Controversy over the Islamic Veil in Europe

By Rediet Degefa

In early April of 2018, Austria’s conservative government proposed a bill that will prohibit Muslim girls under the age of 10 from wearing headscarves (hijab) in schools. The bill is called “The Child Protection Law” and the goal is to protect the Austrian mainstream culture from the influences of the Islamic culture. The bill will target kindergarten and primary school students. Sebastian Kurz, chancellor of the People’s Party, asserts that this bill is meant “to confront any development of parallel societies in Austria.”[1] Vice-Chancellor Heinz Christian argues that this bill is an attempt by the government “to protect little girls from political Islam.”[2] Similarly, the Austrian education minister describes this bill is a “symbolic act” that will help fight possible threats posed by Muslims to Austrian culture. Many Muslims, however, believe that their religion of Islam requires females to wear hijabs regardless of the public settings. The Austrian Muslim community strongly opposes the proposal and urges the government to avoid affiliating children with “populist politics.” The Austrian state says it will revise further details of The Child Protection Law later this year.

For the Austrian government, this is not the first regulatory practice toward the Islamic veil. In January of 2017, the government passed a law that prohibits women from wearing full-face veils, such as niqab and burka, in public settings. The two groups that advocated for this ban, the Social Democratic Party and the People’s Party, argued that “full-face veils in public stood in the way of open communication,” which both parties consider a crucial part of an “open society.”[3] Activists from the Muslim community expressed their disapproval of this law by claiming that it is “counterproductive” and “Islamophobic.” One of the activists, Carla Amina Baghajati, who is the spokeswoman for the Austrian Islamic Religious Authority, argues that this law defies the idea of an open society. “They believe that they are ‘freeing these women’ and that they’re taking action to secure the identity of Austria,” states Baghajati, “but this is hypocritical as the idea of an open society is that everybody has the liberty to act and dress as they please as long as nobody else is harmed.” In addition to banning Islamic veils, Austria has also banned the distribution of the Quran (the Islamic sacred book). Austria further requires all immigrants and refugees to attend an integration program “to learn the German language and Austrian ethics.”[4]

The Islamic veil remains a pressing issue across Europe. With France being the first, other European countries like Germany, Italy, Belgium, Denmark and The Netherlands have all outlawed full-face veils in public settings, such as courts, parks, streets and schools. In most cases the consequences of violating these laws are fines. Similar to the anti-veil laws that other European countries have passed, Austria’s new law could contribute to the marginalization of the Muslim community. This law politicizes and depicts the Islamic veil as a safety hazard, when in nearly all cases the veil is simply a traditional form of self and religious expression. By targeting children, another intent of this law is to distance Muslim children from their cultural and religious identity by forcing them to intergrade into Austrian mainstream culture. In this way, Austria is the latest installment of a long contest over defining the bounds of Islamic culture and law in the face of challenges arising out of an increasingly globalized world. It is worth remembering that such leading Muslim countries as Egypt, Iran, Turkey, and Morocco, have during the last hundred years, passed similar anti-veil laws and are generally in a state continual inter-societal debate about what should or should not be legal or required when it comes to the Islamic veil.

[1] “Austria proposes headscarf ban for girls under 10” BBC (April 4, 2018): accessed April 16, 2018. http://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-43646560.

[2] “The Islamic veil across Europe” BBC (January 13, 2017): accessed April 16, 2017, http://

www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-13038095.

[3] “Austria proposes hijab ban for girls under 10 ‘to protect culture from Islamic influences’” The New Arab (April 5, 2018): accessed April 16, 2018, https://

www.alaraby.co.uk/english/news/2018/4/5/austria-proposes-hijab-ban-for-girls-under-10.

[4] Zena Tahhan, “Austria faces veil ban criminalizes Muslim women” Al Jazeera (October 1, 2017): accessed April 25, 2018, https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2017/10/

Austria-face-veil-ban-criminalises-muslim-women-171001104455120.html.

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