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The European Veil Debate


									                   The European Veil Debate

                                 Viviane Teitelbaum

Viviane Teitelbaum is a member of the Brussels Parliament and President of the Conseil
des Femmes Francophones de Belgique [French-speaking Women’s Council in Belgium]. She
is also an author. Ms. Teitelbaum’s latest books are Salomon vous êtes juif? (2008) on
antisemitism in Belgium and Quand l’Europe se voile (2010) on the headscarf debate in


Since the end of the twentieth century, a growing number of European countries
have been struggling with the dilemmas posed by the Muslim or Islamic
headscarf—the hijab1 —and the full veil—the niqab or burqa. The wearing of these
garments raises a variety of difficult questions pertaining to tolerance, equality
of the sexes, and freedom of religion—issues that are being hotly debated across
Western Europe.

France has taken an especially firm stand and has developed legislation to ban
both the headscarf in state schools and the full veil in public spaces. On the other
hand, some states, such as the UK, favor multiculturalism and permit the wearing
of all overt religious symbols. Many other countries, including Belgium, Spain,
the Netherlands, and Germany are debating the issue and have partially restricted
the wearing of religious symbols.

Today, the hijab has varying religious, legal, and cultural status, but Muslims often
consider it a symbol of their presence in Western Europe. As such, it has acquired
political significance as well. Consequently, many politicians and citizens see it as
a sign of political Islam or fundamentalism. Why is this form of dress considered
so controversial, and even dangerous, and what are the effects of the hijab on the
cohesiveness of European society?

The first question raised by the hijab is one of religious rights. Can the implementation
of freedom of religion have a negative impact on other civil rights? When, over a
century ago, European citizens succeeded in separating Church and State—and
the French were the first to attain that status—it applied to all “churches” and to
the freedom of all populations. Do we have the right to renounce any of those
achievements today? Or do we have the obligation to cherish those hard-won

Israel Journal of Foreign Affairs V : 1 (2011)

The second question raised by the scarf or veil concerns equality between the
sexes. The battle related to this issue is far from over and every victory has been
attained at a high price. It is only very recently that women have achieved freedom
in many areas, including autonomy and control over their own bodies. Those who
reject the right to wear the headscarf consider it a symbol of women’s oppression,
which has no place in a democratic society—and certainly not in school. For
them, veiled women also contribute to segregation, the scarf constituting a most
tangible barrier to integration. On the other hand, some consider that a legal ban
might drive Muslim girls out of the state educational system, jeopardizing their
integration and thus ending any hope for their ultimate emancipation.

But can an ideology that praises the separation of the sexes in the public space and
that abolishes all mingling be anything but discriminatory toward women? Will
the hijab ultimately be replaced by the niqab or the burqa? As Chahdortt Djavann2
reminds us, “The scarf materializes the radical disentanglement of the feminine
space from the masculine world. Or rather it defines and confines the feminine
life. The scarf, hijab, is the most barbaric Islamic dogma that touches the woman’s
body and takes possession of it…. It is not in the name of secularism that the scarf
should be forbidden but in the name of human rights and protection of minors.”

The third aspect is related to the integration of communities. Should the willingness
to integrate communities induce renunciation of any civil rights, even temporarily?
Why should the battles of some override the fights of others? What agenda, if
any, lies behind the veil? Or is the scarf covering something else altogether? Is
it sufficient to describe the veil as an act of freedom and tolerance, to disguise its
plans in order to grant it a legitimate place in our public space? Instead, one can
legitimately ask oneself, why do those who choose to live in Europe not try to
understand and accept the values such as freedom of expression and thought, and
equality between the two sexes, instead of displaying contempt for the country’s
culture on the pretext of the right of a minority within a minority?

Freedom and democratic values are jeopardized when different cultural norms
are accepted, whether in the name of freedom of religion or for any other cultural
reason. In order to preserve social cohesiveness, the principle that everyone is
equal before the law must be upheld.

