You are currently viewing Banning the burka #MeToo #BlackBurka’sMatter
The idea of banning the burka is as old, as well, religion itself. I guess the 2021 modernization of the world and religion have some issues with clothing that goes back over a couple of thousand years

Banning the burka #MeToo #BlackBurka’sMatter

(editor) The idea of banning the burka is as old, as well, religion itself. I guess the 2021 modernization of the world and religion have some issues with clothing that goes back over a couple of thousand years. This is no different to Amish and other religions that require their people to be modestly dressed and to have limited public access on their own, if in fact at all.  

While that ideology may have been suitable in some places in some countries at some time in the past, this does have a number of issues attached to it, least of all is security.

When you can’t see somebody’s face you can’t identify them and if you can’t identify them then in the remote possibility that a crime has taken place it gets very difficult to prosecute in the current legal system. The second issue I think in a changing world of modern feminism there was equally as many females who would like to see the banning of the burqa throughout the whole world. I’m guessing for them it represents some kind of oppression and suppression of their ability to be all things defined as woman.

On the other side it’s an interesting and complex world that we live in I have seen some research that indicates Muslim and Arab women buy the most amount of lingerie in any product category and spend the most amount of money per capita in the world on this line of consumer goods.

I’m not sure in this modern world how religious zeal coexists with sexuality in the Islamic world, that is something that is way above my pay scale.

While I leave you with the vexed question as to whether countries should ban the burqa, below is some light reading covering 8,500 words as to some of the research and background information relating to this topic   

Between February 2002 and November 2018, Swedish politicians from the Centre, Christian Democrat, Moderate, Liberal and Sweden Democrat parties proposed policies to ban clothing variously referred to as the “burka,” “full-covering veil,” “face veil” and “niqab” (Arabic for face veil) at least 38 times, six at the national level and thirty-two at the municipal. Research suggests that circa 100 women in Sweden wear a “burka”; clearly these policy proposals have little to do with the burka’s prevalence. What, then, do these policy proposals attempt to govern? In this text we adopt feminist political scientist Carol Bacchi’s “what is the problem represented to be?” approach to analyse Swedish bills to regulate the burka. These policy proposals, we contend, have more to do with conceptualizing Swedishness than addressing an existing “problem” of women who wear burka.

In October 2018, Richard Jomshof, a Sweden Democrat (SD) member of parliament, submitted a bill to implement a “prohibition against the full-covering Muslim veil in all public places” (förbud mot heltäckande muslimsk slöja på alla offentliga platser).1 Jomshof justified his policy proposal by referring to similar bans in Denmark, Belgium, France, Latvia, and Austria. Highlighting these prohibitions’ claims to protect cultural values, public order, and women from patriarchal oppression, he asserted the need for a Swedish burka ban. “It is of utmost importance that we protect our democratic, cultural, and secular values against all attempts to combat them,” he concluded (Jomshof, 2018).

Jomshof’s bill, which was rejected by parliament’s constitutional committee (Konstitutionsutskottet, 2018), was one of at least 38 attempts between February 2002 and November 2018 to pass policies to restrict or ban clothing variously referred to as the “burka,” “full-covering veil,” “face veil” (ansiktsslöja) and “niqab” (Arabic for face veil) in Sweden. Although in practice these terms refer to several different items of clothing, they are synonyms in the six national and 32 municipal “burka bans” submitted by elected politicians from the Centre, Christian Democrat, Moderate, Liberal and SD parties (e.g. Boulwén, Jägnert, & Andersoon, 2018; Danielsson & Pettersson, 2009; Jomshof, 20162018; Karlsson, 2006; Reslow, Stenkvist, & Grubb et al., 2018; Sällström, Lång, & Ekeroth, 20112012; Skalin, 2011).2 As we write, no national policy to regulate the burka has been debated in parliament, no municipal bans are in force, and most politicians holding elected office in Sweden oppose a burka prohibition. Yet since 2012, the Swedish National Education Agency (SNEA) has adopted a policy whereby local school officials can ban the burka in special cases (Skolverket, 2012), and since 2017, Swedish employers can legally prohibit the burka and other “religious symbols” if their companies can demonstrate their operations require “neutral” clothing (SVT, 2017). Sweden has begun banning the burka.

Given this policy attention, readers may be surprised to learn that few women in Sweden wear the burka, face veil or “full-covering Muslim veil” (hereafter “burka”). Research into the burka’s prevalence in Sweden is limited, but suggests a figure of about 100 women (Gardell, 2011, p. 179; see also Warburg, Schepelern Johansen, & Ostergaard, 2013). About half are second-generation immigrants born and/or raised in Sweden, while the others are Swedish converts to Islam. Some wear the burka intermittently. These women’s views have largely been absent from public conversations (cf. Jasmin, 2010; Khalifa, 2009).

