The trans-Western project to target the clothing of Muslim women is a continuation of colonial violence.
By Zeta Moire
The topic of the burqa ban was introduced in the Dutch parliament in 2005 when Geert Wilders, leader of the far-right political party PVV, proposed a ban on burqas under the guise of “terrorismebestrijding.” On August 1, 2019, Wilders’ initial proposal was finally granted: the Dutch passed a law “partially” banning the burqa, a decision applauded by Wilders.
Formal statements about the burqa ban issued by the Dutch government understate the fact that the ban concerns, first and foremost, burqas. The official government website, for instance, explains that the “Gedeeltelijk verbodgezichtsbedekkende kleding” (in English: “Partial Prohibition of face-covering”) does not only include the burqa, but also other items that conceal one’s face, including helmets and balaclavas.
Why the helmet and the balaclava are expressly listed may not be clear at first glance, given that discourse in the media and in parliament makes beyond self-evident that the ban targets Muslim women who wear clothing that covers their faces. On further reflection, however, it becomes clear that the inclusion of these items – the helmet and the balaclava together with the face veil – aims to render the ban impartial and egalitarian. The wording of the law, therefore, serves to project a smokescreen over what is in fact a prejudicial law. As the ban ostensibly targets anyone who covers their face in certain areas, the image of the Netherlands as a just and tolerant country is left untouched even with the passing of a deeply intolerant law.
Impartiality and Cynicism
Let us consider the ban’s purported impartiality. It is not – those in power want us to believe – the woman in the face veil that the ban targets, it is just anyone covering their face. The ban is therefore impartial to the who and is ultimately concerned with issues like security. But the notion of impartiality is already worth questioning.
While the ban aims to conceal discrimination by presenting itself as impartial insofar as it forbids items (of clothing) that conceal the face, this claim to impartiality serves to destroy the symbolic differences between items of clothing. The face veil is – among other things – a religious commitment and an expression of one’s religious identity. A helmet and a balaclava are not. The symbolic meaning of the face veil has consequences for its wearer’s agency, identity, and affectivity in relation to the ban that do not exist for a person who wears helmets or balaclavas. Finally, the meaning of the face veil is determined, rather prejudicially, by those in power, who fix the meaning of the veil on their own terms, denying the possibility that the veil could have distinct meanings for its wearers.
Impartiality, without qualification, is potentially detrimental. The political use of impartiality can enshrine pre-existing power relations. A striving for impartiality, however, entails an investment in justice and fairness. But how can we strive together for justice and fairness if the assumption is that we in the Netherlands have already achieved them? Dutch superiority – European superiority – takes itself to know all there is to know already: to know the woman in the burqa, her commitments, to have nothing more to learn. And this attitude cancels the possibility of dialogue, therefore barring a genuine striving for impartiality and, in fact, destroying a lived justice.
This concealment of prejudice and partiality under impartiality reveals the moral cynicism of the Netherlands. But this tendency is hardly new.
In the context of the broader colonial project, the burqa ban has its lineage in civilizing missions. The Dutch equivalent of civilizing missions, the “Ethical Policy” enacted in the Dutch East Indies, took as its objective the “modernizing” of Indonesia. The Dutch made it their “moral” mission to educate the Indonesians. The cynicism of this moral mission, however, becomes especially clear in light of the fact that the Dutch perpetrated massacres in Aceh after the policy’s enactment. Images of these massacres depict the subjects of Dutch moral regard: women, men, and children who tried to hide away in wooden fortresses, their corpses discarded across the landscape with Dutch soldiers posing nearby. In the case of the French occupation of Algeria, similarly, a rhetoric of liberating Algerian women from the face veil occurred while Algerian independence was being violently quashed. This is the double-vision of colonialism, alive and well in the Netherlands today.
The ban on face veils has its roots in colonial narcissism that aims to cast the other in one’s own image. As Esther Captain explains in the case of the Dutch East Indies, “an orientation towards the Netherlands (such as speaking Dutch correctly, eating potatoes instead of rice, wearing western, ‘modern’ clothing instead of the Indonesian sarong [skirt] and kebaja [blouse])” entailed “more opportunities to climb the social ladder.” This idea is here with us today in the form of assimilation and integration. But any non-Western Dutch person knows that outsiders can always aspire to be Dutch, replace their own cultural items of clothing with what everyone wears, speak flawless Dutch, and perhaps even climb the parallel ladder of capital – they will never be Dutch. We can remove our veils, lose our accents, eat stamppot but we cannot become what the Dutch long ago decided we are not.
For intersectional perspectives on Dutch colonialism, including an article on the Dutch burqa ban, see: Gendered Empire