Lately, there has been much discussion among adherents of Islam as well as of
other religions about the free choice of women to wear the scarf. But at the same
time, in countries where the veil is obligatory, women’s freedom is nonexistent,
their emancipation unheard of, their rights revoked. Some have even paid a
terrible price for attempting to take it off—they have been stoned, disfigured, or
even murdered for refusing to wear it.

                                                                   Viviane Teitelbaum

What freedom are we talking about? Can we ignore pressure from family and
friends? In Europe, democracy allows for most any debate. However, turning a
blind eye—due to the weight of traditions, political pressure, or sheer laxity, and
based on the extent to which legal and circumstantial conditions are present to
guarantee an individual’s choice—we abandon young girls from five, six, or nine
years of age to be veiled or compelled to enter marital unions, which they are
forced to accept. And we allow those communities to walk away from freedom
and democracy. But we cannot overlook the fact that many of those who wave the
banner of “a woman’s right to wear the veil” are Salafi fundamentalists who reject
the principle of a person’s freedom of choice to begin with.

History of the Veil: “A woman belongs in the house—or in a grave”3

The veil itself existed long before Islam. In the Near East, Assyrian kings first
introduced the veil for women of the harem. Prostitutes and slaves, however, were
not asked to wear the veil. The practice of hiding the face appeared in classical
Greece, in the Byzantine Christian world, in Persia, and in India among upper-
caste Rajput women.

By the seventh century CE, the jilbab or djelabah appeared in North Africa. It was
a long dress, similar to the Turkish caftan, with or without a cap, worn by men or
women to comply with the Koran. The command to “draw their veils over their
bosoms” (Koran 24: 31) was interpreted by some as an injunction to veil one’s
hair, neck, and ears.

But it was only in the second Islamic century that the veil became common, first
used among the powerful and rich as a status symbol. Throughout Islamic history,
only part of the urban classes were veiled and secluded. Rural and nomadic
women, a majority of the population, were not. Around the tenth century the veil
became a common custom and even a tenet to be followed.

By the second half of the nineteenth century, intellectuals, reformers, and liberals
began to denounce the idea of women’s protective clothing because they saw the
veil as a symbol of the exclusion of women from public life and education. In 1923,
on her journey home from Italy, the Egyptian feminist Hoda Charaouijette threw
her scarf into the sea. In 1924, Atatürk banned the hijab in Turkey. In 1935, the
Shah did the same in Iran.4 Algerian women proceeded in the same way after their
revolution in 1962, when they liberated themselves and openly rejected the scarf.
The hijab reappeared in the 1970s at the universities of Bir-Zeit (West Bank), El
Azhar (Cairo) and Morocco, as a reaction against the oulema (traditional cleric)
and a manifestation of the desire to return to more traditional Islam. At that
time, it was also seen in Europe, worn by the wives of Islamist activists. Later,

Israel Journal of Foreign Affairs V : 1 (2011)

young and educated girls started to dress more conservatively as a way to assert
their identity.5 The hijab turned up in Tunisia in 1975, and a few years later was
considered an exclusive symbol of the Islamist movement.

The end of the 1970s saw the development of fundamentalist movements,
particularly the Muslim Brotherhood, a large Islamic political group, founded
in 1928 in Egypt. The Muslim Brotherhood calls for the restoration of Islam by
re-establishing the Sharia and by using physical power and jihad to do so. The
triumph of that idea was evident in the Iranian revolution in 1979.

The reasons for taking up and defending the hijab in Europe at the end of the
twentieth century were mainly the growing reaffirmation of a religious identity
and the rejection of values and styles perceived as Western. Using religious
traditions as a pretext, political Islam provided responses to the problem of
integration and hatred of the West. Modernization and Western values were seen
as negative. Wearing the hijab came to symbolize its uniqueness and superiority.
With the trend to revive or create Islamist movements, through the authority of
the husband, father, or brother, girls were secluded; equal rights for women were
suppressed; the wearing of the scarf was imposed; and young girls were often
forced into prearranged marriages.

