Austria Institutes Burqa Ban

Austria became the latest European country to institute a ban on full face veils starting October 1. The parliament passed the law in May, which prohibits any woman from wearing a burqa or niqab in public places such as at universities, courthouses, or on public transportation. Any person found to be violating the law will be fined 150 euros. The ban will also apply to scarves, masks, and clown paint, with exceptions of costumes worn for special events. This is so that the law is not explicitly discriminatory against Muslims. However, the Islamic Religious Authority of Austria condemned the law, claiming that it infringes upon privacy, religious freedom, and freedom of expression. One member of the Austrian Muslim community called it “a clear discrimination of Muslim women, who once again become victims of a policy of coercion.” Foreign Minister Sebastian Kurz, the frontrunner to become Austrian chancellor in the October 15 election, defended the law, saying the burqa is “not a religious symbol, but a symbol for a counter-society.”

Although the burqa ban will likely affect only a few hundred Muslim women in the country who cover their faces, the law will also impact some of the approximately 70,000 tourists who come to Austria every year.

Another legislation recently passed includes mandatory integration courses, German language lessons, and unpaid work for immigrants. Those who do not meet the requirements will have their social benefits cut. Muna Duzdar, a spokesperson for the conservative Austrian People’s Party that drafted the law, said the legislation aimed to improve integration of immigrants.

Some analysts say the law comes from pressure from the Austrian far-right constituencies, especially given the upcoming election. This far-right reaction is part of a larger trend across Europe, where many countries are passing similar laws targeting Muslim and immigrant communities.

The movement began with an influx of refugees into Europe from the Middle East. After terrorist attacks in Belgium, France, and Sweden, clothing became a proxy in many countries for the fear that European values were being overwhelmed by Islamic culture. Following France’s lead in 2010, Belgium, Bulgaria, Switzerland, and Germany all imposed bans on burqas. In March, the EU high courts got involved, saying that these laws were allowed as long as it applied to religious garb of all faiths.

Now, with Austria being added to the list of burqa ban countries and Denmark considering a ban of its own, the issue has people across Europe considering important questions of identity, freedom of expression, and the place of immigrants in modern society.