European Court’s Ruling on the Veil (3): Ethnocentric Bias and Calls for Reformation


Part 1: European Court’s Ruling on the Veil (1): A Colonialist Crusade

Part 2: European Court’s Ruling on the Veil (2): A Subjective Judgement

“Undoubtedly the barometer of social change in the Moslem World is the veil.”

~ Ruth Frances Woodsmall, 1936

Ethnocentricity and Reformation

The colonialist trait of supremacy which was seen in the first part of this series on the veil can be seen in the general ethnocentric (Eurocentric) bias in the Court’s historic decisions. The judgments are often biased against Islam, opposing democracy itself,[1] and posit the wearing of Hijab for instance, in their own biased interpretation of “male-controlling” paradigm as opposed to the paradigm of choice,[2] which they find “hard to square with the principles of gender equality”.

Ethnocentric bias courses through the majority judgment in SAS v France to even the dissenting opinion (despite thoroughly exposing the holes in the court’s judgment). The dissenting opinion highlighted that France had not been able to show why it had not taken less restrictive measures to “deal” with the veil. Rooted within this contention is a supremacist, inherent supposition that the veil can be discouraged in the first instance using “soft” methods.[3] The Council of Europe’s Resolution[4] (referenced in the judgement) does not hold back in attacking Islam as it,

“…calls on all Muslim communities to abandon any traditional interpretations of Islam which deny gender equality and limit women’s rights, both within the family and in public life.”

And then calls for measures to “stamp out radical Islamism”, synonymising mainstream Islam with “radical Islamism”. It further assumes the position of Islam and informs us that,

“Neither the full veiling of women, nor even the headscarf, are recognised by all Muslims as a religious obligation of Islam, but they are seen by many as a social and cultural tradition.”

In other words, representatives of European countries are demanding a reformation of Islam whilst at the same time telling Muslims what the “right” Islam in Europe needs to be.

The veil seems to be subject of much tension. The irony of the tension is that whilst the discourses seek to “liberate women”, the roots of this antagonism with the veil and Muslim women in particular form the male power-structure’s struggle of dominion over the colonised, which has now shifted in contemporary times with the once colonised living in the lands of the coloniser. This shift is placing stresses upon Europe’s own “civilised” standards. Through media propaganda and the manufacturing of public opinion through it, those aspects of Islam which assert confidence in the unique Muslim identity is being eroded. The propaganda now can be seen in the number of alleged veiled women being plastered in tabloid papers holding rifles and weaponry. The association of religious symbols is subconsciously being associated with barbarity and violence. In doing so, the discourse remains the same as the colonialist narrative: at that time it was the association of such Islamic manifestations with “rebellion” against the French colonialists. Today religious conservatism is being associated extremism and terrorism, with the aim being the same: control and assimilation of a group which remains resilient in its faith.

For the Muslim, the signs of Islam are an intrinsic part of them, their identity and history. A degradation or compromise in the veil is merely a step towards further attritions of that identity and faith. The colonial rhetoric with regards to the veil through the racist, supremacist European discourses, overt and subtle, presents for a yardstick to measure the progress in deconstructing the manifestations of Islam. As Ruth Frances Woodsmall, who toured the Muslim world to understand the colonialist impact on the Muslim woman and in particular the “evil of the veil”, concluded,

“Undoubtedly the barometer of social change in the Moslem World is the veil.”[5]

Concluding Remarks

The colonialist desire to unveil the veiled, which hides behind the veil of extreme secular liberalism will not stop here. As already highlighted above the Council of Europe’s Resolution calls on abandoning traditional interpretations of Islam, and notes that the Hijab is not regarded by all Muslims (not scholars) as obligatory, thus opening the doors for further incursive reformation-attempts of Islamic practices.

Recently a bigoted former minister for families and ardent supporter of Nicolas Sarkozy – the champion of the ban on the veil – Nadine Morano posted a picture of a Muslim woman on a French beach and complained of her wearing a hijab, in summary stating that, in her not disrobing to a bikini, the Muslim woman was not respecting French culture and the liberty of women. A classic example of ethnocentrism. In doing so, as with the veil, the demagoguery sets the foundations for future erosions of liberty of the Muslim minority.

Embedded within this ethnocentrism is the inherent question of interpretation (as discussed in the second part of this series). When interpreting rights, whose conception of liberal theory do we take? It brings to surfaces the questioning of the very core of the foundations of rights. Contemporary expressions of liberal thought by theorists like Dworkin and Rawls is at variance with the writings of classical theorists such as Locke, Kant, Rousseau and Tocqueville. These produce different versions of liberalism which to an extent creates differences between self-styled democracies. What constitutes the “best” government structures to realise liberal principles is heavily disputed. The differences thus impact the interpretations of individual rights. Whatever the case, what is undisputed is that rights are there to protect the individual against the tyranny of the majority and state abuses, both aspects which the European Court failed to protect in the case of the Muslim Frenchwoman.

It is for the Muslim minority to counter this trend of attacks against key religious manifestations through a confident assertion of their beliefs and practices without compromise, shattering supremacist, colonialist-based stereotypes, whether they are existent in the streets of Europe or in the Grand Chamber of the Strasbourg Court of Human Rights.


Source: Independent

POSTSCRIPT – Camden School veiled student banned: after writing this piece, the case of a 16 year old sixth form Muslim student in Camden has come to prominence. The school has stopped her from starting her A-levels because the student has chosen to wear the veil. The school has brought to attention the “appearance policy” which stipulates a prohibition on clothing which does not allow teacher student interactions, and therefore the decision, the governing body has determined, is an “educational one”. The irony in this statement is that the school is preventing education due to a piece of fabric, a concern which clearly skirts the decision of the body. What further discredits the decision to prevent the student from proceeding with her A-Levels is the fact that the school has in the past allowed the veil to be worn, as noted in the report by the Independent. And if the school has been rated “outstanding” in the past and has been ranked in the top 100 best performing schools, then clearly the restriction of teacher student interaction has not exactly materialised to detrimental effect.

It remains to be seen whether the school pursues the prejudices of the wider right-wing, ethnocentrically biased discourse and commits a greater, oxymoronic crime of denying education outright or whether it take a reasonably stance and allows the student to manifest her beliefs and practices whilst “empowering” her through education.

UPDATE 25/09/2014: It seems the student has left the school, “upset, hurt and angry”. Another sixth form college, which has no problems with the face veil, has welcomed her has a student. Camden school will go down in history as one which pandered to the far-right anti-Muslim hysteria and barred a student from education in the name of education.


First part of this analysis can be read here

Second part of this analysis can be read here


[1] See Refah Partisi and Others v Turkey [31 July 2001] (Application Nos. 41340/98, 41342/98 and 41344/98). In this case the Court supported the Turkish court in expelling the party due to the fact that they were likely to win the elections, but wished to introduce Islamic principles, including allowing women to wear the Hijab again in public institutions.

[2] See the case of Dahlab v. Switzerland [15 January 2001] Application No. 42393/98.

[3] [2014] ECHR 695para. 24

[4] Resolution 1743 (2010) on Islam, Islamism and Islamophobia

[5] Woodsmall RF, Moslem Women Enter a New World, London, George Allen & Unwin, 1936) as quoted in (Baig K. First things First, California, Open Mind Press, 2004, p.296


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