European rights court upholds French 'burqa ban'
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France’s law banning women from wearing face-covering veils in public is not discriminatory, the European Court of Human Rights ruled on Tuesday.
The court’s decision follows a case brought by a 24-year-old French woman of Pakistani origin, described as a “perfect French citizen”, argued that the ban violated her rights to freedom of religion, expression and assembly, and was discriminatory.
The woman, identified only by her initials SAS, said that being forced to take off her veil in public constituted "degrading treatment" and also was an attack on her private and family life.
In written evidence, SAS – who did not appear – testified that she was not forced to wear a burqa and that she was willing to remove it whenever required for security reasons, directly addressing the French authorities' two main arguments in favour of the ban.
Her appeal to the court was supported by international human rights group Amnesty International, which told FRANCE 24 before the ruling that France’s law “only served to stigmatise women, and Muslim women in particular”.
“The argument that the law protects women has no foundation,” said Amnesty’s President Geneviève Garrigos. “Many [Muslim] women wear veils of their own free will.
“The state does not exist to tell people how they should dress. Rather, it should allow them to make their own choices.”
Garrigos argued that while the law ostensibly targets all face-covering garments – religious or not – it was a mere “façade” hiding legislation specifically targeting Muslim women.
“Everyone knows this law wasn’t created to stop people walking in the streets wearing motorcycle helmets,” she said. “If everyone had to be recognizable by security services all of the time, they should ban anything that hides facial features, including wigs and fake beards.”
“People must accept that they might have their identity controlled by the police,” she added. “Women who wear burqas and other full veils submit voluntarily to this.”
French ban on all religious symbols in schools
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, crucifixes, Jewish skullcaps and Sikh turbans, for example – are banned from French state schools, which operate on strictly secular lines.
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. Beyond the veil issue, there has been controversy in the past over whether schools and holiday camps should be required to provide halal food to Muslim children.