The President of Austria has called for all women to wear headscarves in solidarity with Muslims to fight “rampant Islamophobia”.
Alexander Van der Bellen, the left-wing former Green Party leader who narrowly beat a far-right candidate to take office in January, said freedom of expression was a fundamental right.
“It is every woman’s right to always dress how she wants, that is my opinion on the matter,” he told an audience of school pupils.
“And it is not only Muslim women, all women can wear a headscarf, and if this real and rampant Islamaphobia continues, there will come a day where we must ask all women to wear a headscarf – all – out of solidarity to those who do it for religious reasons.
Mr Van der Bellen was responding to a question from a schoolgirl who argued a ban on Islamic headscarves or veils would reduce women to their appearance, rather than accomplishments, and shut some out of the labour market.
His comments were made in March but emerged after being broadcast on Austrian television, amid debate in the country and neighbouring Germany about “burqa bans”.
A spokesperson said that following Isis-linked terror attacks across Europe, Mr Van der Bellen would like to see Muslim representatives in Austria make “clearer statements” emphasising that the atrocities could not be justified within Islam.
“He also warned against ‘racism from the other side’, giving the example of a Muslim taxi driver refusing to take Orthodox Jews,” a statement said, adding: “This is absolutely unacceptable.”
The President’s office said he believed prohibitions were only justified in select circumstances, such as for female judges, where religious dress could raise questions over their professional neutrality.
Mr Van der Bellen would apply any restrictions to all religious symbols equally, including Christian crosses and Jewish kippas.
Despite the President’s left-wing background, the Austrian government is a coalition between the centrist Social Democratic Party and conservative Austrian People’s Party.
The populist Freedom Party of Austria has pushed for policies including a partial ban on full-face Islamic veils in courts, schools and other public places, which was announced in January.
The partial prohibition, which has not yet come into effect, would apply to the niqab and burqa but not headscarves (hijabs ), which cover the hair and neck only.
But the government also agreed to prevent police officers, judges, magistrates and public prosecutors from wearing headscarves in the interest of appearing “ideologically and religiously neutral”.