Foundations earlier this year established that 22 out of the 28 EU states have been affected by at least an attempt to implement legislation for banning the face veil either nationally, locally or in specific institutional contexts. For the past eight years European countries have thus been on a mission to exclude a very specific minority from their public spaces. Following the example of France (2010), Belgium (2011), Bulgaria (2016) and Austria (2017) have until date legislated general nation-wide bans on the face veil. In May, Denmark which had already had a prohibited face veils by students in adult education centers, recently extended the ban to reach nation-wide public spaces. The law on face coverings took effect on August 1, and was met with protests by Muslims and non-Muslims alike.
Considering the rise of the far-right-led politics with xenophobic discourse all around Europe, the question remains when a similar move in Sweden, Norway, Iceland or Finland is to be expected. The annual European Islamophobia Report shows that political and public discourses of Nordic countries constantly feature debates on the role of the face veil and the hijab in public spaces. In Norway, the face veil was in May indeed banned from schools and nurseries, targeting both the staff and students in the former. However, both in Finland as well as in Sweden, legislative proposals for face veil bans have failed so far. In Sweden, since 2009 proposals have been endorsed by MPs from the Centre Party, the Liberals, the Moderates and the Swedish Democrats. However, in Finland only MPs from the far-right Finns Party were involved in submitting the proposals in 2013 and 2016. In January 2016, there was also some debates in the media about employees in the early-child education sector in the city of Helsinki wearing the niqab, motivated by similar discussions in Sweden. Yet, no bans were established and to date, the only restriction pertaining to work uniforms in the Finnish context are related to hygiene and work safety; otherwise employees are free to choose their clothing in the workplace. Even pertaining to the ruling by the European Court of Justice from March 2017 which allows employers to prohibit headscarves on work places, Professor of Labor Law, Seppo Koskinen was skeptical about how it might affect Muslim women’s clothing at work emphasizing that in Finland such rulings are regulated by the Non-Discrimination Act; an employer should justify the ban of any headscarves by factual reasons.
Muslim monsters: small in numbers but big in the imagination
Numbers do not always make a case. Studies conducted in countries affected by the recent bans such as Holland and Belgium have established that the so-called “burqa-bans” – yes, a sound alliteration, but faulty as the Burqa is a specific kind of a face cover worn by women mostly in Afghanistan and Pakistan – are a “non-issue” and thus superfluous, as the number of women who opt for the face veil, the niqab, are proportionally scarce. In Denmark for instance, researchers have established that there are only about 100-200 women who don the face veil. Yet, the monsters do not need to be numerous if its size and the threat it poses is big enough to provoke enough fear.
The threatening image of a covered Muslim woman as she has been instrumentalized for the purpose of the global “War on Terror” has been used also by politicians in Sweden and Finland within discussions on the necessity of face veil bans. In 2010 for instance, the Swedish politician Jimmie Åkesson from the Sweden Democrats saluted the French legislation and argued that the face veil was something that terrorists would use as a disguise and thus it proposes a security threat. Moreover, in his comment he politicized the use of the face veil to be part of “militant Islamism” projecting thus the Islamophobic stereotype of bellicose Muslim (women) who are on their mission to kill the unbelievers.
In Finland, the 2015 parliamentary elections witnessed a rise and fall of a party called Muutos 2011 (Change 2011) whose racist anti-immigration approach was indisputable. The party’s campaign material for the candidate James Hirvisaari displayed a blue-eyed woman wearing a face veil with and the rhetoric question “Tomorrow’s Finland?” and an imperative slogan “Get immigration under control!” Such portrayals of specifically Muslim immigration that imagine a future significant demographic change in the country by (forced?!) conversion of Finnish women to Islam – or at least their subjugation under the “creeping Sharia” — are ways in which the face veil has been made into the ultimate symbol of the so-called “Islamization of Europe.”
A common framing by politicians in their xenophobic discourse on Muslim women is to argue for the oppressed Muslim woman without any agency. The Finnish politician Vesa-Matti Saarakkala who had initiated both proposals for a general nationwide ban in Finland, argued that the face veil violated the freedom of integrity and personal liberty “because there were reasonable grounds to believe that Muslim women in Finland or elsewhere in Europe in principle do not wear the face veil out of their own will” using as a comparative example how the Taliban forcing women to wear the burqa.
Any form of oppression of women is of course just as possible in Muslim families as it is among other faiths and cultures, since misogyny and misuse of power are universal pathologies. Oppression of women by narcissist and misogynist men is a phenomenon that manifests itself across cultures and Muslim women are not only possible victims of their partners, husbands, fathers, or brothers. Hence, a total exclusion of an idea that a woman could be forced to wear the face veil is not an impossibility. However, it has been established through empirical studies in Europe that women’s experiences on wearing the face veil are far from the social reality as depicted by politicians such as Saarakkala. Narratives tell us namely that not only do they decide to wear the face veil – even sometimes against the opinion of their families – but that for them that very decision means that they are free to choose over their own bodies. It is also not uncommon for the politicians to use the infamous clash of civilizations thesis by juxtaposing the “Western” value of gender equality onto the Islamic veil or even going as far as excluding the European Muslim women completely out of the definition of “European woman.” The presidential candidate of the Finns Party, Laura Huhtasaari, argued during her 2018 presidential election campaign that “Women of the Nordic countries are free” and thus she wanted to advocate for a face veil ban. She argued that face veil was in no way a free choice of a woman, but a true freedom would be when she “as a woman from a Nordic country, can decide in the morning whether to wear a pair of jeans or a skirt.” The emphasis of her cultural and geographically bound identity implies a misrecognition of any Muslim woman living in Finland or other Nordic country as a “Nordic woman” and instead hints that she is the racial other who belongs to another space and not within the identity that the speaker claims to dominate. The politicians arguing for the face veil are indecisive about whether the Muslim woman is a threat from which their nation needs saving or a victim who needs their saving. It needs to be acknowledged that criminalizing the face veil by claiming knowledge about the women’s lives is the most perfect example of paternalistic attitudes that anyone can possess over the bodies and minds of the Muslim women. By such epistemic racism, Muslim women’s selves are reduced to that one piece of cloth they wear, which ironically, is just what their saviors claim to free them from.
*Research Associate at the Center of Islam and Global Affairs, Istanbul Sabahattin Zaim University, Ph.D. Candidate at Alliance of Civilizations Institute, Ibn Haldun University