The Catalan Government has announced plans to control the wearing of burqas and other face-covering attire in public spaces “for reasons of public safety”.
The proposed rule will also control the public wearing of other garments including helmets and masks, Ramon Espadaler, Interior Minister for Catalonia, announced in the autonomous region’s parliament on Wednesday. A full debate will follow the introduction of the public safety motion designed to combat people concealing their faces in public places.
Espadaler argued that it had nothing to do with “religious issues”, according to Catalan daily La Vanguardia. “It is not a general prohibition. That would lead us nowhere and we would be infringing on fundamental rights,” he said. He added: “We want to be sensitive” and urged a “careful, subtle and clear debate” to find a “consensus”.
Burqas, which cover the face completely and incorporate a mesh screen to see through, are rarely seen in Catalonia. The niqab, another traditional Muslim garment, covers the face but leaves the eyes visible. In Catalonia, as in the rest of Spain and most Western countries, both the niqab and the burqa are much less commonly worn than the hijab, a square headscarf which does not cover the face at all.
Spain’s Supreme Court in March annulled a previous burqa ban introduced by a number of municipalities, including Lleida in western Catalonia, on the grounds that local authorities do not have the jurisdiction to regulate fundamental rights. The court also said that the council in the mid-sized Catalan town had contravened the European Convention on Human Rights, originally signed back in 1950.
Espadaler referred to the previous legislative failure by saying that “the path taken by other town halls was not the right one but there is a problem here and we do not wish to look the other way”.
The minister drew attention to the Mossos d’Esquadra, Catalonia’s regional police force, who have been forced to wear identification numbers when controlling crowds at demonstrations after a number of complaints of human rights abuses. He pointed out that the new proposed law would also affect demonstrators and protesters who cover their faces in public.
Burqas are banned in France and Belgium while Italy and the Netherlands have also studied the idea in recent years. Spain has not yet adopted a nationwide law on this issue and the legislation proposed in Catalonia will be, if adopted, the first of any autonomous government.