In Belgium the home affairs committee of the Brussels federal government has voted unanimously to ban the partial or total covering of faces in public places. The parliament is likely to approve the ban and it will be in force by the summer.
In France Sarkozy looks set to use emergency procedures to push through a complete ban on the burqa (full-length head, face and body covering) and niqab (detachable face veil) in public places by July.
The Canadian province of Quebec last week introduced a ban on facial covering in public service employment.
In the Netherlands the right-wing libertarian politician Geert Wilders continues to call for Muslim veil bans as part of his campaign against the “Islamification” of Dutch society.
Although legal moves in Europe are focused on the burqa and the niqab, the wider debate in Belgium is about the simple headscarf (i.e., a headcovering), with Muslim parents pressing for schools to allow their daughters to cover their heads or threatening to send their children to private schools
Headscarves are banned in schools in France.
The debate on the banning or restriction of these different forms of “hijab dress” raises many issues for socialists.
The right wing who support bans do not do so out of any concerns for women’s rights. They are not interested in “freeing” women from the hijab because they oppose women’s oppression.
They may at the same time be in favour of attacks on abortion rights, bolstering marriage, against equal pay, and for cuts in welfare provision.
It may also suit them to whip up hostility and racism towards Muslims. They may point to the “hijab” as “detrimental” and “foreign” as a means to strengthen calls for immigration controls.
We reject all this ideology as a means of dividing the working class in a time of economic crisis.
How is fining and even locking people up for non-compliance with this ban going to help bring about liberation?
In past discussions the AWL has said “the veil” is part of an oppressive system, a reactionary tool in the control of religious patriarchs and sometimes the state (e.g. Saudi Arabia), but we oppose the French ban on headscarves in schools.
That’s still broadly right but I also think it is more complicated than that.
For example, I would not be in favour of lifting the ban on headscarves in schools. If it means girls go to school and have freedom from controls and threats from their families or from Islamists in their community. That is a good thing.
We should be in favour of extending the areas in which there is some freedom for children to fight on their own behalf, to think and be critical and to be in control of their own life, independent from their parents’ views.
To my mind that means being in favour of consistently secular education, fighting the spread of faith schools, an end to private schools, and for a compulsory curriculum that includes PE and sex education.
We shouldn’t view this discussion as all about a “woman’s right to wear what she wants” because it is always also about the right of girls and women not to have to wear what their religious leaders or fathers or male peers tell them.
We are not neutral on this issue. We are against the growth of religious fundamentalism, which is part of the background to the increasing observance of religious dress (by both women and men).
We shouldn’t just tail-end those liberals who talk only about respecting freedom of religion. It is about freedom of religion, but it is also about a lot more than that.
If there are campaigns led by Muslim religious leaders against the bans, we shouldn’t line up with them. If the left opposes bans in the name of anti-imperialism and wants to side uncritically with religious leaders or various shades of political Islamists, we should keep our distance. Such people are against the working class and women.
We defend people’s right to believe what they want. We are against the right wing whipping up hostility to Muslims. But we also oppose the spread of fundamentalism.