The Islamic Veil across Europe

Publication Date: 
September 22, 2011
French girls in headscarves protesting in Strasbourg 1 Sep '04. Headscarves are allowed at French universities, but not schools.

Countries across Europe have wrestled with the issue of the Muslim veil - in various forms such as the body-covering burka and , which covers the face apart from the eyes.

The debate takes in religious freedom, female equality, secular traditions and even fears of terrorism.

The veil issue is part of a wider debate about multiculturalism in Europe, as many politicians argue that there needs to be a greater effort to assimilate ethnic and religious minorities.


France was the first European country to ban the full-face Islamic veil in public places.

France has about five million Muslims - the largest Muslim minority in Western Europe - but it is thought only about 2,000 women wear full veils.

French girls in headscarves protesting in Strasbourg, 1 Sep 04Headscarves are allowed at French universities - but not schools

President Nicolas Sarkozy has said veils oppress women and are "not welcome" in France.

Under the ban that took effect on 11 April 2011, no woman, French or foreign, will be able to leave their home in France with their face hidden behind a veil without running the risk of a fine.

The penalty for doing so is a 150-euro (£133, $217) fine and instruction in citizenship. Anyone found forcing a woman to cover her face risks a 30,000-euro fine.

Two French women who continued to wear the full veil in defiance of the new law have been prosecuted. Campaigners say they will appeal against any fine imposed.

Most of the population - including most Muslims - agree with the government when it describes the face-covering veil as an affront to society's values. Critics - chiefly outside of France - say it is a violation of individual liberties.

A ban on Muslim headscarves and other "conspicuous" religious symbols at state schools was introduced in 2004, and received overwhelming political and public support in a country where the separation of state and religion is enshrined in law.


A law banning the full-face veil came into effect in Belgium in July 2011.

The law bans any clothing that obscures the identity of the wearer in places like parks and on the street.

Two women who wear full veils have launched a court challenge, saying the law is discriminatory.

Before the law was passed, the burka was already banned in several districts under old local laws originally designed to stop people masking their faces completely at carnival time.


Though there are no plans for a national ban in Spain, the city of Barcelona has announced a ban on full Islamic face-veils in some public spaces such as municipal offices, public markets and libraries.

At least two smaller towns in Catalonia, the north-eastern region that includes Barcelona, have also imposed bans.

Barcelona's city council said the ban there targeted any head-wear that impeded identification, including motorbike helmets and balaclavas, rather than religious belief.

It resisted calls from the conservative Popular Party (PP) to extend the ban to all public spaces, including the street. The PP also wants the ban to be adopted throughout Spain.


There is no ban on Islamic dress in the UK, but schools are allowed to forge their own dress code after a 2007 directive which followed several high-profile court cases.

Former Schools Secretary Ed Balls said in January 2010 it was "not British" to tell people what to wear in the street after the UK Independence Party called for all face-covering Muslim veils to be banned.

In 2009 UKIP came second in the European elections in Britain, winning 13 seats in Brussels. Their leader Nigel Farage has said the full veils are a symbol of an "increasingly divided Britain", that they "oppress" women, and are a potential security threat.

UKIP is the first British party to call for a total ban, after the anti-immigration British National Party had already called called for the veil to be banned in Britain's schools.


The Netherlands has said it plans to ban face-covering Islamic veils or burqas in order to protect the country's way of life and culture.

The proposed ban reflects the influence of the anti-Islamist Geert Wilders, whose Freedom party is the third largest in parliament and the minority coalition government's chief ally.

Mr Wilders backs the coalition in parliament in exchange for tougher policies on Islam and immigration from non-western countries.

The proposal on banning face veils will be sent to the government's advisory body, the Council of State, before it reaches parliament.

No legislation has yet been passed.

Attempts to introduce similar legislation in 2006 failed. Lawyers said it would probably be unconstitutional and critics said it would violate civil rights.

Around 5% of the Netherlands' 16 million residents are Muslims, but only around 300 are thought to wear the niqab, which leaves the eyes uncovered, or the burka, which covers them with a cloth grid. The wearing of headscarves is far more common, however.


For more than 85 years Turks have lived in a secular state founded by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, who rejected headscarves as backward-looking in his campaign to secularise Turkish society.

Scarves are banned in civic spaces and official buildings, but the issue is deeply divisive for the country's predominantly Muslim population, as two-thirds of all Turkish women - including the wives and daughters of the prime minister and president - cover their heads.

In 2008, Turkey's constitution was amended to ease a strict ban at universities, allowing headscarves that were tied loosely under the chin. Headscarves covering the neck and all-enveloping veils were still banned.

The governing AK Party, with its roots in Islam, said the ban meant many girls were being denied an education. But the secular establishment said easing it would be a first step to allowing Islam into public life.


In August 2011, an Italian parliamentary committee approved a draft law which would ban women from wearing veils which cover their faces in public. The bill is expected to go to the full house in September.

The north-western town of Novara is one of several local authorities that have already brought in rules to deter public use of the Islamic veil, following the passing of a by-law in January 2010.

In 2004 local politicians in northern Italy resurrected old public order laws against the wearing of masks, to stop women from wearing the burka.

Some mayors from the anti-immigrant Northern League have also banned the use of Islamic swimsuits.


In 2008, the government announced it would bar judges from wearing headscarves and similar religious or political symbols - including crucifixes, Jewish skull caps and turbans - in courtrooms.

That move came after pressure from the Danish People's Party (DPP), known for its anti-Muslim rhetoric, which has since called for the ban to be extended to include school teachers and medical personnel.

After a Danish paper published a controversial cartoon in 2005 depicting the Prophet Muhammad as a bearded man with a bomb in his turban, there were a series of protests against Denmark across the Muslim world.


In September 2003 the federal Constitutional Court ruled in favour of a teacher who wanted to wear an Islamic scarf to school.

However, it said states could change their laws locally if they wanted to.

At least four German states have gone on to ban teachers from wearing headscarves and in the state of Hesse the ban applies to all civil servants.


Russia's Supreme Court has overturned a 1997 interior ministry ruling which forbade women from wearing headscarves in passport photos.

But in Chechnya the authorities have defied Russian policy on Islamic dress. In 2007 President Ramzan Kadyrov - the pro-Moscow leader - issued an edict ordering women to wear headscarves in state buildings. It is a direct violation of Russian law, but is strictly followed today.

President Kadyrov even voiced support for men who fired paintballs at women deemed to be violating the strict dress code.


Austria's Women's Minister Gabriele Heinisch-Hosek has said a ban should be considered in public spaces if the number of women wearing the veil increases dramatically.


In late 2009, Swiss Justice Minister Eveline Widmer-Schlumpf said a face-veil ban should be considered if more Muslim women begin wearing them, adding that the veils made her feel "uncomfortable".