Aus­tria’s burqa ban re­mains a del­i­cate mat­ter in Alpine re­sort

The Phnom Penh Post - - LIFESTYLE - Jastin­der Khera

WITH its pris­tine wa­ters, snow-cov­ered moun­tains and breath­tak­ing Alpine views, the Aus­trian lake­side town of Zell am See is one of the top Euro­pean des­ti­na­tions for vis­i­tors from the Gulf re­gion.

And it aims to re­main so, even though Aus­tria in­tro­duced a ban on face-cov­er­ing burqa or niqab veils a year ago.

The pic­turesque lit­tle town south of Salzburg with a pop­u­la­tion of 10,000 is reg­u­larly de­scribed as “par­adise” in Ara­bic-lan­guage re­views on­line. It draws tens of thou­sands of vis­i­tors from Saudi Ara­bia, the United Arab Emi­rates or Oman ev­ery year.

They make up more than a quar­ter of all an­nual vis­i­tors and hol­i­day brochures are read­ily avail­able in Ara­bic.

So when Aus­tria banned the wear­ing of burqas or niqabs in all pub­lic spa­ces in Oc­to­ber 2017 – un­der pain of fines of up to 150 eu­ros ($170) – the town’s au­thor­i­ties knew that en­forc­ing the rule could be a del­i­cate mat­ter.

The aim of the ban, ac­cord­ing to the gov­ern­ment, is to fur­ther in­te­gra­tion among Aus­trian Mus­lims at a time when fears about im­mi­gra­tion and rad­i­cal Is­lamists are sharply di­vid­ing so­ci­ety.

But in re­sorts such as Zell am See, po­lice are hav­ing to en­force it against tourists, fu­elling fears that the high­spend­ing Arab guests, and the valu- able rev­enue they rep­re­sent, might be scared off.

“I’ve heard some peo­ple say they don’t want to come back now,” said one restau­rant worker who asked not to be named, even if he said hadn’t par­tic­u­larly no­ticed a drop in busi­ness this year.

Lo­cal po­lice chief Kurt Moeschl said more than 200 fines had been handed out be­tween June and Septem­ber alone. But his of­fi­cers were al­ways at pains to re­main re­spect­ful.

“We have been try­ing to im­ple­ment the law with as much tact and sense of pro­por­tion as pos­si­ble,” he said.

Aus­trian em­bassies and mis­sions abroad had been work­ing to raise aware­ness of the new law, Moeschl said. And the po­lice chief him­self had hosted the Saudi am­bas­sador in Zell am See to dis­cuss the is­sue.

Moeschl es­ti­mated that in around 90 per­cent of cases, the women had agreed to re­move their veil af­ter po­lice of­fi­cers ex­plained the new law to them.

Walk­ing along the lake­side, one cou­ple from Saudi Ara­bia – who did not wish to be named – said they had been ap­proached by po­lice dur­ing their stay.

“Yes, the po­lice did talk to us about the niqab law. But we are leav­ing to­mor­row,” the hus­band said, as his wife, still wear­ing the veil, stood be­side him.

‘Do your job’

A lit­tle far­ther along the shore, Barbara Sche­icher, who op­er­ates a boa­trental busi­ness, said the law had not had a no­tice­able im­pact.

“I haven’t no­ticed any dif­fer­ence, ei­ther in the num­ber [of peo­ple] com­ing, or in how many of them are veiled,” she told AFP.

“I asked one woman whether she knew it was il­le­gal, but she re­acted so badly that since then I haven’t. I’ve seen the same re­ac­tion when the po­lice have tried to tell peo­ple,” Sche­icher said.

Po­lice chief Moeschl said his of­fi­cers had also en­coun­tered lo­cals and even other hol­i­day­mak­ers who in­sisted that women’s veils be forcibly re­moved.

One Nor­we­gian tourist, for ex­am­ple, went so far as to send the po­lice photos of niqab-wear­ing women at var­i­ous lo­ca­tions around the town, com­plete with the times they were taken, and the mes­sage: “Do your job”.

Moeschl in­sisted that most in­ter­ac­tions passed off with­out in­ci­dent and that his of­fi­cers fol­lowed in­te­rior min­istry guide­lines.

And he is op­ti­mistic that, over time, the sit­u­a­tion will be­come eas­ier.

“I ex­pect that in a few years from now, this won’t be an is­sue.”

ALEX HALADAI/AFP

A woman wear­ing a niqab sits in a a boat in Zell am See in Aus­tria on Au­gust 6.

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