LONDON (TrustLaw) - The situation worsened last year for women in Europe who choose to wear a veil that covers their face as France adopted legislation to ban the practice and other countries discussed similar moves, Amnesty International said on Friday.
In its annual "State of the World's Human Rights" report, Amnesty noted that similar legislation was discussed in the parliaments of Bosnia and Herzegovina and Italy. Legislation was proposed by the new government of the Netherlands and approved on April 29, 2010 by the lower house of the Belgian parliament.
Amnesty also said several municipalities in Spain had passed regulations banning the wearing of full face veils in municipal buildings in 2010.
Although the report highlighted the trend towards outlawing the veil, Amnesty's senior director of international law and policy, Widney Brown, pointed out that women have long been forced to wear the veil in other countries, such as Iran and Saudi Arabia.
"What you have is women who, whether they want to wear a veil or not, (are) being forced to go against their will which is a violation of their freedom of expression," Brown told TrustLaw.
She attributed growing calls to ban the veil in European states to the rise of populist governments which have come to power using elements in their electoral campaigns that were "based on xenophobia with a strong, strong tinge of Islamophobia".
"They are taking advantage of people's fear and they're playing both the immigration card and the religion card. Of course who do they pick on? They pick on women," Brown said.
"That's what's so stark about this: whether it's a repressive government in Iran or a supposedly rights respecting government in France, they decide to play out their issues literally on women's bodies," she said.
France's ban on full face veils, a first in Europe, came into effect in April after being passed by parliament last year. It makes anyone wearing the Muslim niqab or burqa in public liable to a fine of 150 euros (US$213) or lessons in French citizenship.
Almost 10 percent of France's 62 million people are Muslim. The country is home to Western Europe's largest Muslim minority. However, fewer than 2,000 women are believed to actually wear a full face veil, and the law has been criticised by religious leaders and opposition politicians who accuse President Nicolas Sarkozy of pandering to far-right voters ahead of an election in 2012.
Brown said the argument for banning the veil appeared to be driven by the belief of some leaders that multiculturalism had failed, that immigrants should assimilate and that women were being somehow liberated from "abusive" communities by this policy.
"If women are being abused in their families, then governments should be dealing with that in the way they deal with any form of domestic abuse. They don't need to pass a separate law," Brown said.
She added that the ban may end up confining women to the home, driving them further away from places where they can seek help.
Brown said many supporters of the ban say they are offended when they see a woman wearing the full face veil, as if she is "trying to ram her religious belief down their usually secular throat".
She drew the comparison to their reaction with straight people who say they are offended by seeing gay couples holding hands. "We would never tolerate a comparable argument in other circumstances," Brown added.
The ban has provoked a fierce debate about women's rights.
In one commentary, Leila Ahmed, a professor at Harvard Divinity School and author of “A Quiet Revolution: The Veil's Resurgence, from the Middle East to America”, said women chose to wear the veil for all kinds of reasons.
"I wear it for the same reason as my Jewish friend wears a yarmulke," said one woman; the hijab, or head scarf, she added, was required dress that made visible the presence of a religious minority entitled to justice and equality," Ahmed wrote in Foreign Policy.
"For many others, wearing the hijab was a way of rejecting negative stereotypes and affirming pride in Muslim identity in the face of prejudice."
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