To be veiled or not to be veiled?

2016 was one of the bloodiest years in the recent history of Europe. European states increased their security measures in order to prevent and protect their peoples from Islamic terrorists and Islamic extremism. Europe and West found a new phenomenon without precedent and now they are called to battle with it.

However, the real nightmare is not the constant fear of terrorists but the rising fear of our Muslim neighbor. How many times have you suspiciously watched a Muslim imam during the boarding time of your flight? How many times have you felt in sorrow or in anxiety about a Muslim woman wearing a niqab? How many times have you found yourself thinking that all women in Muslim countries get married before their teens or that all men beat their wives? Religion has started to set boundaries, bridge walls and bring hostile feelings into the surface: hostile feelings against our religious and cultural “unknown”.

Living permanently in Greece, I came face to face with the refugee crisis. Greece had to deal with thousands of Syrians coming from a different cultural, political and religious background. This was the breaking point where we understood the impact and the power of the Greek Orthodox Church in the Greek political and social life. First of all, in order to understand all these facts, I should mention the privileged position of the Church in the Greek Constitution. According to the Article 3, which governs the relations between the State and the Greek Orthodox Church, of the Greek Constitution (1986), the Greek Orthodoxy is the prevailing religion and the Greek Orthodox Church has the full autonomy to run all the operations related to the religious affairs. The Greek Orthodox dealt with the refugee and migrant crisis in really bad terms. Many bishops referred to them as a miasma for the Greek society and a crusade against them has to be started in order not to let them convert Christians into Islam. In September 2016, when the first refugee children would go the Greek primary schools, some Church’s representatives condemned this action and put the blame on the State that these children should not sit next to the Greek young generation. The ex-Minister of Education, Mr. Nikos Filis made an effort to change thecourse of religion in High Schools and introduce the course of World religions. The reaction of the Church led to replacement from another Minister who would follow the instructions of religious leaders and would maintain the course in the form of indoctrination as it is since the late ’50s. The specific form of the course puts in the margin, students from different religions, humanists or atheists and does not provide an inclusive school community.

Moreover, Greece is one of the countries that have not yet built a mosque for the Muslim communities. Muslim communities gather and pray in their own apartments or basements which serve religious purposes. The building of a mosque is one of the most problematic debates in Greece, especially after the pressure by the Turkish government in order to reopen the Theological School of Halki (closed since 1971).

As I already mentioned, both secular and less secular states of Europe such as Greece, are called to deal with problems and difficulties arising from religions and their embodiment in the field of politics and of human rights. This paper is going to discuss some of the most alarming issues in the current public debate related to religious expression. A special emphasis will be put on the relations between Islam and Christianity.

This article is divided in the following parts: The first part is going to examine the secular character of Europe and its challenges and consequences in a multireligious society. The second part is going to examine the issue of Muslim women veil and its ban from National Laws as well as women rights in both Muslim and Christian communities. Both primary sources and secondary sources have been selected in order to investigate the issues from various perspectives. A special attention has been paid on the decisions of the European Court of Human Rights on cases related to freedom of religion and freedom of expression.

A Secular Europe

According to the study of Pew Research Center which was conducted in 2010, Europe counted 550, 2 millions of Christians, 139,9million Non-religious and 43,3million Muslims. The prevailing religion in every single country in Europe was Christianity except for Estonia and Czech Republic where the majority of population was non-religious (59.6 % and 76.4 % respectively). Only in Albania, Islam is the prevailing religion counting 80.3% of the population. Following this study, in 2015, European Commission conducted a research related to values and European spirit. For Europeans, the most important things are the human rights, peace, life respect, individual rights and religion. Instead, they believe that the followings things represent most European Union and are less important for them: respect for other cultures, Law of the State (l’ état de droit) and democracy.

What is secularism and secular identity?

According to Casanova, secularization of Europe is an undeniable social fact. Religion does not play a key role in the fate of people and a new social model emerged in the recent decades of European history. According to Ferrari, secularization is the process where decisions affecting politics, law and economics must be based on reason, not on the faith of one or other citizen. The private and the public life are completely separated. In the era of secularization, religion belongs to the sphere of private life and public life has no room for religious affairs. Taking into account the flux of foreign minorities in Europe which carried with them new cultures and religions, secularism was the ideal solution to create inclusive societies without discrimination on the grounds of those cultural elements. To prevent the danger of a clash and to ensure the equal treatment of all religions, it is essential to ground the public sphere on a principle that is universal and neutral and therefore capable of being accepted by all people regardless of their religion: this principle is human reason. Consequently, Church and State are two different entities with different goals and different means which sometimes may cooperate for the social and common good.

