23 Mar 2015
Firstly, as International religious freedom report (2008) has noted, the status of respect for religious freedom in every country around the world during the most recent reporting period (July 1, 2007) to (June 30, 2008), our primary focus is to document the
actions of governments those that repress religious expression, persecute
believers, and tolerate violence against religious minorities, as well as those
that protect and promote religious freedom. We also address societal attitudes on
religion and religious minorities and record positive and negative actions taken
by nongovernmental actors. We strive to report fairly and accurately, with
sensitivity to the complexity of religious freedom issues.
Besides those according to international law, freedom of belief and freedom of speech were first declared by global community in Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) in 1948. They were given the force of international law by the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), agreed in 1966. Freedom of thought, conscience and religion is guaranteed by Article 18 of the ICCPR. Freedom of expression is protected by Article 19 of (ICCPR).
Everyone shall have the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion. This right shall
include freedom to have or to adopt a religion or belief of his choice, and freedom, either
individually or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or
belief in worship, observance, practice and teaching.11
Far-reaching and profound; it encompasses freedom of thought on all matters, personal
conviction and the commitment to religion or belief, whether manifested individually or in
community with others. Ã¢â‚¬Â¦ The fundamental character of these freedoms is also reflected in the
fact that this provision cannot be derogated from, even in time of public emergency, as stated
in article 4.2 of the Covenant.12
Article 18 protects theistic, non-theistic and atheistic beliefs, as well as the right not to profess any religion or belief. The terms "belief" and "religion" are to be broadly construed.13
Several European states - France, Italy, Belgium and Britain among them - are involved in legal, social or political disputes over the dress-codes of Muslim women. A detailed and alert survey of the variegated experiences and attitudes involved is the best way to understand a complex issue, says Sara Silvestri. The burqa, and items associated with some Muslim women's dress (the niqab and jilbab) is once more at the centre of political controversy in Europe. In fact, the immediate event that has propelled it to the centre of attention - a near-unanimous vote by France's lower house of parliament on 13 July 2010 in favour of a bill to
Prohibit concealment of the face in public places - is but one episode in a more or less continuous saga that tends to produce more speculation than informed understanding. Perhaps then this is a good moment to disentangle some of the "burqa debate's" many threads, in part by bringing to bear some of the detailed research I have been conducting into the issue of Muslim women's dress and the wider question of "Muslim integration" across several European countries (see "Europe's Muslim women: potential, aspirations and challenges", King Baudouin Foundation, 2008).
The evidence that the burqa and other coverings are increasingly becoming a matter of public discussion, emotion, regulation and legislation in Europe is widespread. Yet there is also little that is definitive about how this "problem" is defined or the measures taken to "solve" it. The high-profile parliamentary vote in France is an example. The 335-1 result sounds overwhelming, but the bill remains highly divisive in the country; several parties (including the socialist, green and communist) abstained from voting; France's council of state has already (in May 2010) issued an "unfavourable opinion" about a total ban of the burqa in public spaces, which it deemed legally "unfounded"; the senate (upper house) will examine the issue in September; and France's constitutional council too may be called on give a ruling. Even after that, opponents of the measure could in the event it passes have recourse to the European Court of Human Rights.
Thus, the French vote is only part of a wider and messier situation. This is true elsewhere, for example Belgium. Belgian MPs for their part have since the mid-2000s agreed that the "integral veil" should be banned. This was the eventual result of a gradual process whereby the hijab became condemned as a form of oppression of women. At the same time, Belgium's internal political divisions have come into play in relation to the issue; the lower house of parliament voted in 2010 for a bill to prohibit clothes that do not allow the wearer to be identified (including the burqa and niqab), but a governmental crisis halted the bill before it could become law.
What is the fuss about? The burqa, the hijab and the niqab may have come to be merged in the European psyche, yet these three pieces of cloth are - technically, stylistically and symbolically - completely different things, which individually look and are worn in many variations across Muslim-majority countries. The burqa covers the full body, with an embroidered opening for the eyes; the niqab is a veil of different colours, often black, covering the nose and the mouth only; the hijab is a scarf covering the head, loose or tight, of all sorts of colours (for instance black in Iran, bright in Malaysia, patterned in Turkey), and wrapped and knotted in different fashions under the neck or behind the head; the jilbab is normally a dark long dress or cloak, going from the head to the feet, usually covering other clothes underneath.
The Quran does not prescribe specifically any of these coverings. It urges Muslim women to dress "modestly"; the verses about covering the head and the bosom have been interpreted in different ways. Most Muslims around the world would agree, in broad terms, that the hijab (head-cover or "headscarf") is recommended, though not compulsory.
Many critics argue that the existing French anti-religious-symbols law (passed in 2004) aims to protect Muslim women from the impositions coming from their religious community and from male members of the family. But even in cases of real oppression, how useful is a law that forbids the practice of total covering if as a result a woman is confined to the walls of her house? A number of scholars - Cécile Laborde and Martha Nussbaum among them - rightly hold that forbidding by law a "symbol" of perceived oppression does not equate with solving the oppression problem. It might even produce another form of oppression, of coercion of conscience on the part of the state, which would go well beyond reasonable concerns and security priorities.
The way that the issue of Muslim women's dress is acquiring a pan-European dimension is indicated by the spread of concern about the "veil" to Spain, Italy and Austria. My research team and I have recently completed fieldwork with Muslim women in Spain and Italy, and we clearly detected fear and paranoia among our respondents. I have long stated in relation to the situation of Islam in Italy that although some issues were problematic (inconsistent immigration laws, restrictive access to citizenship), the veil was definitely not a concern.
Many non-Muslim Europeans demand the "integration of Muslims" and the end of Muslim women's "oppression" symbolised by the hijab; many Muslims (including women) respond by rejecting an oppressive stereotype and asking for a reform of citizenship laws as a way to integrate. Many Muslims across Europe are also opposed to niqabs and burqas and worried about creeping Salafi fashions that are alien to the cultural traditions (western European, Turkish, Moroccan, Egyptian, Pakistani, Bangladeshi, SomaliÃ¢â‚¬Â¦) of most Muslims in Europe.
The problem with the laws that are currently being discussed across Europe - even if, as has been seen, several have a long way to go to become effective - has a lot to do with the tone of discussion, and with the contradictory approach of European countries in matters relating to freedoms and diversity. Most political and popular talk in Europe these days tend to revert to the question of integrating and educating Muslims. Maybe a collective reflection and education effort in the direction of respecting the individual is more urgently needed.
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