A few weeks ago, I was travelling back from Strasbourg to London by train, with a change to the cross-channel Eurostar service at Lille in northern France. At Lille station, travellers heading across the Channel to England face the expected security and passport check, as I did too. However, I wasn’t expecting to be told by a French police official at the desk, “Next time, you must remove your headscarf, in respect to security.”
As a British Muslim woman, I choose to wear the headscarf when I am in public and in Britain I have never been asked to remove it in this way; my headscarf certainly does not prevent anyone from identifying my face. So at Lille station, I felt frustrated, shocked, and violated by this unwarranted intrusion of officialdom.
That experience came back to my mind last week, when the European Court of Human Rights upheld France’s ban on women wearing the full-face veil in public. The court concluded that the ban could stand, on the grounds that the full-face veil somehow violates the principle of “living together.” So do we ethically accept this as the new right moral code?
If I was so disturbed by what happened to me at Lille station, how must a woman who chooses to wear full-face veil feel in France or Belgium, where she can be stopped and fined for her personal religious choice? Wasn’t the casual official comment at Lille on my decision to cover my hair, which so disturbed me then, now being officially somewhat directly and indirectly legitimized by the findings of Europe’s regional human rights court?
I am not a lawyer. But for me, the European court has sadly forsaken the nature of rights and justice in this ruling. A veiled friend of mine (who is a British white convert), reminded me how Europe prides itself on values such as freedom of expression, equality, and diversity. Yet for me, this judgement has become an absolute contradiction, setting my belief as an activist in the importance of human rights and democracy against my personal choice, in a decision that seems like an attack on my religion. It seems that whilst waving the flag of democracy, we are being drawn back to the Dark Ages under the shadows, where choice and personal identity must coincide with a select group of people who seem disconnected with the realities of Europe today.
Did the judges not stop to think about the wider implications beyond this particular case, and the message the ruling sends? The decision seems to vindicate the bigotry of those Europeans who perceive Islam as some kind of threat to their way of life. That in turn increases the real risk that thousands of Muslim women—and not just those who wear the full face veil—will face the threat of verbal or even physical aggression and abuse.
At a personal level, I feel a great sense of betrayal. As a Muslim in the UK, growing up in a hostile environment after the 9/11 attacks on the United States, I have sought through my social activism to overcome ignorance, both in terms of outsiders’ views of Islam, and in terms of misguided radicalism within my community. Sadly, this judgment strengthens the advocates of ignorance on both sides, fueling further conflict and resentment.
The extremists on both sides will not care about the legal niceties of the Strasbourg court decision: They will seize on this as evidence that Islam and Europe are deeply at odds.
Another veiled friend of mine expressed the view that the court ruling made her feel somehow incriminated, as if she had done something wrong by choosing to wear the veil. But despite this sense of disempowerment, women who choose to wear the veil (be it right or wrong within the understanding of Islam), commit to it with a strong conviction. So this judgement will not force them to remove it; rather it will isolate them. The veil is like a tool, as was explained to me by my veiled friend, where they can leave the house and engage with society, but without that right they will only become further secluded. So who or what is more oppressive?
My friend also made another point: that the supposed need to ban the full-face veil reflects an unhealthy obsession with how people should look. But surely, she argues, what is more important is what we say, and how we listen to each other. Maybe there lies a lesson for us all about what living together really means, as we consider how to respond to a court ruling that seems to have turned a deaf ear to the voices of individuals, for the sake of an ill-defined abstract concept.