On May 7, the Taliban introduced a new law that makes wearing of the burka, a traditional garment that covers the entire body with just a grille for the eyes, compulsory for women in Afghanistan. The new law follows the shuttering of secondary schools for girls in March. These actions demonstrate that the Taliban’s promises to honor women’s rights when they seized power in August 2021 were empty. As fears about the dire future of Afghanistan turn into reality, the burka is poised, once again, to be a symbol of the Taliban’s brutality. For Muslim women in the West who freely choose to wear the burka or the niqab for religious reasons, the renewed focus on their clothing in the news does not bode well.
The COVID-19 pandemic revealed double standards that continue to shape Western policies. In 2020, some European countries instituted mask mandates in which everyone was unidentifiable in public. Concerns about security, often cited as reasons for burka bans, were laid aside without consequence. People developed new communication skills specifically for mask-wearing context. Yet, the niqab, a face covering worn by some Muslim women for religious reasons, has been outlawed in seven European countries between 2010 and 2021: France, Belgium, Latvia, Bulgaria, Austria, Denmark, and Switzerland. Often incorrectly referred to as the “burka” in the media, the niqab has been portrayed as incompatible with “national values” and as a security risk. The pandemic mask-wearing demonstrated clearly that it is not the fact of face covering per se that troubles the European countries, but it is the Muslim face covering that is seen as the issue.
The notion of banning traditional Muslim clothing is not new. Restrictions placed on Muslim women’s clothing have long been central to nation-making. In 1936, the Iranian Shah Reza Pahlavi banned the hijab (the headscarf) as part of the “modernization” of the country. Turkey’s Mustafa Kemal Atatürk and Afghanistan’s King Amanullah never officially banned the hijab, but strongly discouraged its use in the 1920s and 1930s. These enforced regulations of Muslim women’s clothing were more than publicity stunts designed by authoritarian rulers to impress Western allies. While supported by some middle-class women, they exposed religious women who continued to cover to social ostracism, police brutality, and financial loss.
This coupling of state politics and women’s dress enforcement is by no means limited to the Middle East. The focus on banning the hijab played a key part in legitimizing the British colonial presence in Egypt and the French presence in Algeria. The goal to free Afghan women from the Taliban regime by sending white men to “save the brown women from brown men,” a phrase coined by postcolonial scholar Gayatri Chakraborti Spivak, was symbolized by the removal of the burka in the name of women’s rights. This disingenuous mission was communicated by Laura Bush in her famous radio address when she said that the “fight against terrorism is also a fight for the rights and dignity of women.”
The blunt notion that women who cover their faces must be forced to do so due to gender-regressive beliefs of their menfolk manifested itself in a legal prohibition of face covering in France in 2010. The “burqa ban” was hailed as a challenge to perceived gender inequality experienced by French Muslim women and so, at face value, it was supposed to protect the women from gender discrimination.
Notably, the French government admitted in a public statement that face coverings can be voluntary, demonstrating its full awareness that the ban may be limiting the agency of Muslim women. Several women interviewed in the media announced that they planned to limit their appearances in public to avoid fines, because wearing the niqab became criminalized. In addition to a fine of 150 euros, those who violate the ban by entering public spaces with their faces covered may be ordered to participate in citizen education with the implication that expression of religious belief in public is incompatible with the notion French citizenship.
Some have argued that this intervention in personal religious practice is unconstitutional. Laïcité, a French principle that firmly prevents religious involvement in government affairs, also prohibits government influence in the determination of religion. However, the argument that the burka is compromising secularism has been inconsistent. Former French President Sarkozy said: “The issue of the burqa is not a religious issue, it is a question of freedom and of women’s dignity.” Many scholars and activists argued that the French version of Islamophobia, concealed as political secularism, is just a way of legitimizing anti-Muslim racism. French Muslim women who wear the niqab disagreed with the gender equality framing of the ban, saying that it is the limitations of their sartorial choices that impinges on their freedom. Some even brought a case against France to the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR), which upheld the ban. Notably, there are exceptions in the law that allow face covering “for health or professional reasons, or if it is part of sporting activities, parties or artistic or traditional events.”
Research has demonstrated that legislation prohibiting the niqab has a profoundly detrimental effect on the lives of women who wear it. Hate crimes against them, now shown as strongly correlated to the French bans, soared; women who already faced discrimination in the labor market were further pushed out of employment and effectively imprisoned at home where they stayed out of fear of attacks or fines. A 2020 study found that the hijab ban at French public schools hindered female Muslim students’ educational achievements. The women I interviewed for my book, Wearing the Niqab: Muslim women in the UK and the US, said that they experienced increased Islamophobic harassment and discrimination every time the burka or the niqab was spotlighted in the news.
