In April, France introduced a law against covering your face in public. The law means that Muslim women who wear the niqab, a full-face veil, are essentially banned from any kind of public activity, from riding the bus to walking in the street with their children to sitting in a café. [The photo above was taken in Oxford, England, where the niqab is not banned.] What’s more, the law has resulted in an increase in verbal and physical violence against women wearing the niqab. Women report that strangers have tried to pull their veils off, bus drivers have refused to let them board and shop owners have sought to bar them from entering stores. Some have been physically assaulted, mostly by middle-aged or older people, even in front of their children.
The rationale of French politicians who approved the ban was that the law would protect “gender equality” and women’s dignity. In 2004, France banned all religious symbols, including the headscarf, in schools. Heated debate preceded the passing of the law. 32-year-old Kenza Drider, a mother of three, spoke out on television against the law before it was enforced and now lives in fear of physical attack:
“I still go out in my car, on foot, to the shops, to collect my kids. I’m insulted about three to four times a day,” she says. Most say, “Go home”; some say, “We’ll kill you.” One said: “We’ll do to you what we did to the Jews.” In the worst attack, before the law came in, a man tried to run her down in his car.
“I feel that I now know what Jewish women went through before the Nazi roundups in France. When they went out in the street they were identified, singled out, they were vilified. Now that’s happening to us.”
The law has led some people to think they now have license to censure Muslim women. But under the law, only the French police can confront a woman in niqab:
They can’t remove her veil but must refer the case to a local judge, who can hand out a 150 euro (£130) [about $203] fine, a citizenship course, or both. Some police have wrongly given on-the-spot fines, which were later annulled. Others appear to ignore women in niqab walking down the street, perhaps because they feel they have more important crimes to be stopping. The interior ministry says that since the law came into force in April there have been 91 incidents of women in niqab being stopped by police outside Paris and nine incidents in the Paris region. Each time, police file a report, but so far no judge has handed out a fine or citizenship course.
So far, French authorities say that fewer than ten cases are going through the courts. Hind Ahmas and another woman are both appearing in court on Thursday for wearing the niqab in public outside Meaux town hall in eastern Paris in May.
But Gilles Devers, a lawyer representing Ahmas and a number of women who wear the niqab, argues that the law’s punishments are not actually being carried out because, under European human rights legislation on personal liberties and freedom, the law is illegal. If a fine is actually imposed, the law could be challenged under the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg which could “rule against the law and expose the French state as a laughing stock.”
A number of other European countries have instituted niqab bans: Belgian’s law was passed last summer and carries a fine and seven days in prison. Italy’s far-right Northern League has brought back a 1975 law against face coverings in the north. There is legislation afoot in Denmark to limit the wearing of niqabs and Austria, the Netherlands and Switzerland all want outright bans.
French president Nicholas Sarkozy was accused of stigmatizing women in the niqab to win votes away from the extreme right National Front, but the law has not led to a rise in his poll ratings.
UPDATE, 8:20 AM EST: Hind and the other woman, who did not wish to be named, have received fines of 120 euros and 80 euros ($161.00 and $108.00), respectively; both plan immediately to appeal to France’s supreme court and to the European court of human rights, if necessary.
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Photo taken in Oxford, England, where the niqab is not banned by kamshots
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