31 May 2018
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Countries across Europe have wrestled with the issue of the Muslim veil – in various forms such as the body-covering burka and the niqab, which covers the face apart from the eyes.
The debate takes in religious freedom, female equality, secular traditions and even fears of terrorism.
The veil issue is part of a wider debate about multiculturalism in Europe, as many politicians argue that there needs to be a greater effort to assimilate ethnic and religious minorities.
On 6 December 2016, Chancellor Angela Merkel said the wearing of full-faced veils should be prohibited in Germany “wherever it is legally possible”.
Her comments, made at a CDU party meeting, came after plans to outlaw the burka – or any full-face veil – in public buildings were proposed by Interior Minister Thomas de Maiziere in August.
There has been no national law restricting the wearing of veils in Germany prior to these proposals.
In September 2003 the federal Constitutional Court had ruled in favour of a teacher who wanted to wear an Islamic scarf to school.
However, it said states could change their laws locally if they wanted to.
At least half of Germany’s 16 states went on to ban teachers from wearing headscarves and in the state of Hesse the ban included civil servants.
The southern state of Bavaria went on to prohibit full-face veils in schools, polling stations, universities and government offices in early 2017.
The ruling coalition agreed in January 2017 to prohibit full-face veils (niqab and burka) in public spaces such as courts and schools, with the law coming in to force in October the same year. The government said at the time it was considering a more general ban on state employees wearing the headscarf and other religious symbols.
The measures were seen as an attempt to counter the rise of the far-right Freedom Party, which almost won the presidency in December 2016.
The coalition, made up of the left-wing Social Democrats and the conservative Austrian People’s Party, said that full-face veils in public stood in the way of “open communication”, which it said was fundamental to an “open society”.
Only an estimated 150 women wear the full niqab in Austria but tourism officials expressed fears that the measures would also deter visitors from the Gulf as it would apply at ski resorts, as much as the capital, Vienna.
The measures require parliamentary approval before they can come into force.
On 11 April 2011, France became the first European country to ban the full-face Islamic veil in public places.
Under the ban, no woman, French or foreign, is able to leave their home with their face hidden behind a veil without running the risk of a fine.
As President, Nicolas Sarkozy, whose administration brought in the ban, said that veils oppress women and were “not welcome” in France.
In 2016 France introduced a controversial ban on women’s full-body swimsuits, known as “burkinis”. Prime Minister Manuel Valls called the swimsuits “the affirmation of political Islam in the public space”.
The burkini ban, imposed by French Riviera mayors, was later lifted in seaside resorts after France’s top administrative court overruled the law.
France has about five million Muslims – the largest Muslim minority in Western Europe – but it is thought only about 2,000 women wear full veils.
The penalty for doing so is a 150 euro (£133, $217) fine and instruction in citizenship. Anyone found forcing a woman to cover her face risks a 30,000 euro fine.
Data from 2015 showed that 1,546 fines had been imposed under the law.
The European Court of Human Rights upheld the ban on 2 July 2014 after a case was brought by a 24-year-old French woman who argued that the ban violated her freedom of religion and expression.
Most of the population – including most Muslims – agree with the government when it describes the face-covering veil as an affront to society’s values. Critics – chiefly outside France – say it is a violation of individual liberties.
A ban on Muslim headscarves and other “conspicuous” religious symbols at state schools was introduced in 2004, and received overwhelming political and public support in a country where the separation of state and religion is enshrined in law.
A law banning the full-face veil came into effect in Belgium in July 2011.
The law bans any clothing that obscures the identity of the wearer in places like parks and on the street.
In December 2012, Belgium’s Constitutional Court rejected appeals for the ban to be annulled, ruling that it did not violate human rights.
The Belgian law was upheld by the European Court of Human Rights in 2017.
Before the bill was passed, the burka was already banned in several districts under old local laws originally designed to stop people masking their faces completely at carnival time.
In November 2016, Dutch MPs backed a ban on the Islamic full veil in public places such as schools and hospitals, and on public transport.
The niqab and the burka full-face veils were included in the ban along with face coverings such as ski-masks and helmets.
In order for the ban to become law, the Dutch Senate must approve the bill.
Prime Minister Mark Rutte’s ruling Liberal-Labour coalition described the bill, which will see offenders fined up to 410 euros (£350, $435), as “religious-neutral”.
The proposed ban reflected the influence of the anti-Islamist Geert Wilders, whose Freedom party was at that time the third largest in parliament and the minority coalition government’s chief ally.
Around 5% of the Netherlands’ 16 million residents are Muslims, but only around 300 are thought to wear the niqab or the burka. The wearing of headscarves is far more common, however.
