RIGA - “My personal opinion is that of course they should not wear such a veil,” Latvian President Raimonds Vejonis declared in a recent interview. He was referring to Muslim women who wear the burqa or the veil that covers their bodies from head to toe.
How many readers of The Baltic Times can remember a single instance in which they have seen a woman in a full veil in Riga or elsewhere in this country? I cannot. The media have reported that a few such women have been seen in Latvia, but I have never seen one. So what’s the big deal?
Apart from religious bigotry, the reason probably has to do with the fact that Latvia will soon start receiving the first group of what will eventually be 250 refugees who will be sent here as part of an overall European Union programme to lighten up the terrible burden of refugees that has beset countries in Southern Europe, particularly Italy and Greece. Most of the refugees and asylum seekers have fled from war-torn parts of Africa and the Middle East, and it is from the latter of those regions, of course, that many Islamic people have come. What if there are terrorists among them? If someone is wearing a burqa, how can we be sure that it’s not actually a man under there? Some more easily excitable people here in Latvia have gone so far as to suggest that the recently nabbed “paedophile of Imanta” could have hidden under a full veil and thus stayed free to attack young women even longer than he did do.
That is ludicrous first and foremost because the Latvian government has said again and again that it will be sending people to Italy and Greece to vet anyone who wants to come here. “Wants” is probably an exaggeration, seeing as how our country is certainly not a hotbed of wealth and social care, so let’s instead say those who are going to be sent here. If so, then the officials can certainly reject anyone in a burqa if there are any such women in the queue.
There is also the fact that many Muslim women do not wear the full veil and do not want to do so. There are, of course, parts of the world where it is mandatory. Saudi Arabia springs to mind. Here in Latvia, the homepage of the Muslim community says that there might be around 10,000 people of Islamic origin in our country, but perhaps some 1,000 actually practicing Muslims. I would bet that the vast majority of women in that group perhaps wear the veil when they are at the mosque, but not in everyday situations. I am equally sure that any who do are very brave, because they can expect all kinds of negativity if they appear on the street in a burqa. In fact, the television show “Forbidden Technique” sent a woman in the veil onto the streets as an experiment a while back, and that is exactly what happened.
Debates about the apparel of Muslim women have occurred in countries where there are many more Muslims than there are here. France, the Netherlands and Belgium have all taken steps to curb the wearing of the burqa and similar apparel. France, naturally enough, has made exceptions in the rule that no one may be covered head to foot for people such as motorcycle riders, for instance, who wear helmets. It occurs that an enterprising terrorist could just put on a motorcycle uniform to do his or her worst, but that’s not really the point here in Latvia. Here in Latvia there simply aren’t enough Muslims for this to be an even second-rate issue on the political agenda.
The people of Latvia are going to have to accept the fact that the population of this country is going to become more diverse. If we can tolerate Krishnas hopping about in the streets and the American-inspired “evangelical” sect in Pardaugava, then surely we can have no objection to Muslims, particularly if some of them have lived here forever. There was Muslim mosque in Riga before World War II, and there is one now. There are Islamic students from places such as Pakistan and Sri Lanka in our capital city, as well as Tatars, Chechens and others who have settled here sometime in the past. In our globalised world, the greater heterogeneity of populations is inevitable. If the day comes when lots of women stroll the streets in a burqa, then let’s revisit the issue. Right now it is not an issue at all.