Islamic dress controversy in Europe

Islamic dress controversy in Europe

Islamic dress, notably the variety of headdresses worn by Muslim women, has become a prominent symbol of the presence of Islam in western Europe. In several countries this adherence to "hijab" (an Arabic noun meaning "to cover") has led to political controversies and proposals for a legal ban. The Netherlands government has decided to introduce a ban on face-covering clothing, popularly described as the "burqa ban", although it does not only apply to the Afghan-model "burqa". Other countries are debating similar legislation, or have more limited prohibitions. Some of them apply only to face-covering clothing such as the "burqa", "chador", "boushiya", or "niqab"; some apply to any clothing with an Islamic religious symbolism such as the "khimar", a type of headscarf. (Some countries already have laws banning the wearing of masks in public, which can be applied to veils that conceal the face). The issue has different names in different countries, and "the veil" or "hijab" may be used as general terms for the debate, representing more than just the veil itself, or the concept of modesty embodied in "hijab".

Although the Balkans and Eastern Europe have indigenous Muslim populations, most Muslims in western Europe are members of immigrant communities. The issue of Islamic dress is linked with issues of immigration and the position of Islam in western society.


The reasons given for prohibition vary. Legal bans on face-covering clothing are often justified on security grounds, as an anti-terrorism measure. However, the public controversy is wider, and may be indicative of polarisation between Muslims and western European societies.Fact|date=June 2008

For some critics, Islamic dress is an issue of value conflicts and the Clash of Civilizations. These critics - prominent among them is Ayaan Hirsi Ali - see Islam as incompatible with Western values, at least in its present form. They advocate the values of 'Enlightenment liberalism', including secularism and equality of women. For them, the burqa or chador are both a symbol of religious obscurantism and the oppression of women. Western Enlightenment values, in their view, require prohibition, regardless of whether a woman has freely chosen Islamic dress. A more extreme, related view is that freely chosen Islamic dress is a declaration of allegiance to radical Islamism, and the wearers are enemies of western society, if not terrorists.

Islamic dress is also seen as a symbol of the existence of parallel societies (), and the failure of integration: in 2006 British Prime Minister Tony Blair described it as a "mark of separation". [ [ Blair's concerns over face veils] BBC News Online. October 17, 2006.] Visible symbols of a non-western culture conflict with the national identity in European states, which assumes a shared (non-religious) culture. Proposals for a ban may be linked to other related cultural prohibitions: the Netherlands politician Geert Wilders proposed a ban on the burqa, on Islamic schools, on new mosques, and on non-western immigration.

In France and Turkey, the emphasis is on the secular nature of the state, and the symbolic nature of the Islamic dress, and bans apply at state institutions (courts, civil service) and in state-funded education. These bans also cover Islamic headscarves, which in some other countries are seen as less controversial, although law court staff in the Netherlands are also forbidden to wear Islamic headscarves on grounds of 'state neutrality'.

An apparently less politicised argument is that in specific professions (teaching), a ban on "veils" (niqab) is justified, since face-to-face communication and eye contact is required. This argument has featured prominently in judgments in Britain and the Netherlands, after students or teachers were banned from wearing face-covering clothing.

Public and political response to such prohibition proposals is complex, since by definition they mean that the government decides on individual clothing. Some non-Muslims, who would not be affected by a ban, see it as an issue of civil liberties, as a slippery slope leading to further restrictions on private life. A public opinion poll in London showed that 75 percent of Londoners support "the right of all persons to dress in accordance with their religious beliefs". [Guardian: [,,1952628,00.html Livingstone decries vilification of Islam] , November 20, 2006.] In another poll in the United Kingdom by Ipsos MORI, 61 percent agreed that "Muslim women are segregating themselves" by wearing a veil, yet 77 percent thought they should have the right to wear it. [Ipsos MORI [ Muslim Women Wearing Veils] .]

European Union

European Commissioner Franco Frattini stated in November 2006, that he did not favour a ban on the burqa. [Reformatorisch dagblad: " [ Brussel tegen boerkaverbod] ", 30 November 2006.] This is apparently the first official statement on the issue of prohibition of Islamic dress from the European Commission, the executive of the European Union.


