Minister insists burqa, niqab ban no threat to religious freedom

In Malta’s case, the Criminal Code already forbids people from “wearing masks or disguising themselves” in public spaces “except at the time and in the manner allowed by the law”.

Banning Muslim women from wearing the burqa and niqab in public will not impinge on their rights to religious expression, the civil liberties minister has insisted.

“There are several thousands of Muslims in Malta, and many have been here for a long time, even generations,” Helena Dalli told MaltaToday.

“The burka and the niqab are not garments that one would associate with this community, so a clearer ban on face coverings should carry no impact on the vast majority of Muslims in any way.” 

Dalli’s general argument is a common one espoused by anti-burqa advocates. although the ministry insists the gist of it is that whole-body garments that conceal the face pose as much of a security risk as headgear such as balaclavas. 

In Malta’s case, the Criminal Code already forbids people from “wearing masks or disguising themselves” in public spaces “except at the time and in the manner allowed by the law”.

However, a police circular issued by the Attorney General on February 2013 insisted that “there is no provision within Maltese law that prohibits the wearing of the burqa”.   

Distancing her government away from that police circular, Dalli argued that police action against the burqa and the niqab was curbed “during the last few weeks of the previous administration”. 

“In view of this circumstance, I believe that the law needs to be clarified so as to provide for legal certainty for all face coverings, as is right in an open society,” she said. 

This argument has also been sounded from the Opposition benches, with shadow minister Jason Azzopardi warning that full-face veils could serve as a perfect cover to terrorists. 

“In view of what is happening around us, tragedies did occur abroad by men or women wearing burqas hiding explosives,” he said, ostensibly referring to recent Islamic State attacks. “Who is able to give a guarantee that it is impossible to happen closer to home, God forbid?”  

However, the use of isolated attacks to justify such a blanket prohibition of cultural expression could prove controversial amongst Muslim communities who, in their everyday lives, do not see any connection between the veil and terrorism. 

Indeed Laiq Ahmed Atif, president of the Maltese Ahmadiyya Muslim community, has pointed out that most extremist attacks are not carried out by people wearing a veil. 

“For security reasons, the civil authorities have both the right and the duty to check the identification of the person wearing a veil, and indeed Muslim women should abide by any security instructions issued and are duty bound to willingly identify themselves,” he wrote in a September blog post. “This is also their religious duty: to cooperate with the civil authorities and to assist them in maintaining peace and security within a country”. 

Despite being an outspoken advocate for integration, Dalli dismissed suggestions that any perceived fear posed by Islamic veils would be best countered through an educational campaign. 

“I don’t see why this form of dress should merit a dedicated educational campaign, when it is against the law of the land,” she said. “I believe instead that we should all strive to build an open society, where religious freedom is celebrated, and where we are all able to express our individual beliefs in full respect of the law.

“With regards Islamophobia or xenophobia, we definitely need to do more to ensure that people understand the ‘other’ more and to differentiate between the religion that many amongst us have practices peacefully over the years, and the attacks carried out by terrorist organisations under the claim that their actions represent Islam. 

“We do not have any religious tensions in this country and we should aim to keep it that way.” 

Do people have a right to cover their faces?

Should Malta decide to clarify this dubious law, it would become the third European country to apply a nation-wide ban on people from wearing the burqa and the niqab in public spaces, following in the footsteps of France and Belgium. Cultural advocates for the burqa and the niqab have argued that strands of Islam require women to wear a full-face veil as a gesture of modesty and piety.

“The requirement of using a veil is not intended to imprison a woman or render her susceptible to male dominance,” Atif writes. “Rather, it is intended to enhance her God-given faculties.” 

In a recent landmark case, an unnamed 24-year-old French citizen of Pakistani origin took her government to the European Court of Human Rights to contest its decision to ban the burqa. However, judges at the Strasbourg court stood by France’s decision, arguing that it “encourages citizens to live together”. 

What is a burqa?

Muslim women all over the world wear headscarves, some to cover their head and hair, others wear a burqa or niqab, which also covers their face. Others opt to wear no veil. But within Islam, there is disagreement about whether the veil is necessary.  

Hijab - The most common type of headscarf worn by Muslim women in the West, the hijab is a headscarf that covers the head and neck, but leaves the face clear. They come in many styles and colours and are often colour-coordinated with women’s outfits.
Hijab - The most common type of headscarf worn by Muslim women in the West, the hijab is a headscarf that covers the head and neck, but leaves the face clear. They come in many styles and colours and are often colour-coordinated with women’s outfits.
Al-Amira - The al-amira is a two-piece veil made up of a close fitting cap, usually made from cotton or polyester, and a tube-like scarf.
Al-Amira - The al-amira is a two-piece veil made up of a close fitting cap, usually made from cotton or polyester, and a tube-like scarf.
Chador - The chador is a body-length outer garment, usually black in colour, worn mainly by Iranian and Shia women. It is not secured at the front by buttons or clasps and is often accompanied by a smaller headscarf underneath.
Chador - The chador is a body-length outer garment, usually black in colour, worn mainly by Iranian and Shia women. It is not secured at the front by buttons or clasps and is often accompanied by a smaller headscarf underneath.
Burqa- The terms niqab and burqa are often incorrectly used interchangeably; a niqab covers the face while a burqa is a one-piece veil that covers the face and body, often leaving just a mesh screen to see through.
Burqa- The terms niqab and burqa are often incorrectly used interchangeably; a niqab covers the face while a burqa is a one-piece veil that covers the face and body, often leaving just a mesh screen to see through.

Historically, face veiling was practiced by many cultures before Islam, including Christians, and scholars say Muslims adopted the practice to fit in with these societies. While parts of the Muslim world view headscarves as a sign of modesty and a symbol of religious faith, to many others within and outside Islam, the burqa and the niqab are seen as symbols of oppression and separation.

A study carried out last year by the University of Michigan’s Institute for Social Research showed that the burqa has little to no support in Muslim countries, with the vast majority believing women should only cover their hair and not their faces.

Only in deeply conservative Saudi Arabia did most people surveyed consider the niqab the most appropriate form of attire. The burqa was favoured by only 11% of Saudis.

In Lebanon, Tunisia, and Turkey, where people tend to be less conservative than the more conservative Gulf states, women prefer to wear less restrictive headscarves or no veil at all. 

In Lebanon almost half the women considered an uncovered head to be most appropriate while Tunisia and Turkey were the only Muslim nations where more than half of those surveyed believe dress should be a woman’s personal choice.

Check out our guide to the different veils to help identify which is which.

More in National