium – and one in France – fought for their jobs and their right to wear hijab at work, an issue that has seemingly fared better in America than it has in Europe.
When Samira Achbita began donning the hijab to work, she was fired from the security company in Belgium where she had worked for three years when the firm reportedly said that she had broken “unwritten rules” prohibiting religious symbols at work. The court ruled in favor of her employer. The other case, involving Asma Bougnaoui, transpired when Bougnaoui was fired from her tech-consultancy firm in France after a customer complained that his employees were “embarrassed” when she gave a presentation wearing her hijab. The court actually ruled in her favor since the request was made by a client and not her employer.
The Belgian ruling has been championed by right-wing political candidates and leaders across Europe, including Francois Fillon of France, who said, it was an “immense relief, not just for thousands of companies, but also for their workers,” adding that this would be “a factor in social cohesion and peace” in Europe. Meanwhile, incendiary right-wing populist candidates like Geert Wilders from the Netherlands and Marie Le Pen from France have seen recent upsurges in popularity. England’s National Police Chief’s Council reported a 58% increase in hate crimes since Brexit, included among them was the attacking of a Muslim woman by two white teenagers who tried to pull her hijab off and drag her through the streets of London. A Muslim woman in Vienna was attacked and bitten when she was on her way to work because she wore a headscarf.
Although hate crimes against Muslims in America are often severely underreported by the media, have alarmingly risen steadily since 9/11, and hate rhetoric and hate crimes have quite drastically increased since the election of Donald Trump, there are currently no plans to legislate against the hijab, or any other form of religious dress in America. It must be said, however, that despite this lack of legislation, shootings, stabbings, beatings, pushing “suspected Muslims” in front of oncoming subway trains, burning down Muslim graveyards and mosques or throwing pig’s heads and feces inside mosques continues unabated. Innocent Muslim women have been shot in the head after dropping their kids off at school or attacked and beaten. It’s as if the golden rule and moral compass has been put on pause when it comes to Muslims these days. We are all taught in the West, I assume, to not hit women, but that doesn’t seem to matter if the woman in question happens to be a Muslim.
In Europe, however, the discrimination against and banning of various types of female Muslim dress is certainly not new, nor underreported. After an incident in which a classroom assistant was suspended for refusing to remove her face veil, ex-Prime Minister Tony Blair commented when he was still in office, “It is a mark of separation and that is why it makes other people from outside the community feel uncomfortable.” Currently, France, Belgium and the Netherlands have banned the face covering called niqab, and they’ve now been joined by several Eastern European countries. Apparently, three ladies in Latvia who wear niqab were enough to make the government ban it outright in 2016. Bulgaria also has had a niqab ban in place since last year. In December of last year, Angela Merkel called for the burqa to be banned in Germany, yet German authorities could not provide estimates to the Washington Post of how many women in Deutschland actually wear it. German reporter Fabian Köhler, writing for the online magazine Bento, investigated the issue further and found that not even one woman in Germany actually wears the burqa. His inquiries also found that 300 women in the country wore niqab – out of a total population of 4.7 million Muslims – however the proposed German ban is not for the full-face covering, but for the full-body and full-face covering called burqa – which, again, nobody in Germany wears.
In 2011, France made it illegal for anyone to cover their face in public, ostensibly to prevent people wearing different types of masks on their face, such as that which criminals or protesters might wear. However, the reality seems to be a bit more Islamophobic, in keeping with trends which came after the ban. As French lawmakers claim they are upholding secular values and the separation of church and state, Muslims cry discrimination as only a minority of Muslims consider the niqab – which leaves either one or both eyes shown – to be mandatory. Here’s where statistics prove racism and discrimination once again – only a minority of women in France wear the niqab. While the French Interior Ministry has estimated that only 2, 000 women in France wear niqab, British writer Martin Robbins investigated the claim and found that the information was not only “leaked” to Le Figaro, it was an unofficial guesstimate rather than an official number. Robbins says that the actual figure of women wearing niqab in France is much lower. Regardless, the Muslim population in France is said to be 7, 500, 000, so even 2, 000 or less is hardly a drop in the bucket.
