Only 100 or so Muslim women wear the face veil but Austria has joined other European countries in outlawing the garment.
01 October 2017 |Zena Tahhan | Al Jazeera
“Activists and experts have condemned a law implemented on Sunday prohibiting the face veil as “counterproductive” and as an “attack on religious freedom”.
The law, commonly known as the “Burqa ban,” came into effect ahead of a general election on October 15, which could see the traditionally xenophobic far-right Freedom Party make gains.
Of approximately nine million Austrians, between 100 to 150 Muslim women – or 0.002 percent – wear the face veil.
There are around 700,000 Muslims in the country.
The garment covers the entire body and face except the eyes, but violators may now face a fine of upto $180.
The Austrian government says the law safeguards Austrian values and the concept of a free society.
Officials have carefully marketed the law, termed “Prohibition on the Covering of the Face”, as being religiously-neutral by also restricting the donning of medical masks, party masks, and scarves in public.
But activists and experts have denounced the nature of the law as “counterproductive” and “Islamophobic”.
Carla Amina Baghajati, a rights activist and spokeswoman for the Austrian Islamic Religious Authority, a public institution representing Muslims, says the law threatens the concept of an open society.
“They believe that they are ‘freeing these women’ and that they’re taking action to secure the identity of Austria, 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,” Baghajati told Al Jazeera.
“These ladies are being criminalised. Everybody thinks that they are victims, but you cannot be patronising them. They say that they do not want to be freed because they are already free and chose to wear the face veil,” said Baghajati.
The legislation was approved in May as part of a wider set of proposals aimed at countering the rise of the Freedom Party, which came close to winning Austria’s presidential election in January.
In those measures, Austria also banned the distribution of the Quran and required all refugees and immigrants to participate in an “integration” programme to learn the German language and “Austrian ethics”.
Baghajati attributed the face veil ban as an attempt by politicians to “send a message to the public that they are in control” of the security situation.
Fears over “extremism” have been fuelled by the arrivals of refugees.
But Austria has taken a tough stance against the entry of refugees.
Earlier this year, the government told the European Union that it would no longer accept any refugees, many of whom are Syrians seeking refuge from the six-year war plaguing their country.
In February, Foreign Minister Sebastian Kurz called for setting up mass camps in North Africa for refugees who fled to Europe.
Farid Hafez, senior research fellow at Georgetown University’s Bridge Initiative, says the notion of the face veil ban is reflective of the “Islamophobic imagination of what has been construed to be the ‘Muslim problem'” in several countries across Europe.
“Islamophobia is a problem in Austria as it is a problem and a challenge to democracy, human rights and religious freedom in many European countries today,” Hafez, who is also a professor at the University of Salzburg, told Al Jazeera, warning that the ban could have “serious consequences”.
“Common people on the street [will] feel enabled to act disrespectfully towards Muslim women, insult them openly on the street,” said Hafez, adding that young aspiring Muslim women would feel “obstructed”.
Austria is the latest European country to implement such a ban.
The bans have fuelled a debate about multiculturalism across the continent.
Supporters say the the face veil threatens security and hinders interaction, while those against say a ban violates religious rights against the backdrop of Islamophobia.
“At the moment, we are very worried about the political discourse against Islam, which has entered mainstream politics,” said Baghajati of the Austrian Islamic Religious Authority, expressing anxiety over the rise of the Freedom Party, which, like similar groups across Europe, pedals an anti-immigration, anti-Islam line for political gain.
Last week, the far-right nationalist Alternative for Germany (AfD) party won seats in Germany’s Bundestag, the first to do so since World War II, stirring fears of similar waves in Austria.
“We are worried that this will have an effect on Austria as well,” said Baghajati. “Accusations against Muslims, prejudices, and all kinds of negative thinking have now entered the mainstream”.
“It feels as though it is a general threat against society to be a Muslim.”
Follow Zena Tahhan on Twitter: @zenatahhan