What does Bulgaria’s Burqa Ban Mean for Human Rights?

On the 30th September, Bulgaria joined the list of European countries placing restrictive legislation on the wearing of Islamic clothing. The Parliament voted to place a blanket ban on face-covering clothing, which has implications for the niqab, the full-face veil, as well as the burqa, (if the wearing of this involves the covering of the face). As a result, Amnesty International have accused Bulgaria of violating both the right to expression and the right to freedom of religion, (articles 10 and 9 of the European Convention on Human Rights).

 

What is the argument behind this ban?

Driven to the forefront by the nationalist ‘Patriotic Front’, the ban is a reaction to the growing number of terrorist attacks in Europe. Designed to enable greater levels of security, the Bulgarian parliament have argued that it is not repressive, nor directed against specific religious communities. It was also justified under the assertion that ‘the burqa is more a uniform than a religious symbol’. Women that defy this ban could face fines of up to €770, as well as potentially losing their social security benefits.

How does this affect human rights?

In a press release published shortly afterwards, Amnesty International claimed that Bulgaria’s decision violated women’s rights to freedom of expression and religion. These rights entitle individuals not only to hold opinions without interference but also the right to exercise religion or belief in public as well as in private. Many people have tried to justify the ban by citing the fact that Article 9 states that freedom of religion can be restricted if necessary in the interests of public safety. However, Amnesty have argued that the unspecific nature of the ban means that this is not relevant. In their view, targeted restrictions in high-risk locations would be sufficient to meet security concerns. This is why John Dalhuisen, spokesperson for Amnesty in their statement, argued that the ban was more telling of a ‘trend of intolerance, xenophobia and racism in Bulgaria’, rather than of legitimate security concerns.

What will happen now?

It is unlikely that there will be any significant action taken against Bulgaria for their decision, largely because of the precedence set by other European countries. France, Belgium and Switzerland all have similar bans in place, and Norway is also looking to implement one. It would seem that in the current culture of fear that exists throughout Europe governments have greater liberty to infringe upon individual’s rights.