Austria face veil ban ‘criminalises Muslim women’

Only 100 or so Muslim women wear the face veil but Austria has joined other European countries in outlawing the garment.


Activists and experts have condemned a law implemented in Austria on Sunday prohibiting the face veil as “counterproductive” and as an “attack on religious freedom”.

The law, commonly known as the “Burqa ban,” came into effect in advance of a general election on October 15, which could see the traditionally xenophobic far-right Freedom Party make gains.

Of approximately nine million Austrians, between 100 to 150 Muslim women – or 0.002 percent – wear the face veil.

There are around 700,000 Muslims in the country.

The garment covers the entire body and face except for the eyes, but violators may now face a fine of up to $180.

The Austrian government says the law safeguards Austrian values and the concept of a free society.

Officials have carefully marketed the law, termed “Prohibition on the Covering of the Face”, as being religiously-neutral by also restricting the donning of medical masks, party masks, and scarves in public.

But activists and experts have denounced the nature of the law as “counterproductive” and “Islamophobic”.

Carla Amina Baghajati, a rights activist and spokeswoman for the Austrian Islamic Religious Authority, a public institution representing Muslims, says the law threatens the concept of an open society.

“They believe that they are ‘freeing these women’ and that they’re taking action to secure the identity of Austria, but this is hypocritical as the idea of an open society is that everybody has the liberty to act and dress as they please as long as nobody else is harmed,” Baghajati told Al Jazeera.

“These ladies are being criminalised. Everybody thinks that they are victims, but you cannot be patronising them. They say that they do not want to be freed because they are already free and chose to wear the face veil,” said Baghajati.

The legislation was approved in May as part of a wider set of proposals aimed at countering the rise of the Freedom Party, which came close to winning Austria’s presidential election in January.

In those measures, Austria also banned the distribution of the Quran and required all refugees and immigrants to participate in an “integration” programme to learn the German language and “Austrian ethics”.

Baghajati attributed the face veil ban as an attempt by politicians to “send a message to the public that they are in control” of the security situation.

Fears over “extremism” have been fuelled by the arrival of refugees.

But Austria has taken a tough stance against the entry of refugees.

Earlier this year, the government told the European Union that it would no longer accept any refugees, many of whom are Syrians seeking refuge from the six-year war plaguing their country.

In February, Foreign Minister Sebastian Kurz called for setting up mass camps in North Africa for refugees who fled to Europe.

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