In April, France put into effect the first ban on face veils in Europe. The burqa, which covers the full face, and the niqab, which leaves only the eyes exposed will not be allowed in public. Anyone caught in violation of the law will face a €150 ($202) or French citizenship lessons.
The French government has offered two explanations for their actions. They argue first, that this is primarily a security issue. Faces need to be seen in order to check identity papers and to maintain safety. But, they also argue that this is a necessary step in order to protect women from oppression.
However, many women have actually reported that they feel more oppressed now than ever before. Many say that they were simply ignored and left alone in the past. Now, anytime they leave the house, they are subject to discrimination and physical violence. There have been reports of bus drivers and shopkeepers refusing women as customers, and of people attacking women in the streets and pulling their face coverings off themselves. One woman reported that anytime she leaves the house, she has to take pepper spray and an air horn with her for protection. Hind Ahmas, a 32 year old woman said,
“My quality of life has seriously deteriorated since the ban. In my head, I have to prepare for war every time I step outside, prepare to come up against people who want to put a bullet in my head. The politicians claimed they were liberating us; what they’ve done is to exclude us from the social sphere. Before this law, I never asked myself whether I’d be able to make it to a cafe or collect documents from a town hall. One politician in favor of the ban said niqabs were ‘walking prisons’. Well, that’s exactly where we’ve been stuck by this law.”
Despite the public reaction, there has been very uneven police action and while over 100 women have been stopped, there actually hasn’t been a fine imposed on anyone. The police are required to ticket a veiled woman and refer her to a judge to hand out the fine. The very first decision will take place on September 22 when a judge will decide whether to enforce it or not.
Ultimately, many believe that this will not happen, since a final decision by the judge would be appealable to the European Court of Human Rights, which could cause significant embarrassment and damage France’s reputation. Were this decision to reach the Court, it is likely that it would be overruled for violating personal liberty and freedom of religion. This result could have a sweeping effect throughout Europe where many countries are themselves currently considering a ban.
Is this a good way to deal with a valid security concern? Is there another way to protect security interests without interfering with religious freedom? What do you think of France’s assertion that they are protecting women?
UPDATE: A judge in the town of Meaux, has handed out the first fines to two women who were stopped by police for wearing the veil back in May. The women said that they will immediately appeal to the French Supreme Court and all the way to the European Court of Human Rights if necessary.