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In Europe, History—and the Populist Politics Over Muslim Women's Dress—Repeats Itself

It appears no Austrian party could afford to stand up against the nation's controversial new veil ban.
Women wearing a traditional hijab headdress protest against Austria's ban on full-face Islamic veils in Vienna, Austria, on October 1st, 2017.

Women wearing a traditional hijab headdress protest against Austria's ban on full-face Islamic veils in Vienna, Austria, on October 1st, 2017.

On Sunday, the Austrian government put into effect a face-veil ban, which mandates that faces be visible from the hairline to the chin. The enforcement comes weeks ahead of a general election where the populist Freedom Party is expected to make unprecedented gains.

For anyone paying attention, this all feels eerily familiar. And it's not just the seemingly endless cycle of international elections featuring far-right, anti-immigrant contenders; the Netherlands passed its own pre-election veil ban months ago, in a politic on women's garments that seems to be replicating itself across the continent. If it seems history is rapidly repeating itself in Europe, that's because it is.

In November—a few months before the Dutch general election in March—Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte's VVD-led parliament passed legislation banning the burqa. The ban directly affected just dozens of women in a country with a sizable North African and Muslim population. Rutte's ban features the stated aim, among other goals, of further integrating that population into Dutch society.

The reality, Dutch rights activists charged, was that politicians were pandering to Dutch populists by cracking down on outfits that amount to a lightning rod for far-right xenophobia. For the Dutch women who would choose to wear the burqa, the ironies abounded: A government alleging to promote their integration into society was effectively discouraging their presence in public.

Now, rights activists in Austria are noting a similarity between their pre-election ban and the Netherlands'.

"The law is absolutely counterproductive. It is meant to foster 'integration,' and brings seclusion instead," says Carla Amina Baghajati, who is a spokeswoman at the public institution representing the Austrian Muslim community, The Islamic Faith Community of Austria, and co-founder of community advocacy group Austrian Muslim Initiative.

Though Baghajati does not wear the face veil herself (she says she "does not like it"), she feels strongly that legislating women's dress reflects an international trend toward patriarchal legislation that affects all women, Muslim and otherwise.

"The law was pushed by male politicians," she says, "There is a general concern among the women's liberation movement that authoritarian policies are always hitting women's rights—a global trend at the moment. And it's very telling that far-right parties who as such are very patriarchal in their structure and mindset claim to 'free Muslim women.'"

Analysts agreed with Baghajati's assessment that the ban amounts to an insincere expression of concern for Austrian Muslim women's integration into mainstream society.

"The entire debate is held over Muslim women, rather than in a sincere dialogue with them. Therefore, this law has to be seen in the context of an increase of populist policy making in the framework of the forthcoming elections," says Adham Hamed, a University of Innsbruck political theory researcher.

"The law is absolutely counterproductive. It is meant to foster 'integration,' and brings seclusion instead."

Where politicians start inserting themselves in women's garments, Baghajati charges, everyone should fear for their civil liberties.

"Interfering in such a very personal thing as the way women dress—which would be denying them their own free decision—seems to me very similar to the patriarchal position that men always know best what is best for women," Baghajati says.

Baghajati's fear is rooted more in the ban's meaning than in its scale—the Austrian ban affects just dozens of women, according to estimates.

"They might be 100 or 200," says Thomas Schmidinger, a University of Vienna political science professor whose work has focused on the Muslim World. "The majority of the women who can be seen with a niqab [the Arabic-language term for the facial coverings] in Austria are tourists from the Arab Gulf. This is why you see some in downtown Vienna or in Zell am See, a town in the mountains that is very popular for tourists from the Gulf."

The law, dubbed a "burqa ban," reflects more of a xenophobic flight of fancy than an actual policy measure aimed at improving Austrian lives. A burqa—not to be confused with a niqab—is a garment that covers a woman head to toe.

"First, never has any woman been seen with a burqa [in Austria]," says University of Salzburg political science professor Farid Hafez. "The notion of the 'burqa ban' thus reflects much more the Islamophobic imagination of what has been construed to be the Muslim problem in our days.

Yet still, the ban proved important enough to Austrian politicians to push through legislation before people head to the polls.

"The ban is a result of growing anti-Muslim resentments in Austrian society, but it was also backed by some parts of white upper-class feminists who consider women who wear the niqab [the Arabic term for facial covering] only as victims of their husbands," Schmidinger says, adding that all three major parties—not just the Freedom Party—backed the ban, even the center-left Social Democrats. It seems no party could afford to be seen as not supporting the ban.

"The conservative candidate Foreign Minister Sebastian Kurz is trying to take votes away from the hardline populist right-wing 'Freedom Party,' which is very tough on immigration," says Günter Bischof, a history professor at the University of New Orleans and director of the university's Center Austria academic exchange program. "No doubt, such a ban will be popular with the unenlightened nativist electorate of the Freedom Party, just like the idea of 'the wall' was popular with the Trump electorate. We are talking about a fairly sizable segment of the electorate here and there."

Analysts have long expected that with what will likely be a coalition government between anti-immigrant parties later this month, what had been a centrist government in Vienna will swing right. While a populist turn appears inevitable, the difference between the centrists—the Social Democrats and Conservatives—and the far-right Freedom Party is purely rhetorical.

Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte speaks to the public on March 14th, 2017, in the Hague, Netherlands.

Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte speaks to the public on March 14th, 2017, in the Hague, Netherlands.

"Most probably, the far-right Freedom Party will become one of the coalition parties in the next government, and to me it won't differ largely, if this will take place with the Social Democrats or the Conservatives. Because in regards to Islamophobia, while the discourse may differ, the actual politics does not," Salzburg's Hafez says. "Presenting oneself hard-on-Islam is an essential part of Western political competition in these days. Even the famous 'leader of the free world,' as [German] Chancellor Angela Merkel has been called after opening the borders, has called for a ban of the full-face veil, which is similarly marginal in Germany."

The Islamic Faith Community of Austria's Baghajati observed that, where the face veil is symbolic for politicians speaking to a populist base, the ban is symbolic of a sea change in Austrian government—an ominous portent for immigrants, women, and others.

Whereas in, say, France, a politic of secularism has been used to ban the veil and ostensible signs of religion at public schools, Austria has a history of engaging religious communities through the creation of public institutions, like The Islamic Faith Community of Austria, that represent their interests. Centrist politicians had considered the Austrian style of interacting with religious communities to be a so-called export model. "Now this is replaced with an attitude where Islam is mostly seen as a security threat—with all kinds of negative implications that the ban is only one part of," Baghajati says.

There's no telling what those negative implications entail, exactly, until after elections this month reveal Vienna's new helmspeople; what's clear after Sunday's ban, though, is that, regardless of party, lawmakers won't stop short of entering women's closets.