In April, Belgium became the first European country to ban wearing full-face veils in public. This week, one house of the French Parliament voted to ban face-covering veils in public. Headscarves are already banned for teachers and students in public schools. Some Spanish cities have a similar ban, and in June the Spanish Senate recommended that face-covering veils be banned in public nationwide.
While some Muslim countries, such as Iran, require a head covering in public, others, such as Turkey and Tunisia, ban veils for civil servants and public school students. In Turkey, the president's wife covers her head, and unless she removes it, she is banned from state institutions, including some hospitals. Whether or not to cover, and how, is a decision that can be based in religion, fashion, and politics.
The ban on face veils is portrayed as a defense of women's liberty and dignity, as a blow against religious oppression of women. With regard to the Spanish vote:
"Today, a very important step in favour of freedom and women's equality was taken," the deputy leader of the Popular Party, Maria Dolores de Cospedal, told reporters after the vote.
Martha Nussbaum examines, in detail, the arguments in favor of banning full-face veils. She finds them wanting, and her reasons are well worth reading.
An analysis of the dilemma on Feministe makes the more practical point that banning full-face veils may not so much have the effect of making women more present in public places as of forcing them to stay at home.
To me, it seems key to keep two distinction in mind: the cultural differences between wearing a headscarf and wearing a full-face veil, and the difference between such bans in countries where Muslims are a minority (like France) compared to where they are a majority (like Turkey).