Estonia's Minister of Social Protection Margus Tsahkna proposed last week that Estonia should ban wearing the burqa in public. As with the migration debate in general, the suggestion has polarized opinions again.
Equal treatment commissioner: burqa ban against human rights
Estonia's Gender Equality and Equal Treatment Commissioner Mari-Liis Sepper shares a similar position to local Muslim community head, imam Ildar Muhamedšin, saying that by outlawing clothing that carries cultural or religious significance, the state would restrict human rights.
She added that Tsahkna's recommendation indicates either fear or ignorance.
“Estonia is a democratic society, based on law, where the rights of all people are protected, regardless of their gender, nationality, ethnic or religious background. The Muslim women have exactly the same entitlement as others to express their beliefs, as well as to live and dress according to their cultural custom, without the state limiting their religious freedom against the will of our constitution,” she said.
Sepper said that the government should instead try harder to fight against “the xenophobic storms” that have gained ground in the country recently, and ensure that Estonia would have the image of a tolerant country that respects human rights. She added that anti-migration rhetoric is causing a damaging blow to integration and respect between people.
Paet: burqa is a sign of female oppression
Liberal MEP Urmas Paet disagreed with Sepper. Paet said that covering one's face has nothing to do with religious freedom, but quite an opposite – it oppresses women.
“Without a doubt, forcing a woman to hide her face goes against individual freedom. We have to oppose the attempts to restrict women's rights,” Paet said.
But Paet added that there is no need for legal intervention. “Estonian society is already quite heavily regulated by law. There is no need to organize everything by command, but there must be enough common sense for self-regulation. The society must be strong enough in general to stand up for gender equality”.
Maruste in support of the ban, cites security aspect
Rait Maruste, a former judge at the European Court of Human Rights and a former Reform Party MP, has so far been the only other politician apart from Tsahkna to take a clear stand in support of the ban.
Maruste did not see anything unconstitutional in the possible ban and told Eesti Päevaleht that just like every European who travels to Islamic countries and has to respect local customs, people immigrating to Europe should follow local traditions. “It's an alien traditon for us,” he said.
Maruste also emphasized the security aspect of not permitting to cover one's face, as it would make the identification process very difficult if someone commits a crime hiding under the burqa.
Last week, Social Protection Minister Margus Tsahkna asked Urmas Reinsalu, the justice minister, to analyze possible problems from the inflow of asylum seekers. The majority of asylum seekers coming to Estonia will be from predominately Muslim nations and there is a chance some immigrants will want to observe strict religious rules, including clothing. Tsahkna, therefore, proposed banning clothes which cover the face, such as burqas. “We have become accustomed to be able to identify people in public spaces,” Tsahkna said.
A burqa is an enveloping outer garment worn by women in some Islamic traditions, but not all, to cover their bodies when in public.
It has caused debate across Europe before. In 2010, both France and Belgium banned wearing the burqa in public, and the Netherlands did the same this year. The United Kingdom has not taken an offical stance yet and the wearing is allowed, although a poll in 2011 indicated that 66 percent of British people supported banning the burqa in all public places.
Editor: S. Tambur