Last week it was ruled by the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) that Belgium’s ban on clothing that covers all of or part of the face, and with that banning full face veils such as the niqab and burka, did not violate human rights law.
The ruling, which took place last Monday (10th July 2017), ” said it was ‘necessary in a democratic society’, tried to protect ‘the rights and freedoms of others’ and sought to guarantee the conditions of ‘living together.”
The idea of a full veil ban is something which seems to be of constant debate within European politics, with countries such as France, the Netherlands and Bulgaria already taking the decision to enforce some kind of ban/restriction on a full face veil.
However, the decision to ban the full veil has obvious implications for many women who live in these societies. While on the surface it can appear that they ultimately are a good thing for women, by removing a ‘tool of oppression’ used by their communities and acting as a form of liberation for them. The reality though, in my view, is that telling a woman what she can’t wear by banning the full veil is as oppressive as telling her what she can wear.
Freedom of Religious Expression
Article 9 of the European Convention on Human Rights provides a right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion. This includes the right to manifest religious belief in practice and observance.
An individuals connection to their God is personal, and the right to freedom of religion needs to be one which extends to defend the way in which an individual chooses to connect with their God, provided that others in the community are not getting hurt in the process.
While a full veil is not mandatory in Islam, the connection an individual experiences with their God, and the way an individual expresses themselves in terms of their religion is entirely personal. A nun would, of course, consider themselves a Christian, but they express their religion in a very different way to the Kardashian family who would also consider themselves Christian. Both expressions of faith are completely legitimate and tie in with the individuals own personal connection to their God, just as it is legitimate for a woman to choose to wear a full veil in order to build and feel a close connection to their God.
This ban ultimately removes a woman’s ability to express their connection to God in the way they feel best symbolises this connection, and removing a woman’s right to choose in this way is ultimately not progressive.
What about women who are forced to wear a full veil?
It would be naive to assume that, while a full veil is also used as a means of religious expression, that it also not used as a tool of oppression by men who view women purely as property to do with as they wish. However, I do not believe that banning the full veil does anything to help women facing these situations on an everyday basis.
In my view, by banning a full veil, this does not necessarily mean that the women in these situations are likely to be allowed out in public without their veil. If anything they are likely to become more isolated in this instance and instead confined to their house by those who place them in their abusive situations.
Women becoming more isolated in this way ultimately does nothing to help their situation, the best way to ensure the long term protection of women from these situations is to ensure that adequate public services are in place. Public services to ensure that women in these situations have a route of escape in which they can ensure they will be safe, and not sleeping rough, which can be a real fear for those forced to escape their families or community.
It is also important that women are educated of the availability of these services and that they are widely advertised so that those who are at risk are also aware that there is a way out for them, with the mosque being at the centre of delivering this education to women.
It is understandable that many have concerns regarding a full veil, its place within Western society and the position of women who do choose to wear a full veil. However, a full veil ban is ultimately oppressive. Removing a woman’s right to express her religion in the way she best feels symbolises her connection with God and ultimately the right she has to choose what she wears on an everyday basis cannot, and should not, have a place in modern society.