Women and the right to manifest one's religion

Niqab, the French case and similar experiences in Africa

The Islamic veil is often matter of debate across the globe, but there are aspects that deserve to be investigated. This piece of fabric that covers the hair of many Muslim women deals with religious, cultural, political and philosophical aspects, giving rise to complicated issues, among which freedom of worship, self-determination, relations between public and private and the access to rights.

There are at least four typologies of veil. The most used by Muslim women is Hijab, the veil which covers the head and the neck at most, leaving the face entirely uncovered. Next, there is the Chador, mostly used in Iran, consisting in a wide cloak that covers head and shoulders down to the feet but leaving the face uncovered.

The niqab is the name of the headscarf central to this discussion, and it is used in Saudi Arabia and its surrounding countries. It is a kind of veil that covers the face while leaving the eyes uncovered. Lastly, there is the Burqa, the characteristic light blue veil used in Afghanistan, that covers the entire body, including face and eyes, with a mesh screen to see through.

Khaled Fouad Allam, Algerian and Muslim professor that teaches Islamology at the Universities of Trieste and Urbino, wrote in “La Repubblica”: <Historically, Hijab has never been an Islamic dogma, a legal obligation or a religious symbol, even if nowadays is being depicted as if it was>. In the past, we talked about veil only with regards to ritual orations, when women went to the mosque for Friday prayers.

The transition to the use of Hijab as we intend it today brought about a distinction between Muslim and non-Muslim women: it becomes a distinctive mark of identity and of belonging to the Islamic community. Hijab wasn’t invented until recent centuries and it has no actual basis in the Koran text. The crucial shift happened when processes of modernization in the aftermath of decolonization brought new phenomena in many African and Middle-East countries, such as mass literacy for which women began to open up to school and the world of work, getting out of the house and interacting with the outside world. Facing such a social transformation, many reacted in a neoconservative way, forbidding the use of Hijab. Thus, the veil became a distinctive mark of Islamic identity and, moreover, a symbol of a gender boundary. Nowadays, the headscarf is creating divisions within certain countries; instead of enshrining a principle of equality, it emphasises gender discrimination.

<Today, the veil, therefore, assumes the meaning of an identity crisis> says Khaled Fouad Allam. Who wears it, especially in the West, does it under coercion or pressure, as a claim or alternatively by free choice. Many views can be taken.

In 2010 Sarkozy’s France enacted legislation that punished with a fine those who wore a Burqa or a Niqab in a public area. In 2010, The French Interior Minister estimated that the women wearing this kind of headscarf were two thousand out of a Muslim population of 5.7 million individuals. (Today the European country with the largest number of Muslim citizens is precisely the homeland of “Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité”, with roughly 6 million – 9% of the resident population – of North-African origin).

However, it seems that the law banning the Niqab was not applied. A spokesman for the French police confirmed to Le Monde: <From the very beginning we told it would have been a legislation hard to implement (…) We think twice before putting ourselves in complicated situations>.

On the contrary, some uphold that the law of 2010 did work. Le Monde mentions the example of some women that wear the veil despite the unfavourable opinion of their husbands, as a vindication of freedom of will.

According to the experts of the United Nations, within a framework of freedom of worship and identity, the French law forbidding the use of the integral veil in public interfere disproportionately with the right to manifest freely religious belief. The Human Rights Committee of the UN High Representative received an appeal from two French female citizens, who had been fined for wearing the integral veil in accordance with the law of 2010. According to all experts, the legislation under which France banned the Niqab violates human rights. Announcing the final decision, the UN body asked for compensation from France in favour of the two women, the adoption of measures to prevent the recurrence of any such cases, as well as the submission of a report in 180 days on the measures implementing the Committee decision. Nonetheless, it seems that the decision won’t make change the legislation: in the past, the European Court of Human Rights ruled against what the UN experts said. Twice the Court ruled in favour of the law voted in 2010.

Anyways, France is not the only one going up against the integral Islamic veil. Similar cases happened in other European countries, like Denmark, Austria and Belgium.

With regards to Africa, many countries took similar initiatives. In Algeria, the ban on the Niqab was imposed in public administration areas for safety reasons and in order to allow an easier identification in the workplace. Other cases, since 2015, can be inserted in the North African world: there is Tunisia, with a similar ban for teachers in schools, and Egypt at Cairo University. Sri Lanka added to the list, with its own prohibition on the use of Niqab. The Moroccan government, a country that offers itself as a moderate Islam reference point, forbade the production, sale and use of Burqa for security reasons. The integral veil was banned also in Senegal, with the 95% of the population being Muslim but considering that the Burqa “didn’t measure their understating of Islam”.

The reasons that have led to the prohibition of the headscarf are not ideological but matters of national security. Such a measure has been taken by States to avoid that terrorists use Burqa to go unnoticed. Along with the Senegalese example, Cameroon, Nigeria, Chad, Gabon and the Democratic Republic of Congo introduced the ban of the full veil.

It remains that every country adopted different legislations. I notice that the Qur’an does not provide for this use of the veil for women – to say nothing about Niqab, imposed only by Saudi fundamentalists, Taliban in Afghanistan and the Islamic State in order to exert control on the female component – you just have to ask if laws like these set free or oppress.

Italian version by Sofia Abourachid

Translated by Elisabetta Castellotti

Le seguenti fonti consultate per la redazione di questo contributo sono liberamente consultabili:

  • Algeria: divieto di niqab negli uffici

  • Cameroon bans Islamic face veil after suicide bombings

  • Islam in Europa, cinque cose da sapere. Nel 2050 musulmani raddoppiati in Italia

  • L'Onu boccia la legge francese sul divieto del velo integrale 

  • Loi sur le voile intégral : « On a créé le monstre qu’on voulait éviter »

  • Ma la legge del Corano non impone il velo

  • Niqab, hidjab, burqa : des voiles et beaucoup de confusions


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  • L'Autore

    Sofia Abourachid

    Dottoressa in Scienze Politiche, Relazioni Internazionali e Diritti Umani con Laurea acquisita presso l’Università degli Studi di Padova.

    Dottoressa Magistrale in Relazioni Internazionali curriculum di Diplomazia e Organizzazioni Internazionali con Laurea acquisita presso l’Università degli Studi di Milano.

    Appassionata di diritti umani e di tutto ciò che concerne il sociale, tra cui tematiche di uguaglianze di genere, minori, donne, immigrati e terzo settore. Altrettanto appassionata di storia e di politica internazionale, così come di formazione, comunicazione, e percorsi di motivazione.

    Con la sua storia, le origini arabe, e skills personali, in Mondo Internazionale ha ricoperto la carica di Project Manager per il progetto TrattaMI Bene; oggi, oltre ad essere Editor, ricopre il ruolo di Chief Editor dell'area Diritti Umani.


    Graduated in Political Science, International Relations and Human Rights with a Degree from the University of Padua.

    Master's Degree in International Relations, Diplomacy and International Organizations
    curriculum with a Degree from the University of Milan.

    She is interested in human rights and everything related to social issues, including gender equality, minors, women, immigrants and the third sector. She is equally passionate about history and international politics, as well as training, communication, motivation and personal growth.

    With her personal history, her arab origins, and personal skills, in Mondo Internazionale she held the role of Project Manager for the TrattaMI Bene project; today, in addition to being Editor, she also holds the role of Chief Editor of the Human Rights area.

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