Will Germany follow France in banning Muslim women from wearing a veil?

Officials in Germany have put forward new measures to ban the wearing of veils in schools universities and while driving.

Luke MacGregor/Reuters//File
Women wear full-face veils as they shop in London in 2013. Officials in Germany on Friday introduced a proposal to ban the veil in schools, universities, and while driving.

Conservative Muslim women in Germany may soon face restrictions on where they can wear a veil covering their face.

Chancellor Angela Merkel's party, the Christian Democratic Union, is uniting behind a proposal that would ban women from wearing veils that cover their face while at schools and universities and while driving.

The full veil, which has long provoked debate in the context of women's rights and religious freedoms, has come under renewed scrutiny in recent months following of a series of terrorist attacks inspired by Islamic militants. Germany's proposal is included in a raft of recommended security measures put forth by Interior Minister Thomas de Maiziere. 

"We all reject the full veil – not only the burqa but also other types of full veil that only leave the eyes visible.... It has no place in our society," Mr. de Maiziere told reporters.

Germany's growing public debate over the veil parallels that of neighboring France, which has the highest percentage Muslim population of any country in Europe. In many societies, from Syria (Muslim yet secular) to France, Britain, and Germany, the debate underscores a conflict between civil and religious liberties that secular pluralism is designed to promote and the desire to prevent the wearing of religious symbols that could threaten or undermine those values.

Some Muslim women have argued that they are not forced to wear the burqa or niqab and don’t feel oppressed by it. Other Muslim women have claimed bans, like the one France introduced in 2011, are the right move.

In 2011, France was the first country to ban the wearing of the niqab in public, a decision decried by liberals as an intrusion on civil and religious liberties. The European Court of Human Rights upheld that ban in 2014. Despite arguments from an unnamed French 20-something Muslim woman, who argued her wearing of the veil was entirely her own choice, the court ruled that the law, which was designed to promote harmony in a diverse society, did not infringe on the European Convention on Human Rights.

The French city of Cannes also received flack for recently banning Muslim women from wearing the Burquini on its beaches. That ban, too, has been met with criticism of being intolerant. 

The issue is fraught with tension, even among Muslim women.

Qanta A. Ahmed, a moderate Muslim woman and professor of medicine wrote in a 2011 Monitor op-ed that cries of anti-Muslim sentiment by liberals at such laws were naïve.

"The dilemma is more complicated than state intrusion on personal expression or religious freedom. Instead we need to examine the precise self-expression in question – the veil itself – and search for its roots in Islam," Ms. Ahmed wrote.

"In the early Islamic period, the word khimar, 'veil,' did not necessarily connote face covering. In the Quran, Sura 24:31, the reference to 'khimar' reminds Muslim women of the need to 'draw ...[it] over their bosoms' as integral to female modesty."

In 2010, Syria, a secular society with a majority Shia Muslim population, also moved to preserve its role as a Middle Eastern bastion of secularism when it banned university students and teachers from wearing the niqab. The veil has since become more prevalent in Syria with the rise of the self-proclaimed Islamic State militant group. 

In Germany, any ban on the veil must be approved by the full legislature, which may prove difficult given some of the coalition's center-left Social Democratic Party party members oppose it.

SPD Labour Minister Andrea Nahles said the calls were a sign of an "increasingly xenophobic" political discourse in Germany and could be a real setback to efforts to integrate immigrants. Justice Minister Heiko Mass, also from the SPD, said debates about the burqa and security should be kept separate.

German is home to 4 million Muslims, which make up around 5 percent of the total population.

There are no official figures on how many Germans wear the burqa, but a 2009 study by the Federal Office for Migration and Refugees found that more than two-thirds of Muslim German women did not even wear a headscarf.

This report contains material from the Associated Press and Reuters.

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