Debating Niqab in Norway

March 14, 2016

What is revealed in the Progress Party’s latest push to ban the Muslim face veil, as Norwegian MPs again consider the plight of women they know nothing about?

Photo Credit: Niels Linneberg. CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.

Photo Credit: Niels Linneberg. CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.

In recent years, the Norwegian Progress Party has repeatedly called for a Norwegian ban on the full Muslim face veil (niqab/burka) in public spaces, inspired especially by the French ban introduced in 2010. In February 2015, Progress Party MP Erlend Wiborg raised the issue for parliamentary debate again, this time as an interpellation to the Progress Party’s own Minister of Justice, Anders Anundsen.

Arguing that the use of niqab, burka or other full face veils are oppressive of women, obstructive to integration and a security risk for society, Wiberg was openly asking the other parties for support to ban the use of full face veils in public (although he did not technically bring a proposition forth). He himself aimed his opening statement at the Labour Party, claiming that its leader Jonas Gahr Støre had expressed in the media that he was willing to consider a ban on full face veiling after France had introduced its general ban. Wiberg pointed explicitly to the European Court of Human Rights' ruling of July 1 2014, in which the French ban was ruled lawful within the European Convention on Human Rights, and argued that this now allowed Norway to also ban full face veils without further human rights considerations.

Let’s take a closer look at the MP’s claims and the opposition he faced in parliament to understand why Norway has not, in fact, followed France’s example – and why the debate is a recurring theme at the Parliament.

Who Are We Talking About?

The parliamentary debate on niqab in February 2015 is most of all characterized by arguments based on ideological convictions and on assumptions about veiling rather than empirically based knowledge. Indeed, such knowledge is scarce also in the academic world, and only recently have studies been published that serve to enlighten us on who wears the full face veil in Europe and why.

Beyond quoting estimates attributed to the minority think tank Minotenk that put the number of fully veiled women in Norway at about 50-100, none of the MPs referred to any empirical or even anecdotal knowledge about veiled women in Norway or elsewhere in Europe (one did recount a trip to Iran). Instead they frankly stated that they had little access to reliable sources of information. However, some research on this topic is emerging. To assess how the ensuing political debate tackled the actual phenomenon, let’s compare how the parliamentarians’ arguments and assumptions match up to the findings of the few, but interesting empirical studies which have been published in recent years.

The Oppressive Veil

In his introduction to the debate, right-wing MP Wiberg describes the full face veil as oppressive of women. No one really expresses disagreement on this point in the following debate, although representatives of all the other parties participating (Labour Party, Center Party, Liberal Party, Conservative Party, Socialist Left Party) disagree that criminalizing the full face veil is the best medicine. In example, Labour Party MP Eirik Sivertsen claims that to make it illegal for people to dress as they wish is “a breach in our democratic way of thinking”.

While some MPs argue that Muslim women veil for various reasons, no one fully dismisses the idea that the full veil is or can be oppressive. No empirical investigation has been conducted among women who wear the full veil in Norway, but studies conducted in Belgium and France found that “the vast majority of face-veiled women claim to wear it out of a personal and autonomous choice”. Now researchers of social relations will be the first to tell you that it is more complex than that, and that all our decisions are made under the influence of the various power relations in which we live our lives. However, for something to be considered oppressive in a judicial sense, there has to be an oppressor – that is, someone to blame besides the woman wearing the veil, as a woman cannot oppress herself in legal terms. Many MPs point out that those who force women to dress a certain way are already considered criminals under current law (although prosecuting them may well be an unrealistic prospect).

Obstructing Integration

Most of the MPs in the debate also agree with their right-wing colleague Wiberg that the full face veil obstructs integration. Center Party MP Jenny Klinge states that when women cannot participate “like the rest of us” in social settings or the work force because they wear the full face veil, that negatively effects integration as well as gender equality. Again, nobody explicitly refutes this perception of veiling as an obstruction to integration, but all other parties disagree with Wiberg that a ban on veiling is the right measure to improve the prospects for integration. MP Klinge suggests though that if a general ban is to be avoided, one should consider other ways to prevent women from using and being forced to use the full face veil.

However, no credible source can tell us who the veiled women in Norway actually are, and thus nobody knows if they need to be integrated – unless “becoming integrated” here only means to discard their niqab. In Denmark, a team of University of Copenhagen researchers actually found that out of approximately 150 women wearing the niqab in Denmark, about seventy were converts of Danish background. After the report was published, the Danish politicians dropped the idea of a general ban on face veils.

Ironically, this seems to be Wiberg’s most popular point, judging by the response from other members of parliament.

