Austria Will Ban Full-Face Veil In Public Places

A number of European countries are planning similar bans as far-right parties gain support.

Austria plans to institute a ban on wearing full face veils in public as part of a series of reforms to shore up support for the country’s coalition government.

The ruling Social Democratic Party, along with the Austrian People’s Party, worked on the 35-page package of proposals that Austrian Chancellor Christian Kern announced with his vice chancellor on Monday.

“We are committed to an open society, which also presupposes open communication. A full-face veil in public places stands in its way and will therefore be banned,” the document states.

Austria’s ban represents an attempt to cater to supporters of the populist right-wing Freedom Party, which saw its candidate lose in last month’s presidential election but still has significant support in the polls.

It also makes Austria the latest country to embrace policies closely associated with Europe’s rising anti-immigrant, anti-Islam parties. In addition to banning full-face veils, the reforms will restrict foreign workers and add new requirements for people to receive asylum in Austria.

Austrian Chancellor Christian Kern and Vice Chancellor Reinhold Mitterlehner at a news conference in Vienna on Jan. 30, 2017.
Austrian Chancellor Christian Kern and Vice Chancellor Reinhold Mitterlehner at a news conference in Vienna on Jan. 30, 2017.
Leonhard Foeger/Reuters

Critics of the face veil ban, like Ibrahim Olgun, president of Austria’s Islamic Faith Community, said it would undermine the relationship between the Austrian government and Muslims.

However, a number of other European countries ― especially where anti-immigrant or anti-Islam parties are gaining support ― are considering similar face veil bans.

The Netherlands is currently considering legislation for a partial ban on full face coverings that its lower house of Parliament approved last November. The niqab and burqa would be banned in certain public institutions, including schools, hospitals and government buildings, as well as on public transport.

Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte’s party backed the ban. Earlier this month, Rutte wrote an open letter telling people in the Netherlands to “act normal or leave.”

Observers saw the letter as a fairly transparent attempt to court populist right-wing voters ahead of parliamentary elections in March.

Dutch polls show that anti-Muslim politician Geert Wilders’ party is expected to gain a significant portion of the vote, although the Netherlands’ multi-party system makes it very unlikely it will actually govern. Wilders, who is sometimes compared to U.S. President Donald Trump, praised Trump’s Muslim ban on Tuesday.

In Germany, Chancellor Angela Merkel announced last December that she would back a face veil ban “wherever legally possible.” Merkel is aiming to secure a fourth term as chancellor later this year, as the far-right Alternative for Germany party gains support on an anti-immigration platform.

Some areas of Switzerland have also banned face coverings, and Belgium has had a full face veil ban in place since 2011. France instituted a full face veil ban for public places the same year, and last year, some French mayors passed bans on full-body swimsuits. These so-called “burkini bans” were overturned in France’s highest court after lawyers argued they were unconstitutional and discriminatory.

Meanwhile, Austria’s plan to partially ban full face veils could go even further. The country’s minister of foreign affairs and integration, Sebastian Kurz, stated earlier this month that he favored a ban on headscarves for public servants.

An estimated 100 to 150 women in Austria wear full face veils out of a population of around 8.5 million people.

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