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Saturday, June 26, 2010

To ban or not to ban? Some thoughts on Barcelona's decision to deny access to public buildings to women covering their face.

The whole affair started by a short, dry statement from the Barcelona municipal government issued on the 14th of June which announced in no uncertain terms that the city of Barcelona was going “to forbid the use of the burqa, niqab and any other item which hinders personal identification in any of the city's public installations” (these include civic centres, libraries, markets and nurseries, to name but a few). We then learned that the city administration had gone to great lengths to ensure that all sensitivities were taken into account as the city's commission on immigration policy had discussed a legal opinion, as to the extent and the legality of such a ban. According to news reports revealing the extent and ambition of the vision behind the ban, Barcelona’s mayor and member of the Partit dels Socialistes del Catalunya (PSC), presiding over a coalition municipal administration with the Iniciativa per Catalunya Verds, (ICV), a Green Left party as it defines itself, “resisted” calls to impose a ban on full face veils in all public spaces because he said it was outside the jurisdiction of a municipal government.
The Mayor brushed away concerns such as those aired by Esteban Beltran of Amnesty International that such bans violate religious liberties through the usual instrumental rationality sophistry that there are pressing practical needs that make the ban a necessity: Hereu defended the move as a safety measure, and an expression of "common sense" saying that it is not acceptable “to enter the city’s buildings and not allow identification" and reassuring his audience that "in no way is this an attack on any religious beliefs". And, in order to silence potential critics, he hastened to add that this was not a ban that exclusively affected Muslim women who are admittedly most likely to be asked to remove their veil; it was intended to prevent from entering civic spaces anyone that can not be clearly identified, which will also affect those who seek access in balaclavas, ski masks and motorcycle helmets – he forgot to mention clowns but I am sure city officials will enforce the spirit of the law accordingly.
Let us not hide behind our finger. The ban, as its announcement and the involvement of the city commission on immigration indicate, is not, primarily at least, about safety. It constitutes an attempt to target a particular minority, Muslim women. It is Muslim women, their faces, their bodies, their sense of propriety and dignity that has been chosen as the symbolic field of confrontation between a “western, enlightened” way of life and a “backward Islam”. What is more, this Islam, as the assumed jurisdiction in the matter of the immigration commission makes clear, is seen as external, the property of immigrants, foreigners who have to be administered, regulated, shown where “their right place” is. 
It is no coincidence that the announcement of the ban, served as a cue for the Spanish Justice Minister Francisco Caamano, who, according to the JURIST, one day later revealed that

the Spanish government plans to introduce legislation to ban the burqa in public places. The measure will be included in Spain's Religious Freedom Bill, which would also prohibit religious symbols, such as crucifixes, in state-owned buildings. Caamano said that the reasons for the impending ban are twofold. The government holds that burqas impede identification in public places and that the ban is necessary to ensure public safety and security. Additionally, Caamano stated that burqas are not "compatible" with human dignity and that the government has the responsibility to protect women from being degraded.

At least Caamano went further and put his finger on the issue of human dignity opening up the vast moral and ethical issues involved in the ban. But, I will return to these issues in my next post.

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