By Christina Berger
Impunity Watch Reporter, Europe
PARIS, France–A controversial ban on full-face veils recently took effect in France. The law banning the veils in public was passed last fall amidst criticism that it violates freedom of expression and freedom of religion values, as well as takes away women’s right choose for themselves. The law imposes a fine of 150 euros for women violating the law, and fine of 30,000 errors for any men who force their wives to wear a full-face veil.
Human rights groups such as Amnesty International have argued that France’s burqa ban violates European human rights law. John Dalhuisen, Amnesty International’s expert on discrimination in Europe, responded when the ban was first passed by the French government, “[a] complete ban on the covering of the face would violate the rights to freedom of expression and religion of those women who wear the burqa or the niqab as an expression of their identity or beliefs.”
Police in France imposed the fine on the first day the law took effect. Two women wearing the full-face veil were arrested in Paris for an unauthorized protest of the new law. In a unique approach, Rachid Nekkaz, an activist with the group Hands Off My Constitution, wore a mask while carrying a check for the 150-euro fine on the day the law went into effect lat week. According to CCN, Nekkaz’s group auctioned one of his homes to raise the money needed to pay the fines of any woman arrested for wearing the forbidden veils.
Some critics of the law have complained that in addition to possible human rights violations, the full-face veil ban affects only a tiny population. An estimated 2,000 or less women wear the full-face veils in a country with a Muslim population of 3.5 million. Jonathan Laurence, an associate professor of political science at Boston College and the author of an upcoming book, “The Emancipation of Europe’s Muslims” says that the law is “an unnecessary confrontation…[t]his is not an epidemic.”
The Open Society Foundations recently published a report, Unveiling the Truth: Why 32 Women Wear the Full-Face Veil in France, which is aimed at dispelling some of the myths and misrepresentations found in the debate over the veil ban in France. The report examines the the decision of the 32 women who choose to wear the veil, their experiences in public, and how they feel about the legislation. The report details the verbal and even physical abuse they’ve been subjected to as a result of the debate surrounding the veil banning, as well as being accused of “shaming” the entire Muslim community and “dirtying the religion.”
The French Constitutional Council has stated that the law does not prevent the free exercise of religion and thus conforms to the constitution. The ban enjoys the support of the majority of the French people. A Washington think-tank conducted a survey and found the ban had drawn the widest support in France where 82% of people polled approved the ban, versus for example the US where 2/3 of Americans polled opposed a ban.
When the ban was first passed, Amnesty International spoke out about letting majority public opinion restrict human rights. “As a general rule, the rights to freedom of religion and expression entail that all people should be free to choose what – and what not – to wear. These rights cannot be restricted simply because some – even a majority – find a form of dress objectionable or offensive.”
For more information, please see:
GUARDIAN — France’s false ‘battle of the veil’ — 18 April 2011
HUFFINGTON POST — French Burqa Ban Sets a Dangerous Precedent — 14 April 2011
CNN — 2 arrested as France’s ban on burqas, niqabs takes effect — 12 April 2011
BBC — France issues first fine for woman in Islamic veil — 12 April 2011
AMNESTY INTERNATIONAL — France votes to ban full-face veils — 13 July 2010