Veiling ban in Belgium: It is all about the State

The bill proposing a ban on the niqab or the kind of Muslim veil that covers the entire face, passed by the lower house of the Belgian parliament, is not really about religion, crime or even immigration. It is about the primacy of state interests over individual preference.

James Scott in his Seeing like a State argues that modern governments need their populations to be “legible” or transparent. In the UK, it has gotten so you cannot go so much as 50 miles without being photographed on closed circuit television.

The state interest is often asserted in niqab debates by arguing that the police have to know who it is they have pulled over for a moving vehicle violation. Of course that the anonymous citizen is an “other” and coded as dangerous, makes state knowledge of the individual all the more imperative.

That it is not a purely east-west issue or Christian-Muslim one is easy to show. First of all, I would estimate the majority of Muslim women in the world does not veil at all in the sense of consistently covering the hair or face, and there is dispute among historians as to whether it is even required in Qur’anic law. In Pakistan until the last couple of decades, most women contented themselves with wearing a neck scarf that fell on their chest, called a dupatta, but wore no head covering. But certainly virtually no mainstream Sunni or Shiite clerical authority requires the niqab or the full-face covering, which is a sign either of Salafi or Wahhabi extreme puritanism or of Gulf origins and culture. I shouldn’t think more than .02 % of Muslim women in the world wears the niqab, and the biggest absolute number would be in Saudi Arabia alone.

Muslim states also have intervened in women’s dress, for various purposes, from security to the promotion of ‘state feminism’ as a project of governmental shaping of citizens. Turkey bans not only the full face veil but even just headscarves on public property, e.g. schools.

Likewise, in 2007, Tajikistan forbade any veiling in public places Of course, in the Soviet period the Muslim-heritage Central Asian Soviet Socialist Republics insisted that women give up the veil. (See the footnotes for works of Northrop and Kamp on this issue, regarding the Hujum or public state-sponsored renunciation of the veil in Stalinist Uzbekistan). Again, this move was a way of asserting the primacy of the state in a region where kinship and traditional elites such as the clergy presented strong rivals to government authority. And the Soviet state was a jealous state.

In Egypt in the past few years, the rector of al-Azhar Seminary (among the foremost such centers of Muslim religious study) has forbidden the full-face veil..

Al-Azhar takes this step because its faculty are mainstream Sunnis, and they fear more radical forms of Islam, such as the Salafi refomists or puritanical Wahhabis, many of whom insist that women wear the full face veil. There is something of a rivalry between Gulf lifeways and those of the Levant, as well (many Gulf women and/or their families prefer the niqab, while it is rare in the Mediterranean). So in the Muslim world a ban on veiling has lots of potential meanings, from sectarian competition to a state preference for secularism.

Amnesty International and some Muslim organizations protested the ban as an infringement against individual liberty.

In a way, they are right. This struggle is a way for the state and major social institutions to inscribe themselves on the bodies of women, the very citizens who produce other citizens.

14 Responses

  1. The state makes all sorts of rulings with respect to a womans body and/or a womans soveriegnty that are different from men. Some have to do with the states general interest in population regulation (whether the normal case, towards growth, as in state funding for viagra and state prohibitions on abortion, even in the case of rape or incest, or the opposite case where states get involved with forced sterilization, whether due to eugenics or just over-population concerns). More generally, it all has to do with patriarcal societies treatment of women as property. Supposedly, there are even states where a women can’t be out and about without being in the company of a male relative!

  2. I think this is definitely true, but it cannot be denied that in Belgium and France the anti-veiling position is motivated by a good dose of xenophobia as well.

    • Sure, Rose, it is obviously wrought up with Islamophobia. But my point is that the niqab is also banned in many Muslim-majority countries and is controversial in Sunni Muslim Egypt, so it is more than that.

  3. Im just hoping it gets challeneged in the EC. The state might want to see who we are but there are other methods of going about it.

  4. It is mostly xenophobia and an electoral argument for the populist right. In some countries, like in the case of the Belgium bill, there is conjunction of right wing parties acting on the ground of xenophobia and of left who wants to change the subordinated situation of women.
    There is no real need for any law prohibiting the veil. In some countries, there are already administrative rulings requesting that women don’t wear anything hiding their face on the identity picture of their driving license or their passort. That yes, is justified by state imperative, but there is absolutely no need to issue a law to that effect. It is just deputies looking for reelection at the expanses of strangers : the right wing will say it has done something to fight the invasion of Muslims and in order to reaffirm our christian values; the left wings will say they are defending the freedom of women.

  5. ref: “a way for the state and major social institutions to inscribe themselves [via costume/fashion dictates and/or mandates] on the bodies of women” in public places. What an fascinating, (and provocative) blogpost, professor Cole. Indeed the more we generalize it; e.g., take away “Islamophobia,” or even gender specificity ~ the more interesting this whole topic: ‘clothing as an extension = expression of public or private identity’, becomes.

  6. Similar legal issues are raised in the U.S. by anti-masking laws principally aimed at the Ku Klux Klan, also a politically and religiously reactionary group. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit upheld a New York anti-masking statute as recently as 2004. As the legal and political issues are so similar, I am surprised it is never brought up.

  7. Also apropos here:

    link to google.com

    As far as I could tell, it received very little publicity in the West although Bangladesh has the fourth largest Muslim population in the world.

  8. There are some mistakes in this otherwise excellent article.
    1. Niqab was very common in India/Pakistan/Bangladesh during the early part of the 20th century. It became less common in major cities after the sixties but continued to be abserved in smaller towns and in Pashtun and Baloch areas. It is not related to wahabism or salafi movement. The resurgence (if one can call it that) is mostly related to the women asserting their right to follow their religion as they deem fit. Often, against the wishes of their more ‘moderate’ husbands.
    2. The Egyptian sheikh simply protested against teh use of niqab inside the all women seminary, he never suggested a general ban of the practice.

    • Niqab was not common in early twentieth century British India, as is quite obvious if you look at street scene photographs and paintings of urban crowds. In fact, most Indian Muslim women went bareheaded.

      The Mufti of Egypt has asked niqab-wearing women in general audiences he was addressing to take it off, so the disapproval goes beyond wearing it seminary, and anyway if you can’t wear it in seminary, why wear it in lay circumstances?

      • You are confusing two different Egyptian individuals: the late Sheikh al-Azhar (theological seminary as well as a system of elementary and secondary schools), Mohamed Sayyed Tantawi and The Grand Mufti of Egypt, Sheikh Ali Gomaa, who presides over the Dar al-Iftaa’ (Egypt’s supreme body for Islamic legal edicts). These two men have/had very different personalities; Tantawi was known to blow a gasket at times, and Gomaa is mild-mannered and balanced.

        Tantawi said that he “intended” to ban the niqab in the schools, not the university, but never did. The female university students would never have countenanced a ban on the niqab.
        “I intend to issue a regulation to ban the niqab in Al-Azhar schools,” he said. “No student or teacher will be allowed into the school wearing the niqab.”
        Read more: link to islamonline.net

        Sheikh Ali Gomaa is too smart to mess with that issue on a nation-wide basis, whether he disagrees with niqab or not.

  9. I think the need to have at least some sort of face recognition in public is entirely reasonable, and therefore I would support at least the theory that is given here to justify the ban.

    However, there are many other types of face covering, such as costume masks, avante-garde fashion, safety gear like helmets, or winter headgear. These would have to be included in any such ban. Otherwise, it can only be understood as a case of xenophobia.

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