Burqas and the swimwear equivalent, burkinis are under more scrutiny in Europe this summer. Germany has announced plans to ban full-face veils in some circumstances, while in a small number of French towns burkinis were banned on beaches.
What makes burqas, full-face veils and burkinis so controversial and why are efforts being made to ban them?
The burkini – a swimsuit that covers the whole body except for the face, hands and feet – has this summer been banned in Cannes, Villeneuve-Loubet and in Sisco on the island of Corsica.
“A beach outfit showing in an ostentatious manner a religious affiliation, given that France and religious places are currently the target of terrorist acts, has the nature of creating risks of troubles of public order (mobs, conflicts, etc.) that are necessary to be prevented,” said the new law.
Meanwhile, Sisco’s mayor, Ange-Pierre Vivoni, told CNN the ban “has nothing to do with racism.”
“It is to bring calm to the commune,” he added.
“I’m not against maghrebins (French word for people from Northwest Africa) or Arabs. I’m not an anti-Semite or anti-Arab, it is part of a battle for unity, for unity of people.”
“I protect Corsican Muslims,” he added.
Sundas Ali, who is a lecturer in politics and sociology at the University of Oxford, told CNN the recent bans concern her, because the burkini made Muslim women feel more comfortable while swimming by providing them the option to show less skin.
“I think the Mayor of Cannes and the French government could have dealt with this in a more constructive manner, by engaging with society and building a dialogue between Muslims and non-Muslims,” she said.
Anyone breaking the burkini ban in Cannes faces a fine of 38 euros (42USD).
Countries that have banned full-face veils
On Friday, German’s Interior Minister Thomas de Maiziere said the country intends to ban full-face veils in any place where identification is required, including in schools or government offices, to promote security and national cohesion.
“Full face-veils, we reject this. Not just the burqa,” he said.
“It does not fit into our society … this is why we demand that you show your face,” he added.
Meanwhile, Frank Henkel, the Interior Minister of the city of Berlin said the full-face veil “does not fit in with our view of women.”
France and Belgium already have bans on burqas. The French Ambassador to the United States, Gerard Araud, has argued previously that burqas suggest that women are an “object of lust, a subject and not an agent of history,” while at the time the ban was being voted on in Belgium, members of parliament said they were motivated both by security and morality.
Sara Silvestri, a professor at City University London who specializes in religion and politics told CNN these bans effectively play right into the hands of extremists.
“Al Qaeda and the so-called Islamic State thrive every time Western countries give them ammunition to say that the West is discriminating or stigmatizing Muslims,” she told CNN.
“The effect of these laws is that Muslims feel marginalized and in turn, the feeling of being unwelcome impacts their ability and willingness to integrate into society, can cause withdrawal and lead to engagement with radical groups,” she said.
Nesrine Malik, a columnist for The Guardian, told CNN that imposing laws against the burqa is the easiest way for a government to appear to show they’re tackling terrorism.
“Since the rise of Islamophobia, legislating against the burqa and other forms of religious dress is low hanging fruit for politicians, while doing very little to address the root causes, which are far more complicated and nebulous than banning a form of dress,” she said.
Malik added that the burqa is an easy target because not only is it visible, but it also appears to be exclusionary.
University of Oxford lecturer Ali says extremism has severely affected the way Islam is viewed.
“It’s having a really detrimental impact because when something like this happens, people suddenly become very scared and fearful of Muslims.”
“I think in public a Muslim woman, or anybody really, should be allowed to dress however they want – so long that it doesn’t disrupt society or social harmony,” Ali added.
‘A symbol of oppression’
While some countries have installed burqa bans because of security measures, others say they are a symbol of oppression.
Shereen El Feki, author of ‘Sex and the Citadel: Intimate Life in a Changing Arab World’, told CNN the assumption that headscarves are oppressive is dangerous.
“I find it ironic that the argument that is often made against the hijab, ‘oh these poor women, we must liberate them’, that assumption is quite oppressive. Because you’re assuming that these women have not made a choice, that they’re incapable of making a choice,” she says.
“I’m not denying the fact that certainly there are many women who don’t have a choice, and who don’t make a free and informed decision to put on this, but you can’t assume.
“It’s actually just as disempowering to women that one is arguing that the hijab or niqab is,” she added.
Columnist Malik, says passing laws against the burqa “suggest that it is not out of concern for women, but out of desire to shrink the space within which Muslims can dress, live and practice freely in Europe.”
El Feki says there are many different reasons why a woman may choose to wear a veil.
“For some it’s fashion, for others it’s clearly an expression of their modesty and how they interpret Islam. And for a lot of women it’s freedom,” she said.
“It’s a tool of empowerment.”
“The problem is, is that this type of dress is associated with Islamic extremism, which is not helped by ISIS, which has imposed this dress on women. And the challenge we have is disentangling this.”
Burqa, hijab, niqab, burkini, what’s what?
The burqa, hijab, niqab and burkini often become blended when discussing Islamic dress.
The burqa covers the entire body and includes mesh over the eyes; the niqab is a full-face veil that exposes only the eyes, while the hijab is a general term for all modest dress, although the West has reduced it to a headscarf that covers a woman’s hair.
Burqa, hijab, niqab: What's what?
While veils are incredibly popular, the Quran does not reference any of these coverings specifically. It does, however, urge women to dress modestly.
Silvestri says there is one particular verse which is often quoted. It says women should “cast down their looks and guard their private parts” and “draw their veils over their bosoms.”
However, she said: “it’s a message of modesty, which in a way is not too dissimilar to the ideas of female virtue that Christians were brought up with.”