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.
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.