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Europe’s “Veil Wars”


3:15 PM, Apr 26, 2010 • By STEPHEN SCHWARTZ
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The collapse of the government in Belgium has put a hold on attempts by local authorities there to ban from public the face veil or niqab and the burqa, or full-body covering, until a new government can be assembled. The standard proposed in Belgian legislation was sensible: nobody could wear a garment that obscures their identity. The law would allow wearing of such items with police permission, but violations would be punished by a fine of $20-$35 or a jail sentence up to seven days.

Europe’s “Veil Wars”

These events played out as French president Nicolas Sarkozy pressed for introduction of a similar law, also prohibiting the face veil and full body covering. France’s moderate Muslim leader, Dalil Boubakeur of the Grand Mosque of Paris, declared that French Muslims should accept the law: They number about six million, or up to 10 percent of the population, and mostly come from North Africa. But, Boubakeur said, the law should be adequately explained, emphasizing the masking of identity and public security as the main problems. But Sarkozy and others have assailed the face veil and body covering as much or more as a symbol of the subjection of women and the segregation of Muslims from French society. 

The head scarf, which does not hide the face or identity, is seen by many Muslims as well as non-Muslims as a lesser but equally ideological affirmation of Islamic fundamentalism. Spain is the latest country facing contention over the head scarf, following widespread debate over it in France, which bans all religious symbols from public schools, as well as in Turkey, Tunisia, and Kosovo, which are Muslim but ban it to differing degrees.

In the Madrid suburb of Pozuelo de Alarcón, a 16-year-old girl of Moroccan origin, Najwa Malha, was recently told she could not sit in class at the Camilo José Cela high school if she persists in wearing a head scarf. (Male students, meanwhile, have been forbidden to wear American baseball caps because of spreading gang activity among Spanish adolescents.) Forty percent of public schools in the Madrid area bar covering of the head. School and local authorities in Pozuelo de Alarcón, by enforcing their ban, have clashed with the national government, which permits wearing of the head scarf as an expression of religious equality. Each side appeals to its definition of discrimination: At the school attended by Najwa Malha, five of her peers among the Muslim girls wore hijab in solidarity with her, but were not disciplined. They claimed the ban on the head scarf ban victimized them; but school and local representatives insisted along with regional president Esperanza Aguirre, a woman representing the conservative People’s Party (Partido Popular), that the ban on the head scarf in local schools embodied “freedom and autonomy” in education.

Quoted in the left-liberal national daily El País, regional councilor Francisco Granados condemned the head scarf as “an element of differentiation and discrimination that is bad to support.” Conservative politician Rafael Hernandez, who handles immigration issues for the PP in the national Congress, said head scarf wearers “cannot impose their beliefs on others.”

Five girlfriends of one Islamist student acting in schoolyard solidarity with her do not seem like much of a problem. In Spain, Muslims account for about a million people, or two percent of the population. But Spain’s leading advocate for the radical Muslim Brotherhood, Syrian-born Riay Tatary, has called for a legal struggle to defend the head scarf as a constitutional right. His claim on policy within public schools dramatizes the challenge of legal Islamists, who wish to establish parallel structures of governance over Muslims living as minorities in the West.

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