The Thin Veil of Islamophobia

Austria has become the latest European country to ban the burqa in public as Islamophobia’s rise shows no signs of dying down. Only 150 women wear the full face veil in Austria, and several have already been forced to remove their burqas in public. The Austrian government claim that the legislation is intended to protect “Austrian values”, whatever they are. The move follows similar bans across several European countries since 2011, with Denmark set to be next.

The women will be given a fine of €150 if they wear a burqa or niqab – Islamic clothes which cover the entire face apart from a thin slit around the eyes – in public places. It’s not only burqas that have been restricted, as clown masks and scarves around the face will also be banned at certain times. But don’t be fooled by that thin veil – pun intended. This legislation is a burqa ban in all but name.

Austria’s president, left-winger Alexander Van der Bellen has condemned the law, arguing that “it is every woman’s right to always dress how she wants.” He has also called on all Austrian women to wear the hijab as a sign of solidarity with Muslim women. The legislation was passed by the conservative Austrian People’s Party, which has swung further right in response to swelling support for the populist right Freedom Party. The party are predicted to take as much as 25% of the vote in the upcoming election on the 15th of October. Their candidate Norbort Hofer also came very close to winning last year’s Presidential election, but narrowly lost out to Van der Bellen.

The thing is, there are no upsides to this legislation if you actually like women. Either the women who wear the burqa have chosen to by themselves or they haven’t, and whichever one it is this law oppresses them. Women who have made the free decision to wear the burqa for religious reasons are being attacked in public and have had their clothing choices dictated to them. Unless that’s “Austrian values”, then this law fails to achieve the reason for which it was supposedly passed. Women who may have been forced by partners/ family members to wear the veil are not just about to rip them off and rejoice in their new found freedom. How can anyone really think that whoever is oppressing them will shrug and resign themselves to the law? What will likely happen instead is that these women will be confined to their houses and lose whatever freedom they did have. Carla Amina Bhagajati of the Islamic Religious Community in Austria has claimed that some affected women have been “restricted to their homes” – clearly a victory both for integrating women and freeing them from patriarchal oppression. So this law, and other “integration” policies will hurt women, but that fact isn’t important to its supporters. These measures were never intended to help Muslim women. Instead they’re a populist move pandering the rise in Islamophobia which is looming over Europe.

This specific policy is part of a wider parcel of policies that require asylum seekers to do unpaid work and attend classes on the German language, job applications and Austrian values. So vulnerable people, many of whom have had extremely traumatic experiences, are forced to work for free – like that’s in any way ethical – as well as the added pressure of formal classes in order to be even have their claims considered. And who’s to say that women who wear the burqa or niqab are not integrated in the societies they live in? I didn’t realise a person’s involvement in their communities was directly proportional to the percentage of face they show. Worries about integration overlook the fact that societies are always heterogeneous anyway, and that they evolve. While it’s essential to have programs like language classes available to people who want them, forcing people to comply to the myth of what people think their society is and should be is bullshit. We shouldn’t be trying to cram people into identical moulds but instead we need to embrace and adapt to cultural differences.

At the end of the day, if you don’t see what’s wrong with police officers approaching women in the street and forcing them to take off clothing, then I don’t know what to say to you. One form of oppression isn’t better than a potential other form just because it comes from so-called “progressive” societies. Regardless of whether you like the burqa or not, supporting women’s right to choose for themselves is fundamental in the struggle for equality.

[Louise Wylie – @WomanPendulum]

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