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57% of UK wants a burqa ban, but burqa bans don't work

Ranjan Crasta | Updated on: 10 February 2017, 1:46 IST

After France's recent burkini ban drew ridicule worldwide, you'd think Europe would move beyond its fear of religious attire. However, all it seems to have done is brought Europe's unease with all things Islam to the surface. Recent surveys in various European nations show that a majority of respondents favour a ban on the burqa.

In Germany, a recent survey by polling institute Infratest dimap showed that an overwhelming 81% of Germans favoured a total ban on the burqa in some public places. 51% wanted it banned altogether. Only 15% of respondents opposed such a ban.

In the UK, a YouGov poll showed that 57% of respondents wanted a UK-wide burqa ban. 31% of them "strongly favoured" such a ban. Only a paltry 10% "strongly opposed" the ban. Multiple other countries, from Switzerland to Belgium already have such bans in place.

In this sort of environment, right wing forces have come to the fore, demanding bans on the burqa. The problem though, is that these bans just don't work. In fact, they tend to make things worse. And the clearest example of this is the pioneer of the burkini ban - France.

The French burqa ban

France is home to over 5 million Muslims, making it the country with the largest Muslim population in Western Europe. With such a large Muslim population it's hardly a surprise that France has been at the forefront of the debate when it comes to regulating Muslim attire.

Also read - Not just France, Islamophobia exists across Europe; Here are 4 examples

As far back as 2004, France banned all religious symbols, including Muslim headscarves, at the school level. However, in April 2011, France took things further, banning the burqa in all public spaces. While the Muslim headscarf is allowed, any garment that fully or almost fully obscures the face from view was banned.

Any woman caught wearing a burqa or sporting a full veil in public is liable to be fined 150 euros. Some 'offenders' are even made to undergo citizenship courses.

As of October 2015, 1,546 fines had been handed out.

A pointless battle

France had 3 major reasons for banning the burqa:

1) Liberate oppressed women

2) Protect French culture

3) Security

And all of these reasons have been shown to be flawed, baseless or both.

1) Liberate oppressed women

Nicolas Sarkozy, under whose leadership the ban was imposed, had previously said that the burqa was "not welcome in France". He claimed that it was symbolic of "subservience and debasement".

The French government's perception that the burqa had been forced on women was further cemented by the fact that the ban also made provisions for a 30,000-euro fine for anyone forcing women to wear a burqa.

Sarkozy called the burqa a symbol of "subservience and debasement"

This, though, was far from the case. In most cases the decision to wear the burqa was deeply religious and personal. One survey, by the Open Society Foundation, of 32 women who wore the niqab in France, showed none had been coerced.

Also read - Burkini ban may be suspended, but the French better hide their faces

In reality France was attempting to free these women from non-existent shackles. In fact, they managed to put shackles on previously free women.

By banning the burqa and associating it with oppression, its wearers, who were previously leading normal lives, now became targets. Some, who felt the niqab was too integral a part of their identity to dispense with, were effectively under house arrest. Others found themselves targeted on the streets. A ban meant to protect them had just made life much worse.

2) Protect French culture

Sarkozy, in the same address where he called the burqa out for being backward and oppressive, claimed that the move was meant to protect French culture. But this too was bogus, as French culture was never under threat. At least not from the burqa.

Considering all of this was said during his first address to the nation after assuming power, you'd imagine burqas were an overwhelming problem in France, right? Wrong. Remember those 5 million-plus French Muslims? Only around 2,000 of them wore a burqa when the ban went into force. With a population of just over 66 million in 2013, burqa wearing women made up less than .003% of the overall population.

Also read - A simple solution to France's burkini ban: come to India!

So really, the burqa was never any threat to French culture. You know what is a threat to French culture though? Denying someone the freedom to express their beliefs freely.

3) Security reasons

Remember those 1,546 fines that were handed out? Not one resulted in a foiled terrorist plot. None of them have resulted in known ISIS recruits either.

As far as security goes, Peter Neumann, a professor of security studies at King's College states that, "I don't know of a single case in which a burqa ban stopped a terrorist attack or hindered someone's descent into terrorism."

In fact, compared to other European countries like Germany that have no such ban in place, France has had a far worse run than terrorism. Othering the Muslim community may have actually done a lot more for extremism than burqas ever did.

But did the ban at least work?

Simply put, no. While over 1,500 women had been stopped. Most of the fines were to repeat offenders. That's because these women aren't going to change deep seated religious beliefs to avoid a fine. According to some activists, the ban has even turned got some women, who were previously indifferent to the veil, to start wearing it as a mark of protest against their community being targeted and stigmatised.

Also read - If you want to wear a burqa in Switzerland, you better have 6,500 Euros to spend

Police too tend to ignore most instances because, not only do they have more serious crimes to prevent. Further, while the act harms no one, these fines could cause massive communal tension. One fine even led to days of rioting.

All of this points to the obvious reality that while burqa bans might seem great to paranoid Islamophobes, in reality they don't really work

First published: 3 September 2016, 12:15 IST
Ranjan Crasta @jah_crastafari

The Ranjan (Beardus Horribilis) is a largely land-dwelling herbivorous mammal. Originally from a far more tropical habitat, the Ranjan can now be found wandering the streets of Delhi complaining about the weather, looking for watering holes and foraging for affordable snacks. Mostly human, mostly happy and mostly harmless, the Ranjan is prone to mood swings when deprived of his morning coffee. Having recently migrated to the Catch offices, he now inhabits a shadowy corner and spends his time distracting people and producing video content to distract them further.