Togetherness in Europe:
A Choice between Multiculturalism and Cross-Culture Integration

The debate in Belgium, and, in fact, all over Europe, revolves around what sort of
society we want for our children. How do we want to coexist, and on what basis?
Since Word War II, Europe has—quite fortunately—been aware of the importance
of the fight against racism and xenophobia. In most countries, legislation protects
minorities and condemns bigotry and intolerance. Tolerance, open-mindedness,
and freedom of speech are monitored with the necessary humanity and compassion.
Paradoxically, however, it is precisely due to this attitude, and the understandable
fear of failing to display empathy or understanding, that our democratic values
could be endangered. In fact, the “religion” of tolerance leads us—voluntarily or
not—to tolerate intolerance. Within this complex framework, we have the option
of choosing between two models: multiculturalism or a cross-cultural mode.

Multiculturalism, based on an Anglo-Saxon model, means that group identity
prevails over individual identity. It deepens differences and leads to an
exaggerated sense of identity that will ultimately lead to a “babelization” of our
togetherness. Multiculturalism often leads to the emergence of microsocieties
that question our common values and beliefs in the name of cultural relativism.6
However, a democratic society cannot allow some of its citizens not to benefit

                                                                     Viviane Teitelbaum

from all fundamental rights. If the law is not applied equally to all, the result will
be distrust, a lack of inderstanding, and even racism. Nevertheless, those who
favor the wearing of the hijab also usually view multiculturalism favorably.

Professor Felice Dassetto7 reminds us that “in Europe, a pact has been concluded
that consists of living one’s religion openly but moderately. This is a modern and
contemporary agreement, existing for the last fifty years, to be discussed no doubt,
but in the knowledge that restraint in the expression of religion or all collective
identity is the sine qua non condition for individual freedom. Moderation avoids
exaggeration, competition, or confrontation. Living together and multiculturalism
are possible if moderation prevails. Most Muslims appreciate their freedom of
religion in Europe, and rightfully so. But they should not forget moderation—
theirs and everyone’s is the condition of this freedom.”

Contrary to multiculturalism, the cross-cultural model calls for equality in rights
and duties. It does not neglect the cultural wealth represented by the communities
or their members, but this model places the citizen at the heart of society and
reiterates the postulation of the French philosophers: it is not society that confers
fundamental rights; it the quality of the human being that provides it. It is the
relation to the other person, not his culture, that takes precedence. This second
model is based on the reference to a common universal base, free from any religious
concept, in order to build a heritage that consists of fundamental values.

In promoting diversity, we must still respect democratic values; only then can
we share a comprehensive vision for the future. This is also why schools must
continue to integrate individual students and not communities. It is the only way
to assure protection against all undue influence, including family pressure, and
ensure every pupil the opportunity to enjoy critical means and resources to be
able to make choices upon reaching adulthood. This includes setting limits: school
is the archetypal place where you one can learn about restrictions, fight against
radicalism, or share values and learn to live together. Today, the use of the veil/
full-body burqa or the face-covering niqab are driving many European countries
toward a ban.


In Belgium, the debate has been quite heated. Currently, over 95 percent of
schools, both Flemish- and French-speaking, have included the ban of the scarf for
girls as part of the schools’ internal regulations. But increasingly, political bodies
are interrogated on the matter, since parents do not hesitate to go to court and
appeal. Leftist parties are more reluctant to ban the scarf, but gradually tensions
are growing and the situation is getting harder to manage. The Liberal party8

Israel Journal of Foreign Affairs V : 1 (2011)

has signed several proposals in various parliamentary assemblies in order to ban
girls from wearing the scarf in schools. The ban also applies to public institutions
(hospitals, etc.) where neutrality should prevail according to Belgian law. But the
motions have not yet passed.

