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Italy moves towards emulating France on burqa ban

ROME (Reuters) - Italy may soon seek a ban on full- face Muslim veils, drawing on debate in France where President Nicolas Sarkozy has described the burqa as unwelcome and legislators are considering a vote to outlaw or restrict it.

Equal Opportunities Minister Mara Carfagna has said the Italian government will quickly follow in France’s footsteps, breathing new life into four draft bills on burqas already circulating in parliamentary committees.

“I completely agree with the French initiative, which I think will push other European countries and hence, also Italy, to enact laws on this issue,” Carfagna said this week.

“This is about a sacrosanct battle to defend the dignity and rights of immigrant women. A law is being studied that would ban the use of a burqa and niqab, which are not religious symbols -- that’s not us saying it, but the top religious authorities of the Islamic world, like the imams of Cairo and Paris.”

Her comments came after a French parliamentary panel this week urged the National Assembly to pass a resolution denouncing full Muslim face veils and then vote on the strictest law possible to ban women from wearing them.

Critics see the Burqa, a full veil with a slit for the eyes, as a symbol of the subjugation of women.

In Italy, the initiative has drawn strong support from the far-right, anti-immigrant Northern League party in Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi’s conservative government, though some opposition figures have also applauded the move.

In deeply Catholic Italy -- where a European court ruling against crucifixes in classrooms sparked a national uproar -- a few small northern towns have already tried to ban burqas with local decrees, though some of those were later annulled.

The ban initiative also looks to have the backing of most Italians. A poll by the SWG polling group showed 71 percent of Italians were in favour of a ban on full face veils.


Still, like in France, the issue has provoked sharp debate in Italy over whether a new law is needed, with leftist politicians and even some in Berlusconi’s coalition questioning whether legislation could end up being counterproductive.

“I’m convinced the burqa is a prison and a form of male dominance,” said leftist senator Vittoria Franco. “Having said that, I think it’s wrong to ban it because it would be an abstract intervention that would not help emancipate women.”

Others say wearing a burqa or a niqab -- a face veil with an eye opening -- is already illegal under a 1975 anti-terrorism law that bars appearing in public with a masked face.

But conservative lawmaker Souad Sbai, who has proposed amending the 1975 law to specifically include the words “niqab” and “burqa”, says a clear message needs to be sent to dissuade young immigrant Muslim women from taking up face veils.

“If we don’t ban it now, tomorrow we’ll have lots of women walking around in a niqab,” Sbai, who is of Moroccan descent, told Reuters. “Each day the number of women wearing it rises. Just go to Brescia, Bergamo or Milan or any market, They are full of women wearing them.”

She says more than 1,000 women in Italy wear full face veils, though Ahmad Gianpiero Vincenzo, head of the Italian Muslim Intellectuals group, says not more than 100 women do.

Muslim groups in Italy say they advise women against wearing face veils, but that enacting a new law on it is either unnecessary or could constitute an attempt to legislate personal choice.

Either way, burqa wearers are unlikely to get much done in Italy, says a reporter from La Repubblica newspaper. Going undercover in a niqab, she recounted not being allowed to borrow library books and being asked to leave local government offices.

“Walking around Milan inside a burqa is like walking under water,” she wrote in the left-leaning newspaper.

Editing by Ralph Boulton