By Atif Tauqeer
13 Jan 2017
Austria's Minister for Foreign Affairs and Integration Sebastian Kurz said on Jan 6 that he wanted to ban public servants, including school teachers, from wearing the Islamic headscarf
Austria’s minister of foreign affairs and integration, Sebastian Kurz, is working towards devising a law to ban public servants, including school teachers, from wearing the Islamic headscarf. Many Muslim women consider the burqa and scarf part of their identity in Europe and such a law would cause an outrage not only in the Muslim community, but would also socially isolate Muslims.
Kurz, who is a member of the ruling Christian People’s Party (OVP), is preparing the draft in collaboration with a Muslim Member of Parliament and junior minister, Muna Duzdar, who is a Muslim and has an Arab family background. If Parliament approves it, this law would be more inflexible than laws in neighboring France, where only the full-face niqab and burqa is illegal, and in Germany, where in 2015, the highest court ordered the government to restrict its headscarf ban to only apply to teachers and not all public servants. Chancellor Angela Merkel has, however, recently supported a nationwide ban on the full-face veil.
“A face is identity. A woman who wears a full-face veil actually hides her identity and it should not be allowed at all.” Indeed, in Europe, the face is considered the prime identity and Europeans are traditionally uncomfortable socializing with someone with practically “no face”
Experts see these measures as political moves by parties to calm their voters, who are furious about the huge migrant influx. Far right movements and parties are benefiting from the situation by exploiting the public’s fear. These measures are a crude effort to settle the increasing unrest.
The body of a Syrian child, Aylan Kurdi, which was found on the shores of Turkey in September 2015, brought forth a wave of public sympathy for refugees. It was public reaction which somewhat forced Chancellor Merkel to suspend the European border controls and to open up the country’s borders for refugees. But several events in the past one year have contributed to a swing in the public’s opinion. Last year, in the western German city of Cologne more than a thousand women complained of being groped, robbed and sexually harassed during the New Year eve celebrations; and the suspects were mainly of North African and Arab appearance.
Groping, rapes and several terror attacks have contributed to raising fear in Germans regarding the integration of Muslims in a secular and liberal European society. The hijab, niqab, burqa and scarf issues have divided Muslims too. Those who don’t observe the headscarf, niqab or burqa don’t expect to be judged and they respect the choice of those who do. Iram Razaq, an artist and former radio presenter, finds headscarves and the burqa a downright personal choice. “Governments and laws have nothing to do with an individual’s freedom,” she argues. Whereas Ayesha Sprung, a Pakistani-origin Swiss yoga teacher, is in favor of the ban. “Those who want to practice such restrictive values should go to Saudi Arabia,” she argues.
Today Europe is going through what is arguably the biggest refugee crisis since the Second World War and Muslims form the majority of this refugee resettlement. Thus, there is a huge debate in the Global North on the integration of Muslims into their societies. France initiated its nationwide full-face veil ban, saying it went against the social values of the French Republic. Belgium and the Netherlands followed suit. Now, in Germany, major political parties are raising their voices for the ban by calling it a violation of women’s rights. However there are counter voices too, who call the government’s interference in an individual’s personal choices a breach of the constitution.
Sadaf Mirza, a Swedish citizen, who works as a finance controller for a local firm, calls the ban fair. “A face is identity. A woman who wears a full-face veil actually hides her identity and it should not be allowed at all.” Indeed, in Europe, the face is considered the prime identity and Europeans are traditionally uncomfortable socializing with someone with practically “no face”.
Local journalist Theresa Locker says that if she met someone with a full-face veil, she would have no idea how to interact with that person. “For me, it’s really important for me to be able to see who I am talking to and if the person in front of me has their face covered, she would seem like an object to me; a nonliving thing!” But, at the same time Locker suggests that political parties should find out why this is a choice.
The inability to engage with someone whose face is covered might be one of the reasons why the Austrian minister particularly emphasizes that teachers should not wear headscarves. “Because there (at school), it’s about the effect of role models and the influence on young people. Austria is religion-friendly but also a secular state,” Kurz said.
Atif Tauqeer is a journalist and media researcher based in Germany.