Eroding Human Rights
Wednesday April 07 2021
Switzerland has become the 8th European country to outlaw the wearing of the burqa and niqab in all public spaces after 51% of Swiss citizens voted in favour of the initiative led by the right-wing Egerkingen Committee. Given the fact that less than 40 women wear the full-face veil, the referendum was a clear move to vilify visible identifiers of the Islamic faith leaving Muslim women caught in the crossfire of an Islamophobic, populist electoral strategy. Campaign posters featured a woman wearing the niqab, along with slogans that read “Stop Islam!” and “Stop Extremism!”. Meanwhile, medical face masks have been mandated in light of COVID-19, underscoring the deep hypocrisy of prohibiting the niqab but mandating face coverings in a pandemic.
In the same week, the Minister of Public Security of Sri Lanka, Sarath Weerasekera also proposed for a complete ban of the niqab and burqa on grounds that the niqab is a “sign of religious extremism”.
However, these narratives are not alien to the UK. Public debates about the niqab began in October 2006 after Jack Straw sought new laws on wearing the veil in UK courts, followed by Jeremy Browne, then Home Office Minister, who called for a national debate regarding state intervention in matters of face veils. Under the guise of national security, these are but few instances where religious dress has been weaponised to institutionalise Islamophobic policies and bring populist narratives to the mainstream. For the UK, this highlights the worrying consequence when human rights issues become embroiled within political agendas a pattern that is increasingly concerning in light of the Independent Human Rights Act Review and attempts to undermine the framework that secures our human rights.
Discussions surrounding the niqab and burqa has been frequently contested within the frameworks of ‘British values’. Previously, Tory MP Philip Hollobone has described the burqa as “offensive”, “against the British way of life” and went to greater lengths by ridiculing Muslim women for “going round with a paper bag over your head”. He also introduced the Face Coverings (Regulation) Bill – but which failed to progress further than its introduction. Lisa Duffy, a UKIP candidate, called for a public ban on the Islamic veil in hopes to “allow” Muslim women to integrate in Britain better. Boris Johnson also furthered such narratives by referring to the burqa as “oppressive” and opined Muslim women to resemble “letter boxes” and “bank robbers. The persistent rhetoric of niqab as contradicting British values has, to a large extent, shaped public perception of the face veil – 48% of the UK population state they would support a burqa ban – which in turn serves to legitimise Islamophobic policies. As a result, Muslims in the UK are increasingly subjected to public demonisation, with visibly Muslim women, in particular, disproportionately victims of hate crimes. This is an inevitable impact of pursuing political agendas at the expense of human right concerns.
The Human Rights Act allows courts to determine if human rights have been breached. If this is found to be the case, the courts can demand that any legislation that is incompatible with our human rights obligations be changed by the Government. This is a fundamental and objective protection against any government’s abuse of power. However, recent times have seen the current Government’s increasing hostility to the courts and indications that they wish to remove or restrict judicial scrutiny.
Taking this into account, the launch of an independent review of the Human Rights Act 1998, is, therefore, concerning with regards to implications for human rights. The review claims to seek to primarily examine the relationship between domestic courts and the European Court of Human Rights, as well as the relationship between the UK courts and the executive and legislative branches of government – the implication being that the Act gives courts too much power. However, evidence suggests that the Human Rights Act is operating as intended and adequately balances judicial oversight with respecting parliamentary authority. The narrow framing of the review’s questions thus reveals the underlying aims of the review; to restrict judicial scrutiny rather than to neutrally assess the efficacy of the Human Rights Act. As such, any changes made to the Act
, could potentially weaken the rights protections provided by the Human Rights Act by limiting the state’s accountability. In light of the rampant politicisation of religious dress, as examples of the pursuit of politics over human rights, the possibility of political agendas informing human rights adjudications cannot be ignored.
Within the UK and the global socio-political context, religious garments or dresses such as the niqab and burqa continue to be used as a political pawn. With the launch of an Independent Human Rights Act Review, this could well mean that if changes are made to the existing Human Rights laws, the UK could go down a similar path of having rights curbed.
MEND therefore urges the government to consider our evidence submitted to the Independent Human Rights Act Review, as well as the following:
- Commit to preserving human rights and the protection of minority rights, including, but not limited to, the rights to religious slaughter, male circumcision and the wearing of religious dress or symbols as currently enshrined within UK legislation.
- Condemn the proposed niqab and burqa ban in Switzerland and Sri Lanka, in solidarity with the Muslim communities and in accordance with Article 9 of the European Convention on Human Rights.