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English review - What is Behind the Burqa Ban?

What is Behind the Burqa Ban?

Since the 1st of August 2019, the ‘Partial Ban on Face-Covering Clothing Act’ has been in force in the Netherlands. In school buildings, among others, it is now forbidden to wear clothing that completely covers the face or only leaves the eyes uncovered. As the ban especially affects Muslims who cover their faces by wearing a niqab or burqa, it is commonly referred to as the ‘burqa ban.’ The Radboud University has announced that the ban is also in force on the campus.

What does the ban encompass? Is one prohibited from covering their face in public? Are there any exceptions to the ban? Can one conduct a citizen’s arrest upon noticing someone violating the ban? How many people wear a burqa or niqab in the Netherlands? Why do Muslim women choose to wear a niqab or burqa? Professor of Constitutional Law Derk Bunschoten and anthropologist Karin van Nieuwkerk discussed these and other questions during a Radboud Reflects Academic Affairs Lecture.

Not a General Ban and a Neutral Formulation

Bunschoten started his talk by pointing out that the ban only concerns schools, government buildings and public transport. Wearing a burqa in public, on the streets, remains allowed and is not being addressed by this law. He remarked that the law is in concordance with the constitution as it is formulated neutrally and does not explicitly target and single out a particular group. A corollary of this neutral formulation is that the ban applies to many other things and not solely the burqa. ‘Therefore, this means that a nun, very much familiar with our catholic university, who wears a scarf that sufficiently covers her face, is not allowed to enter the university building anymore.’ The same goes for someone wearing a balaclava on the bus.

‘Every Right Has its Limitation’

Once he had clarified the ban, Bunschoten proceeded to elaborate upon the freedom of religion in Dutch law. Bunschoten thereby seemed to be anticipating an objection to his remark, that the act was in concordance with the constitution. ‘Our constitution acknowledges the freedom of religion which contains the right to believe whatever one may believe and also practise one’s beliefs. But every right has its limitation. Freedom of religion can be lawfully limited as long as certain conditions are met.’ Provided that the limitation is for the sake of safety or order and also regulated by law, the freedom of religion, even as an article of the constitution, may be limited. Lawmakers defended the ban by appealing to safety matters and the quality of communication that is needed when certain services are provided.

Bunschoten ended his talk by emphasizing that the enforcement of laws is the task of the police. It is not up to the university to charge violators of the ban with a fine, but they may contact the police to carry out the enforcement. ‘Citizen’s arrests are not meant for laws like these. You might conduct such an arrest when you see someone breaking into a house. But with the burqa-ban it is very likely that, in fact, you will be persecuted for violating someone’s privacy.’

There Are Coverings and There Are Coverings

Once Van Nieuwkerk was given the floor, she started by remarking that the data she will show regarding burqa- or niqab-wearers was taken from her research into Dutch Muslim converts and Muslims in Egypt and might therefore not reflect the tendencies of other Muslim populations. Van Nieuwkerk showed a range of images with garments that Muslim women can wear. ‘The hijab covers the hair and many recognize it as the most frequently worn cloth by Muslim women. A niqab covers more parts of the body, including the face. The burqa is what is often seen in Afghanistan, but there are barely any burqa-wearers in the Netherlands.’ This is ample reason for her to render the usage of the term ‘burqa-ban’ scientifically subjective. The burqa is closely associated with the Taliban and oppression of women. ‘The usage of that term keeps the discourse within that framework of oppression.’

Abiding By the Prescription

Van Nieuwkerk explained that the Muslim women she had interviewed, all declared to be freely wearing their hijab or niqab. Wearers of the hijab or the niqab are often motivated by the belief that it is a prescription, bestowed upon them by God. She explained that there are nevertheless disputes among scholars about the obligatory nature of the niqab. ‘Some scholars will assert that the niqab is obligatory upon all Muslim women, while most scholars will disagree and claim that it is not an obligation, but merely recommendable.’

An Expression of Love for God

Van Nieuwkerk finished her talked by shedding light on some recent tendencies she observed among wearers of the hijab or niqab. Recently, a group of women in Oman have started to identify their face-coverings as a sign of beauty, which seems to run contrary to other women who deem the face-covering a means for concealing their beauty. Van Nieuwkerk’s new research will focus on this phenomenon, for which she will soon travel to Oman.

This report was written by Sümer Şen, as part of the Research Master Philosophy of the Radboud University.