In Depth

Countries that have banned the burka

Switzerland becomes latest country to ban the Islamic face veil

The burka has become increasingly controversial over the past decade, with a string on European countries either banning the face covering or fiercely debating whether it is compatible with western norms.

As the BBC reports, the Koran “tells Muslims - men and women - to dress modestly”, which for women “is generally seen as covering everything except their face, hands and feet when in the presence of men they are not related or married to”.

However, “there has been much debate within Islam as to whether this goes far enough”, the broadcaster adds, with Muslim scholars “long debating whether it is obligatory to wear the burka or niqab, or whether it is just recommended”.

The burka is the most concealing of the garments worn by Muslim women, covering the entire face and body, leaving just a mesh screen to see through.

Countries that banned the burka
Switzerland

Switzerland voted narrowly in favour of banning face coverings in public, including the burka or niqab worn by Muslim women. Official results showed the measure had passed by 51.2% to 48.8% in a referendum on Sunday.

The proposal was tabled by the right-wing Swiss People’s Party which campaigned with slogans such as “Stop extremism”. However, the Swiss Central Council of Muslims said it was “a dark day” for Muslims that “opens old wounds, further expands the principle of legal inequality and sends a clear signal of exclusion to the Muslim minority”.

France

France was the first European country to introduce a blanket ban on wearing burkas in public, The Daily Telegraph reports. The restrictions began in 2004 with a “clampdown on students in state-run schools displaying any form of religious symbol”. In April 2011, the government introduced a total public ban on full-face veils, with then-president Nicolas Sarkozy saying they were “not welcome” in France.

People who breach the ban can be fined €150 (£130), and anyone who forces a woman to cover her face risks a €30,000 (£25,900) fine.

Controversially, mayors in some French seaside towns also tried to outlaw so-called burkinis in 2016, even though the skin-covering swimwear does not conceal any part of the wearer’s face.

Belgium

Belgium followed in France’s footsteps in 2011, implementing bans on full face-covering dress such as the burka or the niqab, which covers the lower half of the face. In 2017, the European Court of Human Rights upheld Belgium’s ban on Islamic face veils following a legal challenge.

The following year, the neighbouring Netherlands introduced laws outlawing all face-covering clothing in some public spaces, including schools, hospitals, public transport and government buildings, but burkas are still allowed on public streets.

Republic of the Congo

In May 2015, the Republic of the Congo - also known as Congo-Brazzaville - became the first country in Africa to implement a burka ban, even though the country has never been targeted with an Islamic terrorist attack.

According to the BBC, a government spokesperson said Congo-Brazzaville was a secular country which respected all religions but added that some Muslim women had used the veil as a disguise in order to commit terrorist offences.

Less than 5% of the population of Congo-Brazzaville is Muslim.

Chad

Chad is the only Muslim-majority nation so far to have outlawed religious face coverings. The government of the Central African country announced the full public ban on burkas in June 2015, after suicide bombings blamed on Islamist group Boko Haram killed 34 people in the capital, N’Djamena.

The veto also applies to turbans worn for religious reasons, Reuters reports.

Gabon

On 12 July 2015, two women wearing full face veils perpetrated a suicide bombing in the Cameroonian town of Fotokol, killing 13 civilians and two soldiers. In the wake of a spate of similar attacks, Cameroon banned the wearing of full-face Islamic veils in its far north region but did not extend the veto any further.

By contrast, Gabon - which borders Cameroon to the south - responded to the 2015 bombing in Fotokol with a nationwide burka ban, despite only a fraction of the population practising Islam. The authorities said the move was intended to “prevent the risk of suicide attack”, according to France-based site Saphir News.

Bulgaria

Bulgaria’s parliament outlawed the wearing of face veils in public in 2016, a move pushed by the country’s then-governing nationalist Patriotic Front coalition.

People who do not comply with the ban can be hit with fines of up to 1,500 levs (£660), as well as suspension of social benefits.

The move prompted criticism from Amnesty International, which described it as “part of a disturbing trend of intolerance, xenophobia and racism in the Black Sea state”, The Sydney Morning Herald reports.

Latvia

Latvia banned the full-face veil from public places in 2016, despite “only three people being known to wear them in the entire country”, according to The Independent.

Controversially, Latvian politicians have made it clear that the ban is not related to security concerns. The justice minister said the decision was motivated by a desire to “protect Latvia’s cultural values, our common public and cultural space”, The Baltic Times reports.

Then-President Vaira Vike-Freiberga also courted controversy by claiming that those wearing a niqab or burka might pose a “danger to society”, adding: “You could carry a rocket launcher under your veil.”

Austria

ITV News reports that the Austrian parliament adopted a legal ban on face-covering clothing in public spaces in 2017, with penalties amounting to a 150€ (£135) fine.

The right-wing government claimed the move was necessary to ensure citizens could be clearly identified on the street as part of enhanced anti-terror measures. Regardless of such justifications, the ban was “welcomed by far-right, Islamophobic and anti-immigration groups”, says The Independent.

Denmark

Hundreds of demonstrators marched in Copenhagen to protest against the introduction of Danish laws banning veils that fully cover the wearer’s face, but the legislation came into effect nevertheless, on 1 August 2018. 

The Guardian says that anyone caught violating the law risks a fine of 1,000 kroner (£115), while “repeat offenders could be fined up to 10,000 kroner”.

Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka became the latest country to ban veils as part of government legislation that took effect on 29 April.

MP Ashu Marasinghe had submitted a private member’s motion to the Sri Lankan parliament stating that the garment was “not a traditional Muslim attire” and should be outlawed on security grounds. Islamic Affairs Minister Mohammed Hashim Abdul Haleem said the “sensitive issue” needed to be handled “carefully”.

“But right now our nation’s security is of utmost importance, as a community we must be mindful of and support the security forces in every way possible,” Haleem told The Independent.

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