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Banning the Veil in Bulgaria

Note from the LeftEast editors: this article has been published in collaboration with the Serbo-Croat web portal Bilten.

Last April Pazardzhik, a Bulgarian town with a population of about 70,000, banned Muslim women from wearing veils. Pazardzhik was followed by Stara Zagora, and proposals for introducing similar prohibitions were made in over a third of the regional cities. It is dubious if municipalities have the constitutional right to introduce regional regulations on clothing, but, regardless, the bans are widely backed. Rumyana Bachvarova, the Minister of Interior, said she supports it because more vigilance for the dangers of radicalism is needed. The chief prosecutor – Sotir Tsatsarov – said “this is not traditional Islam”, and added restrictions should not be limited to public buildings, but need to also include streets.

Thе trend is reflected in the Parliament, which drafted a law for the regulation of public clothing. The draft was approved in the regional policy committe by all major parties, both in government and in opposition, with the exception of the Movement for Rights and Freedoms (MRF).

These restrictions came to be known as the bans on the “burqa”, but they are far stricter. Burqas are a form of a full-body cloaks, worn by a relatively small fraction of Muslims globally. In Bulgaria the figure is even more insignificant as full facial covers, like niqabs and burqas, are worn by literally a few dozen women, most of whom are from the Roma quarter “Iztok” in Pazardzhik. The imposed regulations, however, restrict all covering of heads and faces. Some politicians, especially from the far-right, hurried to reassure potential distressed citizens that limitations on public clothing will not hold for mummers or kukeri – a traditional dance that includes wearing of masks, associated with ethnic Bulgarians. Politicians promise sports-wear will still be legal after the law.

The ban did lead many to express concerns. A representative of the Bulgarian Grand Muftiate stated that the proposed law “limits Muslims’ rights and can be dangerous”. Human rights organizations deemed the restrictions an “anti-Muslim act”. Luckily, there are still several mainstream politicians who are critical of the bans. Ivan Totev, the mayor of Plovdiv and a member of the main center-right party GERB, joked that banning non-existent burqas may only harm rich tourists from the Gulf, or those who use Micky Mouse costumes to entertain kids.

Looking at the concrete texts of the new clothing regulations reveals amusing absurdities. What is to be prohibited is clothing that “completely or partially” covers eyes, mouth, ears or hair “in all official institutions and objects of the urbanized territory, related to the provision of administrative, educational or public services, as well as public recreational, sports, cultural and communication spaces”. The formulation “urbanized territory” may easily include all public space. Although journalists and politicians readily talk about limiting Muslims, the actual regulations regard all forms of covering of the face and head. This may mean everything from a hat and scarf on a cold winter day to any women in headscarves. The latter being pretty widespread in some regions amongst Muslim, Christian and non-religious women. In other words, the all-encompassing way the new regulations are framed is inclusive to the point of meaninglessness. The only possibility to practically impose such unclear regulation is to create a special police force, perhaps a moral police, to deal with public clothing.

Supporters of the ban claim to fear that “radical Muslims” will somehow impose what people are allowed to wear, but, paradoxically, they end up doing exactly what they claim to fear the most – governmental regulation on clothing. So it turns out that restrictions on clothing are permissible as long as it is the state who imposes them in the name of European Christianity. Supporters of the ban pretend to be for women’s rights, but they end up calling on the police to tell women how to dress. The magnanimous stance of the pseudofeminists, who claim that the ban does not restrict, but liberates women, does not hold ground when it is the police who controls this enforced “emancipation”.

The restrictions are clearly Islamophobic. Their supporters lump up everything together in the figure of “Islam” – terrorism and totalitarianism, corruption, violation of women’s rights, “anti-Bulgarianism”, Saudi Arabia, the liberal Bulgarian Movement for Rights and Freedoms party and even Communism. The anti-islamic green-scare in Bulgaria is linked with anti-Roma racism too. Metodi Andreev, an MP from the ruling center-right GERB party, stated last month that Roma Muslims are “the most radical”. In 2014 there was an ostentatious police raid against  “Iztok” – the Roma neighborhood in Pazardzhik – hundreds of armed police officers entered the local mosque.

