World First Look

Why Austria joins other European nations in banning the full-face veil

The Austrian burqa ban plan comes just a month after the German government made a similar call.

A demonstrator wears a niqab during a 2011 protest outside the French embassy in London.
Stefan Wermuth/Reuters/File
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Austria's ruling coalition has become the latest governmental body in Europe to ban Muslim full-face veils in public places. The measure is part of a larger deal struck by the center-left Democratic party (SPÖ) and the center-right Austrian People's party (ÖVP) to avert the disintegration of the ruling coalition.

Similar bans to the one proposed in Austria have popped up in countries across Europe, propelled by the rise of right-wing populist parties and anti-immigration sentiments across the continent. The ban will apply to courts, schools, and other public areas.

As an explanation for the ban, the 35-page agreement penned by the coalition said that Austria should be an "open society that requires open communication."

"Full-face veils in public places are the opposite of that and will be banned," the agreement added.

The population of women who actually wear full-face veils in Austria is very small, though tourism groups have expressed concerns that the new ban will dissuade visitors from coming to Austria from areas where the veil is common. The BBC estimates that only 150 women in Austria wear the full niqab, which conceals most of the face, but leaves the eyes clear. The ban will also apply to the burka, the most concealing Islamic veil.

"It is saddening. This is a setback for Austria, for our democracy and for our understanding of diversity," Amani Abu Zahra, of the Islamic religion department at the University for Teacher Education of Christian Churches, told CNN.

Many experts are interpreting the banning of the veil in Austria as a symbolic gesture, meant to partially appease the anti-immigration Freedom party (FPÖ), which is currently leading in the polls. If the centrist SPÖ and ÖVP parties had been unable to reach the agreement last week, the government would have collapsed, triggering a snap election in the country that could have put the FPÖ on top.

Like Austria, Germany's ruling centrist party has also made recent concessions in order to stave off right-wing populism, with Chancellor Angela Merkel calling for a ban on the full veil "wherever it's legally possible." As The Christian Science Monitor reported in December:

Calling for a veil ban in Germany seems to come out of left field for Merkel, whose administration has long been seen as the greatest bulwark of liberal thought in a rightward-shifting Europe.

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Merkel’s party, the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) is leading in the polls, but their supporters may be wary of Merkel and her more liberal policies. A number of voters who might otherwise have voted for the CDU have been put off by Germany’s recent course on immigration, and are now instead voting for anti-immigration party Alternative for Germany.

Similar bans against Islamic facial coverings have taken hold in recent years the Netherlands, France, and Belgium. Some French seaside towns even imposed bans on so-called burkinis – swimsuits that feature a full-body and head covering – over the past summer. Supporters of these bans across Europe often cite the need to preserve secular ideals through religiously neutral clothing. Others have said that banning face-concealing veils is a matter of public safety.

"The law is not directed against religious communities and is not repressive. We made a very good law for the safety of our children," said Bulgarian parliament member Kasimir Velchev, after Bulgaria approved a ban similar to Austria's in September of last year.

Tarafa Baghajati, chair of the Austrian Muslim Initiative, told CNN that he did not necessarily agree with the full-face veil, but that imposing a ban against it is "counterproductive."

"This is state-run discrimination against Muslim women that violates the constitution and anti-discrimination laws," he said.

This article contains material from Reuters.