In over twenty Belgian municipalities in Flanders, Brussels, and Wallonia, by-laws
forbid the wearing of the full veil in public spaces—with fines of up to €250—and
of the scarf in school.

In late 2004, the Flemish Liberal interior minister9 proposed a standard prohibition
for the burqa and sent it to all 308 Flemish municipalities. The regulation stated
that persons on the public street and in public buildings must be identifiable at all
times, “to protect the social order, which allows a harmonious process of human
activities.” It prohibits covering the forehead, the cheeks, the eyes, the ears, the
nose, and the chin except for Carnival periods. That same year, two members of
the Senate introduced a project to ban the wearing of the scarf in public schools
and in the civil service.

In June 2009, Mahinur Özdemir was the first Belgian MP (or member of any
parliament in Europe) to don the hijab. This stirred widespread and heated
debate. Many questioned the presence of a symbol that challenges and even
denies democratic values within the shrine of democracy itself. On April 27, 2010,
the Belgian Chamber of Representatives unanimously (with two abstentions)
approved legislation on face-covering clothing, instituting a nationwide ban on
wearing the burqa and the niqab in public. Unfortunately, the country went to early
elections before the law passed in the Senate. It will, therefore, probably have to
be voted upon again.


In France, the scarf was banned from French public schools in 2004. The law
forbids the wearing of any “conspicuous” religious signs by students, teachers, and
other school personnel, on the basis of “public service neutrality.” Similar policies
are occasionally applied in other state organizations, such as public hospitals. The
French controversy primarily relates to the Islamic veil, which challenges the
secular tradition and creates female submissiveness.

On June 22, 2009, the president of France, Nicolas Sarkozy, said that burqas are
“not welcome” in France, commenting that “in our country, we cannot accept
that women be prisoners behind a screen, cut off from all social life, deprived
of all identity.” France’s lower house of Parliament overwhelmingly approved a
ban on wearing burqa-style Islamic veils on July 13, 2010, thus protecting French

                                                                    Viviane Teitelbaum

secular values. The French ban on burqas and niqabs has gone before the Senate in
September, where it passed by 246 votes in favor and only one against.


The growing anti-burqa sentiment spreading across Europe has already led to a
ban of the veil in some parts of Catalonia and Andalusia, both areas in which
Spain’s Muslim immigrant population is concentrated. Barcelona, the country’s
second largest city, decided to ban the wearing of burqas and niqabs in municipal
buildings, joining a few Catalan towns that have taken similar steps.

In June 2010, the Spanish Senate approved a motion calling on the Spanish
government to ban the use of full-face veils in public places. On July 20, 2010,
however, Spain’s lower house of Parliament rejected a proposal to ban the
burqa. Justice Minister Francisco Caamano, who claims that the burqa is “hardly
compatible with human dignity,” indicated that the Spanish government plans to
introduce legislation banning it in government buildings as part of Spain’s Religious
Freedom Bill, which is still to be debated. However, not all head-covering veils
would be included in a ban because they form part of traditional Spanish dress,
with women often covering their heads with a mantilla during religious festivals.

The Netherlands

In the Netherlands, this issue has been a topic of discussion since 2006, when
legislation on a national ban was debated, but not voted upon. In the past, schools
enforced their own bans on Islamic dress, although usually not the headscarf.
The Netherlands Equality Commission sometimes handles cases of dismissal or
exclusion from school and by default, their position is setting national guidelines
on what constitutes discrimination. Employers also have their own policies. Job
Cohen, the Labor party mayor of Amsterdam, is calling for a measure that would
take away unemployment payments for burqa-wearing woman who turn down
job offers at a workplace that would require them to come to work unveiled, on
the grounds that such refusal makes them unemployable in a predominantly non-
Muslim country. The city of Utrecht is taking the same path.

