By Raphael Minder, www.NYTimes.com
MADRID — In a significant escalation of Spain’s debate over how to handle radical Islam, the Senate on June 23 narrowly and unexpectedly approved a motion to ban Muslim women from wearing in public the burka or other garments that cover the whole body.
The vote, 131 to 129, was another setback for the Socialist government of Prime Minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, which had favored more-limited restrictions on Islamic clothing and has instead been pushing to curtail religious fundamentalism through better education.
The Spanish vote comes amid several national initiatives across Europe to restrict the spread of radical Islam and defend liberal values.
In Belgium, the lower house of Parliament has already approved a measure that, if unamended by the upper house, would make it a crime to wear in public “clothing that hides the face.”
France, which has the largest Muslim population in Europe, has also been inching toward such a ban on the burka. The measure has the backing of President Nicolas Sarkozy, who recently condemned the garment as “a sign of subservience” rather than one of religion.
In Switzerland last year, a referendum banned the construction of minarets.
While national politicians may be urging a clampdown on the burka, such moves are still expected to run into legal obstacles. In March, France’s top administrative body, the Council of State, warned the government that a full ban would be unconstitutional. A commission of the Council of Europe, the European institution dealing with human rights issues, also recently warned governments against imposing a complete ban that would violate women’s individual rights.
Before the Spanish Senate’s vote, some of the country’s local authorities had already moved to introduce restrictions on the burka. The issue was especially heated in the region of Catalonia, where the debate over Islam and immigration has become entangled in early campaigning ahead of regional elections later this year. The pending elections may have proved crucial in last week’s vote, as senators from the CiU, a Catalan party, surprisingly switched their earlier stance to vote in favor of a burka ban.
The motion adopted by the senators calls on Spain to outlaw “any usage, custom, or discriminatory practice that limits the freedom of women.” It was drafted and led by politicians from the main center-right opposition People’s Party.
The Senate’s position also came as a surprise because although Spain has become a major European entry point for Muslim migrants from North Africa, few of those immigrants wear either the burka or the nikab, which does not cover the eyes. [See pictured garments.] A similar argument has also been made by opponents of a burka ban in countries like France, where only an estimated 2,000 women wear the burka out of a Muslim population of about 5 million. France, however, already passed a law in 2004 to ban head scarves or any other “conspicuous” religious symbol from state schools in order to preserve their secularism.
The Spanish government is supposed to follow the Senate’s motion. However, given that Socialist senators opposed the ban, the governing party is likely to seek ways to circumvent the vote.
Anna Terrón, the secretary of state for immigration, said the Senate vote had “more to do with the election campaign in which the CiU is involved than with a real discussion” on the burka.