Policies like burka bans claim to fix problems. Feminist political theorist Carol Bacchi argues instead that policies discursively construct problems and authorize particular solutions (2009). A proposal for intervention is grounded in a set of assumptions about the issue in question. It promotes a particular vision of the social phenomenon and occludes others, with significant political consequences. Inspired by Foucault, Bacchi proposes an analytic strategy that she calls “what’s the problem represented to be?” or WPR to reveal the conceptual premises that underlie policies and policy proposals (2009, p. 1–2; Bacchi & Eveline, 2010, pp.111–113). We understand WPR as based on four questions: (A) What is conceptualized as “the problem” in the policy? (B) What are the discursive terms, explicit and implicit, through which “the problem” is understood? (C) How has this representation of “the problem” occurred? (D) What effects does this problematisation produce? (see Bacchi, 2009, p. xii). Bacchi’s strategies for answering these questions include looking for binaries in the problem representation, such as legal/illegal; identifying the “people categories” constructed, such as “the homeless”; historicizing the problematisation to show it develops at a particular socio-temporal juncture; and reading “related texts” such as media reports to create a full picture of the problem representation (2009, pp. 7, 9–11, 20–21). By exposing the claims about reality that underpin a proposal for intervention, and the consequences that follow from problematising the social phenomenon in that way, Bacchi hopes to enable constructive rethinking that could lead to fuller understandings of the social situations being governed and better measures to improve social realities.

Bacchi has applied WPR to a wide range of policies, often concerning women, gender and equal opportunity (e.g. Bacchi, 2009, pp. 154–203; Bacchi & Eveline, 2010). This research demonstrates that: (1) policies and policy proposals constitute and give meaning to “problems” rather than simply responding to them; (2) problem representations shape the intervention proposed; (3) policies produce and reinforce particular subject positions and relationships through how they imagine and manage “problems”; and (4) policies are always gendered. It offers rich accounts of our WPR questions A, B and D. When it comes to question C, “how has this representation of the problem occurred,” and the correlating strategies of historicizing and contextualizing problematisations (see Bacchi, 2009, p. 2, 10–12, 19–21), this scholarship is less satisfactory. Many scholars who use WPR focus almost exclusively on the discursive representations in policies with little attention to historicizing or contextualizing them, conveying the impression that they arose in a vacuum (e.g. Bacchi & Eveline, 2010; Lancaster & Ritter, 2014). Other scholars have modified WPR to ground the discursive analysis more fully in practice (e.g, Clarke, 2017), or combined WPR with extensive historical scholarship (e.g, Kvist & Peterson, 2010).

In this article we use WPR to investigate how and why the “burka” became a Swedish “problem” generating 38 national and municipal proposals for intervention. Given that the (sometimes intermittent) clothing choice of 100 individuals in a total population of 10 million would not typically warrant legislation, what exactly do these proposals attempt to govern? Articulating a vision of Swedishness, we argue, is the most significant “achievement” of these bills. Gender and sexuality are fundamental components of this construction. Here we reveal the implicit and explicit assumptions about the burka—the meanings attributed to it by ban advocates—and their discursive effects, as characterizes scholarly deployments of WPR. In addition, we attend closely to the local and international circumstances that have catalysed so many Swedish politicians to propose “fixing” the burka “problem,” a component of WPR which some scholars neglect. This allows us to illuminate significant shifts in the goals and beneficiaries of burka bans over time.

Data

Our primary source material is Swedish policy proposals and advocacy for banning the burka. We collected burka ban bills and related decisions that contained one or more of the words “burka,” “full-covering veil,” “niqab” and “face veil” from the Swedish Parliament website through to 14 November 2018. For municipal proposals we used news coverage (which often quoted the motions) and records on municipal websites. We used Mediearkivet, the largest Nordic database including Swedish local and national printed and digital newspapers from 1981, to gather all Swedish media on burka bans and/or containing the words “full-covering veil,” “burka” or niqab through to 6 November 2018.

We supplemented this data by scrutinizing all media containing the words burka or burka ban through to August 2018 on the websites of the Swedish radio, an apolitical tax-funded public radio station, and Metro, an apolitical privately-owned national daily newspaper with a large national readership. We watched party leader debates prior to the general elections of 2010 and 2018 (Expressen, 2018; SVT, 2010b). We read SNEA’s burka policy for schools (Skolverket, 2012) and a report on EU legal decisions concerning the burka (SVT, 2017). Finally, we examined the most recent Swedish opinion poll about the burka (Ahmadi & Palm, 2018).

