Since April 2011, France has banned Muslim women from wearing the burqa, a garment that covers the body with mesh over the face and the niqab, a veil that covers the face with an opening for the eyes, in public. According to the law, any person found wearing these garments can be fined up to 150 Euros (approximately $200) and/or may be required to attend a citizenship class. The ban sparked outrage throughout the Muslim community–the second most widely practiced religion in France and Western Europe–and incited passionate debates between proponents of religious freedom and those who believe the garments are representative of oppression and also contradict France’s strongly defended secularism.
On Tuesday, the European Court of Human Rights rejected a claim by a 24 year old French woman (who has not been named) that the 2011 ban violated her right to practice Islam. They also declared the ban on Muslims wearing burqas and niqabs, overall, did not breach the European Convention of Human Rights. According to the ruling, “The Court accepted that the barrier raised against others by a veil concealing the face in public could undermine the notion of ‘living together’” and “The Court was also able to understand the view that individuals might not wish to see, in places open to all, practices or attitudes which would fundamentally call into question the possibility of open interpersonal relationships, which, by virtue of an established consensus, formed an indispensable element of community life within the society in question.”
Simply put, the efforts of France to remain “secular” under the rationale that a garment covering a Muslim woman’s face threatens the societal aims of “living together”, “open interpersonal relationships” and “community life” are blatantly ridiculous and negate their own intentions. To single out a group based upon their religious affiliation and deny them the right to practice the 2nd most popular religion in the world and force conformity through means of fines and “citizenship class” to a “secular” society still riddled with remnants of a vast history interwoven with Roman Catholicism is not only hypocritical but discriminatory–by definition. Therefore, the only true explanation for this kind of behavior, as seen throughout history, is pure ignorance of what is unfamiliar.
One of the main points made by proponents of the ban is that the niqab and burqa are oppressive to Muslim women. However, there is a distinct difference between choosing to wear a niqab or burqa and being forced to wear one. The government of France acknowledges the difference by its establishment of a law in which, “forcing a woman to wear a niqab or a burqa is punishable by a year in prison and a 30,000-euro fine (about $43,300). Forcing a minor to do the same thing is punishable by two years in prison and a fine of 60,000 euros.” but according to the French government, there have been no cases of women being forced to wear these garments to date. Therefore, the ban has an effect solely on those who are choosing to wear it, eradicating the presumptuous notion that French Muslim women were in need of liberation.
Consequently, since the inception of the ban in 2009, women who wear the niqab or burqa have increasingly felt that they have become targets for both physical and verbal assault, experiencing heightened levels of fear about being in public. As expressed in a report written by Open Society Foundations’ At Home in Europe Project, “30 out of 32 Muslim women who wear the full-face veil in France stated that they had suffered some form of verbal abuse from members of the public prior to the implementation of the ban”. In an article published by Deutsche Welle, a Muslim woman named Mabrouka stated, “It’s only now that I’ve become dependent[on my husband]..I worked for five years, and I wasn’t married at the time. I wore the full veil, I used public transport, I went on long journeys, I went out with my friends … and now I have to content myself with my little area and nothing more”.
The European Court of Human Rights made a fatal error in judgement for the future of Muslim women in France. The criminalization of one’s personal faith by eliminating the right to display it under the rationale of providing freedom and maintaining secularism has had more unintended consequences than benefits for the communities within France. Instead of “liberating” Muslim women of their niqabs and burqas, the French government has transformed them into walking targets of verbal and physical attacks. Instead of promoting “open interpersonal relationships”, Muslim women are confined to their homes unable to find employers who will hire them with their niqabs and burqas worn. And lastly, instead of building a “community life”, France has has cracked the foundation with blatant ignorance and discrimination against approximately ten percent of its population.