Who oppresses Muslim women in Europe?

Alphia Abdikeeva, CIDH Pro Igual

The EU countries seem almost obsessed with fighting for women´s rights within their Muslim minority communities. While intentions to secure rights for Muslim women may be laudable, the object and methods chosen are not. The burqa/veil debate is quite telling. Most ardent anti-burqists claim that women in Muslim countries are oppressed, that burqa is a sign of oppression, that oppression of women cannot be tolerated in free countries, and therefore burqa in Europe must be banned. But does this all hold up to scrutiny?

It is a fair statement that in some Muslim countries women are oppressed. But it is an equally fair statement that most people in those countries are oppressed, because they are not free countries. Those countries are unfree not because they are Muslim countries, any more than other countries are unfree because they are Christian (or atheist). And if  people decide to leave their unfree countries and come, for example, to the EU, they probably hope to be more free than they were in their countries, be it Muslim, Christian, animist or atheist.

Unfortunately for Muslims, though, they seem to get the LFR (“least favoured religion”) status in Europe. There appears to be a preconceived and deeply ingrained notion in many host countries that “European values” are necessarily good, and Muslim values are necessarily bad. (And if it seems like an overstatement, preparatory works and public statements on the European Constitution are quite elucidating.)

Some states act simply irrationally when pretending to deal with the “integration” of their Muslim communities. Thus, Holland for example, pushed through a legal ban to prevent some 300(!) women – most of whom, by the way, are European converts – from wearing a full veil in public (see: http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/europe/5414098.stm). One may only wonder whatever has happened to the Dutch common sense. Surely, the public monies expended on preparing, debating, adopting and enforcing that legislation could have been put to much better use, such as providing the Dutch lessons or CV-writing workshops for the immigrant Muslim women to ensure their better integration.

Currently, France is also debating whether to ban the burqa in public places, including transport. It would be interesting to see to what depths the state machine will go to implement this, essentially absurd, ban in practice.

Why burqa/veil gets such attention is puzzling. The fact of the matter is that only a few Muslim women wear burqas. As Nazia Hussein of the Open Society Institute put it in her blog Not another Headscarf, there is

the vast majority of people who have a Muslim background but who do not wear their religion on their sleeve or indeed their head. The debate raging in Europe on the burqa completely misses the point that it’s only a tiny minority of women who wear this apparel, and it’s not the uniform of Muslim women.

The intentions of European countries to support the rights of Muslim women, if indeed genuine, would have been much more credible if individual Muslims, women and men, received equal treatment in all areas, including employment, education, and justice system, and not just burqa emancipation. Such equal treatment could reinforce a positive message of tolerance and freedom. Instead, it seems to be  a permanently open season to ridicule, harass, and discriminate against Muslims under banners of free speech, terrorism crackdown, and immigration control.

Further, to make declarations of its commitment to human and women´s rights credible, the EU could try and help improve the human rights situation in Muslim – and non-Muslim – countries by applying its soft power, economic incentives, and aid. Unfortunately, the EU is very far from consistent when it comes to human rights commitments in its foreign, or even home affairs, policy. The EU members are clearly more concerned about keeping their citizens fed, warm and comfortable, than triggering potential conflicts with economic partners, many of whom happen to be unfree countries.

Instead, the EU countries, behaving in this case much like a school bully, choose to pick on the ostensibly weak and defenseless –  Muslim women. Burqa ban very clearly targets women, because men do not wear burqas. But burqa ban is not the only way Muslim women are targeted for discrimination and exclusion. Ethnic profiling, media bias, and societal prejudices are all feeding on the lack of genuinely equal and participatory debate on the situation of Muslims in general, and Muslim women in particular. This only perpetuates the communal divide and mutual mistrust. And as happens with other marginalised minority groups, Muslim women are bound to be affected in more ways than men. So, while Muslim women may have been oppressed in their unfree countries, they most certainly have not escaped oppression in free Europe.

And what lessons can Muslims, and especially Muslim women, take home from all this? As far as the Muslims are concerned, the EU´s most consistently upheld common values appear to be Islamophobia and double standards. So, who is then the real oppressor of Muslim women in Europe?