From ‘hijab’ ban to mandatory face covering

Hijab is the face-covering traditionally worn by many Muslim women. However, legislation against ‘hijab’ (face veils) has grown increasingly common in Europe.

Hijab ban in European countries

It started with France which in 2011 became the first European country to introduce a nationwide ban. It was followed by Belgium, Bulgaria, Austria, Germany and Denmark. The latest is the Netherlands, which voted in June to partially ban face veils in locations such as schools and hospitals, but not on public streets. Several other European countries, including Spain and Italy, have banned them in individual cities and towns.

Ireland Prime Minister Leo Varadkar, however, ruled out a burqa ban in Ireland, saying “I don’t like it but I think people are entitled to wear what they want to wear. […] I believe in the freedom of religion. I don’t agree with the doctrine of every religion or necessarily any religion, but I do believe in the freedom of religion.”

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Other countries which banned burqa

Other nations that have banned the burqa are Tajikistan, Latvia, Cameroon, the Republic of the Congo, Gabon, Morocco, China and Sri Lanka.

Hijab in Muslim world

In the Indonesian Aceh province, Muslim women are required to wear the hijab and all women are required to wear burqa or abaya in Iran.

Chad is the only Muslim-majority nation so far to have outlawed religious face coverings. Kosovo, Azerbaijan, Tunisia and Turkey are the Muslim-majority countries which have banned the hijab in public schools and universities or government buildings, while Syria and Egypt banned face veils in universities from July 2010 and 2015 respectively. Turkey is officially a secular state, and the hijab was banned in universities and public buildings until late 2013. The ban was first in place during the 1980 military coup, but the law was strengthened in 1997. There has been some unofficial relaxation of the ban under governments led by the AKP in recent years.

Justifications for ban on face veils

Common justification given for the ban is that face veils conceal the identity of the wearer, posing a security threat. In 2016, Vaira Vike-Freiberga, the former president of Latvia, told the New York Times that “covering one’s face in public at a time of terrorism presents a danger to society. … You could carry a rocket launcher under your veil. It’s not funny.” Debating the face-veil bill in Denmark, Justice Minister Soren Pape Poulsen contended that a person concealing her face was “disrespectful” to others and “incompatible with the values in Danish society.” Schröter is a noted critic of Islamic veils argues that the veil restricts a woman’s freedom and usually comes with a bundle of restrictions. Taslima Nasrin, a Bangladeshi-Swedish writer, calls for the burqa “to be banned across the globe” because that will allow Muslim women “to move around without having to carry around a mobile prison at all times as punishment for having been born as female”.

Coronavirus pandemic and face covering

Situation took a new turn in 2020 after the outbreak of coronavirus pandemic around the globe. The epidemic forced people to cover their faces in the way conservative Muslim women use to cover theirs. In an attempt to slow down the spread of the novel coronavirus, an increasing number of countries have made wearing face masks mandatory in public spaces. The World Health Organization (WHO) recommends the use of medical masks for sick people, those with COVID-19 symptoms, health workers, people caring for suspected or confirmed cases, people aged 60 and over, and those with underlying health conditions. Fabric masks have been recommended for the general public where there is a risk of widespread community transmission and physical distancing is difficult. The Robert Koch Institute (RKI) said covering the mouth and nose can trap infectious droplets that are expelled when the wearer is speaking, coughing or sneezing. The United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) advises the use of “simple cloth face coverings” made from common household materials to slow the spread of the virus and prevent asymptomatic people from transmitting it to others.

Keeping in view the pandemic, the countries that have made use of face masks in public mandatory are Venezuela, Vietnam, Czech Republic, Slovakia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Colombia, the United Arab Emirates, Cuba, Ecuador, Austria, Morocco, Turkey, El Salvador, Cameroon, Angola, Benin, Burkina Faso, Equatorial Guinea, Ethiopia, Gabon, Guinea, Kenya, Liberia, Rwanda, Sierra Leone, Zambia, Israel, Argentina, Poland, Luxembourg, Jamaica, Germany, Bahrain, Qatar, Gulf state, Honduras, Uganda, Spain, Italy and the list goes on. France which was the first country to ban face veil also made the use of face masks in public mandatory on May 10.

People around the world are using face masks to prevent coronavirus from spreading. But long before the outbreak of COVID-19, women in Asian countries especially in India irrespective of their religion wore head scarves covering mouth and nose to protect themselves from sunburn and pollution.

Other benefits

According to a report, in Asian nations such as China, Taiwan or Hong Kong, masks were relatively common even before the coronavirus pandemic because of either pollution or previous experience with the SARS and H1N1 outbreaks.

Veiling the virus and the gaze

The situation provides food for thought. If covering head and face has been recommended in Islam, could it be for the benefit of mankind themselves? Practicing Muslim women feel the same way. They say that the head and face covering not only protects them from the harmful rays and viruses but also veils the gaze.

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