Why is Europe Obsessed with Female Muslim Clothing?

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A few years back, British superstar celebrity chef Nigella Lawson made global headlines because she decided to wear a full-body modest black wetsuit (aka “burkini”) to an Australian beach as paparazzi clicked away. Internet commentators fixated on the fact that Miss Lawson chose to “be covered head to toe in a burkini, the modesty-saving outfit designed for Muslim women” by a London-based Islamic swimwear company.

From the first 2004 hijab legislative ban instituted by then-French president Jacques Chirac until today, there has been a strange collective societal fixation within many European countries revolving around policing Muslim women’s bodies by deciding which clothing these white Christian majority nations deem “acceptable” in light of hijab, burqa and/or burkini legislative bans.

As British Muslim author Shelina Janmohamed (author of Love in a Headscarf) once wrote about her thoughts on this European fixation with Muslim women’s clothing: “When it comes to Muslim women, it’s still all about what we wear. What we say, our achievements, opinions and self-determination continue to be brushed aside. Even as women’s movements around the world continue to gather momentum, Muslim women’s looks, clothing and bodies continue ever forcefully to be policed. We continue to be reduced to one-dimensional voiceless images,” she somberly concluded.

Most recently- in September 2018- the Pew Research Center conducted a study of European Christians (which involved more than 24,000 telephone interviews with randomly selected adults, including nearly 12,000 non-practicing Christians) about their views on a wide range of topics, including their thoughts on whether their respective societies should outlaw Muslim religious clothing which would disparately impact Muslim women simply exercising their universally-guaranteed right to the free expression of their religious beliefs under international law.

 

The most disconcerting finding from the September 2018 Pew Research Center study was that overwhelming majorities in 13 out of 15 European countries support at least some restrictions on Muslim women’s religious clothing. In the following European countries listed below, here are the overall percentages from the Pew study of each country’s populations who believe that Muslim women should NOT be allowed to wear whatever they want:

 

Netherlands 81%

Switzerland 79%

Belgium 78%

Italy 78%

Austria 77%

Germany 75%

France 74%

Norway 72%

UK 72%

Ireland 67%

Spain 62%

Denmark 61%

Finland 53%

Sweden 49%

Portugal 44%

In addition to 13 out of 15 of these European countries whose majorities believed that Muslim women should not be allowed to wear what they choose, this Pew study also found that 45% of church-attending Christians in the United Kingdom believed that Islam is “fundamentally incompatible” with British values and culture, as do roughly the same share of non-practicing Christians [47%] in the UK.

Both the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), categorically state that all human beings have the “freedom to manifest one’s religion or belief, individually or in community with others, in public or private, through worship, observance, practice and teaching.” Needless to say, the vast majority of international law doctrines outlining individual rights absolutely include people’s unfettered right to the free exercise of religion; which includes people’s right to wear hijabs, yarmulkes and other clothing they deem to be religiously mandated as they so choose without government interference.

Many Europeans are rightfully concerned about the rise and impact of right-wing ultra-nationalistic white supremacists within their countries today. But this Pew Research Center study clearly shows that the rise of Islamophobia has heuristically succeeded in demonizing Muslim populations in mostly liberal European societies. Even if people do not agree with racist right-wing political groups, this latest Pew study shows that even self-proclaimed “liberal” European populations are embracing clearly illiberal policies which punish Muslim women simply for wearing too much clothing in public.

Arsalan Iftikhar is an international human rights lawyer, founder of TheMuslimGuy.com and Senior Research Fellow for The Bridge Initiative at Georgetown University.