Muslim Veils Prompt Bans Across Europe

Muslim veils prompt bans across Europe
By Elizabeth Bryant
October 23, 2006

PARIS — When Nora Labrak arrived at a private employment agency in the summer near the French city of Lyon, the first question she was posed was not about her resume.

“I was asked to remove my head scarf at the lobby,” Miss Labrak recalled in a telephone interview. When the 29-year-old refused, she was hustled to the door.

Long and short, sober black and brightly hued, the Muslim veil is drawing growing criticism in much of Europe. It has been chased from public schools in France and Belgium, and its strictest, face-concealing variation, the niqab, has been outlawed in a smattering of European towns.

Even in multicultural Britain, the niqab has sparked ferocious debate after the suspension of a Muslim teaching assistant and remarks by top government officials that the niqab encourages an unsettling social rift.

That debate began politely but has since grown ugly and rancorous, the chairman of Britain's Commission for Racial Equality said yesterday.

“We need to have this conversation, but there are rules by which we have the conversation which don't involve this kind of targeting and, frankly, bullying,” said Trevor Phillips in a British Broadcasting Corp. interview.

Feeding the controversy are a series of incidents pitting Europe's Muslim population against its Christian majorities: Last year's riots in France, the Danish cartoons of the prophet Muhammad, the slaying of Dutch filmmaker Theo Van Gogh, honor killings in Germany, terrorist attacks in Britain and Spain, and Europe-wide concerns about illegal immigration.

“There's a rise in Islamo-skepticism,” said Franck Fregosi, a specialist on Islam at France's National Center of Scientific Research. “There's a fear and tension that's installed in certain parts of the population, and I don't think it bodes well for the future.”

In Brussels, 41-year-old Nicole Thill shares that foreboding.

“I haven't had problems until now, but things are changing,” said Mrs. Thill, who converted to Islam and adopted the veil in 2001. “People's looks are increasingly hostile. And there's less and less respect. People don't mind jostling you on the street because, after all, you're only a veiled woman.”

A July survey by the Pew Research Center found most European Muslims did not sense hostility from non-Muslims. But a significant chunk — including 39 percent in France, 42 percent in Britain and 51 percent in Germany — reported otherwise.

Perhaps more than any other symbol, the veil sets Muslims apart. Worn by a minority of Muslim women in Europe, it is an easy target for stereotypes.

In interviews with a halfdozen veiled women in Europe, all said they braced themselves going out in public. Several cited the veil as a barrier to employment.

“I have some friends who agreed to take their head scarves off or to wear a bandana to get a job, but not by choice,” said Miss Labrak. She has filed charges against the job agency that expelled her from its premises, and is awaiting a court ruling.

European politicians critical of the veil cite the importance of integrating ethnic African, Arab and Turkish immigrant populations. That was the message behind French legislation two years ago banning the head scarf and other religious symbols in public schools.

And it was one reason why Jan Creemers, mayor of the city of Maaseik in Belgium, outlawed wearing the face-concealing niqab in public earlier this year. Several Belgian towns have followed suit, while a number of Belgium public schools have banned students from wearing any kind of veil to class.

“We have many old people, and they were very afraid when they saw these women wearing the veil,” said Mr. Creemers. “It's very important in our town and in our Western culture that people see each other face to face.”

Public wearing of the niqab is similarly banned in Italy under anti-terrorist laws, which make it an offense to hide the face in public. In Germany, four states have outlawed public school teachers from wearing head scarves — a ban that applies to all civil servants in the German state of Hesse.

Women employed in the public sector in France also are barred from wearing veils at work. The legislation has drawn widespread support, including from many Muslims.

“If you're in Europe, you need to live according to European customs. Either you adapt or, if you want to wear Middle Eastern clothing, you leave,” said Khadija Khali, head of a French Muslim women's group. A practicing Muslim who has gone to Mecca five times, Mrs. Khali does not wear a veil.