Burqa ban would be counterproductive - commissioner Thomas Hammarberg
A ban on Muslim full-body veils, the burqa and niqab, would be counterproductive and could force women into deeper alienation, the Council of Europe's top human rights official said ahead of International Women's Day on Monday.
The message comes as debate is under way in a number of European states, notably France, on whether to ban the Muslim forms of dress, dpa reported.
"Prohibition of the burqa and the niqab would not liberate oppressed women, but might instead lead to their further alienation in European societies. A general ban on such attires would constitute an ill-advised invasion of individual privacy," council human rights commissioner Thomas Hammarberg said in a statement.
The council, which is not related to the European Union, was founded in 1949 to protect human rights and democracy in Europe. It has 47 members, from Andorra to Russia and Turkey, all of whom have signed the European Convention on Human Rights.
Under the convention, limitations on human rights can only usually be justified on the grounds of public health, safety or morals.
"Those who have argued for a general ban of the burqa and the niqab have not managed to show that these garments in any way undermine democracy, public safety, order or morals. The fact that a very small number of women wear such clothing has made proposals in such a direction even less convincing," Hammarberg argued.
Full-body coverings have become a controversial issues in many European states in recent years, where they are interpreted as an assault on the wearers' rights.
But Hammarberg argued that banning the clothing would not help to solve the underlying problems.
"No doubt, the status of women is an acute problem within some religious communities. This needs to be discussed, but prohibiting symptoms like clothing is not the way to do it," he wrote.
Moreover, "the suggestion to ban the presence of women dressed in the burqa/niqab in public institutions like hospitals or government offices may only result in these women avoiding such places entirely," he warned.
And he also warned that public debates on the position and rights of women within Islam risked being hijacked by extremists.
"Some of the arguments have been clearly Islamophobic and that has certainly not built bridges or encouraged dialogue," he wrote.
Rather than imposing new dress codes on their citizens, European states would be better advised to launch debates on the underlying tensions between different religious and secular communities.
"Attempts should be made to broaden the discourse to cover essential matters, including how to promote understanding of different religions, cultures and customs," Hammarberg wrote.
That also means that religious and cultural minorities should accept that the majority will not always agree with their viewpoint, he stressed.
"In other words, tolerance is a two-way street," he wrote.