Scholarship on burka bans

Swedish proposals to regulate the burka have received little scholarly attention. Most of the existing scholarship is unpublished and/or in Swedish, and examines policy proposals as part of research on attitudes towards the burka and/or Muslims (Anderson & Backelin, 2010, pp. 52–65; Gardell, 2011; Hertzberg, 2011; Paridad, 2010). This literature studies the period up to and including 2010, when arguments about burka bans were reported frequently in the media. Two studies are primarily interview-based: Anderson and Backelin (2010) interviewed five women who wore the burka about their veiling practices, and Hertzberg (2011) interviewed school system employees about their attitudes towards the burka and Muslim schools. Two studies primarily analyse public discourse about the burka: Paridad (2010) scrutinizes blogs, opinion columns, and political debates from a postcolonial perspective, and Gardell (2011) frames anti-burka and anti-veil rhetoric as an expression of Islamophobia.

To date, the only scholars who focus on Swedish policy to regulate the burka are Borevi, Leis-Peters, and Lind (2016). These authors scrutinize the 2012 SNEA guidelines regulating the burka in schools. They briefly consider some national motions for burka bans in their analysis. In law, Sweden’s government has interpreted wearing the burka as both freedom of speech and freedom of religion. SNEA’s policy mirrors this legal “confusion,” the authors argue, and can lead relevant actors to propose regulation that contravenes the law. Borevi et al. also criticize the policy for failing to clarify adequately the situations in which regulation is appropriate or outline a process through which situations requiring a ban could be identified.

European policies to regulate the burka vary from national bans on covering the face in all public spaces, which include punishments in the form of fines, citizen education and or jail, to partial burka bans in schools, courts, hospitals and/or public transport (see, e.g. Brems et al., 2014, p. 78; Tissot, 2011, p. 39). Scholarship on them is extensive. Many examine burka bans in relation to human rights (e.g. Fredette, 2015; Spohn, 2013). Others relate burka bans to the rise of anti-immigrant attitudes in various national contexts (e.g. Chakraborty & Zempi, 2012; Laxer, 2016; Moors, 2009), or narratives of national belonging (Korteweg & Yurdakul, 2014). The proposals and debates leading to France’s burka ban are particularly well researched, revealing reformulations in French notions of security and public order (Fredette, 2015), shifting meanings of secularism (Tissot, 2011; Valdéz, 2016), the construction of a “Republican Islam” and a “radical Islamism” (Selby, 2011), and contradictory feminist arguments about the burka in relation to patriarchy and the oppression of women (Spohn, 2013). Research on those directly affected by European burka policies is limited, with Brems (2014) an important exception providing studies of women who wear the burka in France, Belgium, the Netherlands, the UK and Denmark.

WPR A: what is “the problem”?

The “problem” that Swedish proposals for a burka ban address is “the burka” (e.g. Danielsson & Pettersson, 2009; Jomshof, 20162018; Sällström et al., 20112012; Skalin, 2011; Ullmin, 2004). The media reproduces, enriches and disseminates the burka as “problem” through reportage on burka ban bills, interviews with politicians and letters to the editor about the burka, and reports of incidents in which an actor is wearing a burka (e.g. Alm, 2018; Fredriksson & Marttinen, 2010; Hulander, 2017; Sveriges Radio, 2013; Tollesson, 2003). Four interrelated representations—“hiding the face,” obstructing communication, “the oppression of women” and religious excess—characterize the “problem.” “Hiding the face,” obstructing communication and “the oppression of women” appear more frequently than the representation we label religious excess, but all four have been used continuously throughout the 16 years under study. We now interrogate these representations, revealing their hierarchical binaries and people categories (see Bacchi, 2009, p. 7–9).

WPR B: discursive terms

Hiding the face

The language of “hiding the face” (dölja ansiktet, gömma ansiktet) began with the first policy proposal in 2002 and recurred regularly through to 2018. Ban proponents represented the burka as hiding the face, rather than covering, clothing or protecting it. Proposals and arguments supporting a ban describe the burka as a “mask” or “thief mask” (rånarluva), and associate it with “guilt” (att vara skyldig), “shame” (skam) and threats to security (e.g. Jomshof, 20162018; Mattison, 2016; Quayle, 2011; Säfstrom, 2002b). For example, the first national bill said that the burka “functions in practice like a mask” and referenced a law prohibiting masking in public places where a disturbance could occur (Danielsson & Pettersson, 2009). In an accompanying opinion column, the proposers compared the burka to a “thief mask” (rånarluva), and burka-bearers to balaclava-wearing motorcycle-gang members (cited in Paridad, 2010, p. 17). Language comparing the burka to a “thief mask” appeared in a 2011 burka ban proposal in Sundsvall (Skalin, 2011). In Hertzberg’s interviews, school teachers associated the burka with “hooliganism, destruction, hidden mischief, provocations or even threats to democracy” (2011, p. n.p.). A 2010 SD election video, which showed two burka-clad women mugging elderly “Swedes,” visually depicted this problematisation (see Scherman, 2018).

