Bulgaria bans the veil, echoing European trend

Bulgaria's face-covering ban echoes similar bans by other countries in Europe, as lawmakers struggle to reconcile secular, liberal values with an influx of Muslim immigrants from the Middle East. 

Ali Jarekji/REUTERS/File
EU Commissioner for International Cooperation, Humanitarian Aid and Crisis Response Kristalina Georgieva (R) visits Syrian refugees at their temporary house in Amman in 2012.

Following in the steps of lawmakers in France and Belgium, the Bulgarian parliament voted to ban facial coverings, or veils such as burqas, on Friday.

The new law potentially affects the 12 percent of Bulgaria’s population who are Muslim, many of whom are ethnic Turks. Women are now banned from wearing clothing that partially or completely covers the face.

Similar bans, such as France’s recent burkini ban, have faced opposition by those who say that they restrict a woman’s right to make personal choices about her clothing. Bulgaria’s government says that the law is not targeted, and is instead a public safety measure.

"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, according to Reuters.  

Other countries have passed burqa and veil bans for similar reasons. One of the first to consider and approve banning the veil in public places was France, which introduced a law preventing women from wearing the burqa in 2010 due to a desire to protect French secularism and public safety. Belgium followed in 2011, citing similar reasons.

In 2015, the Dutch parliament also approved a burqa ban in areas such as schools, hospitals, transportation, and government buildings. Proponents of the ban said that the measure was a common sense safety measure, as it allowed all people to be identifiable at all times.

“People have to be recognizable in such areas,” said Afshin Ellian, a professor of jurisprudence and human rights expert at the University of Leiden in The Netherlands. “And anywhere in a free society, it is crucial that people are able literally to look each other in the face.”

Most recently, several French cities and municipalities made the decision to ban the burkini, a full body swimming costume favored by many Muslim women, after recent terrorist attacks raised tensions in France. Local regulations in seaside communities such as Cannes stated that the burkini was a symbol of extremism, and an affront to France’s secular culture.

"Beachwear which ostentatiously displays religious affiliation, when France and places of worship are currently the target of terrorist attacks, is liable to create risks of disrupting public order," read Cannes’ regulations.

Critics of such restrictions on Muslim women say that European governments are curbing free speech and the free practice of religion.

"Women in Bulgaria should be free to dress as they please and to wear the burqa or the niqab as an expression of their identity or beliefs," said Amnesty International’s Europe Director John Dalhuisen.

In 2014, a European human rights court upheld France’s burqa ban, saying that the veil could sequester women off from the rest of society, and hinder the formation of interpersonal relationships.

The European Court of Human Rights wrote in its opinion, that:

“The Court was also able to understand the view that individuals might not wish to see, in places open to all, practices or attitudes which would fundamentally call into question the possibility of open interpersonal relationships, which, by virtue of an established consensus, formed an indispensable element of community life within the society in question.”

France’s current burkini bans also faced legal challenges from human rights groups, with the bans eventually rejected by a French court

Yet despite opposition, burqa bans continue to crop up across Europe, with similar laws under discussion in Austria, Switzerland, and Britain, as the refugee crisis brings more and more Muslim men, women, and children to Europe.

Nevertheless, lawmakers in many of the countries which have passed or are considering these bans say that their decision is not prejudicial, but instead based on civic ideals.

"We want to be able to look into peoples’ faces in our society," Austrian politician Heinz-Christian Strache said in a press conference.

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