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Asian Tribune is published by World Institute For Asian Studies|Powered by WIAS Vol. 12 No. 2525

A landmark Judgement: European Court upholds French Ban of Islamic Niquab or face covering veil

By Jinadasa Bamunuarachchi - BA MA, Attorney at Law

The European Court of Human Rights on Tuesday 01/07/2014 in the matter of SAS V Government of France (Case No.43835/2011) upheld France's ban on wearing niqab or Burqa, full-face veils in public, rejecting arguments that the ban undermines freedoms of religion and expression and Muslim women’s’ rights.

There was jubilation across Europe on hearing the historic Judgement of the 17 judges of the court who took part in the deliberations. This judgement put the matter to rest after three years of uncertainty. The Court was very clear in its judgement and said there was no violation of articles 8, 9 and 14 as alleged by the appellant.

The decision is a victory for the governments of France and Belgium, which have passed laws prohibiting wearing niqabs in public or veils and other garments that conceal the entire face, and gives other European government’s broader discretion to enact similar bans. The French government said the three-year ban helped to protect public safety, as well as women forced to wear face-covering garments, but opponents have criticized it as anti-Muslim and discriminating against religious minorities.

The French ban had been challenged by a young Muslim woman who said she sometimes chooses to wear a niqab—a veil that leaves only her eyes visible—or a burqa—a loose garment that covers her entire body with only a mesh over her eyes.

The Parliament of France on 14 September 2010, passed legislations resulting in the ban on the wearing of face-covering headgear, including masks, helmets, balaclava, niq?bs and other veils covering the face in public places, except under specified circumstances. The ban also applies to the burqa, a full-body covering, if it covers the face. The bill had previously been passed by the National Assembly of France on 13 July 2010.

France has about five million Muslims - the largest Muslim minority in Western Europe - but it is thought only about 2,000 women wear full veils or burqa.

As President, Nicolas Sarkozy, whose administration brought in the ban, said that veils oppress women and were "not welcome" in France.

Under the ban that took effect on 11 April 2011, no woman, French or foreign, is able to leave their home with their face hidden behind a veil without running the risk of a fine.

The key argument supporting this proposal is that face-coverings prevent the clear identification of a person, which is both a security risk, and a social hindrance within a society which relies on facial recognition and expression in communication. The key argument against the ban is that it encroaches on individual freedoms.

Anyone who contravenes the law is liable to a fine of 150 Euros.

A Muslim woman, who was born in France in 1990 and identified only as S.A.S. in court documents, challenged the French legislation by way of a right plea before ECHR supported by a British legal team claiming that her rights as a Muslim has been infringed by the French Law and sought to wear the niqab or burqa in public. She further said that she wore the veils voluntarily, without any pressure from her husband and family, and that they allowed her to manifest her faith. She argued the French ban violated her religious freedom and put her at risk of discrimination and harassment.

France passed a law against concealing one's face in public spaces in 2010 and it came into effect the following spring. A few months later, a similar prohibition came into force in Belgium. Citizens of the Ticino canton in Switzerland voted in favour of such a ban in late 2013.

France argues that the veils are a security risk, since they conceal a person's identity. In its arguments to the European court, the French government also said that showing one's face in public was one of the "minimum requirements of life in society."

The Strasbourg-based court ruled the general ban imposed by the government wasn't justified on public-safety grounds, or to protect women's rights. But it said France's aim of improving social cohesion through the ban was legitimate.

"The court was…able to accept that the barrier raised against others by a veil concealing the face was perceived by the respondent state as breaching the right of others to live in a space of socialization which made living together easier," it said.

Civil and human-rights groups swiftly rejected the ruling, which can't be appealed. "Coming at a time when hostility to ethnic and religious minorities is on the rise in many parts of Europe, the court's decision is an unfortunate missed opportunity to reaffirm the importance of equal treatment for all and the fundamental right to religious belief and expression," said James A. Goldston, executive director of the Open Society Justice Initiative, which filed a third-party intervention in the case. "The majority has failed adequately to protect the rights of many women who wish to express themselves by what they wear."

Although the French law affects only a tiny minority of the country's 5 million Muslims; it has increased tensions across Europe as all European countries will now follow the suit.

- Asian Tribune -

 Muslim women chooses to wear a niqab—a veil that leaves only her eyes visible
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