Great Britain

In Britain, former Secretary of State for Justice Jack Straw sparked a nationwide
controversy on the veil by criticizing its use in 2006. Later, in a case of a school
against a teacher, the tribunal held that a school could refuse to employ a veiled
teacher (wearing the niqab). This case led then-Prime Minister Tony Blair
to comment that the veil was a “mark of separation,” and many members of

Israel Journal of Foreign Affairs V : 1 (2011)

government demanded that the teacher be fired, accusing her of “denying the
right of children to a full education.” The school subsequently dismissed her. In
reaction, the British educational authorities proposed a ban on the niqab in schools
altogether. In another case, an immigration judge told a lawyer dressed in a niqab
that she could not represent a client because he could not hear her. However, in
Britain the problem is actually acute: In the name of freedom of religion, over 40
percent of young Muslims want to introduce Sharia and develop Islamic courts in
the areas in which they form a majority.

According to a poll, currently in Britain, two-thirds of the British people would
support a ban on Muslim women wearing face-covering veils in public. An online
survey of 2,205 adults for Five News television found 67 per cent of respondents
agreed that the burqa—the full-face veil—should be banned. That figure rose to 80
per cent among people aged over 55.


Education in Germany is the responsibility of the regional states, each of which has
its own education ministry. In September 2003, the German Federal Constitutional
Court ruled that the states could ban the wearing of Islamic headscarves by female
teachers, and that this would not infringe upon the constitutional protection of
freedom of religion. However, a ban could only be implemented by a state law,
and not by administrative decisions. Eight out of Germany’s sixteen states have
implemented restrictions on wearing the hijab: first Baden-Württemberg, then
Bavaria, Hesse, Lower Saxony, Saarland, Bremen, North Rhine-Westphalia,
and Berlin. The city-state of Berlin also banned all religious symbols in public
institutions, including the Christian crucifix and the kippa (skullcap worn by
religiously observant Jewish males).

Five of the states that ban religious clothing make an exception for Christian
symbols and clothing. In Baden-Württemberg, the state prohibits Muslim teachers
from wearing the headscarf but allows teachers to wear Christian clothing, such
as the nun’s habit. The regulation in North Rhine-Westphalia is similar to that
in Baden-Württemberg. Bavaria also allows the nun’s habit, while banning the
Muslim headscarf. In Germany women in a burqa or chador are forbidden to drive
motor vehicles.


In Denmark, the majority of the population says it would support a burqa ban and
it has been agreed that schools, public sector institutions and companies should
take strict action against face veiling. In May 2008, the Danish government

                                                                      Viviane Teitelbaum

decided that judges should strive for religious and political neutrality in court
and consequently would no longer be allowed to wear visible religious symbols,
including crucifixes, skullcaps and headscarves.


Switzerland has passed a ban on the construction of minarets and is also calling
for a ban on the burqa. But the debate has been put off for the moment. Many
international jurisdictions, however, are currently debating legislation that would
ban full-face scarves and the burqa. In June 2010, the Parliamentary Assembly
of the Council of Europe (PACE) voted to reject any general prohibition on the
wearing of the burqa or other religious clothing. European Council Human Rights
Commissioner Thomas Hammarberg has warned that a burqa ban would only
increase tensions between religious communities.


Simone de Beauvoir10 stated, “Freedom that is utilized to deny freedom must be
denied.” Today in Europe and Belgium, the headscarf debate is raging. Since
World War II, the feminine landscape has undergone a radical change. After some
feminist battles were won, women gained independence and freedom. At the turn
of this century, however, we observed a new change: slowly but surely the scarf
invaded the European continent—the hijab, and also the veil, the niqab, the burqa,
and burqini swimwear.

Gradually, the debate is spreading and politicians are engaging in careful
considerations that will sometimes lead to new laws. In many countries, even
those with a historically secular past, leftist members of Parliament may, for the
sake of elections, support the wearing of the hijab or veil. The center and the right
are more generally in favor of a ban, but sometimes fear coming out strongly on
the issue, as it is difficult for some to disrupt the politically correct discourse. The
extreme right, on the other hand, is often able to gain political capital from this
issue and has not hesitated to do so.