Several Belgian municipalities have used municipal by-laws on face-covering clothing to ban public wearing of the niqab and burqa. [BBC NEWS | Europe | [ Dutch MPs to decide on burqa ban ] ] The town of Maaseik was to first to implement a ban. A Moroccan immigrant, Khadija El Ouazzani, was fined €75 under the by-law for wearing a burqa: in 2006, a local police court upheld the ban and the fine. According to mayor Jan Creemers (Flemish Christian Democrats), 5 or 6 women in Maaseik had "caused feelings of insecurity" by wearing a burqa, and he had received complaints about them. He personally warned the women to stop: after that only, El Ouazzani continued to wear the burqa, and the by-law was activated. [Algemeen Dagblad: [ Burka-verbod is succes in België] , 20 November 2006.]

In late 2004, at Creemers request, Marino Keulen, Flemish-Liberal interior minister in the Flemish government, created a standard prohibition for burqas, and sent it to all 308 municipalities in Flanders. [Het Belang van Limburg: " [ Keulen stuurt modelreglement inzake boerka-verbod naar gemeenten] ", 2 December 2004.] The regulation states 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. Carnival, Sinterklaas, and Father Christmas are exempt. According to Keulen:

:"As Minister for Integration I respect culture tradition and belief, but wearing a burqa has nothing to do with religious belief, but with traditional dress in Pakistan and Afghanistan. Besides, wearing a burqa has an intimidating effect, and it can not be tolerated that Muslim women are excluded from society because they are isolated behind their burqa, and can't communicate with the world around them."

All municipalities can choose if they want to adopt the regulation: six have done so. In August 2006, mayor Creemers called for a national ban. [VRT: " [ Nationaal verbod op dragen boerka] ", 10 August 2006.] The anti-immigrant and separatist party Vlaams Belang, formerly Vlaams Blok, had earlier advocated a ban at Flemish level, and locally in Antwerp. [ [ Vlaams Belang Antwerpen] .] Although Vlaams Belang is excluded from power in Antwerp, by a coalition of all other parties, the ban was adopted. It was first applied in 2005, when a woman was fined because only her eyes were visible. [VRT: " [ Gesluierde vrouw krijgt boete in Antwerpen] ", 22 September 2005.]


There is currently no ban on religious Islamic dress in Denmark. However, following an incident in which a burqa-clad journalist was able to pass unchecked through security at Copenhagen airport, [ [ Burka-clad woman unchecked at airport] , The Copenhagen Post.] the government stressed to the airports the need for passengers to show their faces.

In 2006 Asmaa Abdol-Hamid caused much debate when she hosted a TV show on DR2 wearing a hijab. [ [ Hijab-clad Muslim TV Host Sparks Danish Furor] ] The controversy continued the following year when she announced she would be running for parliament. Member of Parliament Søren Krarup, of the Danish People’s Party, questioned whether wearing a hijab in parliament was constitutional and said the headscarf is a totalitarian symbol, comparable to the Nazi swastika or the communist hammer and sickle. [ [ Headscarf in the House pledge Danes battle the veil] , The Copenhagen Post, April 26, 2007.]

In April 2007 the Odense city council asked the Minister for Family and Consumer Affairs of Denmark to rule on a case in which a Muslim woman refused to remove her veil for her job as a family care worker. A majority in parliament was ready to give employers the right to ban Muslim niqab and burka veils for employees. [ [ Broad MP support for careworker veil ban] , The Copenhagen Post, April 26, 2007.]

In May 2008, the Danish government decided that judges in courts should strive for religious and political neutrality, and that consequently they would no longer be allowed to wear visible religious symbols, including Christian crucifixes, Jewish kippahs and Muslim head scarves. [ [ Forbud mod religiøse symboler i retssale] , Jyllands Posten, 14 May 2008.]


The 2004 French law on secularity and conspicuous religious symbols in schools bans all clothing which constitutes an ostensible religious symbol from government-operated schools. It is typically justified as a measure to ensure the secularism and religious neutrality of the state - the principle of Laïcité. In December, 2003, President Jacques Chirac supported a new law to explicitly forbid any "visible sign of religious affiliation", in the spirit of laïcité. The law was approved by the French parliament in March 2004.

