Geography Compass

Lifting the veil on the ‘free world’

Muslim woman wearing the Niqab (Veil)

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


  1. It’s good to discuss this groundless legislation sweeping Europe. We all know picking on these women is an attack on the wider Muslim population.
    Security is of paramount importance but this may evoke more outrage, leading to genuine security threats.

  2. Sue, thanks for this, it certainly is good to discuss this issue, indeed this discussion has gone on for some time now in various Geographies and other disciplines. I am sure there are many individuals and international civil liberties organisations that share your concerns. Much research is being done around the UK to gather empirical information in our various communities which will hopefully lead to informed policy formation here.

    1. Jason, thanks for your comments. In some cases the veil facilitates engagement in the public sphere, without which these women may face seclusion.

  3. Hi Michelle,
    Good to point out the older and wider origins of veiling in ancient Europe. The veiling of women was historically quite widespread: it was expected of widows in Victorian Britain, and veiling or part-veiling was fashionable in several epochs, though detached from religious or moral sanction. Wearing a hat in public is a kind of throwback to partial veiling (of the hair).

  4. Thanks John, it is so important to see veiling as cultural or based in kinship traditions. There are an estimated 500,000 Muslims in Belgium only a small percentage of whom wear the Niqab (Veil). ‘North Atlantic Rim’ societies do tend to have a short memory in terms of the exportation of such customs. What was fashion here was often exported as of high moral standing, done in tandem with the exportation of Christianity. Indeed, this may be why we in the West, continue to view cultural dress codes through the lens of religion.

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