For a very Muslim few women this is how they see Europe, and now an EU member state may be about to outlaw both versions of this full veil in public.
This morning Belgium gave the green light to an April parliamentary vote on a ban. If it passes, it could be law by the summer, and become the first EU nation to make the Burka and Niqab illegal in public.
The initiative has cross-party support, and includes provisions for fines or up to seven days in prison for flouting the regulations. It is being justified on security and female dignity grounds, and the defence of democratic principles.
Several European nations are holding similar debates. Legislation is planned in France, Italy, Denmark and the Netherlands. Austria and Switzerland will consider it if the number of fully-veiled women on their streets rises.
France’s Council of State has just warned any law is a bad idea. A year ago President Nicolas Sarkozy took up the issue.
The Burka is not welcome on the soil of the French Republic. We cannot accept that in our country there are women imprisoned behind a cloth mesh, cut off from a social life, from any identity. It does not square with the French Republic’s vision of women.”
Part of the French political class is ready to legislate despute that very rare signal of disapproval from the Council of State. Here as everywhere else it’s an explosive issue, more so as a tiny minority of Muslim women are concerned.
A hundred in Belgium, maybe 2000 in France, tops.
Any ban would concern only the all-covering Burka and Niqab, the former covering the entire face and originating in Asia, mostly found in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and India.
Then there’s the Middle East’s Niqab, which leaves an opening for the eyes but not much else, mostly found in Saudi Arabia, Yemen, and Bahrain.
The simpler shoulder, neck and head covering Hijab would be unaffected.
Most women who wear full veils say it’s of their own free will, and it helps them to a higher spiritual attainment, yet nothing in the Koran demands it.
So is it religious freedom or a symbol of submission? That’s the dilemma for lawmakers. Some nations, like Italy, use the security argument, citing the banning of masks in public to combat organised crime and terrorism. At least this prevents debating on more dangerous ground.