Intolerance Takes Center Stage in Austria

The Austrian Parliament recently passed a law banning women from wearing garments that cover their faces. As is the norm with such laws that have sprung up in various parts of Europe, it pretends to “neutrally” apply to everyone. Of course the law, in fact, affects and targets the minority of women who feel it is their religious obligation to cover their faces and/or heads: Muslims.

The Austrian Parliament building in Vienna.
The Austrian Parliament building in Vienna.

The new law follows on the heels of a decision of the European Court allowing employers to ban “the visible wearing of any political, philosophical or religious sign.” Again, “applicable” to all, but in reality the only ones harmed will be Muslim women or other minorities whose dress is a major aspect and expression of their religious commitment.

In a previous blog post, I wrote about the fundamental injustice and hypocrisy of the European Court’s decision and warned that it would lead to exactly the type of law that Austria has just enacted. Rather than cover the same ground here, I’d like to look at the mindset behind both laws.

It’s very hard to imagine how an enforced dress code would do anything but lead the group subjected to it to conclude that they are something less than fully accepted members of society.

In 2014, a woman from a Persian Gulf country was attending an opera performance in Paris, fully veiled, with her husband. Several performers noticed her in the audience and refused to go on with the show unless she removed her veil, which was enforced by the management. The woman and her husband left instead. Meanwhile, Paris’ other opera house, at roughly the same time, performed Mozart’s The Abduction from the Seraglio in which many of the female performers wear veils. So, it is somehow okay for a woman to wear a veil on stage, but not in the audience. (France, by the way, has had a law against women covering their faces in public since 2011 though enforcement is inconsistent).

Women have worn veils in Europe without an issue for centuries for many reasons, religious and otherwise, until Muslims began to appear in numbers. And when President Trump recently met with the Pope, first lady Melania and first daughter Ivanka appeared with their heads covered. The headscarf police were noticeably absent from the many photo ops.

Proponents of the head scarf and face-covering bans claim that the purpose is to help Muslim women “integrate” into European society. The irony is that it’s very hard to imagine how an enforced dress code would do anything but lead the group subjected to it to conclude that they are something less than fully accepted members of society.

Isn’t it time that countries that claim to be founded on human rights and tolerance practice what they preach?

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