by Michelle Brooks
Recent reporting of the debate on banning the burkha in Belgium has highlighted widespread anxiety over legislating against women who choose to follow this cultural practice. It is proposed that on the first offence women will be fined a small sum of money, however in the second instance women will be imprisoned for a number of days.
Taking into account the relatively miniscule number of women who wear the veil in Belgium, the government risks curbing the harmless practices of a few whilst offending millions across Europe, not just in the Muslim population. The major reason for this bill, which has cross-party support, appears to be security concerns, creating a potentially harmful link in the public consciousness between Muslim women and terrorism. There are many reasons a woman may choose to cover her face in public, commonly in the Muslim world the reason is modesty and the protection of familial social capital.
Much ethnographical research has been done in Geography on issues surrounding the veil and its use in the United Kingdom but notably not so in Belgium. The conflation of the veil and Islam is erroneous in that the veil does not originate in the Muslim world but is a ‘borrowed’ Greek Christian Byzantine tradition adopted during the rapid expansion of the Muslim empire in the 7th century. It is too simplistic to read the use of the veil as symbolic of oppression in every instance though in some countries this is undoubtedly the case. However, in Europe we cannot afford to be so sure each time, as geographical empirical research has repeatedly shown the veil to be amongst other things, a tool of strategic essentialism in which women invest meanings relating to their identity (Dwyer 1999, Mohammad 1999, Gale 2007). Here in the United Kingdom for the moment a ban on the burkha seems unlikely, indeed, based on recent social policy it is more likely to be taxed!
See BBC News story
See article by Richard Gale in Geography Compass