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Banning the Burqa: Why More Countries Are Outlawing the Full-Face Veil

The Economist

Feb 13th 2016

LAST June, a few months after Chadian forces had crossed into Nigeria to fight the Islamist insurgents of Boko Haram; two suicide-bombers detonated their belts in N’Djamena, Chad’s capital, killing more than 30 people. Two days later Chad’s government banned the wearing of the Burqa, the Muslim woman’s covering that hides even the eyes. Henceforth, said the prime minister, security forces could “go into the markets… seize all the Burqas on sale and burn them”. Those spotted in such “camouflage” would be “arrested, tried and sentenced after summary proceedings.” Heavy-handed as that sounds, several other sub-Saharan governments have followed suit. A month after Chad’s ban, Cameroon did the same in its northernmost region following suicide-bombings by people clad in Burqas. Now the ban has been extended to five of Cameroon’s ten provinces, including its two biggest cities. Niger’s government has banned the garment in Diffa, a southern region that has also been hit by Boko Haram. And late last year Nigeria’s President Muhammadu Buhari, a Muslim, said that a ban even on the Hijab, which shrouds a woman’s head and chest but leaves her face on show, may be necessary if bombings persist.

Even countries unharmed by Islamist terror are banning the burqa. Last year Congo-Brazzaville barred it in public places to “prevent any act of terrorism”. And Senegal, which the French security service says is vulnerable to an attack, is pondering a ban, too. Only one west African country seems to be moving in the other direction. The Gambia’s eccentric dictator, Yahya Jammeh, who recently declared his nation to be Islamic, told all female government workers to cover their hair.

For decades Muslim countries outside the Gulf (where the garb is common) have discouraged the full-face veil—and the strict form of Islam it denotes. In recent years some governments in Europe, notably France and Belgium, have ruled against the full covering of the face, arguing that it allows terrorists to disguise themselves and violates European notions of secularism and sexual equality. Now many African governments have similar fears.

Bar Congo-Brazzaville, all those that have banned various types of religious covering for women have been threatened by suicide-bombers with a record of hiding explosives under loose-fitting clothes. Many locals feel nervous if they cannot identify a figure in a mosque or market. “Banning burqas is not a fail-safe, but at least it allows security forces to identify suspects,” says Martin Ewi of South Africa’s Institute for Security Studies.

Across the region around Lake Chad such rules have accompanied a stream of new security measures, including curfews, embargoes on motorbikes (the attackers’ vehicle of choice) and checks on cars with tinted windows. People in Congo-Brazzaville have been banned from sleeping in mosques. Last year Nigeria even outlawed horse-riding in the north-east, because Boko Haram, short of fuel, has occasionally made its lethal raids on horseback.

Most people in Chad, Senegal and Niger are Muslim, as are nearly a quarter of Cameroonians. Islam expanded south of the Sahara in the tenth century and most of its adherents have opposed the most puritanical versions of Islam. Many Muslims in the region are Sufis, who wear colourful clothes, practise a mystical kind of Islam, and tend to see the full-face veil as drab and un-African. “Sometimes people don’t want the black [material] to touch them,” says a Burqa-wearer at an Islamic school in a poor bit of Lagos, Nigeria’s commercial capital. “They think it signifies death.” An imam in Yola, a north-eastern Nigerian town hit by Boko Haram, says, “Even Muslims think [the Burqa] is an extremist thing, or it’s linked to Boko Haram.”

Ultra-austere forms of Islam, in particular the Wahhabist version, sprung up in sub-Saharan Africa only in the past few decades, as traders and students travelled to the Gulf and Saudi Arabia poured money into Islamist institutes and mosques. Though a small minority, fundamentalists are growing in number. A tenth of Muslims in Cameroon may now be Wahhabist. Sufis in Chad fear they will soon be outnumbered by them, says Thibaud Lesueur of the International Crisis Group. “We thought it would never be part of the culture in Senegal, but more and more people are following these rituals,” says Aliou Ly, a Senegal-born assistant professor at Middle Tennessee State University.

Yet it is not clear that banning the Burqa, let alone the Hijab, will help the fight against extreme groups such as Boko Haram. Some fear it could play into their hands. A few weeks after Chad banned the Burqa, a veiled man blew himself up in N’Djamena’s main market. In Cameroon police have pulled the Hijab off women in the street. That enrages ordinary Muslims. In Chad, 62 women were arrested for wearing burqas and told that if they did so again they would be charged with complicity in terrorism. If Mr Buhari penalises women for wearing the burqa, there could be a backlash. “There would be a war bigger than Boko Haram,” says an imam in Lagos, as his wife and daughters sit silently in the corner, under veils.