Intellectuals, philosophers, citizens, politicians, women, and men are divided
on the subject. Muslims are also divided between radical activists, who want to
impose their way of life and seclude women, and secular militants, who battle
against archaic models and live their faith privately. Evidently the democrats are
too timid to support those moderate Muslims well enough. The wearing of the full
veil as well as the actions of the Islamic courts engender more negative responses,
being more visible and thus more threatening to democratic values and Western
society. The press also plays an active role in this difficult debate: By ignoring

Israel Journal of Foreign Affairs V : 1 (2011)

intolerant behavior conducted in the name of Islam, some journalists encourage
intolerance (against homosexuals, free sexual relations, or mingling of the sexes)
to develop.

As those fundamentalists want to replace European laws with their religious
rules, democrats have to take a firm stand to defend their values. Many European
women defend those who suffer from reactionary religious commandments in
Islamic countries such as Iran or Saudi Arabia, where they are brutally tortured,
stoned, or even murdered when fighting for their rights.

For all of them, the scarf or veil worn in Europe is an offense to those who fight
against radical Islam. For women such as Talisma Nasreen,11 Djemila Benhabib12,
and many others, the scarf represents a setback that is not acceptable. Benhabib
warns us: “We should not deceive ourselves: The battle for the veil is there to hide
their fear—of women, of their body, of their freedom, and sexuality. Even worse
is when perversion is driven to its height, and it veils children under five years of

Our grandparents struggled for emancipation, and to free society from dogmas,
particularly from the Church. Today freedom is challenged by religious activists,
particularly by Islamic radicals. But it seems clear that in Europe today, no
offense to freedom, democratic values, or dignity will ever be considered a sign of


    A headscarf worn around the head and under the chin.
2   Chahdortt Djavann is a well-known Iranian, naturalized French citizen, author, and
    militant against the scarf and veil. She was forced to wear the chador for ten years before
    she fled from the Mullahs in 1993 to France. Among other works, she is the author
    of Bas les voiles! [Down with the Veil!]. She was awarded the International Prize of
    Secularism in 2003.
    Lyn Reese, “Historical Perspectives on Islamic Dress,” Women in World History
4   Fawzia Zouari, Le voile islamique. Histoire et actualité, du Coran à l’affaire du foulard [The
    Islamic veil, History and today, from the Koran to case of the scarf] (Lausanne, 2002).
5   Nadine B. Weibel, Par-delà le voile, femmes d’islam en Europe [Beyond the veil, women of
    Islam in Europe] (Brussels, 2000).
6   Cultural Relativism is the view that moral or ethical systems, which vary from culture
    to culture, are all equally valid and no one system is really “better” than any other. This

                                                                               Viviane Teitelbaum

   is based on the idea that there is no ultimate standard of good or evil, so every judgment
   about right and wrong is a product of society.
7 Emeritus professor at the Catholic University of Louvain (UCL), President of the

   Interdisciplinary Center for Islamic Studies (CISMOC), Member of Belgian Royal
   Academy, and author of many books and articles.
   Mouvement Réformateur—liberal, center to center-right.
   Open VLD right-wing, Flemish liberal party.
   French author and philosopher, she wrote novels, monographs on philosophy, politics,
   and social issues; essays; biographies; and an autobiography. Best known for her
   treatise The Second Sex, a detailed analysis of women’s oppression and a foundation
   for contemporary feminism. Written in 1949, its English translation was published in
   Taslima Nasreen was born in Bangladesh. Her first novel, Lajja [The Shame], led to the
   first threats on her life and exile in Sweden. In 2009, she moved to France.
   Djemila Benhabib is of Algerian origin. She moved to France and then to Canada. Her
   book is called Ma vie à contre-Coran [My Life against the Quran].

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