PARIS — Winter is coming. People here in the Northern Hemisphere are ready to start bundling up before leaving home. But if you're in Austria, you might want to think twice about pulling your wool hat too far down or wrapping your scarf up too high. That's because a new law, which came into effect on Oct. 1, has introduced new restrictions on covering your face in public spaces.
Critics of the new law have labeled it a "burqa ban," saying that it follows similar restrictions in France and elsewhere that target Muslim women who cover their faces for religious reasons. Still, Austrian officials make a point of saying that any individual risks fines of up to 150 euros for covering their faces whenever it's unnecessary to do so (for example, wearing a medical mask when you're not sick).
The Austrian law comes in the wake of polemics last summer when several French cities banned the "burkini," a full-length swimsuit worn by some Muslim women — though scuba divers and surfers were free to wear wet-suits.
More than a dozen countries around the world have imposed such bans on face coverings, with an apparent new wave of restrictions this fall. Denmark, which a decade ago was embroiled in controversy around satirical cartoons of the Muslim prophet, is expected to approve a new public ban on head coverings, according to Danish public broadcasting network.
On Thursday, the Canadian province of Quebec passed a similar law — the first of its kind in North America. Supporters have underscored that these regulations do not target a specific religion but rather a practice. Speaking to the Journal de Québec, Quebec Premier Philippe Couillard stressed that "covering one's face is not only a matter of religion ... but also a human question."
The province's justice minister, Stéphanie Vallée, also commented on the new law, noting it would ban such items as balaclavas, bandanas, and certain sunglasses that hide the face as well.
Still, critics wonder whether police departments will strictly enforce the letter of the law, fining non-Muslims for violations as often as fully-veiled Muslim women.
Police in Vienna fined this man for wearing a shark costume in public from Warda Network's Facebook page.
Warda Network, a Vienna-based public relations firm, decided to test the new Austrian ban earlier this month by sending a man, dressed in a full-body shark costume, into the streets. Yes, police fined him for breaking the law.
That kind of scenario could be seriously put to the test later this month with the arrival of Halloween, the Austrian daily newspaper Heute noted, though the interior ministry has granted police a "wide definition" around the holiday. One can only wonder if that definition would include the traditional Halloween burqa costume.