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EU governments walk fine line in veil debate

As traditionally Christian Europe becomes increasingly concerned about Islamic extremism, the Muslim headscarf has alarmed politicians and residents alike.'s Rachel Elbaum reports.
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LONDON — Take a walk in any major Western European city and you will doubtless see dozens of women wearing a headscarf — many more than on the streets of most American cities.

But as traditionally Christian Europe becomes increasingly concerned about Islamic extremism, this outward religious sign has alarmed politicians and residents alike. The headscarf and other forms of dress for Muslim women become subject to local and state government reviews every so often and the continent’s politicians rarely shy from commenting on the issue when the opportunity arises.

, students in England could be banned from wearing full-face Muslim veils, also called the niqab, for security or educational reasons, officials said.

Three years ago, secular France, home to 6 million Muslims, started the debate when it banned symbols of religion in schools — including large Christian crosses and the Jewish skullcap. But the real target of the law was the Muslim headscarf.

"I feel that wearing any kind of symbol that ostensibly shows faith, I feel that that is something that should not be allowed in schools and colleges,” Chirac said in an address to the nation in December 2003. “If we are talking about a star of David, the hand of Fatima or a small cross, those are acceptable, but when it's very obvious, in other words, when if they are worn people can immediately see what religious faith they belong to, that should not be accepted."

Mass protests broke out across the country but the government’s hope of curbing extremism was stronger than the opposition.

'Mark of separation'
Back then, other Western European nations scoffed at France. But quickly the issue spread across to Germany, Britain, the Netherlands, Belgium, Sweden, Italy.

The most recent salvos have centered not on the headscarf but on the full-face covering worn by a minority of Muslim women.

In some Belgian cities, full-face coverings are banned, and the government in the Netherlands has discussed similar legislation.

Britain’s former foreign secretary Jack Straw touched off a media storm this past October when he wrote in his local newspaper: “…I felt uncomfortable about talking to someone 'face-to-face' who I could not see.

"So I decided that I wouldn't just sit there the next time a lady turned up to see me in a full veil, and I haven't.

"Now, I always ensure that a female member of my staff is with me. I explain that this is a country built on freedoms. I defend absolutely the right of any woman to wear a headscarf. As for the full veil, wearing it breaks no laws.

"I go on to say that I think, however, that the conversation would be of greater value if the lady took the covering from her face.”

Days later, Prime Minister Tony Blair echoed his ex-minister’s comments, calling the niqab a “mark of separation.”

Then the Italians weighed in.

"You can't cover your face. If you have a veil, fine, but you must be seen," said Prime Minister Romano Prodi said, adding: "This is common sense I think, it is important for our society. It is not how you dress but if you are hidden or not."

So intense is the debate in Europe that even a Vatican official commented on the issue, saying that "guests who arrive from a different culture must respect the traditions, the symbols, the culture, the religion of the countries they go to.”

Reaction to latest proposal
In England, many women who wear the full-face veil don't have a problem taking it off while in class or in a professional environment.

"I am hoping to become a midwife and... the rule is that I will have to take it off," said Tohura Khatun, 19,  who said she also removes her veil in the classroom. "That’s the only time I’ll take it off."

Khatun has worn the full-face veil since she was in elementary school and it was part of her uniform.

"It doesn't seem like anything different to me," she said.

Though tensions between European Muslims and their governments ebbs and flows, the debate on governments' right to legislate religious dress will undoubtedly continue in the years to come.