There were some pictures, posted originally on Facebook, of young Roma guys wearing Islamic State t-shirts. But this is hardly “terrorism”. It makes more sense to interpret them as pointing the finger at the authorities, since a simple t-shirt can provoke utter panic among the elite. Not as admiration of the real Islamic State, but as a sort of punk gesture showing what some think after decades of a state that is present in Roma neighborhoods only as a force of social exclusion, oppression, racism and apartheid-like policies.

A woman wearing a veil in the Bulgarian town of Pazardzhik. Photo credit: BBC News.
A woman wearing a veil in the Bulgarian town of Pazardzhik. Photo credit: BBC News.

The restrictions on veiling were introduced first in Pazardzhik, allegedly provoked by Roma women wearing niqab. In the beginning of 2016 a trial against 14 Bulgarian Roma Muslims started in Pazardzhik. The Muslims are accused of propagating religious hatred aimed against those who do not share Salafist beliefs, and promoting the Islamic State. Whenever the court is in session, some Muslim women, with various forms of head covers, meet in front of the Pazardzhik courthouse in support of the defendants. It was precisely during one such court hearing that the Chief Prosecutor, Sotir Tsatsarov, who visited Pazardzhik to oversee the work of the district’s prosecutor, announced that he supported banning the veil. This trial is not the first of its kind, even though before not only Roma Muslims have been accused. Importantly, some were persecuted simply for attending a public lecture on Islam.

The mayor of Pazardzhik Todor Popov proposed the ban only two weeks after the mentioned statement by Tsatsarov. Popov said the restriction is a security requirement. Soon the ban was introduced in Stara Zagora, too, where it was proposed by town councilors from the parties of the ruling coalition GERB and the far-right National Front for the Salvation of Bulgaria (NFSB).

Since there are not many Muslims in Stara Zagora, let alone anything resembling burqas, the municipality decided to forbid any religious agitation in public making use of  print materials, especially the one disturbing “social peace, morals and traditions”. The prohibition, according to the councilors, was prompted by complaints about evangelical Christian missionaries bothering residents at their homes. The councilors admitted that there are no veiled women in the city, but they said “we are preparing for tomorrow”. Curiously enough, advertising the healing effects of religions which are not “officially” sanctioned is also to be prohibited. This local appropriation of the Islamophobic rhetoric contradicts the political program of the NFSB in which the “medical mafia” is slandered. NFSB’s program additionally calls for “de-monopolisation” of public health care and for state support for “alternative healing methods” such as “homeopathy and herbalism”.

In Sofia the ban was proposed by two far-right parties – VMRO, part of the government, and Ataka, which is in opposition. The reason, the councilors stated, was the “increasing invasion of non-traditional [to Bulgaria] symbols of the fundamental (sic!) radical islamism,” coming from Turkey and Saudi Arabia. Both stated this is a European trend and Bulgaria needs to follow. The rise of European Islamophobia allows not only the far-right, but also liberals to openly turn against Muslims.

The Bulgarian liberal economist Ivan Kostov, notorious for imposing the most radical “structural adjustment” programs as prime minister between 1997 and 2001, is now leading a new think tank called R!SK – Management Lab. As head of the lab Kostov is one of the most outspoken activists to point towards the “risks” coming from Islam. Earlier this year he asserted the Bulgarian Muftiate “constantly violates the law” for “aggressively spreading Islam”. Kostov also said there are about 25,000 “radicalized” Bulgarian Muslims, 8000 “support terrorism” and “12,000 young men – illegal immigrants who came in Bulgaria in the last three years” add to the “risks”. Needless to say, such figures are highly dubious, to say the least, let alone the concrete meaning of unclear terms like “support terrorism”. Similar statements provoked some researchers, who had done real empirical research with actual Bulgarian Muslims, to attack Kostov as incompetent. Going after Muslims is harmless: it’s European, liberal, racist and meaningless enough so politicians like Kostov can get off the hook and not talk about the social disaster into which their economic policies lead the country.






cPh-Medarov-GeorgiGeorgi Medarov received his PhD in Sociology from Sofia University, Bulgaria, and currently teaches at Plovdiv University. His research focuses on the elective affinities between authoritarianism and (neo)liberalism in post-1989 Bulgaria. Georgi is also a founding member of the Sofia-based New Left Perspectives – an initiative for political education.