LONDON // Spain's parliament yesterday joined an ever-lengthening list of European legislatures considering banning the burqa and niqab. No decision on whether to outlaw the veil in Spain will be made until later this year, but the fact that the congressional debate came just one week after France's lower house overwhelmingly approved a ban is worrying many Muslims in Europe and beyond. There have been demonstrations as far away as Pakistan over the French decision, even though only around 2,000 of France's five million Muslims - most of them French converts to Islam - cover their faces. Even though the Spanish justice minister, Francisco Caamano, said last week that garments like the burqa were "hardly compatible with human dignity", the ruling Socialist Party was expected yesterday to vote against a plan to bar women from wearing a veil in public.
The proposal was put forward by the opposition Popular Party, but analysts saw it as a political ploy to win support. No one has actually been able to cite a public place where women typically wear such veils in Spain. Ibrahim Hooper, a spokesman for the Washington-based Council on American-Islamic Relations, described the moves in Europe as thinly disguised attempts to discriminate against Muslims. "It's really a new type of law targeting a particular minority faith based on the prejudices of the majority. And my religious rights should not be dependent on a majority vote," he told Voice of America radio. Apart from France and Spain, the lower house of Belgium's parliament has passed a bill to ban clothing that hides a person's identity in any public place. Dutch attempts to impose a similar ban were dropped in 2006 over fears it would be unconstitutional. The government said it would legislate instead to ban burqas in schools and state buildings. Austria and Switzerland have both vowed to consider bans if burqas were to become widespread. Denmark and several German states have imposed bans on headscarves for various professions. And in northern Italy, local authorities have passed by-laws or resurrected old public order laws against the wearing of masks. The UK, however, is bucking the trend, firmly ruling out any ban, even though a recent opinion poll showed that 67 per cent of Britons favoured one. A Conservative backbench MP introduced a private bill in parliament last week that calls for face coverings to be outlawed in public places. But his bill stands no chance of becoming law as all three major parties oppose the move. Damian Green, the immigration minister, described any such ban as "un-British", while Caroline Spelman, the environment secretary, said wearing the burqa could be "empowering" for some women. Welcoming these declarations yesterday, Mohammed Shafiq, chief executive of the Ramadhan Foundation, a London-based organisation dedicated to inter-faith dialogue, said: "The right of Muslim women to wear the veil should be protected by this government and I welcome their commitment to freedom." The move towards bans could see a series of legal challenges in the European Court of Human Rights. John Dalhuisen of Amnesty International, an expert on discrimination in Europe, said he was concerned that the tendency towards bans could lead to restrictions on women's rights. "Some of those who are currently being forced to wear veils won't necessarily see their situation improve," he said. "They will see access to services, goods and perhaps even the assistance that they might want to reach out to, taken away from them. "There's obviously a risk of a double punishment - they are punished in the home and then they go out in the street and they are punished again." firstname.lastname@example.org