Belgium, a country bordering France, banned face coverings in July 2011. The ban was presented as protecting national security, the nebulous principle of “living together,” and women’s rights. Offenders violating the ban began to face a fine of 15 to 20 euros and up to seven days in jail. Similar to France, two Muslim women brought a case against Belgium to the ECHR and lost. In a striking similarity to France, face coverings worn during Carnival and Christmas events were exempt from the ban. While in France the main argument justifying the ban was related to protecting women’s rights, in Belgium the burka ban was introduced primarily on the grounds of protecting the social order and “national values.” It was widely implied that national values have to reflect an outdated vision of a homogenous, white Europe. Marino Keulen, Belgian Minister for Integration, said that the niqab belonged in Pakistan and Afghanistan, and could not be “tolerated” in Belgium.
The argument that the niqab and burka are offensive or intimidating to the general public is does not provide solid grounds for a ban given that different people may be offended or intimidated by different cultural expressions that are nevertheless allowed to be practiced. Keulen’s statement refers to another charge against the niqab and burka, that of impeding communication. Both issues, that of alignment with national cultures and of interpersonal communication gained traction in other parts of Europe such as the U.K. where the ban was proposed in 2010 by conservative politicians. When I spoke with a niqab-wearing woman from Scotland, she said that the reason why the niqab is seen as incompatible with Britishness is because “colonial Britishness” is used as a benchmark for integration. “It takes the colonial white Anglo-Saxon male view of life as the norm… anything outwith is deviant,” she added.
It is not a coincidence that the first two countries in Europe to introduce a full ban on face covering have brutal colonial pasts. Belgium ruthlessly exploited inhabitants and lands of today’s Democratic Republic of Congo; France once controlled a third of the African territory, including Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia, using torture and committing civilian massacres to subdue the local populations. Most French Muslims today originate from France’s former colonies; the French “burka ban” could be reasonably conceived as not only furthering marginalization of the female Muslim population in the country but, in a perverse way, as continuing to wield political control over a formerly colonized people. The recent presidential election in which the centrist president Emmanuel Macron defeated the populist, anti-immigrant candidate Marine Le Pen illustrates the exclusion and dearth of political allies Muslim women face in France today. While Macron opposed Le Pen’s pledge to ban the hijab, which is much more common than the niqab, a Muslim candidate representing Macron’s LREM party was barred from running in a local election after she was photographed wearing a hijab for a campaign flyer. Actions, as always, speak louder than words.
The 2015 “refugee crisis” during which thousands of people from the Middle East and North Africa fleeing war braved the waters of the Mediterranean Sea to reach the safety of Southern Europe redefined the justifications given for burka bans. Muslims across Europe were vilified in the media as attempting to “Islamize” Europe, and refugees were called terrorists. Latvia, Bulgaria, Austria, and Denmark introduced their face-covering bans between 2016-2018.
In the United States, the niqab has been less scrutinized by lawmakers, although there has been an attempt to introduce a ban on face covering at the state level. A republican state lawmaker in Georgia proposed and later abandoned a bill that was an extension of an already existing legislation that targeted Ku-Klux-Klan masks. As Daniel Shaffer argues, a burka ban such as the European legislation would be virtually impossible to introduce in the U.S. due to the First Amendment and the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA). It does not mean, however, that the right to wear the niqab is undisputed in the United States. In my book, I address two legal cases brought by niqab-wearing women who were forced to take off the niqab by a DMV official and a judge. The women I interviewed described at length the discrimination and harassment they experience in public, in workplaces, and in education.
Anti-Muslim sentiments and the associated moral panic is expressed in the United States in a different way than in Europe. Rather than ban a garment worn by a small fraction of Muslim women, several American state legislatures have passed absurd “anti-Sharia laws.” These laws are legally pointless because the Constitution explicitly denies authority to any foreign law. Many more bills of a similar nature were introduced by the initiative of anti-Muslim think-tanks, primarily the Center for Security Policy. Their aim was to put a hostile spotlight on Islam and Muslims. Just as the burka bans target European Muslims, “anti-Sharia laws” are meant to frame American Muslims as invaders and foreign agents whose mission is “Islamization” of the country, its culture, and its courts.
Now, the new burka-enforcing Taliban diktat in Afghanistan is likely to overshadow the fact that women who wear face coverings in the West do so for religious reasons and out of their own will. Enforcing and banning women’s choices about what they wear flow from the same root idea: paternalism towards women. By targeting mostly non-white women who want to cover their faces, the governments who ban face coverings may have more in common with the Taliban than they want to admit.
Anna Piela is a visiting scholar at the department of religious studies at Northwestern University. Her research interests are primarily Islam and gender. She is currently a primary investigator on an American Academy of Religion-funded project on racial identity performances of white Polish converts to Islam. Last year her book, Wearing the Niqab: Muslim Women in the UK and the US, was published by Bloomsbury Academic. Follow her work at her website and on Twitter @annapiela999.