“Hiding the face” with a burka is also represented as eliciting negative feelings in observers in the policy proposals, including “worry” (bekymmersam), “threat” (hot) and “disturbance” (emot allmän ordning) (e.g. Danielsson & Pettersson, 2009; Jomshof, 20162018; Sällström et al., 20112012; Skalin, 2011). In the media, advocates for a ban describe women in burka as “formless figures” (oformliga gestalter) and ghosts (see Paridad, 2010, p.16; Gardell, 2011, p. 185). Politicians and others find their appearance “unpleasant” and express feelings of “discomfort” (obehag) (e.g. Hertzberg, 2011, p. n.p.; Säfstrom, 2002a). Adults frequently bring up fear (rädsla) when describing how children experience a teacher in a burka, and express concern at the idea of leaving their child with her (e.g. Paridad, 2010, p. 18; Thyrén, 2010).

“Hiding the face” is also represented as un-Swedish. In the earliest parliamentary proposal, wearing the burka is described as “foreign” or “unfamiliar” (främmande) (Danielsson & Pettersson, 2009). Two other national-level bills state that the burka violates Swedish views of gender equality and note that Sweden “has no tradition of covering the face” (Sällström et al., 20112012). Another parliamentary motion that included a burka ban pronounced, “The massive immigration we have had over the past decades has led to values and views that we do not accept gaining a foothold in our country … the most obvious cultural clash is probably that women should wear headscarves, niqab or in the worst case, burka” (Reslow et al., 2018). A municipal proposal described the burka as “A phenomenon that restricts human rights [which] in all too many places has unfortunately made its entry into Sweden” (Skalin, 2011). Another municipal burka ban links it to immigration and refers to “Christianity’s strong anchor in Sweden” (Boulwén et al., 2018).

In the media, several ban advocates made comments such as “the burka does not belong in Sweden,” “Sweden has no tradition of covering the face” and “the Swedish tradition is to show the face, it is about trust (tillit)” (e.g. Lanestrand, 2018; Säfstrom, 2002a). One politician referred to the saying “the eyes are the mirror to the soul” to emphasize how deeply embedded the notion of a naked face and open gaze are in Sweden (Hulander, 2017). Showing the face and eyes is also equated with freedom, specifically the freedom that Swedish citizens experience in contrast to societies where women are supposedly denied freedom (e.g. Paridad, 2010, p. 10).

A related though less pervasive theme represents the hidden face as undemocratic. A link between an “open” or visible face and Swedish democracy features prominently in the first parliamentary motion, which says “We live in an open, democratic society, where showing the face is both a right and a duty” (Danielsson & Pettersson, 2009). Other examples are found in SD bills where “protecting democracy” is given as a reason for a burka ban (e.g. Jomshof, 20162018).

In this problem representation, burka wearers are a category of people who have something to hide. They are untrustworthy, frightening, un-Swedish and anti-democratic. By contrast, positive traits are connected to those who show their face. People with visible faces are trustworthy, open, innocent, safe, law-abiding, democratic and Swedish.

Obstructing communication

The burka as obstructing communication is the basis for the 2012 policy for regulating the burka in school. SNEA states, “It can be harder for a teacher who cannot see a student’s facial expression to perceive whether the student has understood a question or an argument,” and goes on to conclude that burka prohibitions are possible in cases where “the clothing fundamentally renders difficult contact and interaction between teachers and students” (Skolverket, 2012). In Lidköping, a burka ban bill declares its goal is to “promote good communication and security which is impossible if one wears a veil that covers the face” (Lidköpings kommunfullmäktige, 2017). The first parliamentary motion, which describes “the human face—eyes, nose, mouth” as a woman’s “contact surface with the world and other humans,” intimates that the burka obstructs communication (Danielsson & Pettersson, 2009).

In the media, advocates for a burka ban often represent the burka as obstructing communication (e.g. Eriksson, 2017; Hansson, 2016; Nilsson, 2010; Thyrén, 2010; Världen idag, 2013). Seeing the whole face is said to be particularly important for education. For example, the Liberal party leader told reporters, “It is so obvious that teaching does not work if students or teachers have covered faces” (Nilsson, 2010). Children are represented as requiring uncovered faces so that they can understand, mimic and see their teachers’ and one another’s gestures (e.g. Hansson, 2016; Nilsson, 2016; Världen idag, 2013).3

By constructing communication with the veiled face as “impossible” or “difficult,” this problematisation implies that communication with uncovered faces is unproblematic. Uncovered faces are always easy to understand. Education always “works” in situations where faces are visible.

