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'Living together'

Sophie Nicholson, ParisJuly 1, 2014

The European Court of Human Rights has rejected a challenge to a French ban on wearing the burqa in public places. Judges ruled that preservation of a certain idea of 'living together' was a legitimate aim.

A woman in a niqab in a French train station
Image: Getty Images

The European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) on Tuesday dismissed arguments that France's 2010 ban on the full-face veil was a breach of religious freedom contravening the European Convention on Human Rights.

Judges in the eastern French city of Strasbourg also ruled that the 24-year-old Frenchwoman who brought the case had not been a victim of discrimination. The court ruled that respect for the conditions of "living together" was a legitimate aim of French authorities.

The ban makes it illegal for anyone to cover their face in a public place. It has been criticized as targeting Muslim women.

The "ban was not expressly based on the religious connotation of the clothing in question but solely on the fact that it concealed the face," an ECHR statement read.

An unnamed French citizen of Pakistani origin brought the case, represented by solicitors from Birmingham in the United Kingdom.

The woman had requested anonymity for fear of reprisals in France over her action.

In written evidence, she testified that she wore the full veil of her own free will and was willing to remove it whenever required for security reasons - addressing two of the main arguments put forward by French authorities in support of the ban.

Her lawyers argued that the law was "inhumane and degrading, against the right of respect for family and private life, freedom of thought, conscience and religion, freedom of speech and discriminatory."

The woman had not been prosecuted under the law, which has resulted in only a handful of arrests since it was implemented in April 2011.

'Reinforcing prejudices?'

Muslim groups expressed dismay at the ruling.

They say the law has only served to increase anti-Islamic sentiment in the country with the biggest Muslim minority in Western Europe.

"The fact that the European Court of Human Rights has validated this law brings us up against a legal wall once again," Elsa Ray, spokeswoman for the Collective Against Islamophobia in France (CCIF) told DW on Tuesday.

Policemen stand next to a police station in Trappes
Violent clashes broke out over police checking a veiled woman in a Paris suburb in July 2013Image: Fred Dufour/AFP/Getty Images

"It's really hard both for the women affected by the law but also for all citizens. The law has only exacerbated tensions between citizens and reinforced prejudices."

Under the ban, women wearing full-face veils in public spaces, or people covering their faces with balaclavas or hoods, can be fined up to 150 euros ($205).

Out of an estimated five million Muslims living in France only about 1,900 women are believed to be affected by the ban, according to 2009 research.

Although the French law received widespread political support, it has remained a source of contention.

Last summer, riots broke out in the Paris suburb of Trappes during the middle of Ramadan when the police ticketed a woman wearing a full veil.

A question of respect

The French government insisted that the ban was necessary to ensure gender equality, human dignity and "respect for the minimum requirement of life in society."

The court dismissed the first two arguments but upheld the third, saying it was "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."

Some have also invoked feminism to defend the ban.

The European Court of Human Rights
The court rejected the argument that gender equality was grounds for the banImage: DW

The International League for Women's Rights welcomed Tuesday's ruling as a "victory for secularism and women's rights."

It was the first time the Strasbourg court has considered the legality of the full-face veil in public. Belgium and the Swiss canton of Ticino have also banned it, and politicians in Italy and the Netherlands have proposed a similar law.

The court said Tuesday that states should be allowed "a wide margin of appreciation" on a policy issue that is subject to significant differences of opinion.

The hearing came days after France's highest court upheld an appeals court ruling in favor of a private nursery school director who fired an employee for wanting to wear a Muslim headscarf to work.

The ECHR has already upheld France's 2004 ban on headscarves in state schools, and its regulation requiring the removal of scarves, veils and turbans for security checks.