Spanish politicians urged to reject bans on full-face veils

Amnesty International has called on law-makers in the Spanish region of Catalonia not to adopt a motion on Wednesday in favour of banning women from wearing the full-face veil in public buildings and spaces. “Any wide-ranging ban will violate the rights to freedom of expression and religion of those women who choose to wear a full-face veil as an expression of their identity or beliefs,” said John Dalhuisen, Amnesty International’s expert on discrimination in Europe.   “Women should be free to choose what and what not to wear. This is their right under international human rights law. This right extends to forms of dress that others may find objectionable and it should be respected – for the very small minority of Muslim women who do choose to wear full face veils, just as for everybody else.” With Lawmakers in Belgium having approved a ban on the wearing of the full-face veil in public in April this year and the French Parliament due to consider a similar ban in July, Spain has become the third European country this year to consider the introduction of restrictions on the wearing of full-face veils   Last week, the Senate approved a motion urging the government to prohibit the wearing of full face veils “in public spaces and at public gatherings”. Nine Spanish municipalities have already moved to ban the wearing of full-face veils in municipal buildings.  The Mayor of Barcelona has declared his intention to push through legislation banning full-face veils from all municipal buildings, including offices, public markets, libraries and museums, later this year. Many of those in favour of such bans in Spain have argued that they are necessary to combat discrimination and safeguard gender equality. “Discrimination cannot be combated by discrimination and gender equality is not advanced by dictating what women can or cannot wear. It is advanced by ensuring that women are empowered to make their own choices and are effectively able to act on them,” said John Dalhuisen. In recent years the Spanish government has put the promotion of gender equality high on the political agenda. However, Amnesty International has called for greater efforts to combat the discrimination, stereotypes and prejudices affecting Muslim women, both within their communities and in society at large. “States do have an obligation to protect women against pressure or coercion to wear full-face veils but comprehensive bans are not the way to do this. They may even be counter-productive as women who are currently being coerced into wearing full face veils risk being confined to their homes, less able to work or study and to access the assistance and protection they need,” John Dalhuisen said. “The Spanish authorities should be seeking to ensure that recent initiatives to combat violence against women are also reaching Muslim women.” Under international human rights law, restrictions on the rights to freedom of expression and religion may only be imposed where necessary for the preservation of public order, security or morals or the protection of the rights of others. Amnesty International does not believe that wide-ranging bans on the wearing of full-face veils have been shown to be necessary or proportionate to achieve any of these goals and that considerations of security or public safety would justify banning the wearing of full-face veils anywhere in public, or in all public buildings.   “Legitimate security concerns can be met by targeted restrictions on the complete covering of the face in well-defined high risk locations. Individuals may also be required to reveal their faces when objectively necessary, for instance for identity checks,” said John Dalhuisen.   Last week, the Council of Europe Parliamentary Assembly adopted a recommendation calling on states “not to establish a general ban of the full veiling or other religious or special clothing, but to protect women from all physical and psychological duress as well as their free choice to wear religious or special clothing and ensure equal opportunities for Muslim women to participate in public life and pursue education and professional activities.”