Secularization has been a new and universal concept which according to Weber is a unique feature of European thought. But how has secularization emerged and prevailed in European societies? According to Linda Woodhead, there have been numerous social and political changes which favored the emergence of secularism after the 1970’s. First of all, individual rights gained ground and people determined their lives as they wished without letting anyone get involved in their decisions. Other changes such as late capitalism and consumer capitalism, tertiary knowledge open to large part of people, urbanization, globalization of economy in the post-colonial era, welleducated and skillful young people from all the social classes, women rights and women emancipation, sexual revolution and feminist movements, political emancipation constituted the fertile ground where secularism built its own building. Linda Woodhead offers two definitions for secularization. The first one is the social secularization which is the process whereby religion loses its power and influence over and within society while personal secularization has to do with the decline of individual allegiance and commitment to religion. State marginalized Church in Western states but still lays on its support in cases of emergency. Church still has impact on many people lives and its messages are strong enough even if many people decide not to follow strictly these guidelines and instructions.

A secular Christian identity

Someone would wonder how European and enlightened, secular societies are compatible with the rates of the study by Pew Research center where the majority identify themselves as Christian. As Casanova mentions, large numbers of Europeans even in the most secular countries still identify themselves as “Christian”, pointing to an implicit, diffused and submerged Christian cultural identity. According to Casanova, “secular” and “Christian” identities are intertwined in complex and rarely verbalized modes among most Europeans. However, scholars coming from different backgrounds, support the view that European secularism is selectively secular and is more friendly towards Christianity and less tolerant towards other religions and especially Islam. According to them, European secularism is a result of Christian cultural identity which still applies its standards and ignores other cultures and religions. Ferrari mentions related to that view that this secularism is double-standard secularism where the conditions of access to the secular public sphere, apparently the same for all religions, are actually more demanding for non-Christians religions whose doctrinal and organizational characteristics are less compatible with the secular profile that distinguishes the public sphere. The secular character of the current European societies has a lot been under doubt by the leaders of the Church and of various religions. The Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I in his message towards the “Le Parti Populaire Européen” for its 21st Congress writes “ The history of Europe which contains some common features has been abandoned by modernity. We have to take into consideration the religious dimension if we want cohesion…and this is why our Church and PPE have started a fertile dialogue since 1995”.

Le Foulard Islamique and Women rights in Christianity & Islam

During summer 2016, mainstream and social media were full of images from arrests of Muslim women wearing burkini in French beaches. Burkini is officially banned by French Law and these arrests generated a wave of protests by human rights activists and Muslims all over the world. These protests had to do with the freedom of expression of Muslim women and Muslims in general and if finally the French secular state treats equally everybody without discrimination. On the other side, secularists talked about respect to the secular state of France and its laws of forbidding ostentious religious symbols.

France is the first European secular state where the State and Religion were separated and where the neutrality (Laïcité) of the State towards religion was applied. The Government passed the Law of 9 December 1905, installing in France a regime of Separation of Church and State which remains the current regime. The State must provide to everyone the possibility of attending at the ceremonies of his Church and of being instructed in the beliefs proper to his chosen religion. Equality between the various religions implies that there is no state religion, no “official” or dominant religion, no recognized Churches..No religion has a particular public status. Toleration must be extended to all religions, and even to unbelief. What is more, the church must be subject to political control.

These values have been reflected also on the European Convention of Human Rights and especially on the Article 9, paragraph 1 which protects the freedom of religion. The second paragraph sets the limits between the public and the private sphere where religion belongs Article 9 (2) allows governments to limit “manifestations” of religion or belief, albeit “only to such limitations as are prescribed by law and are necessary in a democratic society in the interests of public safety, for the protection of public order, health or morals, or the protection of the rights and freedom of others” The wearing of veil brought initially in France a clash of cultures and traditions. As Ferrari writes, “On the one hand, immigration have brought into Europe an increasing number of people who follow religions that are not traditional in the Old continent (in particular, Islam): on the other hand an increasing number of citizens claim the right to follow publicly the tenets of their religion in matter of dress codes, gender relations, family law and so forth, and this is outside the private domain to which religion had been confined.

