Austria has banned wearing a full facial veil in public places, the latest move by a European country to restrict expressions of Muslim identity viewed as contrary to Western secular values. The decision immediately drew criticism from rights advocates and from representatives of Austria’s Muslim community.
Under the new legislation, approved by Parliament on Tuesday, women who wear clothing that covers their faces, such as burqas or niqabs, in places like universities, public transportation or courthouses will face fines of 150 euros, or about $167. The measure will take effect in October.
The ban is part of legislation aimed at improving the integration of immigrants, according to Muna Duzdar, a state secretary in the office of Chancellor Christian Kern. Other elements of the legislation include mandatory integration courses, German-language lessons and requirements that asylum seekers do unpaid work while awaiting the processing of their claims. Under the new law, migrants who do not meet the requirements could see their welfare benefits slashed.
Analysts said the new law appeared to be at least partially calculated to try and defuse the growing influence of the far-right anti-immigrant Freedom Party. (On Tuesday, it criticized the legislation, saying it did not go far enough.)
Sevgi Kircil, a member of Austria’s Muslim community, said the new restrictions were an infringement on individual privacy and a reckless “intervention in religious freedom and the freedom of expression.” Earlier this year, thousands of Muslim women took to the streets of Vienna to protest the proposed law.
The Austrian Bar Board, which represents the legal profession, said the ban breached the values of constitutional democracy, along with “the fundamental rights of the freedom of conscience and the freedom of private life.”
The current coalition government — which includes the conservative People’s Party and the center-left Social Democratic Party — is on the brink of collapse, and early elections are expected in October. That could create an opportunity for the far-right Freedom Party to enter government for the second time since it was formed by former Nazis in the 1950s.
The Freedom Party’s nominee for president of Austria lost to a moderate in May and December of last year. (The election was ordered repeated because of procedural irregularities in the vote counting the first time.)
The new restrictions come as countries across Europe, buffeted by the rise of far right anti-immigrant parties, have been grappling with how to integrate a large influx of migrants, many of whom come from predominantly Muslim countries in the Middle East.
Amid a simmering anti-immigrant backlash, religious clothing has become a proxy for fears that European identity and values are being subsumed by Islamic immigration. That alarm has been magnified by recent terrorist attacks in France, Belgium, Sweden and elsewhere, and by fears that extremists are entering Europe by posing as refugees.
Austria is hardly alone in imposing restrictions on religious garb. Many critics of religious attire say it oppresses women, is physically restrictive and isolates them from mainstream society; many defenders say it is a religious obligation or, in some cases, a matter of individual identity and an expression of one’s heritage.
In 2010, the French Parliament voted to ban the wearing of face-concealing veils in public places, the first country to do so. Violators face a fine of 150 euros. A woman with a full facial veil was spotted in the audience at Opéra Bastille in Paris in 2014 and some of the performers refused to sing. After she was asked to uncover her face or leave; she and her husband left.
A similar ban in Belgium went into effect in 2011.
Germany’s Parliament this year approved a draft banning women working in the judiciary, civil service or military from wearing face-covering veils, and will come into effect soon.
In December, Chancellor Angela Merkel announced her support for the ban, arguing that full facial veils were “not acceptable in Germany.” She called for them to be prohibited “wherever it is legally possible.”
The European Union’s highest court entered into the politically explosive debate in March, ruling that private employers can prohibit female workers from wearing head scarves on the job as long as it applies to religious garb from all faiths.