Lawyers and critics now say that in light of coronavirus, legal arguments against the burqa ban are much weaker and that it’s time to put an end to the criminalisation of women who choose to cover their faces in public.
For Karima Rahmani and other Muslim women who wear the niqab in Holland, verbal or physical attacks by people opposed to their religious clothing are a regular occurrence.
After more than a decade of a highly politicised discussion, a so-called burqa ban came into effect in Holland last year, prohibiting women from covering their faces in certain public spaces, including government buildings, schools, hospitals and on public transport. The government says the bans are needed to encourage integration and are necessary for public safety reasons. Similar arguments have been used to implement bans in various European nations, including France, Belgium, Denmark, Austria, as well as to place restrictions in parts of Germany.
Yet with the coronavirus pandemic leading to mandatory mask measures, lawyers and critics are now saying that in light of these rules, legal arguments against the burqa are much weaker, and that it’s time to put an end to a discussion that they say has criminalised women who choose to cover their faces in public.
Rahmani, who lives in the central Dutch city Utrecht, told TRT World: “The government said we have to have a burqa ban because it would be safer for people in Holland, even though there hasn't been one incident committed by a woman in a niqab in the country. The problem is that it’s actually made things worse for women like me who wear the niqab. It’s common for me to be sworn at while grocery shopping and it’s worse for women who don’t live in the big cities. So even though the argument was to make society safer, society has become more dangerous for women who have been affected by the ban.”
In 2014, London-based lawyer, Satvinder Juss, represented a French Muslim woman at the European Court of Human Rights who was seeking to appeal the ban in her home country. While the court agreed with some of the arguments, including on public safety and gender equality, she ultimately lost on the idea of “living together”. He told TRT World that the mask rules make the burqa bans significantly less defensible.
He said: “The interesting thing is that we lost the case on narrow ground - that there is an interest in “living together”. What that means is that there's normal social intercourse, where there's verbal communication and non-verbal communication. So even if I don't understand what X is saying to me, if I look into their face, I can make sense of that, so non-verbal communication is very important. The other side argued that governments have to help everyone integrate, it wasn't just a question of security and equality, and that’s what they won on.
“Now, of course, this comes full circle because suddenly with COVID-19 states are saying that they need to have facial masks. So out goes through the window all arguments about the right to look into people's faces and around integration. It becomes impossible now to defend this. The whole of the lower part of the face is covered by a mask, which is the same with the niqab.”
Nadija Samour is a Berlin-based lawyer and activist who last year defended a woman who was prohibited from wearing her niqab while sitting for university exams in Kiel, north Germany - this was a case they won out of court.
She added: “It’s this bigoted situation where everyone seems to agree that masks are helpful and obligatory and should be worn now during the corona crisis. But at the same time, it just sheds light on how ridiculous and unfounded the arguments, which are supposedly meant to justify the burqa bans, are.”
With mandatory mask rules coming into effect on public transport in Holland from 1 June, Rahmani and the more than 70-plus women who form part of Blijf van mijn Niqaab af (Don’t Touch my Niqab), an organisation that has been working to challenge the law, have since written a letter to the government in which they have laid out where they see conflict between the mask rules and the ban, and where they challenge the argument around integration for women who are born and raised in Holland. They have also called on the government to withdraw the legislation.
Between sexism and racism
TRT World spoke to Dutch authorities about what the mask rules mean for the ban - and whether a woman wearing a niqab would be required to take it off if on public transport, only to replace it with a mask to keep in line with the corona rules.
A spokesperson for the Ministry of the Interior said that amid the mask rules, the law around face coverings is still in effect.
“But the law also knows a ground of exemption. If certain clothing is necessary to protect the body for health or safety reasons, the law is not applicable. As long as it is obligated to wear a mouth mask in public transportation, the law is not in force. The law remains in effect in other government buildings and schools.” the spokesperson added.
Yet for critics of the bans, it’s not just laws they want to see withdrawn - many are calling for a shift in media and political discourse that they say has led to discrimination. According to Meld Islamofobie (Report Islamophobia), a Dutch organisation that has been recording incidents against Muslims in Holland since 2015, there have been more than 400 registered reports of Islamophobic attacks during the past five years. It’s a figure that includes physical or verbal attacks against women that have occurred in broad daylight and committed particularly by white men..
Samour said: “The bans are the avatar of the intersection between sexism and racism. It is the state dictating what part of the body should be uncovered and the state dictating that the Muslim identity does not fall under the constitutional right to religious freedom.
“The number of women who cover their faces is so marginal and yet, there's this entire focus on them. The subtext is that these women who are wearing the niqab are the scapegoats in anti-Muslim racism because they are acting differently. I think it’s time for states to forget about this topic, leave the women alone and focus on real issues like racist police violence, for example.”
Emboldened by the latest developments triggered by the corona pandemic, Rahmani and Juss are now among those exploring the legal avenues in which they can push for the bans to be withdrawn.
Rahmani added: “We are expecting a negative response to our letter but we are working with lawyers so are not alone in this. We are living in a society where nearly everyone is covering their faces and maybe this brings us closer together. My hope is that we can now have an open conversation about this subject ,and look again at the arguments that they have put on table, because it doesn’t make sense anymore.”