Earlier this month, Tunisia banned the wearing of the niqab (a religious veil covering all but the eyes) in government offices following recent reports that terrorists have been using the religious garment as a disguise. This is not the first time in recent history that religious veiling has been banned, in Tunisia or elsewhere, but rather the latest in a decade-long trend of ‘burqa bans’ and other limitations on religious freedom and expression in public places in many different countries and regions. 

In 2015 the Muslim-majority country Chad banned the full veil following two suicide bomb attacks, citing security concerns similar to those expressed by Tunisian officials this year. Cameroon also banned the Islamic face veil after suicide bombings in 2015. 

Although Muslim women have been the most widely affected by the various bans, limitations on religious-wear and symbols in public have also affected those of other faiths.

Last month Quebec passed a law known as Bill 21 prohibiting certain public employees such as teachers, civil servants, and police officers from wearing religious symbols at work, including Muslim veils, Jewish skullcaps, Skikh turbans and any other religous headwear. Supporters of the bill claim that it protects secularity within Quebecois society. However, the ban has faced strong opposition, including challenges to its constitutionality. Lawyer Catherine McKenzie claims the bill “amounts to criminal legislation by seeking to regulate religion for a moral purpose,” according to the Montreal Gazette

Quebec’s Bill 21 follows in the steps of their fellow French-speakers in Europe. In April 2011, France became the first European country to ban the full-face Islamic veil in any public place outside of the home, imposing a fine upon violators. In 2018 the Huffington post reported  that the UN Human Rights Committee declared “France’s ban on the niqab and burqa is a violation of Muslim women’s rights,” finding unpersuasive the claim that the ban was for security reasons.

The trend of banning religious headwear in public spaces has spread across Europe over the past decade. Belgium outlawed any clothing that obscures one’s face in public spaces in 2011, with a fine similar to France’s in place for violation of the law. The Netherlands approved a partial ban on the full veil in schools, hospitals and on public transport in 2015, also citing public security concerns as the basis for the law. Austria’s ruling coalition agreed to prohibit full-face veils in public spaces such as courts and schools in 2017. 

At the heart of the contentious debate over these regulations is the question of balance between religious freedom of expression and public security. Muslim women, disproportionately affected by the laws, are perceived as a security threat by merely adhering to the teachings of their religious faith. 

This stems from a broader debate, which has grown louder in the years since 9/11, regarding the veiling of Muslim women in Western society: European cultures often perceive covered Muslim women as oppressed by their dress, insisting they should be “protected” through un-veiling. Many see the face veil as a symbol of Islamic terrorism rather than an expression of personal religious faith, and without adequate representation among the powers proposing these laws, Islamic women will more often be forced to choose between practicing their faith and breaking the law.

Photo courtesy of Azamat-Zhanisov via Unsplash

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