PARIS: The European Court of Human Rights has upheld France’s law banning face-covering veils from the streets, in a case brought by a 24-year-old woman who claimed her freedom of religion was violated.
Tuesday’s ruling by the Strasbourg-based court was the first of its kind since France passed a law in 2010 that forbids anyone to hide his or her face in an array of places, including the street. The law went into effect in 2011.
The woman, identified only by her initials S.A.S. and said to be a Muslim, and her British legal team sought to persuade the European Court of Human Rights to categorize the French law as essentially discriminatory, arguing that the ban violated her rights to freedom of religion, expression and assembly, and is also discriminatory.
But the court’s Grand Chamber, the highest forum, rejected the arguments and ruled that the law’s bid to promote harmony in a diverse population is legitimate and doesn’t breach the European Convention on Human Rights.
British lawyer Tony Muman told the European court at a hearing last year that being forced to take off her client’s veil in public constituted “degrading treatment” and also was an attack on her private and family life.
In written evidence, S.A.S. — who has shunned appearances in court so far — has testified that she is not constrained to wear the niqab by any man and that she is willing to remove it whenever required for security reasons, directly addressing the French authorities’ two main arguments in favor of the ban.
Under the French law, which was officially implemented in 2011, women wearing full-face veils in public spaces can be fined up to 150 euros ($205).
Belgium and some parts of Switzerland have followed France’s lead and similar bans are being considered in Italy and The Netherlands.
Attempts to enforce the legislation have proved problematic and sometimes sparked confrontations, such as riots in the Paris suburb of Trappes last year.
The hearing comes just days after one of France’s highest courts upheld the 2008 sacking of Fatima Afif, a worker at a kindergarten in the Paris suburbs, for wanting to wear a headscarf to work.
Overt religious symbols — headscarves, Jewish skullcaps or Sikh turbans for example — are banned from French state schools, which operate on strictly secular lines.
An appeals court in Versailles outside Paris was also hearing on Tuesday the case of the husband of a veiled woman whose violent intervention during a police ID check on his spouse earned him a three-month suspended prison sentence.
Many Muslims view France, which is officially a secular republic despite being overwhelmingly Catholic, as imposing its values on them and other religious minorities.
France has one of the biggest Muslim populations in Europe. Apart from the veil issue, there has been controversy in the past over whether schools and holiday camps should be required to provide halal food for Muslim children.