The oppression of women

A third representation is that the burka oppresses women and/or symbolizes the oppression of women. For example, the first parliamentary motion states that “no woman should feel she is forced to hide her face” and argues, “to make it easier for these women there should be good support in the form of a law that prohibits the burka and niqab out in society, in schools and in workplaces” (Danielsson & Pettersson, 2009). The burka is represented as oppressing women in numerous municipal proposals (e.g. Boulwén et al., 2018; Nilsson, 2013; Skalin, 2011). Two national bills propose fines and jail for “the one who forces a woman to wear a niqab or burka in a public place,” noting that the burka is “against the view of gender equality that we have in Sweden” (Sällström et al., 20112012). Gender equality in two other parliamentary bills is identified as a Swedish value that requires “protection” (Jomshof, 20162018).

Media representations describe the burka as “women-oppressing” and conflicting with Swedish values of gender equality (e.g. Eriksson, 2017; Hansson, 2016; Lanestrand, 2018). Many politicians state that the oppression of women and gender inequality “do not belong to” or “are not at home” (hör inte hemma) in Sweden (e.g. Fredriksson & Marttinen, 2010; Lanestrand, 2018). By failing to ban “women-oppressing” symbols, which for some include not only the burka but all forms of headscarf, policy makers are accused of supporting the oppression of women (e.g. Alm, 2018; Pettersson, 2018).

Burka bearers are oppressed women living in unequal gender relationships in this problem representation. Those responsible are another people category: patriarchal, non-Swedish men. By contrast, female Swedes are emancipated and Swedish men are egalitarian (see also Gardell, 2011, p. 182). Gender equality characterizes Swedish society.

Religious excess

While less common than the other representations, the burka is nevertheless frequently portrayed as too much religion, threatening Swedish space. For some, the burka is too much religion for all public places. For others, the burka is too much religion for schools and/or workplaces.

The burka as religious excess appears in national and municipal policy proposals (e.g. Danielsson & Pettersson, 2009; Jomshof, 20162018; Sveriges Radio, 2017). The first parliamentary motion states that when the freedom of religion “restricts” (begränsar) democracy, as with “those who hide their face for religious reasons … in the form of burka or niqab,” then “an open democratic society should consider setting a limit” to religious freedom, namely a burka ban (Danielsson & Pettersson, 2009). In the media, politicians from right and left political parties have represented the burka as too much religion (e.g. Paridad, 2010, p.10; Fredriksson & Marttinen, 2010). As a Social Democrat party leader put it, “Sweden should be a country with freedom of religion and freedom of religion must mean both the right to religion but also the right to be free of religion … I will fight for women’s right to avoid wearing the burka but also for their right to wear a veil” (Paridad, 2010, p. 10).

The SD party regularly constructs the burka as an excess of religion threatening democracy and Sweden. The burka, unlike other religious symbols such as crosses, is “inappropriate” and likely to generate “religious conflicts” (e.g. Folkö, 2013; Sveriges Radio, 2017). For SDs, the burka signifies Sweden’s Islamification. As two SDs wrote in an editorial, “if we accept Islam halfway it means that we must inevitably adopt our laws to accommodate Sharia” (Fredriksson & Marttinen, 2010). Most SDs argue for a total prohibition to “protect” Sweden’s secularism, laws and values (Jomshof, 20162018; see also Expressen, 2018; Sveriges Radio, 2010).

As Gardell argues, when the burka is represented as religious excess, other religious symbols become legitimate and/or invisible (2011, p. 172). In this problem representation, burka bearers’ excessive religion restricts and even jeopardizes secular and democratic values. In contrast, Swedes have appropriate levels of religion and Sweden is secular and democratic.

WPR C: historicizing the “problem”

Through a chronology of the burka in Swedish public life, we trace the emergence and development of the burka as “problem.” The earliest coverage of the burka, concerning women in foreign countries (primarily Afghanistan), began during the 1990s. Articles on the burka in Sweden first appeared in the 2000s. The earliest bill to prohibit the burka was in 2002, by a Liberal official in the Örebro government (Säfstrom, 2002a). Two years later, 13 municipal burka bans were submitted by SD politicians across the country (see Karlsson, 2006). They reacted to a conflict involving an upper secondary school and two students, described as aged 18 and 19 and having “Somalian background,” who started wearing the burka during the summer of 2003 (Tollesson, 2003). The principal and students came to an agreement about the burka, but the incident caused SNEA to issue a “memo” stating that schools should “intervene against religious manifestations or special cultural manifestations” if they negatively affected order, security, or execution of pedagogical duties, and so could prohibit the burka (cited in Borevi et al., 2016, p. 179). This memo became informal policy for several years.

