Burqa Bans and Intolerance: The New Normal

women, burqa, France, ban, Germany, islam, discrimination, religion, religious freedom, choice

Islamophobia, minaret and burqa bans have become commonplace in Europe. Wearing a burqa or niqab in public spaces became illegal in France and Belgium in 2011; in Latvia it was banned in 2016, although only 3 women wore it in the whole country. In Italy it has been illegal to cover your face since 1931 but enforcement varies and some local authorities allow it. Face covering was banned in Ticino in Switzerland in 2013, while wearing the burqa in public spaces became illegal in Bulgaria in 2016. In Austria a ban was introduced in 2017.In Denmark, Norway and the Netherlands, legislation banning the face veil was approved in June 2018. The radical right politician Geert Wilders claimed credit for it in the Netherlands, and the radical right was instrumental in passing legislation in Norway and Denmark too.

But the issues banning the face veil go beyond the veil per se; in the German state of Bavaria Angela Merkel’s leadership and immigration policy has recently been challenged by the leader of the CSU (the CDU’s sister party), Horst Seehofer, who is also her Minister of the Interior. Regional elections in October will be a big test for Merkel’s government that also faces a challenge from the radical right Alternative for Germany (Afd) who say the CSU are simply copying their policy on immigration in Bavaria.

Indeed, a regional burqa ban for public sector jobs, colleges, universities, polling stations and Kindergartens was introduced in Bavaria in 2017. Moreover, local communities are free to police the ban. The ban is a blatant attack on the Muslim minority in Bavaria where the CSU argue that, despite fewer local refugee arrivals, Germany needs to find a national solution to the refugee crisis as Bavaria and Germany cannot cope. The first step is to close Germany’s borders.

In Scandinavia, the mainstream is also feeling the pressure from the radical right, becoming more intolerant to immigrants in the process. Wearing face coverings will become illegal in any public space in Denmark from August 2018. In Norway, a ban has been introduced in teaching and learning contexts, and will only affect staff and students in schools and universities. Face covering is allowed on campuses as long as they are not used during teaching and learning interactions. Parliamentary support for the ban was overwhelming both in Norway and Denmark where politicians argue wearing face covering is incompatible with Danish or Norwegian values. In Norway, Parliament voted 91-8 in favour, with not a single abstention from the main opposition, the Labour Party Arbeiderpartiet. All other MPs apart from Green Party, the Red Party and the Socialist Left voted for it. The socialist left MPs also voted to ban face coverings for teachers but not for students.

The politicians’ argument was that face covers prevents communication; that it is important to see each other’s faces in a learning environment. The debate about Muslim dress thus retains a high profile in the Norwegian media for more than a decade where, even the wearing of a headscarf is being debated. When Malala Yousafzai came to Oslo to receive the Nobel Peace Prize in 2014, she was asked by journalists why she was wearing a head scarf. Yet this concern is not just shared by journalists: many Muslim women in Norway choose not to wear the headscarf to avoid racist attacks.

Politicians are carefully trying not to appear racist by focusing on how face and head covering is seen to restrict verbal communication. For instance, Åshild Bruun-Gundersen, an MP for the radical right Progress Party (Fremskrittspartiet; FrP) claimed that garments preventing integration and allegedly keeping women from living a free life should be banned. The ban should, then, be seen as a notably victory for the FrP who first suggested a total ban in 2003. Now they are able to claim that other parties have seen sense. Bruun-Gundersen is clearly pleased with this “mainstreaming” state of affairs: ‘we have now managed to pull the political environment in our direction’.

FrP would prefer a total ban on any form of face cover in all public spaces, as will be the case in Denmark next month. On this score, Bruun-Gundersen is optimistic, saying it will probably only take a couple of years until the other parties agree with them on this point too. She may well be right as the mainstream have fallen for the radical right’s anti-immigration agenda hook, line and sinker.

Sylvi Listhaug, another FrP politician, who served as Minister of Immigration and Integration 2015- 2018, and as Minister of Justice, Public Security and Immigration for a couple of months, has long advanced misinformation about other parties and politicians on the left. She spreads anti – immigrant propaganda and holds extreme views over what constitutes Norwegian values. When she served as minister of agriculture 2013- 2015 she defended pig farmers by arguing that eating pork was very Norwegian and that it was very wrong if nurseries stopped serving it to everyone. Listhaug has a disproportionate amount of media attention and maintains a very strong social media presence with 160,000 friends on Facebook.

Muslim head dress and face coverings have been framed by the radical right for years in Scandinavia as discriminatory against women. This has greater resonance when the most prominent politicians from the radical right FrP are women. In response, teaching institutions reported that face veils were not a problem for them, stressing that a ban would exclude a tiny minority from the right to an education. Although there are no reliable statistics on the use of face covering in Norway it has been estimated that between this only includes fully 50-100 women. Likewise, a study from 2010 at the University of Copenhagen found that 3 women in Denmark wore the burqa occasionally, and that between 200-250 wore a face cover on a regular basis.

The ban is therefore targeted and will affect very few in terms of potential fines, even if the new legislation sends a hostile signal from countries previously considered amongst the most equal on earth. Increasingly, politicians see themselves above international law and do not seem to be particularly concerned by international condemnation or Amnesty International’s concerns about human rights violations. In true populist fashion, Norwegian FrP politicians explicitly reject human rights concerns so long as ‘the people’ do not want them.

Recent developments show that equality only goes so far and that when people do not wear what’s considered acceptable by the majority they can be excluded. The new legislation is likely to lead to an increase in hate speech and attacks on Muslims. Legitimisation of discrimination against Muslims by government and parliaments is, surely, a green light for the promotion of racism among the public. More attacks on Muslims in Scandinavia by a small group of violent racists is likely to follow. There can be no doubt that this has trend been initiated by the radical right in Scandinavia, which consistently stresses the importance of equal rights for women. The new legislation will limit a few Muslim women’s right to education, and therefore should be seen as discriminatory against Muslims, and women in particular. A few hundred women in Norway and Denmark now have their very own legislation which will exclude them from education in countries that pride themselves on equality and inclusion.

Dr Mette Wiggen is a Senior Fellow at CARR, and an expert on the radical right and welfare chauvinism in Scandinavia. See her profile here.

©Mette Wiggen. Views expressed on this website are individual contributors’ and do not necessarily reflect that of the Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right (CARR). We are pleased to share previously unpublished materials with the community under creative commons license 4.0 (Attribution-NoDerivatives).