European rights official attacks burka bans

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Agence France-Presse July 20, 2011


Banning the burka and niqab in public places threatens to exclude women, not liberate them, a top European human rights official said Wednesday.

Photograph by: Gonzalo Fuentes, Reuters

STRASBOURG – Banning the burka and niqab in public places threatens to exclude women, not liberate them, a top European human rights official said Wednesday.

And letting a relatively minor problem become such a major issue was a “sad capitulation” to xenophobia, Council of Europe human rights commissioner Thomas Hammarberg added.

Hammarberg warned that banning the wearing of such veils “may run counter” to European human rights standards and were likely to further stigmatise women, leading to their alienation from society.

His comments come as a Belgian law that could fine or even imprison women wearing the burka or niqab in public comes into force Saturday.

France became the first European to ban full-face veils in April this year.

“Banning women dressed in the burka/niqab from public institutions like hospitals or government offices may only result in them avoiding such places entirely,” Hammarberg said in a comment piece posted online.

“This is not liberation,” he argued.

Since the debate on the face veil had began in France, 30 out of 32 women interviewed for the study had experienced verbal abuse, while some had been physically assaulted, he said, citing an Open Society Foundations report.

“As a direct result they have preferred to limit their time spent outside the home,” he said.

“In fact, the banning may run counter to European human rights standards, in particular the right to respect for one’s private life and personal identity.

“In principle, the state should avoid legislating on how people dress.”

Letting the issue become such a major had also been a mistake, he added.

“The way the dress of a small number of women has been portrayed as a key problem requiring urgent discussion and legislation is a sad capitulation to the prejudices of the xenophobes.

“Much deeper problems of intercultural tensions and gaps have been sidetracked by the burka and niqab discussions.

“Instead of encouraging this unfortunate discourse, political leaders and governments should take more resolute action against hate crimes and discrimination against minorities.”

The Commissioner for Human Rights is an independent institution responsible for raising awareness of rights issues across the Council of Europe’s 47 member states.

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