The law forbids the wearing of any "ostensible" religious articles, but does not cite any item; yet, ministerial instructions appear to target the Islamic veil, the Jewish kippa, and large Christian crosses. Instructions permit discreet signs of faith, such as small crosses, Stars of David, and hands of Fatima. The law applies to students, parents and personnel alike. Without specific legal prohibition, similar policies are occasionally applied in other state organizations and buildings, such as public hospitals.

The French controversy primarily relates to Islamic dress as a symbol of Islam itself, or of female subservience, and only secondarily to other factors such as face-to-face communication, or security risks. The new law says nothing about the wearing of Islamic dress in public (on the street), nor about wearing religious signs in higher education or private education establishments.


In one incident involving Islamic dress in Germany, two 18-year old students, one Turkish and one Kurdish, appeared at a school in Bonn in a burqa; they were suspended for "disturbing the peace." The German Finance Minister cancelled a visit to the school, and the two were investigated by the intelligence service, who suspected them of contacts with the controversial King Fahd Academy in Bonn. [Rheinische Post: [ Burka-Verbot - Türkinnen von Schule verwiesen] , 29 April 2006; Spiegel: [,1518,413819,00.html Schulausschluss wegen Burka : "Lehrer müssen Schülern ins Gesicht sehen"] (28 April 2006); [,1518,413732,00.html Verhüllte 18-Jährige : Schulverweis wegen Burka] ; [,1518,414140,00.html Bonner Burka-Schülerinnen : Ministerium sagt Schulbesuch ab] ; [,1518,414295,00.html Verhüllte Schülerinnen : Geheimdienste werten Burka als Provokation] ] The incident illustrates the sensitivity in Germany over Islamic dress, especially in schools. It led the Justice Minister Brigitte Zypries to call for nationwide standard school uniforms (itself a sensitive issue in Germany because of the association with the Hitler Youth and the FDJ).

Education in Germany is the responsibility of the individual states, which each have their own education ministry. In September 2003, the Bundesverfassungsgericht (Constitutional Court) ruled that the states could ban the wearing of Islamic headscarves by female teachers, and that this would not infringe the constitutional protection of freedom of religion. However, a ban could only be implemented by a state law, and not by administrative decisions. Since then, 8 of the 16 states have introduced a prohibition, first Baden-Württemberg, then Bavaria, Hesse, Lower Saxony, the Saarland, Bremen and North Rhine-Westphalia. The city-state of Berlin banned all religious symbols in public institutions, including the Christian crucifix and the Jewish yarmulke. [Zeit online/Tagesspiegel: " [ Ländersache: Der ewige Streit um das Kopftuch] ", 31 October 2006.] In Baden-Württemberg, state courts upheld an appeal against the ban by several Muslim teachers, on the grounds of religious discrimination, since Catholic nuns are allowed to teach in full religious habit. The state government has appealed the decision.

In 2004 the then President of Germany, Johannes Rau, spoke on the 'headscarf issue' and the nature of the German state, as compared to the officially secular French state: [ [ Religionsfreiheit heute - zum Verhältnis von Staat und Religion in Deutschland] . Rede von Bundespräsident Johannes Rau zum 275 Geburtstag von Gotthold Ephraim Lessing, 22 January 2004.]

:"I fear that a headscarf ban will be the first step on the road to a laicistic state, which will prohibit religious signs and symbols in the public sphere. I don't want to see that happen. That is not my vision of our country, with its centuries of Christian influence."

In Germany women in burqa or chador are forbidden to drive motor vehicles. The Federal Transport Ministry confirmed that a de facto ban already exists. [Netzeitung: " [ Keine Burka hinterm Steuer] ", 14 June 2006.]

In 2006 Ekin Deligöz, a Turkish-born woman parliamentarian, triggered an uproar by calling on fellow Turkish German women to take off their scarves as a way to show their willingness to integrate in German society.World Politics Watch: ' [ 'In Germany, Debate Over Muslim Headscarf Rages On] ", 29 Nov 2006.]

