Should Britain follow France and Belgium in a general ban on wearing the full-face veil in public? Using threats and coercion to force a Muslim woman to adopt a full-face veil is already a criminal offence in the UK, and our schools, workplaces and courts already have wide powers to impose restrictions or bans if they deem it necessary – only yesterday a judge ruled that a defendant should remove her veil in the witness box. So those who have detailed knowledge of the facts on the ground are already able to balance the freedom of Muslim women with other important interests such as the education of children, workplace efficiency and fair trial.
But should we go further? Should there be a general ban on adult British Muslim women who freely choose to wear the full-face veil? And if so,should senior politicians lead this public debate, as some in Britain suggest? The French and Belgian experience suggests caution.
In Britain we need a debate within the Muslim communities. The Islamic tradition contains many routes rather than just one for women who want to preserve modesty or affirm their spirituality. Alternatives to full-face veils should be actively explored by responsible Muslim leadership with women's involvement, thereby shifting normative religious practices. Religious leaders could, for example, voluntarily introduce a ban on the full-face veil in Muslim schools to safeguard the interests of girls too young to give consent. A debate led by politicians will inhibit such a discussion.
Recent empirical evidence shows that very few French, Belgian and British women wear the full-face veil. Those who do have a range of reasons, and their decision changes with life experiences: sometimes the full-face veil goes on, but it frequently comes off again.
Crucially, the first-hand testimony of the women themselves confirms that they are not coerced, but freely adopt the full-face veil. They are often intelligent, autonomous and articulate. Yet French and Belgian politicians did nothing to listen to Muslim women before passing criminal laws that restrict their freedom. The French commission (led by the communist politician, Andre Gérin) allowed just one Muslim woman to address them, but they also insisted she take off her full-face veil before doing so.
Belgium, too, adopted a criminal ban without any attempt to consult Muslim women, let alone invite them to participate in the creation of laws that would have such an impact on their personal freedom. French and Belgian Muslim women have bitterly complained that they experience this as a breach of their democratic rights and an example of double standards by politicians who urge them to be integrated as equal citizens. Rather than serving the goal of integration, the French and Belgian debates left these women feeling alienated, defiant and isolated from mainstream democracy.
In contemporary debates, the full-face veil is frequently presented as a medieval practice. And yet, in a supreme irony, the contemporary European response to the full-face veil can itself be seen as "medieval". Today's debates about, and treatment of, veiled Muslim women are akin to the way heretics, lepers and Jews were talked about and treated in medieval Europe when, according to the historian RI Moore, Europe became a "persecuting society".
In Moore's account, European identity was formed through the persecution of vulnerable groups, especially non-Christians such as Jews or heretics, who did not fit into emerging definitions of what it meant to be European. Even where no actual harm had been caused, or individual victim, and no anti-clerical sentiment overtly expressed, the governing authorities began to actively initiate prosecutions – thereby extending their reach deeper into the beliefs and private lives of "heretic" individuals and communities.
The response to the full-face veil in Belgium and France displays many of these features by extending a ban in specific spheres, such as schools, the workplace and courts, to all appearances in the public sphere, and by constructing certain Muslim religious practices as so "radical" as to be incompatible with full democratic citizenship and what it means to be a "European".
In medieval Europe, this legal shift towards persecution was supported by a false public rhetoric created by political elites rather than the populus. Moore shows that the production of false knowledge about the victims of persecution, such as heretics and Jews, as well as the destruction of their actual identities, was a crucial feature of Europe's "persecuting societies".
Again, there are parallels today. Post 9/11 and 7/7 discussions of Muslims in Europe have generated an anti-Islam ideology that has now been adopted by the far right throughout Europe. Political elites have exaggerated rather than alleviated understandable popular anxieties about Muslim religious difference in ways that often make reasonable debates impossible. French and Belgian politicians debating the full-face veil, for example, played a crucial role in legitimising far right ideologies and converting popular anxieties into criminal law. British political elites need to learn lessons here and take greater care in their discussion of Muslims.
In the case of Muslim women, gender equality has played a crucial role in the creation of a false identity that silences their voices, excludes them from democratic processes and leads to their persecution. On the one hand, Muslim men's treatment of "their" women is seen as a sign of their backwardness and barbarity. On the other, Muslim women are represented as a threat because of their refusal to take off their veils and adapt themselves to modernity. This paradoxical process represents Muslim women as victims of patriarchy who need to be rescued, but also – simultaneously – symbols of radical Islam who deserve to be criminalised "for their own good".
The full-face veil is a perfectly proper subject for discussion and legislation in a liberal democracy. The voices of Muslim women themselves, as well as non-Muslims who have understandable anxieties about the full-face veil, deserve to be heard. It is also right that the full-face veil should be regulated by local decision-makers like teachers or judges in certain situations, and Muslims must accept these reasonable limits on their freedom.
But it is crucial to distinguish such legitimate debate, and reasonable legal regulation, from political and legal responses such as those in France and Belgium that construct Muslim religious difference as barbaric – thereby targeting veiled Muslim women as the latest victims in Europe's long history of persecution.
Maleiha Malik is a professor of law at King's College, London
This article was first published in the Guardian