Protest against the burqa ban in Belgium. Wikimedia. Public domain.
“Chief of Protocol rips off face veil of Qatari princess.”
Thus ran the rather cryptic headlines of Belgian and international newspapers recently. The papers reported that the Brussels public prosecutor had launched an investigation into an incident in which a senior civil servant, specialised in protocol, had forcibly removed the face veil of a woman who turned out to be a Qatari princess (Sheikhah) visiting the Belgian capital.
The incident took place near Brussels’ famous Grand Place, where the veiled woman had asked for directions. In response, the off-duty civil servant reportedly answered that he refused to talk to anyone whose face he could not see. When no response seemed forthcoming, he tore the woman’s niqab off her face. The woman was injured in the process, by her earrings being ripped out.
Both the man and the woman filed charges with the police. The woman did so on the grounds of assault, while the man’s complaint was based on the fact that the woman wore a face veil, which is prohibited by Belgium’s ‘burqa ban’, enacted in 2011.
While wearing a face veil in public is indeed banned in Belgium, this kind of unauthorised private enforcement is, of course, unacceptable. The man could have refused to help the woman and he could even have reported her to the police, but ripping off her veil went several bridges too far.
Importantly, the case is not an isolated incident. It is striking how the burqa ban, much more than other prohibitions, seems to elicit or even encourage this sort of vigilantism.
The countless Belgians riding around without lights can safely assume that they will not suddenly be kicked off their bicycles. Likewise, urinating in public does not generally, if ever, lead to the culprit being tackled.
When it comes to the burqa ban however, this situation is quite different, even though the ban is a mere ‘infraction’ (the least serious class of offenses in Belgian criminal law). For a significant number of people the ban seems to amount to a justificatory background for taking the law quite literally into their own hands.
Empirical research that I conducted with colleagues of the Human Rights Centre of the University of Ghent revealed that the introduction of the burqa ban led to increased aggression and violence.
The public indignation over niqabs and burqas, that was already present prior to the introduction of the ban, has been enhanced and ‘legitimised’ by the ban, making people feel entitled to exact their own ‘justice’.
This occurs not only in Belgium. It can also be witnessed in France, the only other European country with a national burqa ban. An increasing number of similar cases have taken place there, several of which made the news.
One of these cases led to the conviction of the offender in March 2013. The culprit, who had ripped off a woman’s veil as she was strolling in a fairground, had explicitly motivated his actions by referring to the ban on face-covering clothing, arguing that he was simply upholding the law. The public prosecutor rejected that ‘defence’ in no uncertain terms: “The woman was a victim of aggravated assault, and ordinary citizens are not authorised to enforce the law. Otherwise we no longer live in a state governed by the rule of law”.
Offence and the law
One could of course argue that these vigilante problems with the face veil would cease to occur if everyone in Belgium and France would simply comply with the ban. While I am not advocating civil disobedience, this argument does disregard the main reason for the bans’ introduction.
That reason was that women wearing face veils undermined the concept of living together in a society (‘le vivre ensemble’): veiled women were presumed averse to communication and unwilling to participate in societal dynamics. It is important to add that this was also the only goal that survived the scrutiny of the French ban by the European Court of Human Rights (other considerations for justifying the ban, i.e. security and women’s rights, were rejected).
However, what we see in practice is that it is often not the niqab-wearing women that refuse communication and participation. Instead, it is the societal majority that does so, due to the moral offence face veils tend to cause. Even if such offence may be understandable, it is increasingly crossing over into violence since the introduction of the ban.
This begs the question whether Belgium and France, in enacting and upholding their burqa bans, are not engaging in blaming the victim. Should the State not protect unpopular and persecuted minorities, rather than reinforcing negative sentiments towards them?
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