Naime Çakir, a Muslim activist in Germany, raises other concerns related to headscarves in that banning them in fact increases discrimination of Muslim women and aggravates their integration into the modern society by making it harder for them to find a job and forcing them into an acute conflict between family and society, which places a much more disastrous burden on Muslim women than on Muslim men (see "namus" and "honor killing" articles). Naime states that for women, education and occupation are more important for emancipation than external attributes of clothing.


Immigration in the last two decades has introduced Islam as a second major religion in Italy, a country where the population was traditionally Catholic. The Islamic veil has become a national political issue, usually in combination with other Islam-related issues, such as new mosques, and the teaching of the Quran in schools. The anti-immigrant and separatist Lega Nord has focussed recent campaigns on prohibition of the burqa, although as with the Party for Freedom in the Netherlands, the wider issue is immigration. After local anti-burqa campaigns, several municipalities imposed a ban, but these have been suspended by Regional Administrative Tribunals. [La Padania: " [,1,1 Salvini: «Nei comuni servono ordinanze contro il burqa»] ".] The Regional Administrative Tribunal of Friuli-Venezia Giulia, suppressed, for largely technical reasons, bans imposed by a municipal government. Use of the law 152/1975 - which prohibits the use of motorcycle helmets to evade identification - cannot be extended to cover the veil or burqa. [ [ Tar Friuli Venezia Giulia] . Sentenza n. 645 del 16 ottobre 2006; Federico Punzi at " [ Velo, cavallo di Troia dell’Islam radicale in Europa] ", 3 November 2006.]

The Netherlands

Immigration and Integration minister Rita Verdonk announced in November 2006 that the Netherlands will introduce legislation to ban face-covering clothing in public. [Al-Jazeera: " [ Netherlands moves to ban burqa] ", 17 November 2006; Der Spiegel: " [,1518,449247,00.html Niederlande wollen Burka verbieten] ", 17 November 2006; BBC: " [ Dutch government backs burqa ban] ", 17 November 2006.] Although a ban was publicly debated earlier, the legislation results directly from a motion tabled in the Netherlands parliament by the anti-immigration [Wilders Party for Freedom advocates a 5-year moratorium on all non-western immigration.] politician Geert Wilders, calling upon the cabinet to introduce it. The cabinet proposals was delayed because of concerns about conflict with freedom of religion. The Third Balkenende cabinet thought that these issues are no longer an obstacle to legislation. The proposal was condemned by Muslim organisations. [BBC: [ Dutch Muslims condemn burqa ban] , 18 November 2006.]

In the November 2006 general election, Wilders' Party for Freedom won 9 seats (out of 150): a complete ban on the burqa and a ban Islamic headscarves in the civil service and schools is part of its platform, but all other parties refuse to include it in a coalition. A group of Muslim women organised a pro-burqa demonstration at the newly elected parliament in The Hague, on 30 November 2006. The demonstration attracted national media attention, despite having only 20 participants. [IHT: " [ Muslim women protest outside Dutch parliament against burqa ban] ", November 30, 2006; " [ Weinig demonstranten in Den Haag] "; De Volkskrant, 25 November 2006. " [ Moslima’s betogen voor recht op boerka] ". [ Text of manifesto] .]

Following the 2006 election, the new cabinet has not taken a final decision on whether to introduce a ban, and gave conflicting signals. [Expatica: " [ Kamp predicts row over burqa ban] ", 23 February 2007. "Boerka op straat moet kunnen", 22 February 2007. [] "Verontwaardiging over boerka-uitspraak Vogelaar", 23 February 2007. [] ] A February 2007 opinion poll indicated that 66 percent support a ban and 32 percent oppose it. ["'Nederlanders voor boerkaverbod", 24 february 2007. [ percent27Nederlanders_voor_boerkaverbod percent27.html] ]