Security and Identification

The third claim MP Wiberg makes is that fully veiled women are a security risk to Norwegian society, and this is the only of his three main arguments that is explicitly refused and for which he receives no support from the other parties’ representatives. MP Sveinung Rotevatn (Liberal Party) argues that the idea that unidentifiable veiled women pose a security risk is a constructed concern and asks Wiberg to name one episode that has been problematic, while MP Kirsti Bergstø (Socialist Left Party) denies that terrorists can be stopped by “a thousand different bans”.

Wiberg’s party colleague Gry-Anette Rekanes Amundsen comes to his side with the argument that terrorism is a real threat to Norway and that an increasing number of women become terrorists. Clearly, she is alluding to the idea that fully veiled women in Norway could also be or become terrorists. As such, her argument is symptomatic of the symbolic significance of the veil debates in Europe; rather than addressing concerns based on experiences of or with fully veiled women, they serve as a way for politicians to appear to take action against concerns related to Islam, immigration and security more broadly.

A Question of What?

Let’s take a step back and consider again what this debate is really about, and what the Progress Party may be trying to achieve by raising it in Parliament - not for the first time, and without an actual proposition. The very formalities of how the debate is raised suggest they did not themselves believe they would receive enough support for a ban to be introduced. Questions of Islam and immigration in general are however popular amongst Progress Party voters, and they may gain favor with them by taking a “hard stance on Islam”. More importantly, they are keeping the issue alive and politicized in Norwegian politics by repeatedly pushing the debate. Anders Jupskås at the University of Oslo notes that agenda setting on immigration has been among the Progress Party’s strongest influences on Norwegian politics since the late 1980s. Whether or not this is the strategy here, the February 2015 debate may contribute to this effect.

Is Norway France?

One point that is just briefly touched upon in the debate (by MP Peter Christian Frølich of the Conservative Party), is that Norway may not be at liberty to ban the veil on the same grounds as France. This would probably have been disclosed further if the Progress Party had actually proposed a new law and gone through the standard process of acquiring the legal advice of the ministries. Again, this makes the debate appear as a symbolic fight picked to keep the issue alive rather than resolve it.

MP Wiberg’s account of the ECHR ruling is not exhaustive when he says that "the ruling is clear, and states that it is not a violation of human rights to introduce a ban on full veiling". ECHR considered whether the general ban of the full face veil in France violated the human rights of Muslim women and found that the considerable restriction of freedom which the ban entailed was deemed justifiable to preserve the French way of “living together”. Briefly described, the court allowed the state considerable room to weigh the two conflicting interests of what it called “ground rules” of social interaction in French society, and the individual rights of Muslim women. It noted that the French policy represented “a balance that has been struck by means of a democratic process within the society in question” which was not for the court to assess. The court’s strongest concern was that the general ban could be a disproportionate measure with negative consequences, and the court emphasizes in its ruling “that a State which enters into a legislative process of this kind takes the risk of contributing to the consolidation of the stereotypes which affect certain categories of the population and of encouraging the expression of intolerance, when it has a duty, on the contrary, to promote tolerance”.

Interestingly, the ECHR also considered France’s claims that a ban was necessary for reasons of security and gender equality – arguments also used by MP Wiberg in the Parliamentary debate – and dismissed them as unfounded. The question which remains, then, is whether the Norwegian way of “living together” is indeed like that of secular France's, and in need of protection from these 50-100 fully veiled women. The answer is not clear-cut, but the fact that MP Wilberg’s own government has recently moved to increase Christian religious education in public schools is but among the most recent evidence that Norway is far from a secular society in the sense that France was judged to be.

To Ban or Not to Ban

In the 2015 parliamentary debate, the emerging consensus among the various parties (save the Progress Party) was that a general ban is not a proportional or appropriate response to the emergence of full face veiling in Norway.

Center Party and Liberal Party MPs argued that a ban was in violation of individual liberal rights, and secondly, that the practice of full veiling in Norway remains a very limited phenomenon which does not call for such legal measures. The MP representing the Conservative Party in the debate makes a distinction between particular bans in schools, workplaces etc. (of which he approves) and a general ban, which he does not see a well-funded reason for given the limitations of individual liberty and privacy it would involve.

MP Eirik Sivertsen (Labour Party) also stressed the individual's liberal freedom of expression and religion. Although conceding that the needs of society may sometimes be placed above these freedoms, the MP referred to White paper no. 6 (2012-2013) and argued that bans that limit such freedoms should be constructed based on local, concrete and practical considerations. So far, this is how restrictions on the full face veils are actually appearing in Norway: as school regulations or municipal-level bans which bar veiled women from particular studies or work places – sometimes in response to actual cases of veiling, and sometimes not.