Several years prior to the niqab ban in 2009, amidst public controversy in France about female Muslim dress, a woman in France was prevented from entering a swimming pool wearing a burkini. Last summer, lawmakers in over thirty French seaside towns banned women from wearing the burkini, the two-piece, polyester, female swim-suit designed for modesty, which exposes the face, hands and feet, was deemed an overt expression of religious identity. Just weeks after, photographs appeared of law enforcement in Nice forcing a woman to remove the blouse she wore over the top of her burkini for more modesty. The woman had been resting on the shore of Promenade des Anglais, which was also the scene for the Bastille Day lorry attack only the month before. Agence France Presse reported that the unidentified woman had been given a ticket which said that she had not been “respecting good morals and secularism,” the wording representing the wording of the banning of the burkini by the mayor of Cannes, a town perhaps not so well known for its “good morals and secularism,” but for its prestigious annual film festival.
Only identified as Siam, the 34-year-old woman had been sitting on the beach with her family. As the incident happened, riled up onlookers were telling her to go home, or applauding the police – meanwhile, her young daughter was crying, said witness Mathilde Cousin.
Ange-Pierre Vivoni, the local Socialist mayor of Sisco, Corsica, has also banned the burkini from Corsican beaches saying that it’s necessary to “protect the population.” While the burkini is not a traditional Muslim garment – it was designed by Australian Muslim entrepreneur Aheda Zanetti – its use has surged in popularity. Despite the crackdown, online sales of the burkini have risen 200%, according to Zanetti.
In an interview with the BBC website, Zanetti said that the modest swimsuits represented freedom and healthy living, not oppression. “I’m an Aussie chick. I’ve been here all my life. I know what hijab means. I know what veil means. I know what Islam means. And I know who I am,” she said.
While the burkini is not a traditional Muslim garment, its use has surged in popularity, despite some Muslims thinking that the body-hugging burkini is non-Islamic because it’s not modest enough. The burkini shouldn’t be confused with the burka or a bikini – rather its name derives from the portmanteau of combining both words. It does not, however, cover the face, nor expose the body and is not a sign of terrorism, nor was it intended to be so. Its creation was formed from the intention to integrate into Australian society.
While the French complain of Muslim lack of integration in France, Zanetti says she was partially inspired to create the burkini as a way for Muslim women, including her own daughters, to participate in Australian beach society. “I wanted my girls to grow up to have that freedom of choice,” she said. Her other inspiration? The hijab ban in France, a situation in which women have no choice, and which, incidentally, discourages a lack of integration into French society.
Meanwhile, in America, a nation that has long ruled in favor of tolerance and freedom of religion, discrimination about female Muslim garb continues despite not being able to legislate any type of ban upon it. According to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, a proposed Georgia bill, not unlike the 2011 French niqab ban, had been in the works to bring similar legislation stateside. The state already has a face-covering ban in place, but that was to prevent Ku Klux Klan members from publicly wearing their white hoods.
After Donald Trump won the presidency of the United States, Republican State Representative Jason Spencer proposed the gender-specific state law to include both sexes, thereby making it illegal for a woman to wear a hijab, niqab or burqa while driving, taking a driver’s license photo or in public view. However, due to the “visceral reaction it created,” Spencer withdrew the bill.
“While this bill does not contain language that specifically targets any group,” he continued, “I am mindful of the perception that it has created. My objective was to address radical elements that could pose a threat to public safety.”
Earlier this month, a 16-year-old African-American high school girl from Gaithersburg, Maryland was prevented from playing in the regional basketball finals because of her headscarf, which was clearly not, in this case, a threat to public safety but pure discrimination. Je’Nan Hayes played all 24 games in the season before being barred from playing at the regional championship game by the Maryland Public Secondary School Athletic Association, who informed her coaches that she couldn’t play. According to Maryland state rules, Miss Hayes would have had to document why she needed to wear the religious garb when she played and still be able to take the court pick.
The Maryland Public Secondary School Athletic Association issued a statement after the game, saying, “Unfortunately, the officials made a strict interpretation of the National Federation of State High Schools playing rules for basketball instead of the spirit of the rule designed to ensure safety and competitive fairness. There should have been no denial of participation and we are committed to working with the school and the family to ensure this does not happen again.
Although Miss Hayes’ team lost the championship game, as of this writing, Maryland no longer requires a waiver for a player to perform wearing religious clothing. In America, at least, one young Muslim woman has the opportunity to try again next year. For Muslim women in Europe, however, being able to visibly practice their faith continues to be fraught with legislative obstacles.
By Kawther Rahmani exclusively for Shafaqna