Belgium: Government plans to ban the burqa

Constant stigmatisation of Muslim population

On 29 April, Belgium’s lower house of parliament voted for a law that would ban women from wearing the full Islamic face veil in public – the burqa (a loose garment, usually with veiled holes for the eyes, worn by Muslim women ). The law now goes to the Senate. If passed, the ban would be the first move of its kind in Europe. If the ban is eventually passed, women who defy it will be subject to fines of 15-25 euros and even 7 days in prison.

The French government is pressing for similar legislation and last weekend a German member of the European Parliament said a ban should be enforced across the EU.

The burqa is already banned by some local councils in the Netherlands and in Italy, and governments in both countries have discussed the possibility of prohibiting its wearing at a national level.

As a spokesperson from Human Rights Watch explained “They [the bans] violate the rights of those who choose to wear the veil and do nothing to help those who are compelled to do so”. While some women could face state harassment, others could find their homes become a total prison.

The wearing of the veil and other coverings can be a symbol of women’s oppression but there are also women in Europe, many of them young, who freely choose to wear the veil and for many different reasons, including expressing their identity and in opposition to religious and cultural oppression.

As the following articles explain, these bans have nothing to do with women’s rights but are being introduced by hypocritical governments as a diversion from the serious economic and social problems that their system has created.

As the crisis in Belgium hits more victims every day, while more and more families struggle to make ends meet, with a large majority of the population living in uncertainty about their future and that of their children, the establishment politicians are showing their "dynamism" by banning the burqa. They spend their time – and our money – in parliament – not finding solutions to increasing poverty, bankruptcies, workplace “restructurings”, layoffs, high rents and energy prices, or strengthening public services and health care (which are hardly accessible to low-income families). No, instead, they discuss and vote on a law concerning about 200 to 300 women in Belgium!

The Socialist Party of Struggle / Linkse Socialistische Partij (PSL/LSP) and the CWI is opposed to the imposition of dress codes for women and against any inequality in the legal position of women in general. In Iran, we support the resistance against the barbaric vision of women imposed by the state, and in Pakistan, our organisation has been campaigning for years against violence against women. We are not cultural relativists, and we believe that women – all over the world – have the right to economic independence, and to laws and social structures that give them the freedom to do what they want with their life and their body, despite what men from their families and their communities think about it.

In Belgium, 200 to 300 women wear the burqa, out of a total Muslim population estimated at between 400,000 and 650,000. This helps to show exactly what this law is about. These figures put the whole media campaign of defamation against "Islam" into its real context. The same reality is behind the mess that surrounds the author of Dutch origin, Benno Barnard. This anti-Islam crusader was due to give a lecture at the University of Antwerp under the name “Long live God, down with Allah” on 30 March, which was prevented from taking place by about 20 young people, linked to the ghostly website ‘Sharia4Belgium’ (which, according to ‘De Standaard’, has 89 members – eighty-nine!).

This was "unacceptable", "a serious threat to freedom of expression," said Benno Barnard: "Here, the Evil manifested itself. He wore a Saudi headscarf. "(‘De Standaard’, 03/04/2010). Antwerp city council has decided, on the request of the Mayor, Patrick Janssens, to initiate procedures against ‘Sharia4Belgium’. However, the same Patrick Janssens – like the other mayors of university cities where the students’ far-right organisation NSV is present – did not lift a finger when violent neo-fascists physically attacked meetings of anti-racist organisations!

The ban on the burqa concerns only a very small group of people who are in no way representative of the Muslim population in Belgium. But they are used as tools to stigmatize an entire community. The burqa issue, as well as the incident around Benno Barnard, was the pretext for a series of articles on "Muslims" who "are not capable of critical thinking" and must totally reject their religion to "fit" to our “democratic” society. When you are a Muslim you have a ‘problem’ with the separation between state and religion – this is the general gist of the comments. It is as if all Catholic people were made responsible for attacks by fundamentalist Catholics against abortion centres and abortion rights or for the Vatican’s campaign against contraception!

In Belgium, like most people, we find the burqa shocking. This is also the case for most Muslims. But the prohibition of the burqa has little or nothing to do with helping women to avoid oppression. Now those 200 to 300 women will probably just be forced to stay at home. However, the ban on burqa has everything to do with the stigmatisation of the Muslim community in Belgium. The “noble objectives” of the parties which have campaigned for this law are mainly based on the desire to win votes in the upcoming elections, by playing on prejudices against one of the weakest groups in society, socially and economically.

Socialists oppose Belgian burqa ban legislation

The PSL/LSP (CWI in Belgium) is therefore not in favour of the law against the burqa. It is not the role of the state to impose what religion people can practice, or how. The argument of “public safety” is also being put forward. Even without the existence of this law against the burqa, the police had already the right to demand proof of the identity of anyone suspected of being involved in a crime.

We affirm that religious freedom is an essential part of the right to free expression. This allows people the right to criticize religions and religious customs and practice but it also gives the right to Muslims to protest against the caricature that is made of the entire Muslim community. It also gives women the right to wear a burqa, if they wish. Muslim women should also have the right not to be coerced into wearing the burqa. But also if the burqa is imposed upon women by anyone – their fathers, their brothers or their husbands – these women do not gain anything from a ban on the burqa. If the intention was really to help these women, the politicians from the establishment would not vote for a law against the burqa, but would strengthen social services to help these women.

The current discussion by Belgian politicians does not address this point. This law, which was supported almost without any criticism by almost all the parties, is a further step in the stigmatisation of the Muslim community. Politicians try to divert attention away from their responsibilities, on issues such as structural unemployment, to save their friends in the banking sector (which allows them today to return to making big profits and to collect large bonuses). There is also the shortage of resources in the healthcare sector and in infrastructure throughout the country, as a result decades of neo-liberal policies and negligence.

Talking about the headscarf or the burqa is a convenient way to avoid mentioning the scandal that in “our democratic society”- supposedly based on “gender equality” – women earn, on average, only three quarters of the average wage of men. Women are two times more likely to be on temporary contracts. On the basis of their weakened social situation, women face sexual harassment and violence in the streets and in the family. In addition to this subordinate position of women, women from non-European countries have to bear a position subordinate even to male immigrants. In Belgium, according to a report by the OECD in November 2008, only one woman from non-European countries (or with both parents from non-EU countries) in three has a job. With the policies of the traditional parties, there will be no improvement in terms of economic independence, which is the basis for real emancipation.

It is not through a law against the burqa that the problem of women’s oppression will be solved, but through a common struggle for the right to a decent income for all; for the right to a good job with a good wage; for the right to affordable housing and to provide free basic services such as energy, transport, education, telecommunication, etc. This struggle must be combined with a resolute struggle against all forms of discrimination. The division systematically sown by the capitalist politicians and their media weakens the possibilities for the working class to achieve such a unified movement. That is the real purpose of the law against the burqa. That is the real purpose of the discussions on the ban on headscarves. That is the real objective of the overrepresentation of immigrants in the articles on crime in our newspapers. The message we want to give is this: we must not let our attention be diverted!

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May 2010