Boris Johnson, the former foreign secretary, is under pressure to apologise for the use of Islamophobic language in his most recent Daily Telegraph column.
In reference to Denmark’s decision to fine Muslims for wearing niqabs and burqas in public, Mr Johnson described the traditional Islamic clothing as “weird” and “ridiculous” and likened women who wear it to “letter boxes” and “bank robbers”.
A spokesperson for the prime minister, Theresa May, said on Monday: “The longstanding government position on this is clear – we do not support a ban on wearing of the veil in public.
“Such a prescriptive approach would be out of keeping with British values such as religious intolerance and gender equality.”
This is also the official line in the United States, despite President Donald Trump’s anti-Muslim rhetoric and efforts in Republican-dominated states to introduce a ban.
Clothing restrictions remain a contentious issue around the world, however, with the need to balance freedom of expression often sitting uneasily alongside security concerns and opposition to the perceived oppression of women.
In Denmark, the new legislation targets all items of clothing that completely obscure the face and the country’s government insists it is not intended to place restrictions solely on Muslims.
But critics argue the law does not apply to other faiths: Sikh turbans and Jewish kippahs are not subject to the same 1,000 Danish krone (£118) fine.
Other Islamic headscarves, including the hijab, al-amira, shayla, khimar and chador, are also exempt, because they do not conceal the wearer’s face, only their hair.
Similar full-face veil bans have been enforced in France and Belgium since 2011 and Austria since 2017, brought in to ensure citizens could be clearly identified on the street as part of enhanced anti-terror measures. However, the moves have been welcomed by far-right, Islamophobic and anti-immigration groups in those countries.
Austria’s ban has been ridiculed as ineffective – leading to the cautioning of sporting mascots and cyclists in smog masks – while in France the “burkini” bans that came into effect on regional beaches in the summer of 2016 drew fire despite prime minister Manuel Valls’ insistence that the swimsuits represented ”the affirmation of political Islam in the public space”.
France has Europe’s biggest Muslim population with 5 million but only an estimated 2,000 wear full-face veils and might be subject to the €150 (£133) penalty for doing so in public.
In Germany, new legislation banning full-face veils worn while driving was introduced last year and the chancellor, Angela Merkel, has declared her opposition, stating her belief that they should be banned “wherever it is legally possible”.
In the Netherlands, a partial ban is also in force – in schools, hospitals and on public transport – and again is “religious-neutral”. It is also applicable to those wearing helmets or ski masks on the street. The country has only an estimated 300 wearers of the niqab and burqa among its population but also a vocal anti-Islam movement personified by the high-profile right-wing populist MP Geert Wilders.
Elsewhere in Europe, regional bans are in operation but not national clothing strictures. Lombardy in Italy has a burqa prohibition in place, while Islamic full-face veils are not allowed to be worn in Barcelona, Spain. This is also the case in Quebec, Canada.
The picture is mixed in Russia, where there is no national ban on niqabs and burqas but hijabs are banned in Stavropol and headscarves are actually ordered to be worn by women when visiting state buildings in Chechnya.
Turkey, though predominantly Muslim, had long banned the wearing of headscarves itself as backward-looking and restrictive to women but has rolled back this stance in the Recep Tayyip Erdogan era. The president’s wife, Emine, wears one herself.
In the Middle East, burqas and niqabs are of course an everyday sight but other clothing restrictions are ordered by law, with Saudi Arabia remaining the most prescriptive in terms of dress.
Saudi women are ordered to wear the abaya, a long black cloak that covers all in the name of “modesty” barring the hands and face. The niqab is also commonly worn.
In Africa, Egyptian lawmakers have considered introducing a burqa ban in recent years while in Chad women were banned from wearing full-face veils in response to twin suicide bomb attacks carried out in June 2015. Parts of Cameroon, Niger, the Republic of the Congo and Gabon enforce similar laws.
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