The coronavirus pandemic has thrown up an interesting paradox in European countries that have banned the full-face veil.
In some French cities, for example, failure to cover your face and protect against COVID-19 can land you a €135 fine.
Yet, officially at least, you could also be fined as much as €150 for covering your face in public places if the covering is a full-face veil.
In 2011, France became the first European country to ban the full-face veil in public. Other European countries have followed by introducing total or partial bans of the burqa, including Denmark, Austria, Belgium, Bulgaria, Latvia and Norway.
Now, with many Europeans told they must wear face masks to combat the spread of COVID-19, some are highlighting the apparent contradiction.
“What's the difference when you cover your face for religious reasons or when you cover your face for health reasons?” said Moana Genevey, gender policy officer at Equinet. “And when is it acceptable?”
The new ‘living together’
In 2014, the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) dismissed France's arguments to ban the wearing of the full-face veil in public on the grounds of public security and protection of gender equality.
However, it upheld the ban by accepting it constitutes an infringement of the French principle of “living together” ('le vivre ensemble').
Three years later, two Belgian women also took their case to the ECHR, arguing the so-called burqa ban was breaching human-rights law. Samia Belcacemi had stopped wearing the veil in public, fearing jail or a fine, while Yamina Oussar chose to stay at home.
Likewise, the ECHR ruled that Belgium did not violate any right to freedom of religion or discrimination law as it had the right to impose restrictions to ensure the principle of “living together”.
In the French case, the violation of the concept of “le vivre ensemble” was defined as “a denial of fraternity, constituting the negation of contact with others”.
However, the pre-COVID "living together" has little to do with the current coexistence in European countries based on safety distance.
“The discourse has completely changed and people are asked to cover their faces to be able to live together in a democratic society,” said Dr Jone Elizondo Urrestarazu, legal and policy officer at Equinet. "Living together doesn't mean what it used to, so maybe it's time to rethink the volatility of this argument."
Genevey said COVID has raised the issue: “Some women were asking whether or not the ban would apply to them in the context of the pandemic. Now the question is: will we go back to normal afterwards?”
COVID-19 and public safety
Belgium is one of the European countries where covering one’s face with a piece of cloth is banned, but wearing a face mask is now mandatory.
The so-called "burqa ban" was first implemented in Belgium in 2011, forbidding any face-covering clothing in public that could conceal someone’s identity.
One of the main justifications was that “people in public spaces should be ‘recognisable’ and ‘identifiable’ on the grounds of public security”. Exceptions are allowed for labour regulations or festivities, but not for health reasons.
But because of the health emergency, this public safety principle seems to have been put to one side.
“In the short term, we might experience an increase in common criminality, as they go unrecognised wearing face masks,” said Professor Kenneth Lasoen, an intelligence and security expert.
“To offset the situation, municipalities are investing in CCTV cameras to monitor those wearing a face mask in the streets."
But, in the longer term, there are concerns the coronavirus pandemic has weakened the argument against banning full-face veils.
"We are very likely to face a constitutional challenge, as the current situation sets a precedent for people who want to wear any kind of face-covering in public,” added Prof Lasoen.
But on the streets of Brussels, some people question the link between the coronavirus pandemic and the ban on other types of face-covering, including the burqa.
“I see why some would say that, but we are talking about two different levels,” says Vanessa, a 21-year-old student. “Wearing a mask now has nothing to do with the fact that people could cover their faces with a burqa”.
Her friend Victoria, 20, agrees.
“It is different, we are experiencing a world health crisis and face masks are for everybody’s health, it’s not just about someone’s religion,” she said.
Stephanie, a 40-year-old teacher, thinks “some people might find it disturbing, or even scary if they do not see a face”.
”Back in Tunisia I used to feel a bit unsettled when I saw women wearing a burqa, as I couldn’t see their features,” said Samia, a Brussels expat.
“I also had a sense of guilt, because maybe they felt unsettled by the fact that I didn’t wear a veil at all."
Samia doesn’t think the comparison between masks and full-face veils is fully valid, because “with a mask, you can still see the features, and whether the person is female or male”.
“The [main] principle should be not to repress people’s rights on [the] grounds of public security,” she said.
“European countries should find ways to minimise the security issues without stigmatising part of the population and prevent them from wearing whatever they want.”
A question of women's rights?
“If the burqa ban is only justified on religious grounds, it is a discriminatory law,” said Genevey.
“And we cannot ignore that this is something that is affecting an intersectional group, which is women of a certain religion,” said Dr Elizondo.
The ban affects a minority in Europe: less than 1% of Muslim women wear a burqa or a niqab.
“It’s ironic how these measures were supposed to liberate and empower Muslim women who chose to wear a niqab yet it ended up limiting them,” said Dr Sanja Bilic, operations and policy manager at the European Forum of Muslim Women.
“Some women are still going out and paying fines. Others decided to stay home. Prior to the ban, they were active citizens, participating in the life of their community and they had to stop doing that after the niqab ban was implemented”.
For Dr Bilic, the issue is not the niqab or the hijab per se, but the fact that these bans “criminalise a piece of clothing and no other piece of clothing is criminalised in Europe. This is problematic and it leads to Islamophobia, a gendered Islamophobia because it only targets Muslim women”.
She also sees that the ban leads to the growing intolerance towards women wearing a hijab, as was the case of French MP Anne-Christine Lang who walked out of an inquiry meeting because a student union leader wore a hijab.
Some argue these women are pressured to wear a niqab or a burqa by their families or communities. And that the decision to stay at home because they cannot wear a burqa it’s not theirs.
“There is always a component of societal pressure, even if not driven by religion” argues Dr Bilic. “We would have to interview each woman to know their motives, but I believe that here in Europe if they were to be forced to wear a burqa or niqab, they have the tools and freedom to seek help”.
“In the European context, no other group of women, particularly those coming from the minority and non-Christian background, would be questioned on their ability and capacity to choose yet Muslim women's choices are always treated as suspicious."
Genevey argues the burqa ban is the opposite of feminism: “Pretending to free women by not allowing them access to the public space is a fundamental contradiction."
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