Countries that have banned the burqa, but what does international law say about it?
Massive protests for and against the wearing of ‘hijab’ in educational institutions have erupted in various colleges across Karnataka. The situation escalated on Tuesday when a Muslim girl wearing a hijab entered the college, while a group of boys wearing saffron scarves shouted “Jai Shri Ram”, trailing behind the woman. The turmoil began when a couple of young Muslim girls were denied entry to class at Udupi Women’s Pre-University College for wearing the hijab. Since then, students from various colleges in the state have been wearing saffron headscarves and the hijab in colleges, protesting for and against the dress code rule.
The controversy that has drawn the ire of various political parties, activists and leaders is not an isolated event. Issues related to the restriction of religious dress and the denial of Muslims and women’s right to freedom have been long debated.
Several European and Asian countries have banned burqas, hijabs and veils, courting controversies that, to this day, remain unresolved. As the controversy around Karnataka’s hijab line escalates, here’s a look at which countries have banned the veil.
In 2011, France became the first country to ban the face-covering burqa. Also, the first European country to introduce the same. The restriction began in 2004, with a “crackdown on public school students displaying any form of religious symbol”. The French parliament voted unanimously to impose a general ban on the religious veil, causing immense controversy across the world. In April 2011 the government introduced a total public ban on the full veil, with then-president Nicolas Sarkozy saying they were “not welcome” in France. The law, “Law of 2010-1192: law prohibiting the concealment of the face in public space”, prohibits the wearing of headgear covering the face, including masks, helmets, balaclavas, niqābs and other veils covering the face in public places. The scene sparked a national debate about immigration, security, nationalism and women’s religious freedom. Those who violate the ban can be fined €150 (Rs 12,816), and anyone who forces a woman to cover her face risks a fine of €30,000 (Rs 25.63,350).
In March 2021, Switzerland joined the line of European countries to ban the burqa. The issue, once again, struck at the intersection of religious liberty, security, economics, and women’s rights. The ban was passed after just over 51% of Swiss voters voted in favor of the ban. Proponents, including the right-wing populist movements behind the idea, said the ban was necessary to combat what they see as a sign of women’s oppression and to defend a basic principle according to which faces must be shown in a free society like that of the rich Alpine democracy.
In August 2019, the Netherlands imposed a partial ban on the burqa and niqab worn by conservative Muslim women – on public transport, in government buildings, and in health and education institutions. In accordance with Dutch law, Muslim and rights groups have expressed their opposition to the law – officially called the “partial ban on face-covering clothing” – and an Islamic political party in Rotterdam has said it will pay the 150 euros (Rs 12,824) fines for anyone caught breaking it. According to reports, the Dutch government had insisted that its partial ban did not target any religion and that people were free to dress as they wished. A government site, however, said that “this freedom is limited to places where communication is vital for good quality service or for the safety of society”.
In April 2021, the country’s Cabinet approved the burqa ban, following the horrific Easter attack, citing a threat to national security. Cabinet spokesman Keheliya Rambukwella said the decision was made two years after a wave of coordinated terror attacks on hotels and churches on Easter Sunday. The facial covering includes the burqa and the niqab.
Since July 11, Belgium has banned the full veil. Anyone who breaks the law faces a fine of up to seven days in jail. Belgium, home to around a million Muslims, unanimously backed the ban on security grounds, saying police must be allowed to identify people in the public. However, there were also arguments that the veil was a symbol of female oppression.
China in 2017 banned burqas, veils and “abnormal” beards in a predominantly Muslim province in what it claims was a crackdown on religious extremism. Measures introduced by the government have also forced people to watch state television, following decades of ethnic and religious discrimination against Xinjiang’s 10 million-strong Uyghur population. The regulations prohibit women wearing burkas from entering airports, train stations and other public places.
In October 2017, Austria banned all types of face coverings, including Islamic veils such as the niqab or burqa. Violations are punishable by a fine of 150 euros (Rs 12,812). The police are authorized to use force if people resist showing their faces. Only a small number of Muslim women in Austria wear the full veil, but they have become targets of right-wing groups and political parties.
In 2016, the Bulgarian parliament banned the wearing of headscarves in public to bolster security following attacks by Islamist militants in Europe. The “burqa ban” law, pushed by the nationalist Patriotic Front coalition, echoes similar measures in other Western European countries. A fine of 1,500 levs (Rs 64,337) would be imposed on those who disobey the ban.
What does international law say about the burqa ban?
Freedom of religion and belief is guaranteed by Article 18 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). The United Nations Human Rights Committee has asserted that under the ICCPR “the observance and practice of a religion or belief may include not only ceremonial acts, but also customs such as wearing distinctive clothing or headgear”.
The United Nations Human Rights Committee also states that Article 18 is not limited in its application to traditional religions or religions and beliefs with institutional characteristics and should therefore be interpreted broadly.
Under Article 18(3) of the ICCPR, any restriction on freedom of religion must be non-discriminatory and must be necessary and proportionate to protect public safety, order, health or morals or the freedoms and rights fundamentals of others.
The UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief has pointed out that “banning the burqa is incompatible with international law guarantees of the right to manifest one’s religion or belief and freedom of expression”.
Article 9 of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) explicitly states that everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion.
Gradually, the United Nations Human Rights Committee confirmed that a general ban on face coverings and the burqa is not compatible with international law and human rights standards, the finding it discriminatory. He further points out that the ban is not proportionate to its stated legitimate aim of promoting public safety.
(with agency contributions)