Malaysia protested against the proposed ban soon after it was announced in 2006. Foreign minister Syed Hamid Albar called it a discriminatory treatment of Muslims, and said it infringed freedom of choice. The Islamic headscarf tudung is a political issue in Malaysia itself. According to the UNHCHR, female students in Malaysia itself are pressured to wear the tudung, and it is compulsory for female shop workers in Kelantan, while Malaysian politicians have protested against its prohibition in public schools in Singapore. [cite news
last =
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] According to memo leaked to the Algemeen Dagblad, the Netherlands foreign ministry has warned of a possible controversy, similar to the Jyllands-Posten Muhammad cartoons controversy. [Algemeen Dagblad: Woede moslims dreigt, 20 November 2006, [] ]

The proposed legislation in the Netherlands applies nationally. Earlier, schools and other institutions had enforced their own bans on Islamic dress, although usually not on the Islamic headscarf. Employers also have their own policies. Cases of dismissal or exclusion from school are sometimes handled by the Netherlands Equality Commission, creating de facto national guidelines on what constitutes discrimination. [Website in English: [] ] In Amsterdam, school policies attracted media attention after an incident in 2003. A higher vocational college, banned three students for wearing the niqab. One was removed by police when she tried to enter the school wearing the niqab: the school regulations are legally enforceable because unauthorised entry is trespass. The students appealed to the Equality Commission, which ruled (in March 2003) in favour of the school. ["CGB: school mag gezichtssluier verbieden", [] ] The school justified the ban on the grounds that the niqab "hindered eye contact, which testifies to mutual respect". The Commission agreed with the school, indicating that the educational necessity of contact and communication within the school building overrode the religious-freedom aspects. The education minister, Maria van der Hoeven, of the Christian-Democratic party CDA, publicly approved the Commission decision. The Amsterdam CDA subsequently called for a national ban on chador, burqa and niqab in schools, partly on the grounds that they conflicted with common national values. ["CDA wil algeheel verbod op sluier in de klas", [] ]

The cities of Amsterdam and Utrecht have proposed cutting social security benefit to unemployed women wearing a burqa, on the grounds that it makes them unemployable in a predominantly non-Muslim country. [Spiegel International: Amsterdam Mulls Axing Dole for Women in Burqas, April 21, 2006, [,1518,412355,00.html] ]

United Kingdom

The Lord Chancellor in the UK, Jack Straw, initiated a nation-wide controversy on "the veil" by criticising its use in 2006. Straw said he would prefer to see no veils: "Yes. It needs to be made clear I am not talking about being proscriptive but with all the caveats, yes, I would rather." [ [ In quotes: Jack Straw on the veil] - BBC News. October 6, 2006]

The legal status of Islamic dress in schools was clarified by the Shabina Begum
Shabina Begum case
, where the Judicial Committee of the House of Lords ruled that freedom to "manifest" religious beliefs was not absolute, and could be restricted. [R (on the application of Begum (by her litigation friend, Rahman)) (Respondent) v. Headteacher and Governors of Denbigh High School (Appellants), [] ] Conservative columnist Theodore Dalrymple, noting that Shabina Begum was represented by the Prime Minister's wife Cherie Blair, claims that the judgement was a political one, a concession to Muslim opinion offended by the campaign against Islamist terrorism. [Theodore Dalrymple in National Review, March 2005: "Wrong from Head to Toe", [] ]

In the Aishah Azmi case, an employment tribunal held that a school could refuse to employ a veiled teacher (wearing the niqab). Government ministers intervened in the employment tribunal case, supporting the school. This case provoked Prime Minister Tony Blair to comment that the veil was a "mark of separation", and minister Phil Woolas demanded that Azmi be sacked, accusing her of "denying the right of children to a full education". The school subsequently sacked her. [Guardian: Veil row teacher sacked, November 24, 2006. [,,1956263,00.html] ]

In another case, a lawyer dressed in a niqab was told by an immigration judge that she could not represent a client because, he said, he could not hear her. [ The New York Times - Muslims’ Veils Test Limits of Britain’s Tolerance] ]

In reaction, the British educational authorities are proposing a ban on the niqab in schools altogether.