Several towns in Italy have local bans on face-covering veils. The north-western town of Novara is one of several local authorities to have already brought in rules to deter public use of the Islamic veil.
In the Lombardy region of Italy, a burka ban was agreed in December 2015 and came into effect in January 2016.
Governments have discussed extending laws to impose penalties on Muslim face coverings, but these have not yet been enforced nationally.
In 2004 local politicians in northern Italy resurrected old public order laws against the wearing of masks, to stop women from wearing the burka.
Some mayors from the anti-immigrant Northern League have also banned the use of Islamic swimsuits.
Though there are no plans for a national ban in Spain, in 2010 the city of Barcelona announced a ban on full Islamic face-veils in some public spaces such as municipal offices, public markets and libraries.
At least two smaller towns in Catalonia, the north-eastern region that includes Barcelona, have also imposed bans.
But a ban in the town of Lleida was overturned by Spain’s Supreme Court in February 2013. It ruled that it was an infringement of religious liberties.
Barcelona’s city council said the ban there targeted any head-wear that impeded identification, including motorbike helmets and balaclavas.
There is no ban on Islamic dress in the UK, but schools are allowed to decide their own dress code after a 2007 directive which followed several high-profile court cases.
In January 2010, then Schools Secretary Ed Balls said it was “not British” to tell people what to wear in the street after the UK Independence Party called for all face-covering Muslim veils to be banned.
In September 2013, Home Office Minister Jeremy Browne called for a “national debate” about Islamic veils in public places, such as schools.
In 2014 UKIP came first in the European elections in Britain, winning 24 seats in Brussels. Former UKIP leader Nigel Farage has said that full veils are a symbol of an “increasingly divided Britain”, that they “oppress” women, and are a potential security threat.
Some 57% of the British public support a burka ban in the UK, a YouGov poll in August 2016 found.
For more than 85 years Turks have lived in an officially secular state founded by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, who rejected headscarves as backward-looking.
Scarves are banned in civic spaces and official buildings, but the issue is deeply divisive for the country’s predominantly Muslim population, as two-thirds of all Turkish women – including the wives and daughters of the prime minister and president – cover their heads.
In 2008, Turkey’s constitution was amended to ease a strict ban at universities, allowing headscarves that were tied loosely under the chin. Headscarves covering the neck and all-enveloping veils were still banned.
In October 2013, Turkey lifted rules banning women from wearing headscarves in the country’s state institutions – with the exception of the judiciary, military and police.
The governing AK Party, which has Islamist roots, said the ban meant many girls were being denied an education. But the secular establishment said easing it would be a first step to allowing Islam into public life.
In August 2016, Turkey began allowing policewomen to wear the headscarf.
The Danish parliament approved a bill in May 2018 to punish anyone wearing a full-face veil with a fine, which would increase tenfold if an individual was caught again. It is due to come into effect in August 2018.
Ten years earlier, the government announced it would bar judges from wearing headscarves and similar religious or political symbols – including crucifixes, Jewish skull caps and turbans – in courtrooms.
That move came after pressure from the Danish People’s Party (DPP), known for its anti-Muslim rhetoric, which has since called for the ban to be extended to include school teachers and medical personnel.
After a Danish paper published a controversial cartoon in 2005 depicting the Prophet Muhammad as a bearded man with a bomb in his turban, there were a series of protests against Denmark across the Muslim world.
Russia’s Stavropol region has a ban on hijabs – the first of its kind imposed by a region in the Russian federation. The ruling was upheld by Russia’s Supreme Court in July 2013.
In Chechnya, the authorities have defied Russian policy on Islamic dress. In 2007 President Ramzan Kadyrov – the pro-Moscow leader – issued an edict ordering women to wear headscarves in state buildings. It is a direct violation of Russian law, but is strictly followed today.
President Kadyrov even voiced support for men who fired paintballs at women deemed to be violating the strict dress code.
In late 2009, Swiss Justice Minister Eveline Widmer-Schlumpf said a face-veil ban should be considered if more Muslim women begin wearing them, adding that the veils made her feel “uncomfortable”.
In September 2013, 65% of the electorate in the Italian-speaking region of Ticino voted in favour of a ban on face veils in public areas by any group.
It was the first time that any of Switzerland’s 26 cantons has imposed such a ban.
There are about 350,000 Muslims in Switzerland, which has a population of eight million.
In October 2016, Bulgaria’s parliament passed a bill backed by a nationalist coalition to fine and cut the benefits of women who cover their faces in public.
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