The veil of Muslim women reflected a symbol of oppression in European secular societies and lack of human rights. In 2004, the French National Assembly passed a legislation which makes it illegal for Muslim women to wear headscarves within French public schools. To be precise the legislation refers to the banning of ostentatious religious symbols within the secular domain of the public school system. The Jewish kippa (yarmulke) as well as “oversize” crosses are prohibited with the Muslim headscarf.The ultimate objective was the complete assimilation of these religious groups to the French values and principles and the creation of a more cohesive and inclusive society. The scarf only gradually became a charged political symbol of the presence of Islam in France. The beginning was made in 1989 where a principal in secondary school in Creil (a suburb in Paris) expelled three girls because they wore the headscarf. After this, a series of social battles in favor of the scarf or against the scarf was followed for many years. Cultural differences were brought into the surface. Muslim women who wear a hijab often being represented as agents of “fundamentalism” or “terrorism” and as indicators of the inassimilable nature of Muslims in Europe. On the one hand, people defended the cultural and religious traditions and the freedom of religious expression and on the other hand, people defended the secular values, the place of religion in the private sphere, the freedom of Muslim women from oppression, violence and patriarchal structures. Each side accused the other of ignorance or xenophobia but both sides defended human rights from a different perspective.

But what Muslim women say about this? Islam as every religion is internally diverse and has many branches with different views, more or less strict, towards human rights and women rights. In the study of Sara Silvestri, 132 Muslim women living in European countries took part in order to reach some conclusions regarding how they embody their Islamic tradition in their daily lives. Young generations are eager to access Islamic knowledge, to intellectually, spiritually and critically “own” their religion. Many women seek personal empowerment through close and conscious adherence to religious performance, by studying the Quran and Arabic independently, by attending lectures, by becoming able to challenge tradition and to dispute male leadership from within. Also, many women reject the male dominant and traditional forms of Islam and stop belonging to institutions and conservative communities. Consequently, they live their own spirituality in their own unique way even when they do not follow religious practices (non organized Islam). In the study of Nadia Jeldtoft, where she interviews people who do not belong to organized Islam, she states “ The practices have been adapted to fit into everyday life. They are spiritual because they provide interviewees with a space of their own to practice Islam on their own terms.” As Jeldtoft mentions, the nature of this form of religion is private and internalized with an individual approach. Many Muslim women believe that headscarf is a symbol of universal values and modesty and they feel better wearing it and not oppressed.

It is of crucial importance to make a short comparison with the liberty that women enjoy in Christianity. Europe has its roots in Catholicism and later some countries were led by Lutheranism and Protestantism. After the Early Christianity, the position of women got deteriorated and they became objects under the ownership of their family male members or second class citizens. Lutheranism place the male in the position of everybody’s master (paterfamilias) and women were confined in the domestic sphere with no public speech or influence. A new model of civic order where women were excluded, was promoted by Lutheran theology. Apart from their marginal role as care takers of their family, women also were depicted as devils who try to bring troubles (witch hunting).

After many centuries, women started playing a more crucial role in the Church and its operations. In a money based economy, men were absolutely interested in the profit making and women took care of charity affairs. In the last decades, modernity paved the way for Christianity. Its traditional and conservative methods were not tolerant by young people and radical measures should be taken in order to find an effective balance. Female autonomy led to the first steps for the change in the traditional typology of gender models in Christianity. In November 2016, Pope Francis extended power to priests to forgive abortion. This is the next big step of Roman Catholicism to the female reproductive autonomy which was unconceivable some years ago. Female reproductive autonomy was established as a human right in international law by the Convention of the Elimination all Forms of Discrimination against women, in force since 1981 ratified by 168 states. The Holy See, along with eight Muslim States has not signed this Convention, nor the 1952 Convention on the Political Rights of Women.

Georgia N. Gleoudi
Georgia N. Gleoudi
Georgia Gleoudi is a graduate of "MA in Religious Roots in Europe: in Lund University and has a BA in International Relations and European Studies from Panteion University, Athens. She is interested in Religion and State relations, faith - based diplomacy and intercultural relations