Veils have also been accused of causing problems in the fight against crime:
*Mustaf Jama, wanted for the murder of British policewoman Sharon Beshenivsky, is believed to have dressed in a Muslim veil in order to flee the country, though the Home Office said the claim was unlikely to be true as women can be asked to lift veils in identity checks [ [ BBC News- Inquiry call on 'suspect in veil'] ] .
*A man wanted on terrorism charges is also believed to have dressed up in a Burqa, a garment which completely covers the body and face, in order to escape the police. [ [ The Times - Suspect in terror hunt used veil to evade arrest] ] [ [,t2088 Hijab (Head Scarf) - ] ] [ [ BBC News - Headscarf defeat riles French Muslims] ]


Turkey is a secular state founded by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk in 1923. Atatürk saw headscarves as backward-looking and an obstacle to his campaign to secularize and modernize the new Turkish Republic. Kemalist ideology continues to emphasize secularism, despite the majority of Turks being Muslims. Headscarves and other Islamic coverings were banned in public spaces, including schools and universities (public and private), courts of law, government offices and other official institutions, in 2000. Wearing headscarves in photos on official documents like licenses, passports, and university enrollment documents is also prohibited.

In 1998, a Turkish student was banned for wearing a headscarf at Istanbul University. In 2000, Nuray Bezirgan, a Turkish female student, wore a headscarf at her college final exams.Singh, K. Gajendra. [ Ban on headscarves and Turkey] . "Turkish Daily News". 2004-09-21.] A Turkish court sentenced her to six months jail for "obstructing the education of others". The European Court of Human Rights upheld the ban in 2004, saying the rules on dress were "necessary" and did not violate the European Convention on Human Rights. In October 2006, the European Court of Human Rights upheld the university ban again, rejecting a complaint filed by another Turkish university student. [ [ Strasbourg court's ruling upholds headscarf ban] . "Turkish Daily News". 2006-10-17.]

In October 2006, Turkish president Ahmet Necdet Sezer refused to allow the wearing of headscarves at a ball marking Turkish independence, saying it would "compromise" and undermine the secular state founded by Kemal Atatürk. [ [ Turkey in veil controversy] . "Asia News". 2006-10-30.]

On February 7, 2008, the Turkish Parliament passed an amendment to the constitution, allowing women to wear the headscarf in Turkish universities, arguing that many women would not seek an education if they could not wear the hijab. [Ayman, Zehra; Knickmeyer, Ellen. [ Ban on Head Scarves Voted Out in Turkey: Parliament Lifts 80-Year-Old Restriction on University Attire] . "The Washington Post". 2008-02-10. Page A17.] [Derakhshandeh, Mehran. [ Just a headscarf?] "Tehran Times". Mehr News Agency. 2008-02-16.] [Jenkins, Gareth. [ Turkey's Constitutional Changes: Much Ado About Nothing?] "Eurasia Daily Monitor". The Jamestown Foundation. 2008-02-11.] [ [ Turkish president approves amendment lifting headscarf ban] . "The Times of India". 2008-02-23.] The decision was met with powerful opposition and protests from secularists. On June 5, 2008, the Constitutional Court of Turkey reinstated the ban on constitutional grounds of the secularity of the state. Headscarves had become a focal point of the conflict between the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) and the secularist establishment, which includes the courts, universities, and army. The ruling was widely seen as a victory for Turks who claim this maintains Turkey's separation of state and religion.

ee also

* Multiculturalism
* Eurabia
* Muslims in Western Europe
* Women in Muslim societies
* Islam and clothing
* Hijab controversy in Quebec


External links

* [ VEIL Project] - Values, Equality and Differences in Liberal Democracies. Debates about Muslim Headscarves in Europe (University of Vienna)
* [ Headscarf defeat riles French Muslims] from BBC News
* [ Q&A: Muslim headscarves] from BBC News
* [ Judge Rules Philadelphia Police Can Ban Head Scarves] from
* [ Shabina Begum case: School wins Muslim dress appeal] (March 22, 2006)
* [ Wrong from Head to Toe] - Theodore Dalrymple
* [ Islamism in Europe] - Mark Steyn
* [ The Veil and the British Male Elite]
* [ Behind the Scarfed Law, There is Fear] - Alain Badiou
* [ The Islamic veil across Europe(BBC)] -How approaches to the Muslim veil differ across Europe.

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