In 2006, the national government implemented two policies which mentioned the burka. The first prohibited masks at public gatherings where disturbances might occur (Mattson, 2016). It specifically excludes people wearing the burka for religious reasons. The second, concerning the discrimination or harassment of children and students (Utbildningsdepartementet, 2006), made general burka bans in schools illegal.

New debates on the burka and education arose when Alia Khalifa, a 24 year-old woman who had lived in Sweden for two decades, decided in 2008 to wear the burka (Khalifa, 2009). After she started a school course, the principal banned burkas, arguing they made teaching difficult. Khalifa reported the case to the Discrimination Ombudsman (DO), who ruled in her favour although the school was never prosecuted. Khalifa’s case led two Centre-party parliamentarians to propose the first national burka ban in September 2009 (Danielsson & Pettersson, 2009).

As Sweden approached the 2010 general election, the Khalifa case and ongoing French burka ban debate led to extensive public discussion. The Liberal party alone advocated a burka ban in schools, but politicians from across the spectrum expressed sympathy for a prohibition (e.g. SVT, 2010a). Speaking out most aggressively against the burka was the SD party, which included a burka ban in its election manifesto and published a video depicting burka-clad women attacking elderly retirees in wheelchairs (Expressen, 2010; Scherman, 2018). In Eskilstuna municipality, a SD official proposed a burka ban (Sverigedemokraterna Eskilstuna, 2010).

Swedish media reported the first arrests of burka-wearers in Paris in April 2011 (e.g. SVT, 2011). Officials in Gislaved, Nörrköping, and Sundsvall submitted municipal burka bans (Gislaved kommun, 2010; Quayle, 2011; Wiechel, 2013). In October, SD parliamentarians submitted a bill to ban the burka in all public places (Sällström et al., 2011), citing Belgium, Italy and France. A few weeks later, four women in burka were denied entry to a courtroom with reference to Sweden’s 2006 mask prohibition. Media coverage was extensive; ultimately the Chancellor of Justice determined that the women’s freedom to practice religion had been violated (Wigerström, 2013).

In 2012, SNEA published its school burka policy. The document refers to the 2006 law prohibiting discrimination against children and stresses that general bans are illegal, while giving educators the right to prohibit the burka in specific situations where the burka obstructs communication to an unacceptable degree or causes a risk to students (Skolverket, 2012). SD parliamentarians advanced another bill for a general burka ban (Sällström et al., 2012). In Södertälje and Timrå, SD politicians submitted municipal proposals (Perkins, 2013; SVT, 2012).

Over the next two years, Christian Democrat, SD and independent politicians submitted municipal motions (e.g. Folkö, 2013; Nilsson, 2013; Världen idag, 2013). The media reported openly hostile and violent attitudes towards burka wearers, particularly in 2013. A SD official in Borlänge told a fellow shopper in burka that she was “in the wrong hemisphere,” causing a fistfight (Svenberg, 2013). In Umeå, a woman assaulted a burker-bearer who was waiting with her baby at a bus stop (Sveriges Radio, 2013).

The burka “problem” did not disappear during the refugee crisis in Europe. In 2015, to discourage migration to Sweden, the SD party distributed a leaflet “from the Swedish people” to refugees on the Greek island of Lesbos which stated that the burka would soon be banned in Sweden (Karlsson, 2015). In 2016, SD and Moderate politicians submitted municipal burka bans as an explicit response to the recent immigration wave (e.g. Hansson, 2016; Nilsson, 2016). In parliament, a SD, encouraged by Latvia’s new burka ban, proposed a general prohibition (Jomshof, 2016). Specific cases concerning individuals wearing burka received extensive media coverage: an employee at a private preschool was prohibited from wearing a burka and reported the school to the DO, which refused the case (DO, 2015), and a witness for a defendant in a murder trial wore a burka during her testimony (Sydvik, 2016).

In 2017, the European Court of Justice determined it was legal for certain employers to prohibit the burka and other “religious symbols” if their workplaces required “neutral” clothing (SVT, 2017). A spate of municipal bills to prohibit the burka in healthcare and municipal workplaces followed, proposed mostly by SDs but also a Liberal (e.g. BLT, 2017; Olsson, 2017). For example, in Eskilstuna a SD official proposed a “neutral dress policy” prohibiting municipal employees from wearing visible religious, political or philosophical symbols such as the burka, which he characterized as particularly “inappropriate” (Sveriges Radio, 2017). He described the policy as preventive, given an expected increase in immigrants and alleged problems in other cities. During the Christian Democrat national party congress in October, 40 percent of the delegates supported including a burka ban in the party’s platform (Hulander, 2017). Two weeks later, a public bus driver tried to prevent a burka-bearer from boarding the bus (Häggberg, 2017).

