Burqa bans spread across Catalonia

Tarrés, Spain - There are no burqas on the streets of Tarrés. In fact, there are no Muslims at all in this village of 108 inhabitants in north-east Spain. But that will not stop the parish council debating whether to ban burqas and face-covering niqabs from parts of the village next week.

"It is true that there are no Muslims living in the village now, but this would be a preventive measure in case they come," said parish councillor Daniel Rivera, from the tiny and openly xenophobic Partit per Catalunya. Rivera's motion to ban burqas has outraged many – and other councillors say they will vote against it. But whatever the result, the motion is symptomatic of wider moves in the Catalonia region to ban Islamic veils from public buildings.

Today the nearby provincial capital, Lleida, formally passed a ban that was first announced in May. Women found wearing burqas in public buildings will first be given a warning but any repeat will lead to a fine of between €300 and €600 (£250-£500).

From Barcelona to Tarragona, bans are being slapped into place across the region. "At this rate we will end up with more bans than burqas," said the immigration minister, Celestino Corbacho, himself a former town mayor in Catalonia.

The Lleida ban was not passed by the anti-immigrant parties that are beginning to gain traction in Catalonia but, as in Barcelona, by a socialist-led council. "This is about equality between men and women," Mayor Ángel Ros said. "The burqa and the niqab are symbols of the political use of a religious dogmatism that had begun to appear in Lleida. Not everything is permissible."

He added: "This is not Islamophobia. When the right does this it is guided by xenophobia, but we are guided by equality. The debate was already out there on the street. It is our job to listen."

Ros would have liked an outright ban on burqas in public, but was advised that the town hall's powers did not stretch that far. "This is an example of integration, in which they respect the values of our society. Some cultural behaviour is a direct attack on our values."

In fact, conservative opposition parties – including the Convergence and Union coalition, which looks set to win regional elections in the autumn – had been pushing for an even stricter ban.

After Lleida's announcement, Spain's senate called on the government to prevent women from wearing burqas and niqabs in public anywhere in the country. The motion was phrased to avoid the ban applying to the tens of thousands of Christian nazarenos who don hooded robes and parade through Spanish cities every Easter.

The socialist government of José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero has responded by indicating that it will legislate against the burqa in a religious freedom law.

Ros said bans had started in Catalonia – which has 250,000 Muslim immigrants, 3% of the population – because it had more Muslims than other regions. He admitted that the ban was also designed as a warning to some local imams whom he blames for driving local Muslims towards fundamentalism.

On Nord street in Lleida, where halal butchers and Western Union branches service the needs of the 29,000 immigrants who make up 21% of the city's population, the ban was greeted with dismay and bitterness.

"Catalan elections are coming up," said Abderrahim Boussira, at the Western Union store. "Election time is when they go after the foreigners and the Muslims. I've been here 20 years and I have never seen a woman in a burqa."

At middaytoday, more than 1,000 men packed into a makeshift mosque for Friday prayers. Imam Abdelwahad Houzi is the man Ros blames for radicalising local Muslims. "All we do is follow the Qur'an and the Sunna. We are not a sect or a political party and we have been here for years," he said. "We feel offended. This is an attack on the freedom of women."

Houzi blames the local Segre newspaper for whipping up anger at the presence of a few women with niqabs.

The newspaper said it started covering the story only after conservative politicians began complaining about them, though its editorials also called for a ban. "Islam, which barely distinguishes politics from religion, still marginalises the female sex," its deputy editor, Anna Goméz, wrote in a recent opinion column.

It is thought that barely half a dozen women in Lleida wear niqabs. "And some of them are Spaniards," said Khadija Rabhi, at her Tauourit general store, which sells everything from haberdashery to hair oil to Muslim women. "I don't think they are forced to wear them by their husbands, though. How could they be? I don't wear one, but I cannot see why they should stop someone who does."

Like most women in the mainly Moroccan and Algerian immigrant community, Rabhi – who has lived in Lleida since she was seven – wears a hijab headscarf and a colourful, loose-fitting robe. "The Qur'an says we should dress modestly. But people have different interpretations. I wear a headscarf, and if I was not allowed to wear it, I would prefer to move to Morocco – even though Lleida has always been my home."

Ros claims some Muslim groups support the ban, but a list provided by the town hall turned up no backers. Mourad el-Boudouhi, of the local Averroes Association, said his group had even lodged a complaint at a local court claiming the measure contradicted Spain's constitution. A second complaint has gone in against the senate motion, with the aim of taking it through to Spain's constitutional court.

"No one has the right to decide for a woman what she must wear," he said. "They are adults and can decide for themselves. We will defend them if they decide to wear it and if they decide not to. This creates hatred. People come here to work, to get by, or to live in democracy – not in dictatorship."

Abdelraffie Ettalydy, head of the Maghrebia immigrants' association and a critic of Imam Houzi, said that the few women in Lleida who wear niqabs – which are slowly disappearing from his native Morocco – were rarely seen. "It is not as if everyone in Lleida was worried about this," he said. "In five years, I have only bumped into one of these women once."

He blames the imam for failing to talk with a town hall that has offered land for a new and bigger mosque. "I can't call them fundamentalists, but they are not open-minded," he said. "They are simple people who say: 'We are Muslims, so we are better than them'. That is why the mosque has become a problem for the city, and now for Catalonia and Spain as well."

Racist parties, meanwhile, are crowing. "Measures we proposed three or four years ago that were greeted with cries of 'racism' are now being passed by town halls," said Joan Terré, a town councillor for Partit per Catalunya in Cervera.

Back in Tarrés, waiter Arnau Galí said the bans made little sense. "Not so long ago all the old women in Tarrés wore headscarves too, but they have disappeared without anyone banning them," he said. "The problem here has always been emigration, not immigration."

In the meantime, niqab wearers in Lleida and elsewhere must change or they will be unable to get crucial paperwork done at the town hall – a building they are banned from entering.

"If she cannot go out like this then she will change," the husband of the only niqab-wearer in the Catalan town of Cunit, 26-year-old Moroccan Fatima Bumlaqi, told El País newspaper. "Will they fine her if she wears a hat and sunglasses?"