A NEW FRENCH law banning full-face veils in public places will take effect from next month – a move widely accepted as targeting the country’s Muslim population.
The law follows France’s so-called burqa ban, which outlawed the wearing of the full-length garment worn by women in some Islamic traditions. From 11 April, the full-face veil will be illegal to wear in public places – on the street, in the supermarket, in classrooms, in museums, on buses and in parks. The only exceptions to a woman wearing the niqab in public will be if she is travelling in a private car or worshipping in a religious place.
French President Nicolas Sarkozy has been accused of trying to secure the vote of the far-right with the new legislation. Critics have pointed out that tiny minority of women in France wear full niqab – Muslim groups have estimated that just a few hundred people, in a country with a population of five million, wear the garment.
Those falling foul of the new law will face fines of €150 and be forced to attend a citizenship class, which will outline the ‘secular values’ of the republic. (Although, confusingly, Sarkozy yesterday gave a speech praising the “Christian heritage of France”, reports the Guardian.)
Those who are proved to have forced a woman to wear a veil can be fined €30,000 and spend a year in prison.
Meanwhile, some local authorities have been forced to step in to stop “pork and wine aperitifs” evenings proposed by some on the extreme right, which were to be deliberately held beside mosques.
Promoting gender equality
However, the French authorities are insisting that the law is not intended to stigmatise Muslims but to promote gender equality. As such, the wording of the legislation – which does not specify that the niqab is outlawed – has proved tricky. As a “full-face covering” naturally includes motorcycle helmets and some sports equipment, exemptions for these items have had to be included in subsequent drafts.
Last year, the French government announced: “Given the damage it produces on those rules which allow the life in community, ensure the dignity of the person and equality between sexes, this practice, even if it is voluntary, cannot be tolerated in any public place,” reports CNN.
Laws that ban garments worn by some Muslims have been criticised by humans rights groups in various European countries. Last year, Belgium banned the wearing of the niqab in public and was chastised by Amnesty International. “A general ban on the wearing of full face veils would violate the rights to freedom of expression and religion of those women who choose to express their identity or beliefs in this way,” said Claudio Cordone, Amnesty International’s Interim Secretary General.
“At the same time the Belgian authorities must make sure that all women who wear the full veil do so without coercion, harassment and discrimination,” she added.
See this Irish Times report for some perspectives of Muslim women in Ireland.