The burka returned to national attention as Sweden neared the general election of 2018. Alternative for Sweden, an extreme right party with an anti-Islam platform, appeared in public displaying a banner that was widely circulated on social media. Held on one side by white men in white t-shirts and on the other by individuals in burkas, the banner read “Which Sweden do you choose?” Party leaders’ views on a burka prohibition were solicited in televised election debates, partly because of Denmark’s new ban (Expressen, 2018). While only the SD leader advocated a general prohibition, leaders from other parties described the burka as “the oppression of women” (Centre), advocated a ban in schools (Liberal), and described burka bearers as immigrants (Centre, Liberal, Left). Parliamentarians continued submitting burka ban proposals after the general election, despite a hung parliament and extended government crisis. One is described in the introduction (Jomshof, 2018). Another was submitted by SDs in a bill concerning changes to Swedish preschools (Reslow et al., 2018).

WPR D: effects

Swedish policy proposals represent the burka as “problem” through the interrelated tropes of “hiding the face,” obstructing communication, “the oppression of women” and religious excess. Burka bearers are constructed as dishonest, untrustworthy, foreign, too religious and undemocratic, while Swedes are honest, trustworthy, secular and democratic. Communication between Swedes (who see one another’s faces) is easy and transparent. Swedish men and women have gender-egalitarian relationships and Swedish women are free, whereas burka wearers are subjugated foreign women living in patriarchal gender relationships with non-Swedish men. Gender relationships in the burka ban proposals may be patriarchal (burka wearers) or equal (Swedes), but the categories “men” and “women” are heteronormative. Gender equality is constituted as sexual difference absent power, effectively hiding material and gendered inequalities related to, for example, wages or health. Finally, the burka “problem” constructs Swedish space as free of religion and claims that secularism is intrinsic to Swedish democracy.

Over the 16 years that policy makers and ban advocates have repeated and spread this understanding of the burka “problem,” its social effects have shifted. The burka began to be constituted as a policy “problem” in the early 2000s, when the media reported the presence of women in burka in Swedish schools or courtrooms. Early ban advocates objected to seeing the burka, for reasons related to their understandings of democracy and cultural norms concerning the open and the hidden face, but they also often expressed concern for burka-clad women. For example, the Liberal who first proposed a municipal burka ban told a reporter, “oh dear, that they should have to go like this in the free country Sweden” (Säfstrom, 2002b), and the first national proposal stated, “no woman should feel herself forced to hide her face” and offered “support with a law that forbids the burka” (Danielsson & Pettersson, 2009). In short, during the first years of the burka as “problem,” many ban proponents advocated regulation as a way of helping to free the burka-bearers from patriarchal oppression.

By the 2010s, the contours of the burka “problem” were known throughout Sweden. News stories about controversies over the burka in schools and courtrooms continued, but reports about people attacking women in burka in the grocery store, bus or street also appeared. Few of these stories give details about the attackers, but in those cases where they do, the perpetrators are non-Muslim Swedes (e.g. Svenberg, 2013). Simultaneously, ban proponents no longer talked about helping burka-bearers, either as individuals or a group (e.g. Jomshof, 20162018; Mattison, 2016). Instead they emphasize that Swedish values, Swedes and Sweden are under threat. The fact that the 2010s bills are grounded in abstractions, such as the potential that new migrants to Eskilstuna might wear the burka (Sveriges Radio, 2017) or possible “attempts to combat” Swedish democratic, cultural, and secular values in the parliamentary proposals (Jomshof, 20162018), suggests that this threat is purely symbolic.

Another shifting effect can be seen in the type of regulation proposed. Before 2010, most bills focused on eliminating the burka in schools. The main exception is the 2009 parliamentary motion. The 2010 election debates mirror this trend: in the final televised debate, party leaders were asked if they advocated a burka ban in schools (SVT, 2010b). The Liberal leader was the only politician to raise his hand; the others were dismissive. By contrast, during two national debates in 2018, party leaders were asked about a general burka ban. The SD leader supported prohibiting the burka in all public places. The Christian Democrat leader said that all employers should have the right to impose burka bans. “It is important for building faith (förtroende) and trust (tillit) in Sweden that we can shake hands and look into each other’s eyes in Sweden,” she continued, eliciting agreement from the SD leader (Expressen, 2018). After 2010, limited burka bans in schools and workplaces became legal. SD parliamentarians submitted three motions for a general prohibition, the Christian Democrats hotly debated including a general ban in their party platform, and the reigning government’s Cabinet publicly announced it had no plans to propose a prohibition. A burka ban in all public places had become imaginable, a policy to debate.

