Austria has become the latest European country to move to ban the burqa, as the government attempts to counter surging support for a populist far-right opposition party.
The ban on wearing full-face Islamic veils such as the niqab or burqa in public was part of a package of planned reforms announced late Monday. The proposals were contained in a policy document laying out a vision for the country as an “open society that requires open communication.”
“Full-face veils in public places are the opposite of that, and will be banned,” said the document.
The niqab is an Islamic face veil that leaves the area around the eyes unobstructed, although a separate eye veil can be worn with it. The burqa is an even more concealing garment – a one-piece covering the face and body, often with a mesh veil worn over the eyes.
Integration Minister Sebastian Kurz, whose center-right People’s Party had pushed senior coalition partner the Social Democratic Party for the ban, said that by prohibiting “anti-social symbols” like burqas, the country would be able to better integrate migrants.
The policy document also said the government would consider a broader ban on public employees wearing the Islamic headscarf or other religious symbols, stating that the reforms must ensure that the state “presents itself in a world-open and religiously neutral manner.”
Austria is just the latest European country to move to ban the Islamic veil, as the continent grapples with questions over Muslim integration, amid concerns over an influx of predominantly Muslim migrants and the threat of Islamist terror.
France, Belgium, and Bulgaria have all banned the burqa in public places, while several localities in Switzerland and Italy have implemented regional bans.
National bans are currently being debated by politicians in Germany, the Netherlands, and Switzerland; German Chancellor Angela Merkel said last month that the full-face veil should be banned in public “wherever it is legally possible.”
Austria’s move for a burqa ban emerged from recent crisis negotiations between the coalition partners amid differences over the government’s direction, as it faces a serious challenge from the far-right Freedom Party. The Freedom Party, which has led polls for months and whose candidate came second in presidential elections last year, has campaigned against the perceived Islamization of the country and called for a halt to immigration.
The burqa ban, which still requires parliamentary approval before it comes into force, has Muslim groups deeply concerned.
Carla Amina Baghajati, women’s affairs spokeswoman for the Islamic Religious Authority in Austria, the country’s official Muslim authority, told VICE News the move would only channel rising populist resentment at Muslims by symbolically subjugating Muslim women.
“It’s channeling the emotions of people who are fearful, and who have an image fueled by populists that Muslims will take over our society, our identity,” Baghajati said. “Clothing is a way of showing ‘We will make you undress, we will force on you our way of life.'”
As only about 150 women in Austria wore the niqab or burqa, she said the move was largely symbolic. Austria is predominantly Catholic, with Muslims comprising about 7 percent of the population.
She compared the policy to U.S. President Donald Trump’s recent executive order restricting travel to the U.S. from a number of Muslim countries, saying both measures were aimed at “excluding Muslims.”
Nermina Mumic, president of Muslim Youth Austria, said that contrary to the government’s objectives, the ban would “make it difficult for young people to identify with Austria, and hinder integration.”
“For many young Muslims, this ban says, ‘You do not belong. You are not a fully-fledged part of this country,’” she said.