Earlier this month in Vienna, a man wearing a shark costume to advertise a new electronics store was approached by Austrian police and asked to remove his mask. When the man refused, claiming that it was required for his job, he was arrested and ned €150 under Austria’s “burqa ban,” which had only recently gone into effect. While this incident has largely been seen as ridiculous, it highlights some crucial fallacies that are embedded in “burqa bans.”
Reasons for banning public face coverings have ranged from issues of national security, with proponents arguing that banning face coverings outside the home would deter terrorist attacks and robberies, to, in Austria’s case, calls for unity—with public officials claiming that the ban is essential to “ensuring cohesion…in an open society.” These “burqa bans” have been implemented in various forms in many European countries including Germany, France, Belgium, the Netherlands and Austria, and they have been upheld by the European Court of Human Rights and the European Court of Justice.
Although the Austrian ban does not explicitly target Muslims, it is becoming more and more difficult for policymakers to explain away the allegations of discrimination. If the goal of this ban is truly cohesion, then I fail to see the purpose of arresting a man advertising a new store in a shark costume or arresting cyclists for covering their faces when they ride. Surely no one could reasonably claim that these people disrupted the unity of their society. Even Austrian officials are willing to admit that this ban targets supposed disruptions to cohesion that are caused by the public display of religious beliefs, then I still fail to see how anyone could justify arresting a man in a shark costume. Additionally, if the purpose of this bill is indeed to bar religious expression in the name of unity, then I would argue that in order to avoid discrimination, these countries would also have to ban Christians from wearing crosses around their necks and Jewish people from wearing yarmulkes, along with a whole host of other religious symbolism.
While this would in theory dispense with allegations of discrimination against Muslims, I do not believe this is the
answer. In the wake of all this talk of cohesion, I think it is also important to remember that unity and uniformity are not synonyms, and that uniformity is not required for unity. Despite the racism, sexism, xenophobia and many other irrational beliefs that appear to be running rampant in countries such as ours right now, the best way to move
forward is to foster inclusion and acceptance. Obtaining cohesion by attempting to synthetically create uniformity
only proliferates the idea that we should concern ourselves solely with those who are like us. In reality, we all have our differences, and the more we deny that the easier it will be to disrupt the synthetic unity created by our denial of these differences.
Other countries claim that banning face coverings is an issue of national security. They believe this ban will deter crimes like terrorist attacks and bank robberies where perpetrators tend to cover their faces. The pitfall in this argument, however, is that if someone is willing to break the law to carry out a robbery or a public attack, they would probably give little thought to breaking a law banning face coverings as well.
Another rationale for passing these laws is to protect women from the oppression that policy makers believe these veils impose on them. Yet there is no push to ban nuns from wearing wimples and veils. And just like nuns, most Islamic women choose to don these veils out of respect to their faith. To deny women the right to dress as they please based on a false perception of oppression imposes a new oppression on them by taking away their right to practice their religion openly and to dress as they choose.
In the end, while there have been any number of reasons given for implementing “burqa bans,” there has yet to be one that holds water. Events like the arrest of the man in the shark costume highlight the logical fallacies that these laws rely on. While all countries want to promote unity, banning face coverings will only create a façade of uniformity through the oppression of an already marginalized group of people.