LONDON (Reuters) - Bans on full-face veils in France and Belgium and a failure by other European countries to stop employers from enforcing informal dress codes means Muslim women are being denied jobs and education, Amnesty International said on Tuesday.
In a wide-ranging report highlighting examples of discrimination against Muslims across Europe, Amnesty said governments were pandering to prejudices by stopping Muslim women from wearing full-face veils and urged France and Belgium to repeal their own bans on such veils.
"Muslim women are being denied jobs and girls prevented from attending regular classes just because they wear traditional forms of dress," said Amnesty researcher Marco Perolini.
"Rather than countering these prejudices, political parties and public officials are all too often pandering to them in their quest for votes," he added.
The human rights group said countries like Belgium, France, Switzerland and the Netherlands were also failing to prevent employers enforcing informal policies that banned religious dress - such as headscarves worn by many Muslim women - on the grounds of preserving neutrality, promoting a corporate image or pleasing customers.
Pupils in these countries and others had also been barred from wearing religious and cultural dress, it said.
"Women should be able to wear whatever they prefer ... States have focused so much in recent years (on) the wearing of full-face veils as if this practice were the most widespread and compelling form of inequality that women have to face," the report said.
Amnesty called on the European Union to ensure European legislation banning discrimination by employers on the grounds of religion or belief was properly implemented across its 27 member states.
It also urged European leaders to avoid introducing bans on the wearing of religious or cultural dress at schools and universities.
France banned clothing that covers the face in April 2011 and Belgium followed suit in July of the same year, while similar legislation has been proposed in the Netherlands, Italy and some Spanish regions.
Citing individual witnesses, Amnesty said France's introduction of the ban had increased hostility against Muslim women wearing the niqab, a veil across the face that only reveals the eyes.
It said the ban was the wrong approach to address concerns that some Muslim women were being coerced to wear such clothing against their will because of cultural or family pressures.
Governments should not try to impose restrictions on full face veils for security reasons or just because a section of the public found it objectionable, it added.
It cited cases in which employers had refused to hire women who declined to remove their headgear.
One Dutch Muslim woman told Amnesty how a travel agency in Antwerp said it could not employ her if she insisted on wearing a headscarf. "We cannot hire you for front-office positions, we do not want to lose clients," she was told.
In the same report, Amnesty also urged Switzerland, which uses referendums to decide some legislation, to annul votes that were discriminatory after the country barred the construction of new minarets following a referendum in 2009.
"There is a groundswell of opinion in many European countries that Islam is alright and Muslims are OK so long as they are not too visible. This attitude is generating human rights violations and needs to be challenged," Perolini said.
Editing by Andrew Osborn