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From France to Denmark, bans on full-face Muslim veils are spreading across Europe

Ayah, 37, a wearer of the niqab, weeps as she is embraced by a police officer during a demonstration against the Danish face-veil ban in Copenhagen on Aug. 1, 2018. (Andrew Kelly/Reuters)

Earlier this month, Denmark became the fifth country in Europe to introduce a ban on face coverings in public places. The policy is widely viewed as being targeted at Muslim women who wear veils such as the niqab.

Despite protests in the country’s capital, police have started enforcing the law in earnest. On Aug. 3, a 28-year-old wearing the niqab, which covers the entire body except the eyes, was attacked by another Danish woman who tried to pull her veil off, the Guardian reported. Police fined the Muslim woman $156.

Legislation around full-face veils has grown increasingly common in Europe, particularly in the past three years. Six countries have now passed nationwide laws that partially or fully ban face veils in public places. The latest is the Netherlands, which voted in June to partially ban face veils in locations such as schools and hospitals, but not on public streets.

Nationwide bans or partial bans
France, Belgium, Bulgaria, Austria, Denmark, the Netherlands
Local bans in cities or towns
Spain, Italy, Switzerland
No bans, but pending legislation for local or national bans
Germany, Latvia, Finland, Luxembourg

Several other European countries, including Spain and Italy, have banned them in individual cities and towns, and even more have reviewed proposals for bans at a local or national level.

Widespread calls for legislation outlawing face veils in public places started in France, which in 2011 became the first European country to introduce a nationwide ban. At the time, French President Nicolas Sarkozy argued during a state-of-the-nation address that the burqa — a head-to-toe covering with mesh screening the eyes, mainly worn in Afghanistan — was a “sign of subservience and debasement.”

"I want to say solemnly, the burqa is not welcome in France. In our country, we can’t accept women prisoners behind a screen, cut off from all social life, deprived of all identity. That’s not our idea of freedom,” Sarkozy said to rapturous applause from lawmakers, the Guardian reported.

Danish Parliament voted May 31 to outlaw the burqa and the niqab in public, saying the veils that are worn by some Muslim women go against Danish values. (Video: Reuters)

Another common justification for the ban is that face veils conceal the identity of the wearer, posing a security threat.

In Latvia, for example, where just three women among the country’s population of 2 million are estimated to wear the burqa, debates around a proposed ban on face veils have frequently featured concerns over security. In 2016, Vaira Vike-Freiberga, the former president of Latvia, told the New York Times that “covering one’s face in public at a time of terrorism presents a danger to society. … You could carry a rocket launcher under your veil. It’s not funny.”

Politicians also frequently contend that face veils are inconsistent with existing “European values,” mounting what experts describe as a “clash of cultures” argument.

In 2017, Germany’s then-interior minister, Thomas de Maizière, called for a nationwide ban on face veils in an editorial that stated: “We are an open society. We show our face. We are not burqa.” Earlier this year, while Denmark’s Parliament debated the face-veil bill that would later become law, Justice Minister Soren Pape Poulsen contended that a person concealing her face was “disrespectful” to others and “incompatible with the values in Danish society.”

Alice Weidel, co-leader of the Alternative for Germany Party, drew heckling during a speech in the lower house of the German parliament on May 16. (Video: Bundestag)

Regardless of the justification, policies governing head veils are likely to grow more prevalent in the coming years, particularly as European governments try to stave off the growing influence of right-wing leaders in their countries, experts said.

While the percentage of women who wear the niqab or burqa is tiny in most European countries, said Akbar Ahmed, a professor at American University, their veils are visible markers of the Islamic community that right-wing leaders point to as evidence of the “Islamization” of Europe.

And as right-wing groups gain more traction, even moderate or liberal administrations may feel pressure to make a strategic choice to ban face veils, explained Asma Uddin, a senior scholar and faculty member at the Religious Freedom Center of the Freedom Forum Institute. Perhaps more importantly, she added, governments in Europe now feel like they have license to take such steps because of the legal precedents set by their neighbors.

In 2014, the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) upheld the French ban on face veils, ruling against a 24-year-old Muslim woman who argued that she wanted to wear her burqa as a matter of religious freedom. In 2017, the ECHR issued similar decisions against two Belgian women, ruling that the country’s ban on face veils does not violate the European Convention on Human Rights.

As Uddin explained, “We can say all these things about them violating freedom of religion, but over there, their own highest court is saying to them, ‘You’re not. You’re justified in what you’re doing.’ ”

This post has been updated with changes to its graphics.

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