Sweden’s burka ban

In this article we have investigated exactly what proposals to ban the burka govern. Using WPR, we showed how Swedish burka ban proposals constructed what was “problematic” and required intervention, on the one hand, and the subject positions, relationships, practices and values that were unproblematic, good and Swedish, on the other. Central to the burka “problem” and the articulation of Swedishness were views about gendered subject positions and relationships. As the discourse representing the burka as “problem” spread and deepened, the goals of policy interventions shifted to emphasize protecting Swedishness.

Our analysis of Swedish burka ban proposals as discursively constructing Swedes, Swedishness and Sweden contributes to research on European burka bans as expressions of national identity (e.g. Korteweg & Yurdakul, 2014). Swedish ban proposals surged in 2004, 2010 and 2018. Similar to other European contexts, many proposals reacted to young females deciding to wear the burka or related forms of Islamic modesty dress to school (see Moors, 2009, p. 396; Williamson & Khiabany, 2010, pp. 78–79). As in the Netherlands, Britain and France, Swedish arguments to ban the burka increased as anti-immigrant political parties gained political power (see Chakraborty & Zempi, 2012; Korteweg & Yurdakul, 2014, p. 25,97, 109; Laxer, 2016). As in France, Swedish positions on the burka and gender did not reflect political affiliations in any simple way (see Spohn, 2013). Our analysis proves erroneous the widespread assumption that the Swedish burka ban is a SD issue: politicians from all but two of the major Swedish political parties (Left and Green) have spoken out against the burka, and members of most parties have submitted bills to restrict its use.

As we began this research in 2018, Denmark implemented a burka ban. As we concluded writing in 2019, the Netherlands did. Polls indicate that the majority of Swedes find the burka unacceptable in schools and workplaces; four out of ten say it is unacceptable in other public places (Ahmadi and Palm, 2018, p. 48). Regardless of how few women in Sweden wear the burka, whether burka wearers possess any of the negative qualities attributed to them by ban advocates, or which forces pose substantive threats to Swedish “democratic, cultural, and secular values,” most Swedes would prefer not to see women in burkas. If the burka “problem” continues developing in the direction we have identified, they are likely to get their wish.

Acknowledgements

The authors would like to thank Åsa Boholm, three anonymous reviewers, and editor Tiina Suopajärvi for their helpful suggestions about how to improve this manuscript. We also thank the the Department of Cultural Anthropology and Ethnology, Uppsala University, for allowing us to present and receive feedback on this research at an early stage of development.

Disclosure statement

No potential conflict of interest was reported by the authors.

Additional information

Notes on contributors

Sylva Frisk

Sylva Frisk is senior lecturer in social anthropology at the School of Global Studies, University of Gothenburg. Her interests include gender, Islam, and the scholarship of teaching and learning.

Maris Boyd Gillette

Maris Boyd Gillette is professor of social anthropology at the School of Global Studies, University of Gothenburg. Her interests include material culture, capitalism, Muslim societies, and participatory-action research.

Notes

1. All primary source materials in this article are in Swedish, plus the following secondary sources: Ahmadi and Palm (2018), Anderson and Backelin (2010), Gardell (2011) and Paridad (2010). All translations are ours.

2. Politicians proposed “burka bans” in Örebro, Älvkarleby, Ystad, Arvika, Bjuv, Kävlinge, Landskrona, Svedala, Trollhätten, Mölndal, Eslöv, Svälov, Trelleborg, Sunne, Timrå, Karlskrona, Tranemo, Eskilsktuna, Gislaved, Norrköping, Sundsvall, Södertälje, Falköping, Svenljunga, Borås, Mark, Ingelstorp, Tibro, Vimmerby, Lidköping, Kungsbacka, and Torsås. Since municipal bills typically receive limited media attention, other proposals may exist. Our list excludes motions to prohibit headscarves that do not specifically name the “burka,” plus three motions by a Moderate parliamentarian that propose official investigations anticipated to result in burka prohibitions. We follow the policy proposals in treating terms like burka, face veil, full-covering veil and niqab as synonyms, unless otherwise specified.

3. As critics of this line of argument have pointed out, if communication and education can only occur in interactions between people who can see one another’s eyes and faces, neither distance learning nor education for the blind are possible (see Hulander, 2017; Thyrén, 2010). Neither is communication by telephone.

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Dash Editor

Self-confessed confused news junkie, with lifelong additions to coffee, great conversations, perfection in all its forms, cold wine, hot music and puppy dogs.

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